Robert Ludlum’s (TM) The Bourne Initiative, Eric Van Lusbader, author; Holter Graham, narrator

I was terribly disappointed with this book. What I, as a reader, am led to believe is that there is an effort to bring down the world’s economy by several shady figures from Russia and Somalia. It turns out, instead, to be a plot to enable Russia to expand its borders by invading other countries without any interference. This scheme, however, is not discovered until deep into the novel after an obscene amount of violence and gore with bodies piling up in every corner. The solution to the disarming of the Bourne Initiative doe not become clear until the last few pages of the book, and long before that, I was ready to give up. I stayed with it hoping for some twist that would be more engaging.

The overlay of sorcery throughout became a bit nonsensical at times, especially when the idea of brainwashing would have worked just as well, and probably would have been more credible. It didn’t feel plausible that someone could be in complete control of someone he so thoroughly tortured.

The number of characters, none of whom I admired, and the numerous tangential themes were far too distracting and made the story a chore to follow. It should not be such hard work to enjoy a book.

The characters that were the heroes seemed to escape death in every impossible kind of situation. Yet, since the reader knows that Bourne will live, constantly placing him in harm’s way and then miraculously clutching him out of it made it seem a bit unbelievable, and perhaps, a waste of time. When the author waxed poetic it seemed out of place. When the narrator portrayed female characters, he over emoted and made them too sultry. They whispered in sexy, breathy voices and it became harder and harder to understand or hear them. His interpretation of each character was not very clearly differentiated making it difficult to determine which character was being featured.

After awhile the story became very tedious. Still, I continued hoping that it would morph into some kind of a good mystery that did not demand that I suspend disbelief. It never quite came together for me.

 

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The Atomic City Girls, Janet Beard, author

I thought I was actually going to be reading the non fiction book called “The Girls of Atomic City”, so my bad, since that one is non-fiction and this one is fiction. Still, I thought there would be more history in this novel. Instead, it seemed to morph into a good beach read that was basically about various romantic relationships.
Four different kinds of characters were featured. One was June. She graduated from high school and went to work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where scientists were secretly experimenting with Uranium to develop a bomb to end World War II, and all wars, they hoped. Her family’s land had been confiscated for the project. She was a simple and naïve young woman who had been engaged to someone who died soon after he enlisted. She realized she did not truly love him.
Another character was Cici. She was a mean liar and a phony who was like a chameleon. She took on the character and personality of those she wanted to surround herself with and did it well. She pretended to be someone other than who she was and was pretty unscrupulous about it, hurting those who stood in her way or threatened her. She pretended to be of the upper class. She wanted a rich husband, and she wanted to find him at Oak Ridge where men were plentiful.
Then there was the young Jewish scientist, Dr. Sam Kanter. He was unconcerned about his appearance and was deeply concerned about the purpose of the project. He was consumed with his worries and was largely unable to relax and enjoy himself. He drank too much and was a bit arrogant, pompous and condescending.
The fourth character was Joe, a black construction worker who was subservient in his behavior, by choice and necessity. He was content to be making more money than he ever had but disappointed and lonely because he was not allowed to have his wife and family with him. He missed them, but only white workers were allowed to have family housing. Joe wanted to remain neutral and not make waves, so he stayed out of trouble.
As contented as Joe was, Sam was discontented. He was not happy with much at Oak Ridge and made sure to let everyone know. As naïve and kind as June was, Cici was the opposite. Both June and Joe had alter egos, it seems, in those characters, and the author used the contrast in her storyline.
The author did a fine job of placing the reader into the time and place of the community of Oak Ridge. It felt authentic. Also, the racial conflicts of those times were definitely emphasized as the difference between the salary, lifestyles, food, accommodations, civil rights and social scenes were described and were alarming and unfair. They were all working to end the war, but some were far more equal than others and the racial divide was difficult to stomach.
The characters seemed a bit like caricatures of real people. June was an uneducated hayseed who loved her family. She had undiscovered talent and absorbed information like a sponge. Cici was a femme fatale who could play any part she wished, even though she was without a pedigree and without a family she cared about. She was hiding her past from everyone and never seemed to recognize her own faults, but rather embraced them. Sam was self-centered, a know it all who thought he was better than everyone else. Perhaps his redeeming feature was that he seemed to be the only one with a conscience about the war’s ultimate carnage. I thought he would want revenge because his family was being wiped out by Hitler, but he seemed to place himself above it all. Joe was the only one who seemed content with his job and his family. He had so little, that what he was able to get at Oak Ridge was a boon for him. He was happy with the lifestyle he had achieved for himself and grateful for the money he was able to send back to his wife and kids to improve their lives.
Some of the dialog was far fetched and overly dramatic. It was also a bit confusing at times, for me, since I thought it was odd that the Jewish character did not want to end the war, as much as everyone else, by any means possible. I guess I also wondered why the author chose Sam to be the malcontent. The hayseed, June, became a well educated character in later life and married a very educated man. The sneaky femme fatale found her rich husband and succeeded with all of her manipulative efforts and was satisfied with her life, even when it didn’t turn out exactly as planned. Joe was the only one who was not really able to move on and improve any part of his life. He had far less opportunity and choice. All of the characters, though, seemed to be a bit contrived to prove some point that escaped me.
In the end, however, the writing style was simple and easy to follow. It was straight forward. The setting was authentic, the racial divide and lifestyles of the characters were contrasted well and the author tied up all the loose ends neatly, although it seemed to end a bit abruptly as the characters lives into the future were described in only a few pages.

