Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (audio)

treasureAfter reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, I was driven to reread Treasure Island. I suspect that I only ever read the Great Illustrated Classics version, in fact: and I loved that series for several years, but I worry now about what I missed. (I reread certain of those classics in full later on, but not all. What misconceptions am I still harboring?) Husband and I first attempted this audio version, read by David Buck, on our U-haul drive cross-country this fall. But the Scottish accent, and the story-within-a-story format, proved too difficult for the big loud truck and our navigation of unfamiliar roads. Fair warning: this is not a criticism of the book (or the audiobook), but it is not the most distraction-friendly listen I’ve encountered.

The story itself is, of course, riveting, once you get into it. It is narrated from a distance of some years by the voice of Jim, who is a young boy (perhaps 12 or so?) in the time of his tale. At his father’s seaside inn, Jim assists in hosting a mysterious sailor we call Billy Bones; Billy is apparently frightened of certain other seafaring men, particularly a one-legged man who wishes him ill. When Billy dies – of fright, after a visit from a band of related ruffians – Jim finds a map within the possessions of the deceased. Local community members Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney conspire with young Jim to buy and staff a ship to go looking for buried treasure they believe is indicated on the pirate map.

Here Stevenson securely establishes several tropes of pirate fiction. The cook they install on board their ship is peg-legged Long John Silver, who sings “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” talks in the pirate-talk (“aye, matey”), and carries a parrot on one shoulder. The treasure map, marked with an X, takes them to a deserted island, where the shipmates plan a mutiny: Squire Trelawney has haplessly engaged a bunch of pirates for his crew, and they will be captained not by the captain he’s hired, but by Silver himself. By luck, Jim finds out about their scheme in time to warn Trelawney and the doctor, and the three of them take cover – with their honest captain and a few other loyals – on the island, but Silver and his men are bent on treasure and murder. Also by luck, Jim meets a man who identifies himself as Ben Gunn: he was marooned on the same island years ago, by the very same pirates. And he knows where the treasure is.

Originally published as a story for young boys, Treasure Island keeps the pace up and the action quick, after the first few chapters of set-up at Jim’s father’s inn. (Those early chapters do run the risk of wearying the short attention span of young boys and my Husband, though.) The ship’s journey is fraught with danger, but once on Treasure Island the action really ramps up: there are battles, injuries and fatalities, double- and triple- and quadruple-crossings, treasure! and intrigue. I’ll stop with the plotline there. Jim is the unlikely but triumphant hero of this story (again betraying its original audience); by virtue but mostly by luck, he contributes every major piece of action or intelligence throughout. What fun!

Pacing and action are the clear strengths of this adventure tale, which is as it should be. David Buck’s narration is fine – he does voices and accents where appropriate – but I think this version probably missed some opportunity for theatrics that this wildly theatrical story offered. It’s still a great yarn, and sets up a number of recognizable pirate jokes we know and love today. It would still suit young boys well (although look out for a slightly slow start).

Rating: 7 pieces of 8.

Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

never go backI believe I said earlier that this may be the sexiest Reacher novel yet. Possibly it’s just been a while since I read (or listened to) one, but I still think that may be true. He finds a beautiful woman in just about every book, and I appreciate that Lee Child always makes sure that the woman is intelligent, knows her own mind, and enjoys their relations as much as Reacher does; no bimbos or advantages taken. I’ll just say that this installment in Reacher’s saga is no exception, and leave it at that.

Never Go Back follows on the action of 61 Hours, in which Reacher talks on the phone with his successor, a Major Susan Turner, now the commanding officer with his old military police unit. He liked her voice; and now he’s gone looking for her. He travels by hitch-hike and bus to his former headquarters and approaches his old former office, but behind his old desk is not Major Turner but a man who tells Reacher that Turner took a bribe and is now under arrest. He then promptly recalls Reacher to his old command – back to being a major and serving in the army again! (This was a jaw-drop moment for me.) …and tells him about not one, but two cases being brought against him; thus the recall to service, so that the military can arrest him themselves.

