Tour’s Books Blog

March 22, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Fault Line by Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler is arguably the best action thriller writer working today, though you’d never know it by Fault Line.  He’s better than Lee Child, Jack Higgins, Brad Thor, Kyle Mills, Vince Flynn, even Daniel Silva, who is his nearest competition.  Yes, he really is that good.  His plots are intelligent, his world building some of the best out there (that’s also Silva’s greatest strength) and his action realistic.  His characters have depth, his ability to paint an atmosphere with words rivals Silva and his action scenes are as good as anyone’s – maybe better.  That’s why this book seems like a more spectacular failure than it really is.  If this was Mills, Thor, Flynn, or Higgins I doubt I would judge it so harshly.  Child has slipped lately, just not as badly.  Sliva’s deterioration is much more subtle and involves his plots and lead character, so only his hardcore fans really see it.  This was the literary equivalent of a NASCAR wreck.

The premise of Fault Line is not all that original.  The whole concept of encryption that is nearly unbreakable is one that’s been done before.  Versions have even played out in the news over the years as the government has forced various encryption software manufacturers to turn over source code so they can break encrypted files, always invoking the argument that it a matter of public safety and national security.  Neither is killing off the creator of an encryption code.  Even Windtalkers had a version of ‘kill the source code’, in that case it was shoot the code talker as a key plot element!  Right from the start, the plot has no new ground, so Eisler set himself a formidable task: find a new take on a well explored area and make your characters different yet believable.

Next are the three key protagonists, again they’re predictable and shallow:  Ben Treven is the eldest son in a family of three and in some ways a misfit in his family.  He’s the athlete who became a soldier, not the academic his family wanted.  A former Ranger, he now works as an assassin for a black ops military unit.  He believes people should be grateful to him and others for protecting them and has a certain disdain for those ordinary people. Alex Treven, the youngest, is a super smart kid who always showed off and acted like being smart somehow makes him better than others.  Now he’s clawing his way up to a partnership in a major law firm with a specialty in patent law.  His condescension toward others and scheming against his nominal boss is totally believable.  Richard Hilzoy’s encryption patent is his ticket to the coveted partnership.  Sarah Hosseini is a young first year associate at the firm and another smart patent lawyer.  The only child of Iranian parents caught in the US when the Shah was overthrown, she’s trying to make her parents happy by being a successful lawyer.  She’s smart and beautiful, but not all that happy or satisfied with her career.  Ten years younger than Alex, she hasn’t developed his arrogance or lust for the trappings of power.

Finally there is the inter-character tension, which Eisler built with a really old plot device of childhood angers and another round of clichéd tragic family events – a sister killed in a car accident, a father’s suicide – that shapes how the brothers interact.  Ben believes himself more virtuous and deserving of thanks for the dangerous and deadly work he does for ‘the nation’.  Alex believes himself the more virtuous because he was the one who stayed home and dealt with all the emotional fallout of their sister’s death, their father’s suicide and their mother’s cancer while Ben was off playing solider.  Frankly, I thought they both needed to just GROW UP and please, dear God, get over themselves.  (All that was missing was the Smothers Brothers doing their “Mom Always Liked You Best!” routine.)  Not to mention the whole thing plays out in flashbacks throughout the book like some new kind of psychological torture for readers. (more…)

March 9, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Tengu: The Mountain Goblin by John Donohue

Donohue is a professor at Albertus Magnus College and a well know author of articles for various martial arts publications. A 30 year veteran of martial arts training, he manages to spin his tales with a voice of authority while never substituting action for plot. While Barry Eisler is a better thriller writer, Donohue writes the martial arts equivalent of a ‘martial arts cozy’ or ‘amateur samurai’ if you will. J Donohue’s two previous books in this series are Sensei and Deshi and both are very worthwhile reads. Tengu is third in this series and a forth is underway.

If there is one recurring theme in the Burke novels it’s ‘A man born out of his time.’ Burke’s inner struggle, the need to find his way between the modern world and his dedication to, and comfort with, the ancient code of his Kendo training, is ever present. As is the always strained relationship with his sensei, Yamashita.  There is also Burke’s disdain for the ‘woo-woo magical’ parts of martial arts – some elements of which he has actually encountered and has yet to get his mind around.   

Martial artist Conner Burke is trying to deal with his current state of unemployment, having been let go from his teaching position by the little Long Island college that had been his nominal employer, while keeping himself busy by taking on more responsibilities at Yamashita-san’s dojo. The always complex relationship between Burke and Yamashita seems to have taken an even odder turn. Burke seems to be consciously avoiding what the sensei is trying to convey to him.

In the Philippines a graduate student is kidnapped. Spec Ops warriors are sent on a mission with Philippine soldiers to raid a terrorist camp. As usual, it is through Sensei Yamashita that Burke gets pulled into the action. An old enemy of Yamashita is training and using old Japanese ties and terrorists to draw the old warrior into one last battle. Burke, with homicide cop brother Mike and his partner Art, they make yet another foray into danger together, this time half way around the world in the Philippines.  But is there going to be a happy ending here?

Like Eisler, Donohue uses the first person to good effect, but the plotting is less complex and certainly Burke is not the world weary killer that Rain is. But he has killed and knows that he’ll do what he must. No, Donohue is not in Eisler’s league when it comes to thrillers, but he has, however, constructed a complete, believable person in Burke and all three of his books are worth reading.