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Power and Empire (Jack Ryan Universe #24), Marc Cameron, author; Scott Brick, narrator

Absent the excellent narrator, I might not have enjoyed this book as much. Scott Brick added excitement and clarity with his presentation. The story, however, seemed overly detailed and overly dramatic, as many are today. Every time it seemed as if something was going to be revealed, the author introduced a tangent to increase the sense of mystery. However, frequently, in many ways, It seemed unnecessary and lacked credibility.

Like other novels attributed to Tom Clancy, this one had multiple themes. It starts out with what appears to be an unrelated incident that is eventually tied in, late in the narrative. There is an explosion on the the flagship of China Global Shipping Lines, Orion. Fingers are pointed at different actors, China and America, as the culprits.

From there it goes into drug deals and sex trafficking. A dangerous Chinese gang called the Triad is actively involved. John Clark, the head of The Campus, becomes deeply engaged in the search for the girls captured because of his own personal pain and memories. The FBI becomes involved, as well.

There is apparently also an attempt by “the gang of four”, men in high positions in the Chinese government, colluding with others, to overthrow Joe, the Chinese leader, while setting up America to take the blame for the chaos through the staging of various terrorist incidents, among them, the attack on the Orion.

On a separate level there may also be plans to assassinate the sitting President of the United States, Jack Ryan, Sr., at an upcoming meeting in Japan.

Subtly, other themes are introduced, such as, gun rights, treason, spying, and gang activity. There is a great deal of subterfuge as cartels and the powerful work their mischief.

Finally, an additional theme is introduced when Jack Ryan and a Japanese agent pursue the bad guys together and a romance blossoms between them.

In the end, all of the ideas presented in the search for those engaged in illegal sex trafficking, committing acts of terror, treason and/or espionage are knitted together. It is up to the reader to decide if it is plausible.