This is how Reacher finds himself in a cell in the same unit as Turner; and if we know Reacher, we know he won’t stay there. He breaks them both out and they set out on the road to prove themselves both respectively innocent. There is a matter of a Los Angeles drug dealer with a 16-year-old head injury; a woman who claims to have known Reacher in Korea, around the same time; a bank account in the Caymans; and rogue military officers with access to every level of security. Reacher has to kick a bunch of butt, and Turner is equally awesome. I don’t know what to say about this book that is necessarily new. In fact, these books are absolutely formulaic – but if you like the formula, they remain pleasing. I like this formula. I don’t like romance novels, so I respectfully hand them over to the readers who like that formula; and we can all be happy. And I should point out that despite the formula (we know Reacher will get the girl; we know he’ll win the fight; we know Right will be restored), there is always suspense: we don’t know how the mystery resolves, necessarily. But we do know how it will end.

I did have some concerns. Reacher has always been interested in numbers and calculations, which is one of those intriguing character traits of his, but also contributes somewhat to his implausibly perfect persona. In this volume I think Child overshoots it considerably: there is a running game being played, both within Reacher’s head and out loud, involving 50/50 chances, coin tosses, equal probabilities one way or the other. But Child has the 50/50 concept badly mixed up with having two options. Just because there are two options – binary – does not mean the chances are equal both ways; I think very few of the 50/50 scenarios Reacher plays with in this book are actually equal probabilities.

But all in all, Never Go Back is more of the same, in the best possible way. I hope Child lives a long, long life and produces another 18 Reacher novels (at least); and I hope Dick Hill sticks around and keeps reading them, too. No other voice could ever be Reacher for me. And there is already another Reacher novel promised for this September!! I am content.

Final conclusion: if you like the Reacher model, you’ll be pleased with this installment.

Rating: 7 cars.

Teaser Tuesdays: Never Go Back by Lee Child

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

never go back

Call me crazy, but I think this might be the sexiest Reacher novel yet. It’s early days, of course; I’ve only just begun. I had a long car trip alone up to a mountain bike race at some of my most favorite trails in Texas, and chose to start this latest Reacher book (narrowly edging out Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which I think is up next). I am not disappointed. For one thing, I was thrilled to learn early on that Reacher has been recalled – he’s back in the army! This can only mean excitement…

My teaser for today:

Reacher led the way. Sullivan went next. The tall guy brought up the rear. They walked in single file, through the dog-legs, left and then right, to the cell door, which was unlocked and unbolted, because Reacher wasn’t in it. Reacher pulled it open and held it for the others. The tall guy smiled and took the door from him and gestured: after you. He was dumb, but not brain damaged.

Stay tuned; I don’t think this will take me long.

A Wanted Man by Lee Child

Jack Reacher’s extraordinary expertise intersects full-speed with the FBI and an unknown threat in rural Nebraska.

A Wanted Man is Lee Child’s 17th novel starring retired military police officer Jack Reacher, who roams the country with a toothbrush in his pocket, defeating bullies, defending the weak, solving problems and charming women. Following on the action of Worth Dying For, Reacher is trying to hitch his way cross-country to find a woman whose voice attracts him from afar. But the driver and passengers in the car that picks him up are not what they seem. Soon, Reacher is pulled into a rural Nebraska murder investigation that somehow draws the interest of the FBI, the CIA and the State Department.

Beautiful and talented women, paramilitary threats, an unidentified murder victim, kidnappings, carjackings and a child at risk allow Child’s hero to shine: Reacher knows to use his brains and investigative skills as well as his brawn and weapons training to overcome the enemy. His skill at arithmetic–what Reacher called in an earlier novel a “junior idiot savant” gift for numbers–is particularly useful here.

A Wanted Man delivers expertly paced building of tension, thrilling, full-throttle action and kick-butt fight scenes, all wrapped in a tautly structured mystery with military flavor and international implications. Fans love Reacher because he’s smart, physically unbeatable and chivalrous, and here they’ll find everything they’ve come to expect. Newcomers will have no problem joining mid-series; as usual, the hardest part is waiting for the next installment.

This review originally ran in the Sept. 18, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 shots fired.

Deep Down by Lee Child

Jack Reacher is back. In this e-book-only short story, he’s back in the army, in his 20’s, making it chronologically one of the very early Reacher tales. He’s been called in from Frankfurt to Washington, D.C., where he’s put undercover as a sniper sitting in on a pre-committee… I know, bear with me… of politicos discussing a possible requisition for sniper rifles. Apparently the prior two meetings of these subcommittee politicos with military representatives have resulted in sensitive weapons information being leaked overseas, and Reacher is to find the leak. His handler in this operation is sure the leak is one of four women, and encourages Reacher to use his woman-wrangling skills as he sees fit. As we watch Reacher getting briefed and prepped in a slightly-too-small suit, we simultaneously see one of the women jogging into work. And the action begins. I’ll leave it at that in case you want to read it yourself.

