One-Minute Book Reviews

February 22, 2010

David Baldacci’s ‘The Whole Truth,’ a Thriller That Hits You ‘Like a Molten-Lava Tsunami’

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:50 pm
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A profiteering arms dealer hopes to launch a new Cold War in a bestselling international thriller

The Whole Truth. By David Baldacci. Hachette/Vision, 530 pp., $9.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Discouraged by those dismal stats counts, bloggers? Take heart. You actually have enough clout to push global superpowers to the brink of World War III. Or so David Baldacci suggests in The Whole Truth, a novel that reheats the conventions of the Cold War thriller for the age of viral posts and “perception management.”

Conflicts in the Middle East are too puny to satisfy the megalomaniac ambitions of arms dealer Nicholas Creel in the post-9/11 era. So he hires a perception-management (PM) expert to start a global crisis that will bring in enough weapons contracts to keep his yacht afloat off the coast of Italy in perpetuity. Creel’s point man ignites the tension by planting on the Web a video — purporting to describe Russian atrocities — that goes viral. Fears of a new Red Menace grow when 28 people are killed at a London think tank, apparently by Russian assassins. Evidence found on a hard drive at their office implicates China in the propaganda campaign against its Asian neighbor.

As Armageddon looms, two people stand up to Creel and his scheme: a rogue security agent who uses the single name of Shaw and a washed-up reporter, Katie James. They fight him with the help of high-tech gizmos and near-superhuman feats: surviving car chases, leaping from a second-story window, dodging a syringe full of tetrodotoxin, “over a thousand times more lethal than cyanide.” 

All of it makes for a cynical tale despite Baldacci’s efforts to cast Shaw as a softie for a dead woman he loved. The Whole Truth has none of the patriotism that flavors the novels of Tom Clancy and other literary jingoists. Its writing is at times graceless and clichéd, if taut and well-paced. And Katie is one of the least credible female journalists in recent pop fiction – someone who, after two Pulitzers, doesn’t know that reporters speak of wanting their stories on “page one,” not on the “front page.”

But The Whole Truth has a big and timely idea behind it: Sometimes perceptions don’t affect reality — they become reality. And Baldacci makes his case for that view without the bluster and infestation of acronyms found in the work Clancy and many others. He also offers an interesting afterword on perception managers. “PMs are not spin doctors because they don’t spin facts,” Baldacci writes. “They create facts and then sell them to the world as truth.” He may exaggerate the perception-managers’ powers, but he’s right when he says that “a major untruth can be established so quickly and so overwhelmingly across the world” that no after-the-fact reporting can make most people believe it isn’t true: “And that’s precisely what makes it so dangerous.”

Best line: On Amsterdam’s Oude Kirk, or Old Church, the city’s oldest house of worship: “Shaw had been inside a few times. What had struck him was the series of carvings on the choir benches depicting men having massive bowel movements.”

Worst line: No. 1: “To say that this hit the earth like a molten-lava tsunami would have been the grossest of understatements.” No. 2: “Just like war, the Americans did not have a monopoly on self-serving politicians.” No. 3: “Much like the treatment of the Russians, few believed their denials.” No. 4: “on the frozen tundra.” No. 5: ” … she was now currently living in London …” 

Published: April 2008 (hardcover), February 2009 (paperback).

Furthermore: Baldacci has written more than a dozen other novels, including Absolute Power. His publisher says that the The Whole Truth, a No. 1 bestseller, is his “first international thriller.”

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow her on Twitter (@janiceharayda). She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 9, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’

Scaling the Mount Everest of literature through print and audio editions

War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Constance Garnett. Modern Library, 1,386 pages, $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading War and Peace is like walking into a large cocktail party at which you don’t know anybody until, hours later, Napoleon turns up fresh from his victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. How do you get your bearings on a novel that has more than 500 characters and, even in the relatively compact Modern Library edition, 1,386 pages?

More than most masterpieces, War and Peace asks you to make a leap of faith and repays the effort. The characters who at first swarm at you in a mob soon coalesce into sets. Chief among them are three well-to-do families – the Rostovs, the Bezuhovs and the Bolkonskys – whose fates rise and fall in the years just before and after Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in the winter of 1812.

Leo Tolstoy sets their stories against a teeming panorama of Russian history as he develops the fatalistic theme that free will is an illusion. The choices people make reflect powerful historical forces: The higher someone’s social standing, “the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits.”

Tolstoy’s fondness for this theme involves digressions that have defeated many readers. Listening to an unabridged audio edition may help you ride out the philosophical and historical detours from the plot. A recorded version will also give you pronunciations of those 500 Russian or other names, and could add far drama to your commute than any all-news radio station. The radio may give you reports of one-alarm blazes in dumpsters. Tolstoy gives you: “The valet on going in informed the count that Moscow was on fire.”

Best line: The first, a line of dialogue at a party: “Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.” This isn’t nearly as famous as the first line Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike …”). But it has its own genius. Part of it is that it reates the impression that you are eavesdropping with tantalizing effects.

Worst line: Tolstoy elaborates on his view of history and free will in the second of two epilogues in the book: “Napoleon could not command a campaign against Russia, and never did command it.” Is that clear? If not, he adds: “Our false conception that the command that precedes an event is the cause of an event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and those few out of thousands of commands, which happen to be consistent with the course of events, are carried out, we forget those which were not, because they could not be carried out.”

Caveat lector: This review uses the Russian spellings in the Constance Garnett translation in the 1994 Modern Library hardcover edition www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/. Some scholars favor more recent translations. A newer Modern Library edition has a foreword by A. N. Wilson.

Published: 1869

Furthermore: Unabridged audio editions of War and Peace are available from Audible www.audible.com.

You can also follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 7, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of ‘War and Peace’ Coming Wednesday

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:02 pm
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You think nobody can review the Mount Everest of literature in a post you can read in a minute? O, ye of little faith! Check back Wednesday for a review of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Tomorrow: Another post in the occasional series “Backscratching in Our Time,” which calls attention to the trading of blurbs and other favors by well-known authors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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