 

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The One Man: A Novel-Andrew Gross, author; Edouardo Ballerini, narrator

28221006A young Jewish man escapes from Nazi occupied Poland, and he resettles in America. When he discovers that his entire family has been wiped out by Hitler, he is consumed with guilt because he escaped while they did not. When he is asked to volunteer for a very dangerous “top secret” mission, he believes it will be an opportunity to redeem himself, and he agrees. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has personally thanked him for accepting this assignment.
Nathan Blum is tasked with returning to Poland in order to sneak into Oswiecim, better known as the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The Americans want him to extract a scientist, Alfred Mendl. He is a physicist who might be able to help them develop the Atom Bomb ahead of the Germans who are working on a similar research project. A qualified team has already been assembled, and he is the final missing piece. Essentially, it sounds like a suicide mission because no one who enters Auschwitz ever leaves alive, let alone with another prisoner.
Blum is dropped into a forest in Poland and secretly joins a camp work force when it returns to Auschwitz. He has three days to complete the mission. He witnessed, first hand, the terrible suffering of the prisoners and the almost impossibility of surviving in the brutal environment of the camp. Hitler’s minions were sadists who had no compunction about inflicting pain or death.
Into this mix came a romance that was difficult to believe, between the Commandant’s wife and a teenaged boy, Leo. Leo was a fabulous chess player and was gifted with a fantastic memory. He happened to be the camp chess champion. The Commandant’s wife was a lover of chess and soon had him brought to her home for afternoon matches. An unusual friendship developed. When Mendl discovered Leo’s ability to memorize everything, he decided to teach him his formulas. The Nazis had destroyed his work, not realizing its importance. They also developed a deep relationship. He wanted Leo to commit all of his formulas on fusion to memory. This was his only way to preserve them.
When Blum found Mendl, which was difficult to believe in a camp of thousands, among many other reasons, like the inmates did not answer to a name, but instead to a number, he attempted to explain his mission to him. Mendl, of course, had some trepidation about the plan; he did not want to agree, but was convinced it was important that he help in the war effort, and he was as good as dead inside the camp anyway. He had one condition. He would only go if he could take Leo with him. Instead of telling Blum why, he told him Leo was his nephew. This was just one of the many times the author inserted unnecessary reasons to create excessive tension in situations that lacked credibility. The ensuing conversation turned the tide of the escape because when Nathan made a shocking discovery about his family, he was reminded of Mendl’s words. He had asked Blum about what type of person would leave their flesh and blood behind while saving themselves. Blum was faced with a huge predicament.
The book included a bit too much melodrama. The excessive number of twists and turns made it irritating at times. Every time the reader thought a turning point had been reached, something would happen to stall the momentum. An incredible tangent might be created or another near miss would occur that prevented the successful completion of the task. In the end, there were simply too many diversions in the book to hold a steady pace.
After awhile, it did not feel authentic. Even a minor student of history would be aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and its eventual outcome. This story created around that real historic tragedy was implausible and simply didn’t work that well. The reader would know that it could never happen the way it was presented. In addition, the plan seemed to be doomed to fail because no one could realistically have cheated death so many times, especially in that time and place. It was often luck that kept some people alive, but luck eventually runs out. The only thing that really kept me interested in the novel was the question of how the author would create the fantasy of Blum’s success or failure, but it took too long to get there.

 

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Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, author; Allison Hiroto, narrator

pachinkoThe novel begins in 1910, in Korea, and continues almost until the end of the century. Korea is part of the Japanese Empire and the difficult relationship between the Japanese and the Koreans throughout that time coupled with war and peace and changing powers, is presented as it is experienced by a Korean family through four generations.

The first generation of the family begins with the birth of one child, Hoonie, a gentle, kind son who is unfortunately disabled with a club foot and a cleft palate. Fearing the continuation of that genetic deformity, they find his marriage prospects are very low. When a match is made with the last child of an impoverished family, Hoonie is happily married to Yangjin, and she accepts him willingly. So begins the second generation of the family. Their union produces a daughter, Sunja. Sunja and her mother grew to love Hoonie dearly.  When Sunja was 16, she was seduced by a mobster named Hansu. She believed that he loved her, but when she discovered she was pregnant, she also discovered that he was married with children. This begins the third generation.

When Isak Baek, a pastor, comes to board at her mother’s boarding house and suffers a relapse of Tuberculosis, Sunja and her mother tenderly care for him, separating him from the other boarders, keeping them safe until he is well again. When he recovers and learns of Sunja’s plight, he offers to marry her to save her reputation and give the child a name. As opposed to the superstition that guides most of the poor and illiterate peasants, the bible verses guide him. Thus begins Sunya’s story.