Reacher fans will be able to predict how things play out. There are a few obligatory features: Reacher seems to read minds; he makes observations the average bear would not, and draws correct conclusions. There is flirtation. There is violence. He gets things right in the end. In these ways, it fits within the other Reacher stories we know and love.

What’s different here, though, is the format – and I don’t mean the e-book part, although I’m still not excited about that aspect either. No, I think I’m coming to the conclusion that short stories do not best showcase Reacher’s abilities. This is the second I’ve read, and The Second Son was interesting for the light it shed on Reacher’s past, brother Joe’s personality, and their relationship. I felt that Deep Down had some shortcomings. A lot of what I love in a full-length Reacher novel is development, the careful playing out of string, the stinginess with which we learn details, the way we get to know our characters better, often the development of a steamy relationship to boot: all things we need a full-length novel to do. While this story had all the elements Reacher needs (as observed), it didn’t give them the space they needed to grow. It didn’t do it for me. Instead, Deep Down read to me like what I fear it is: a hastily-produced holdover for Lee Child’s fans to satisfy themselves with while we await his new novel (A Wanted Man comes out in September). It was fun, and Reacher did kick butt, and it only took me 30 minutes to read – but that’s part of the problem. Only so much plot can come to fruition in a 30-minute read.

That last statement makes me wonder – is this really a problem inherent to the short story? And I don’t think it is. I’ve certainly read some very impressive, moving short stories by my favorite master of that genre, Hemingway. But you know, I don’t read a lot of short stories; I do find it a difficult genre, and I think I’m dissatisfied more often with short stories than I am with novels. New question, then: am I a poor reader of short stories, difficult to please? Or is this a difficult genre to do well in? I suspect the latter (although I’ll allow the former): with less space in which to develop characters and plot, an author has to be very precise and economical. This would help explain why Hemingway was so good at them, precision and economy being his hallmarks. And that author may need to take on less, plot-wise, so that he has time to flesh it out.

I have managed to make a rambling mess of this review. Perhaps I am not so strong on precision and economy, myself? At any rate, I found this a fine but decidedly below-average Reacher story; I am anxious for the next full-length book. Many thanks again to my mother for her loan of the e-reader so I could knock this one out on a lunch break!

Rating: 4 tough guys.

Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child

I began reading Lee Child in late 2010, with Echo Burning, and loved him. In 2011, I ran through almost the entire Jack Reacher series. I’m glad I saved this one for 2012, because it’s the last one I hadn’t read yet (not the last in the series, you realize, but the last that I got to). It was a treat, and now I’m left waiting for him to write more books. I’m concerned that it may be a little while because maybe he’ll be busy helping make the One Shot movie. I don’t know, are authors involved, or is his work done?

That’s right, they’re making a movie out of One Shot, and so the controversy begins. Like many Reacher fans, I would love to see film versions of the whole series, but: the Hollywood folks have gone in the wrong direction picking a Reacher. For those who don’t know, Reacher is a charismatic, handsome, intelligent, super-strong post-military man, 6’5″ and about 250 pounds, and blonde. And they’ve chosen Tom Cruise to play him. Sigh.

The interwebs are in uproar over this choice; not surprisingly, followers of Reacher don’t feel that the short, skinny-ish, dark-haired Cruise can play Reacher appropriately. Apparently Lee Child has come to terms with this choice, which is something that I, personally, have not come to terms with yet. I will not be able to bring myself to see this movie. I think the movie – and if it goes that far, the film franchise of Reacher movies – will end up having a different fan base than the books. I fear that no one who has come to know and love the written Reacher will be able to love Cruise in that role.

But! Reacher-in-media updates aside, I was writing a book review. Sorry! Back on track.

Bad Luck and Trouble opens with a gruesome death, and then checks in with Reacher. The former military policeman has been roaming the country with a folding toothbrush in his pocket and is not looking for any trouble, but his past catches up with him. Specifically, Frances Neagley (whom we met in Without Fail) makes contact, requesting his help. A member of their one-time elite and closer-than-blood special investigations unit has been thrown out of a helicopter and, as Reacher will repeat, you don’t throw his friends out of helicopters and get away with it. A small group of Reacher-esque badasses thus reunite to avenge their friend’s death and save the world.