My Grade: B-

Who would enjoy this book: Donohue’s novels don’t fit neatly into any blanket genre. Not wise-guy PI like Spenser or Elvis Cole, not hard case John Rain or Jack Reacher, not Steven Segal fans either – but maybe a little of each. Though an imperfect fit I’d say fans of Doc Ford novels by Randy Wayne White, Thorn novels by James W Hall or Steven Hamilton’s Alex McKnight novels should be happy.

February 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The John Rain Series by Barry Eisler

Rain Fall My Grade: A-

Hard Rain My Grade: A

Rain Storm My Grade: A

Killing Rain My Grade: A-

The Last Assassin My Grade: B+ to A-

Requiem for an Assassin My Grade: B-

Have you read Solo by Jack Higgins? Shibumi by Trevanin? If you have, sit back, relax and meet the heir – John Rain, assassin extraordinaire.

The product of a Japanese father and American mother, Rain never belonged in either country. As a young man he joins the US military and shows a real aptitude for killing. Part of a Special Forces team, he ends doing work for the CIA. Living and working in that ‘grey zone’ where right/wrong and good/evil gets blurred, his own instincts save him. He ‘disappears’, moves to Japan, even goes so far as to have surgery to make himself appear more ‘Japanese’. Here he lives a shadow life and makes his living as an assassin for hire specializing in ‘natural’ deaths. Killing someone is easy. Killing someone and making it look like a natural death is art.

From page one, Rain Fall captivates and holds the reader. It is an unusually well written combination of action and intrigue with the kind of rich, compelling, textured backdrop of locations and characters that is rare in a genre that typically forsakes depth for action. It begins with the death of a government official in a subway during rush hour and just does not quit. Trust no one and cover your back. Written in the first person, Rain is a compelling narrator. Eisler’s ease with the Japanese setting comes from years living in the country.

Hard Rain sees Rain having tough choices to make. His affair with jazz pianist Midori ended when she learned who and what Rain was. Tatsu, the shrewd and manipulative police official who seems to be both friend and mentor to the assassin, wants to use him for his own ends. The murky world of Japanese politics and crime lords are front and center once again as a Yakuza leader is targeted and escapes. Midori ends up being responsible, indirectly, for the death of one of Rain’s friends.

With both the Yakuza and the CIA after him, an injured Rain flees to Brazil which is where book 3, Rain Storm, starts. The CIA makes an offer of much needed money he can’t refuse that lures him back to Asia to track the activities of an unscrupulous arms dealer (is there any other kind?). This book introduces two more recurring characters – the beautiful Israeli spy Delilah, who has her own agenda and Dox, short for unorthodox, a giant of a sniper with an extrovert’s personality that grates on the assassin who lives by clinging to anonymous shadows. Yet Dox may end up being the one thing that Rain does not have, a friend.

Killing Rain, fourth in the series, has the assassin asking himself some hard questions. Rain is hired by the Mossad to take out a renegade Israeli scientist, now terrorist for hire and bomb expert, before the man can transfer any more technical expertise and training to radical Islamic militants. Partnering with Dox again is not entirely comfortable for loner Rain. Then he misses his chance at a quick take down and ends up signaling the target he’s being hunted. To makes matters worse, he kills two bodyguards to escape. Unfortunately, the guards are former CIA and part of renegade operative Jim Hilger’s operation. Now Rain is targeted by a furious Hilger.  The very annoyed Mossad no longer trusts him to do the job so he’s on their hit list too. Where does Delilah stand? The action once again moves across Asia and brings Rain, Dox and Delilah to Hong Kong. There Rain and Hilgar again cross paths. The ending here has Rain thinking of retirement and the son he wants so much to see.

The Last Assassin brings Rain back to Japan to settle old scores. He cannot go to Midori and his son until his past is put to bed. To do that, he ends up having to call in his friend Dox. Eisler moves back to the shady underworld of Yakuza and Chinese triads in Japan for this novel. Delilah comes in to help out as a lure for the Yakuza boss with a weakness for tall blondes. His old friend Tatsu may be dying, but he’s still pulling Rain’s strings. The ending has Rain and Midori finally see each other again and it sees that all of Rain’s ghosts are finally laid to rest – one way or another. I was left feeling the author intended this to be the last book in the series, and it would have served as a perfect coda for Rain, but was convinced by his publisher to write another.

Requiem for an Assassin brings Rain back into the game when Dox is kidnapped by Hilger to force Rain into carrying out a series of assassinations or Dox is dead. Rain has to get rid of people involved in a deep black CIA operation that might not have had official sanction. Thing is, he’s now on American soil and not at all happy about it. Of all the John Rain novels, I liked this book the least. It felt like Eisler lost his mojo. It’s a good read, all the necessary twists and turns, lies and half truths, but the magic is missing. The intangible something that raises a book from good to WOW! Eisler seems less engaged with his story and his characters here. I guess it’s so noticeable because his previous entries were so strong.

Though the last book is the weakest, for me at least, all of the series is so much better than just about anything getting written in the thriller genre these days, they rank as DO NOT MISS!

The John Rain series would all be rated R

Who would enjoy these books: Readers of Jack Higgins, Trevanian, Eric Van Laustbader’s Ninja series, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

NOTE: The paperback books are eligible for Amazon’s 4-for-3 promotion

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