Isak and Sunya  move from Yeongdo, Korea to Osaka, Japan, where they join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and his wife, Kyunghee are happy to welcome them. They are a childless couple and are eager for the birth of their nephew. Noa is not told of his true parentage and he grows up believing Isak is his biological father. He is a good and obedient child with a personality that resembles Isak’s far more than his biological father, Hansu.

Sunja and Isak have a second child named Mozasu. Mozasu, is more like Hansu in personality, although Isak is his true parent. While Noa loves school, Mozasu leaves as soon as he obtains permission and begins to work as an apprentice for a man who owns Pachinko parlors, which are gambling establishments. It is one of the few employment opportunities open to Koreans in Japan. Although the reputation of some of the Koreans who run the establishments is questionable, his mentor is said to be reputable. Still, the sting of that line of work is always present.

When Noa passes his exams, he goes to Tokyo to study. He marries a Japanese American woman. His life takes a tragic turn when he discovers the secrets of his background. His pride is a large part of his personality and also that of many Koreans and Japanese. While pride often leads to loyalty to one’s family, on the one hand, it leads to foolish decisions and stubbornness on the other.

Eventually, Mozasu marries and has a child, Solomon. Solomon is the fourth generation of this family. Although eight decades have passed, it seems that history will keep repeating itself as Solomon chooses to go into business with his father The author illustrates how even though life changes, in many ways it stays the same through wars and upheavals, tragedies and good fortune, births and deaths.
The story spans several decades, and it is heartbreaking to see the inability of the characters to adapt and truly change and fit into the new ways of society, even when their financial status improves. They are often trapped by society or their old habits. Secrets that dominated the story, when revealed, were the cause of devastating consequences. The evils and hardships of the developing world infringed on their simple way of life and sometimes began to corrupt them as well. They were simple people with a simple way of life and the author’s simple prose made it seem as if their simple way of life was superior to the sophisticated life of those who considered themselves better. It alternated between feeling like a folk tale and feeling like a tragic memoir.

The audio version of the book placed the listener in the heart of their village in Korea and then in the cities of Japan. The narrator’s pace, tone and interpretation were perfect for the novel, the changing times and different characters. The unpretentious vocabulary and the straightforward execution of the story made it seem very authentic. As it spanned almost 100 years, it enlightened the reader about the history of the often troubled relationship between Korea, Japan, and the rest of the world. As the decades passed and the wars came and went, the changing world was illustrated by the daily lives, hopes and dreams of the characters. While survival was a constant struggle for many Koreans, they seemed to persevere and accept their fate with stoicism. Both the Japanese and Korean culture discouraged a public display of emotion. Their strength seemed to lie in their ability to adjust to what befell them, either by ignoring the changes or adapting to them. However, their fear of public humiliation often pushed them into making rash decisions. Still, through it all, they were loyal to each other and it was obvious that as much as the Japanese did not want to do business with Koreans, whom they deemed ignorant and dirty, the Koreans did not want to do business with the Japanese who were unjust and unfair rulers and  who could not be trusted since they never fully accepted the Koreans. They were always outsiders, even if they were natives to Japan and had never set eyes on Korea.

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Tom Clancy Point of Contact, Mike Maden, author; Scott Brick, narrator

pointI stayed with this book until the end due to the exceptional talent of the narrator. He was the reason that I gave it two stars rather than one. Scott Brick is the saving grace of this novel because he does a fantastic job as a reader, using just the right amount of expression and tone for each character. The book itself leaves a lot to be desired. Characters pop up serendipitously and seem poorly developed. Then they often disappeared without any credible explanation, while others reappeared so much later on, it was hard to relate them back to the proper moment in time.