This is the 16th Reacher novel I’ve read, and I confess there are a number of predictable elements. For example: Reacher’s side will win. Sorry if this spoils the ending, but he always does. For another, the hot chick will insist on sleeping with him. And finally, he’ll fade out into the sunset rather than settle down at the end, after winning, and sleeping with the hot chick.

But you know what? Predictability in these areas doesn’t lessen my enjoyment. Reacher’s cleverness and the fast-paced action and ass-kicking have never gotten old. And the action itself is not predictable; I was trying right up to the end to figure out whodunit and how we were going to get out of this pickle. Knowing Reacher will get out of the pickle is not the same as knowing how he’ll do it. I continue to eat these books up, and will continue to do so. Child, more please!

Item of interest: Bad Luck and Trouble included a much more math-heavy side of Reacher than I can remember having seen before. We know he’s good with numbers, does complicated arithmetic problems in his head for fun and all that, but this special skill (I believe he calls it a “junior idiot savant” ability) plays a larger role here than usual, which is fun if you’re into that sort of thing.

The Affair by Lee Child (audio)

The brand-newest Reacher, just out a few weeks now, is another flashback or prequel: it’s 1997, and Reacher is still in the army. He is sent out to Carter Crossing, Mississippi to do damage control on a murder case that threatens the army’s good reputation. There’s a lot of politics involved: the local army base is sending companies secretly into Kosovo, and one of the captains in question is the son of a senator in the Armed Services Committee. It develops that this very captain has some connections to the murdered woman – or maybe his father the senator does. Reacher breezes into town intending to remain under cover while investigating the case parallel to the above-board MP working from the base; but his cover is immediately blown by the local sheriff, a former Marine MP herself. The one murdered woman turns out to be the third in a series of similar killings – the first two having been ignored apparently because they were black. And then more people start dying. What exactly is going on here? And who can Reacher trust? He’s inclined to trust Elizabeth Devereaux, the sheriff, but he’s getting conflicting messages from various sources at the army.

The Affair is in several ways a standard Reacher production, and in several ways not. Reacher does his investigating; he’s a smart guy and he figures things out; he eventually will get the bad guy(s), no doubt about that. There is rather less ass-kicking in this book, though. Husband was disappointed, and I was just flat-out surprised at how easily and relatively bloodlessly the hooligans were taken down. There is rather more sex – Reacher does tend to get laid in many of the books, but the sex got a little more attention in this one. It was well done – I’m not complaining – but I was a little confused at the shifting focus. I wonder if Child has figured out that he has a number of female fans swooning over Reacher and decided to play up to them (us)? As a swooning Reacher fan myself, let me say: more ass-kicking please! I don’t begrudge him the sex but that was never the primary focus, and I’d rather stick with the classic model of ass-kicking with sex on the side, rather than the other way around.

This bit is very slightly spoilery… I had some trouble suspending disbelief as we discovered all the mistakes made by the illustrious Elizabeth Devereaux in investigating the murders before Reacher’s arrival. If she’s such a veteran hotshot MP herself, how did she miss that there was no blood on the white collar of the woman who had her THROAT CUT? Etc. She beats Neagley at the mind game at which the latter supposedly excels but makes all kinds of amateurish mistakes in the murder investigation. It just didn’t ring true for me. End spoiler. But hey, maybe I’m just mad at the whole Reacher camp right now because… have you heard? They’ve cast Tom Cruise, of all people, to play him in the movie they’re making of One Shot! Blasphemy, says I. Reacher is supposed to be 6’3″ and 230+ pounds, muscular, and blonde. Sigh. And I’m not alone – you should see the Reacher fans raising hell over at the facebook page.

But all in all, this was another satisfying edition of the Reacher adventure. I liked it. It just wasn’t my favorite. I wonder where Child is going to take Reacher from here? It occurs to me that he’s getting older (possibly a reason to keep writing prequels!) – but Child came up with another possible plot thread here: the younger version of Reacher, named Duncan Monroe, just a bit earlier in his career and otherwise apparently a spitting image. I guess we could always revisit Monroe as Reacher ages. What do you do with an aging hero? Realistically we could see him forced to accept some realities and calm down a bit; but action/adventure/thriller/hero/mysteries don’t always take the realistic route! At any rate I’m still hooked in. What’s next, Reacher?


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