Every possible theme was included by the author. There were spies, corrupt government officials, criminals and thugs, violence, alcohol abuse, intimation of inappropriate sexual comments and behavior, loss and grief, and there were outlandish suspicions of each other coupled with ridiculous accusations and incredible assumptions.

When the book opens, Jack Ryan is on assignment to rescue hostages on a ship in the North Sea. From there, he returns home, disappointed because he believes that he screwed up in the liberation effort. He thinks he needs to have more training from The Campus. Then, when he is suddenly sent to Singapore to do some forensic accounting and fraud investigation for a Senator, Wes Rhodes, on a potential investment there, he believes this white-side op assignment is in retribution for his failure to react properly on the ship. However, when the mission turns into a black-side op adventure, it is wrapped up in a convoluted story about an effort to destroy the stock markets of the world and bring about economic disaster.

Ryan travels to Singapore with Paul Brown, initially described as a nerdy kind of guy, known for his ability to detect fraud. Secretly, he has been tasked by Senator Rhodes to do clandestine work involving planting some software on the mainframe of the company being investigated. When that software is launched, unknown to Paul and the Senator, the worldwide markets will collapse like dominos.

It took almost the entire book to figure out the story line, and then, even at the end, there were so many holes in the narrative I was left with a barely plausible conclusion. Just when it seemed like something might be making some sense, leading in a logical direction, the author brought up some other thread that made the plot veer off on another path requiring the total suspension of disbelief.

As an example, when chasing down a lead about an unknown factory location, Jack was intentionally involved in a serious vehicle accident in which he suffered injuries leaving him unconscious. Yet, when he awoke, he was miraculously not injured seriously enough to prevent him from continuing on with his secret mission. Oddly, although the accident was an attempt to prevent him from continuing his investigation, he was not captured or killed and was allowed to go on with his work. Even when he was apparently caught red-handed doing something highly illegal in a country that has some barbaric methods of punishment for infractions, the authorities were never informed.

Even more inconceivably, Paul Brown suspected the President’s son of doing something improper and then held him at gunpoint, eventually attacking him and knocking him out. Jack Ryan is the President’s son, and yet Brown’s behavior is treated as if this was to be expected and was not highly unusual. Then Gavin, a member of The Campus, like Jack, believes Paul’s ridiculous story about Jack’s love affair with Lian Fairchild whose father owns the company being investigated. Why did Paul and Jack keep secrets from each other even though they were all engaged in highly technical work with a situation that was becoming very suspect? They placed each other in danger because they displayed a remarkable lack of common sense.

When Paul Brown gets caught using the company computer in an unauthorized way, he somehow gets away with it, only to be captured a bit later on. Then, while all of the interested parties are attempting to stop the world markets from going into an intentional tailspin causing economic disaster, an impossible cyclone opportunely bears down on Singapore. With severe injuries, the characters bounce back up each time, and like superheroes, continue onward.  All the themes began to seem contrived.

The book is disjointed and tedious at times with extraneous, unnecessary details that are very confusing and are often dropped in seemingly to simply add volume to the book. Themes remained undeveloped without ever being brought to a satisfying climax. Different threads of the story were opened and left hanging or weren’t developed until so much later in the narrative, there was no way to reconnect them. Who were the Koreans? Who were the Bulgarians? What part did the Singaporeans play in this debacle? How did they all connect? Why was there a secret warehouse? Who was managing it? What happened to Yong Fairchild? What was his purpose? The premise that Paul or Jack could clandestinely get into the computers of a company that was very technologically advanced was astounding. The fact that both of them could escape detection, at various times, defied reality.

There was simply no way to knit this story together in a cohesive, convincing way.

There was little action until very near the end and then it was action that was overdone, unrealistic and inconclusive.

 

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Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Jamie Ford, Author; Emily Woo Zeller, Narrator

In 1902, Ernest Yung, about five years old, was abandoned by his mother in a cemetery in China. After watching his mother smother and bury his baby sister, he was told that an uncle would come and collect him and take him to a better life in America. His Chinese mother and his white missionary father had not been married. He was of mixed blood and was an outcast. His father had been murdered by those who did not accept them or want the likes of them in China. In actuality, those who were biracial were not welcome in America either. Because of a terrible drought, they were starving; the growing numbers of the bodies of those murdered were washing up daily in the nets of the fishermen. Alone and unable to care for her children, his mother saw no other way out. She gave him her only precious possession, a tarnished metal hairpin which was topped by a jade bird that symbolized peace and harmony.

Ernest Yung was taken with other forsaken or unwanted children to a ship owned by a man who kept them hidden in its bowels. They had been sold in order to save their own lives or those of the others in their family. Their parents had little notion of what would become of them but thought anything was better than the fate that awaited them all in China. Some believed that they had little choice but to sell their children in order to save the others in the family. What the children who were secretly transported in the underbelly of the ship, its cargo hold, experienced, was dreadful. The conditions were appalling and some were abused, not only by the crew but also by the other children who were bullies. Still, most often, whatever happened to Ernest, he was grateful to have a full belly and so withstood all of the hardships that came his way. He seemed older than his five or six years and was lucky to survive the voyage which took him to Seattle, Washington where he became, “young Ernest” to some, and Ernest Young to the world.

After almost drowning at the journey’s end, he was rescued and placed in a children’s home but was eventually removed from there by his patron, Mrs. Irvine, a member of a group called the Mothers of Virtue. She placed him in a private school and undertook his care. When he angered her, in 1909, by asking if he could transfer to a school that might be more welcoming to him, this pious, pompous woman offered him up as a raffle prize at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. She deemed him ungrateful, however, she was horrified by the woman who won the raffle and so tried to convince him to run away or return to her care.

For Ernest, the worst day of his life was the day he left his mother and the best was the day that Dame Florence Nettleton won him and took him to live in The Tenderloin where she was Madame Flora, the owner of a high class house of ill repute. He had a job as a houseboy and a lifestyle with friends and “family” around him. He no longer felt he was alone or an outcast. Although, on several occasions, Mrs. Irvine tried to convince him to leave the house of decadence, he refused to leave the Tenderloin where he was finally happy.

While there, he became reacquainted with Fahn who had actually been on the ship with him and now worked as a maid in Madame’s house. As a little child, when they were both in the bottom of the ship that took them to America, he had promised to marry her. He and Fahn became fast friends once again, and together with Maisie, also called the Mayflower, they were a happy threesome. Maisie was the Madame’s “little sister”, Margaret.

The novel is bookended between two world’s fairs, the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the Century 21 Exposition in 1962. Both were held in Seattle. Both framed Ernest Young’s life, and it is through his memories that the four plus decades between the fairs, is revealed as a story about love and devotion in a world ruled by puritanical morality and racial prejudice. It is about poverty, sexual decadence, sexually transmitted disease and its devastating effects, child trafficking, the degradation of women, and the gross injustice and discrimination that existed. It is about the lack of civil rights for women and children and the hypocrisy of a society where the idea of “do as I say and not as I do” governed the behavior of those who were rich, famous and powerful.

The way in which Ernest faced his challenges illustrated his deeply loyal and remarkable character. How he lived his life and survived all of the obstacles put in his way were a testimony to his devotion to those he cared for and the courage that he showed when he had to protect them. Because he was so easily pleased by simple things and asked for so little for himself, it was hard not to admire him. In the forty intervening years between the World’s Fairs, Ernest and the woman he still loved, Gracie, had two children, Hanny and Juju. Eventually, they had a life of contentment in America. Perhaps it was secretly a bit unconventional, but from the outside, it was quite ordinary. They were happy, although the book was at times terribly sad.

The book is based on a past reality. A boy named Ernest was really raffled off at the AYP, although there is little known about what happened to him in the future, since he was not claimed.  As a novel, I found it a bit disjointed, overlong, and a bit contrived, but as a love story, it was beautiful in its constancy.

 

 

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