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Saturday, May 1, 2010

First Daughter and Last Snow by Eric Van Lustbader

Alright, earlier in the week I posted a contest for two books by Eric Van Lustbader and promised you the reviews.  These are those. :p

Just to make it easier, and because I pretty much felt the same way about both (and if I'm being honest, I was displeased enough with First Daughter to have resorted to skimming Last Snow), I am going to give you my thoughts on both books together.  Here are the summaries from Goodreads:

Sometimes the weakness we fear most can become our greatest strength . .  .  Jack McClure has had a troubled life.  His dyslexia always made him  feel like an outsider.  He escaped from an abusive home as a teenager  and lived by his wits on the streets of Washington D.C.  It wasn’t until  he realized that dyslexia gave him the ability to see the world in  unique ways that he found success, using this newfound strength to  become a top ATF agent. When a terrible accident takes the life of his  only daughter, Emma, and his marriage falls apart, Jack blames himself,  numbing the pain by submerging himself in work.  Then he receives a call  from his old friend Edward Carson.  Carson is just weeks from taking  the reins as President of the United States when his daughter, Alli, is  kidnapped.  Because Emma McClure was once Alli’s best friend, Carson  turns to Jack, the one man he can trust to go to any lengths to find his  daughter and bring her home safely. The search for Alli leads Jack on a  road toward reconciliation . . . and into the path of a dangerous and  calculating man.  Someone whose actions are as cold as they are  brilliant.  Whose power and reach are seemingly infinite. Faith,  redemption, and political intrigue play off one another as McClure uses  his unique abilities to journey into the twisted mind of a stone cold  genius who is constantly one step ahead of him.  Jack will soon discover  that this man has affected his life and his country in more ways than  he could ever imagine.

 Last Snow

Jack McClure, Special Advisor and closest friend to the new President  of the United States, interprets the world very differently from the  rest of us. It’s his greatest liability, and his greatest asset.
An  American senator, supposedly on a political trip to the Ukraine, turns  up dead on the island of Capri. When the President asks him to find out  how and why, Jack sets out from Moscow across Eastern Europe, following a  perilous trail of diplomats, criminals, and corrupt politicians. Thrust  into the midst of a global jigsaw puzzle, Jack’s unique dyslexic mind  allows him to put together the pieces that others can’t even see.
Still  unreconciled to the recent death of his daughter and the dissolution of  his marriage, Jack takes on a personal mission along with his official  one: keeping safe from harm his two unlikely, unexpected, and  incompatible companions—Annika Dementieva, a rogue Russian FSB agent,  and Alli Carson, the President’s daughter. As he struggles to keep both  young women safe and unearth the answers he seeks, hunted by everyone  from the Russian mafia to the Ukrainian police to his own NSA, Jack  learns just how far up the American and Russian political ladders  corruption and treachery has reached.
In the vein of Eric Van  Lustbader’s latest bestselling Jason Bourne novels, Lustbader takes us  on an international adventure in this powerful page-turner that will  keep you reading through the night.

Alright.  Lately I've had a string of badish books and reviews, and I really don't like being mean (most of the time.  Maybe.)  The truth is, I want to share good books with you guys.  I want you to be able to find something your going to curl up in a big chair with a mug of cocoa and fall in love with.  But I'm not going to lie or sugar-coat how I feel about books on the off chance you may like them when I did not.
So this review is going to be interesting.

I think there ARE people who will love these; the Da Vinci Code sold millions, right?  (I hate to do an extended comparison between books, but there is certainly going to be that element in this one.) When I agreed to review these, I was sort of on the fence, so maybe this is my own fault.  I don't generally like thrillers and FBI-ish books, but at the same time, EVL took over the Bourne series and has sold millions, so I thought if I have to read one, maybe he does it right and would be the one to read.  And I do think he crafts a story fairly well.  I really liked Jack McClure as a protagonist, and I liked some of the elements of the story and the other characters, and the political intrigue aspect.  Because of these things, I think there are going to be people who will absolutely love these books.

But, just as with Dan Brown, I just could not make myself like EVL's writing.  It was so heavy-handed and self-righteous and obvious, and it didn't give the reader enough credit.  EVL uses a lot of metaphor (a lot of metaphor), and though some of them hit the mark and are excellent, a hell of a lot of them were reminded me of high school/college kid metaphors: strange and grandiose, sounding cool but meaning nothing.  I maybe could have gotten past this flaw if that were the end of the metaphor debacle, but the fact is, EVL  didn't trust the reader to be able to get his meaning -- or didn't trust himself to convey it, perhaps -- so he piled on more and more of them for each descriptive bit, until it got to the point that I wondered just how long the stories would have been without them.  There is a great bit of under-used writing advice from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: "Murder your darlings."  No matter how great you think it sounds, or how cool it seems, or whether it fit before you changed things and was just so stunning an image to you, you've got to be willing to leave things on the cutting floor when you are editing writing.*

(from here on out, I am speaking directly about First Daughter only, as I was still making note of things at that point, so they are handy to use to point things out)

In First Daughter, there is a lot about religion.  Now, normally, religion (in general) and zealotry and hypocrisy (in particular) are very interesting subjects to me.  I am not a religious person myself, but I find religions fascinating, and I like to read about them, good or bad, on occasion.  First Daughter was first published right at the cusp of the 2008 campaigning, and it shows.  There is a lot of self-righteous, hypocritical, bumbling far right (them) versus normal, moderate lefties (us) in the book, but it is so beaten and beaten, and such a thinly-veiled parody/attack on the Bush regime that it's almost insulting.  To me.  The liberal as shit, anti-Bush, rat-owning, pierced loudmouth.  It's another example of not trusting the reader, so you make things obvious and lead them to the conclusions you want them to draw.  It meant that the characters turned into caricatures, and when that happens, I tune out.

The other big thing that really bothered me was the constant shifting between the present and flashbacks.  (Last Dan Brown reference, I swear: This reminded me of Brown's stupid tiny little chapters that switch and switch and switch so that it "keeps you on your toes" and keeps the mystery mysterious; translation, pisses Misty off.  Have the balls to tell a straight-forward story that doesn't pander or rely on gimmicks.  <-- tirade directed at Dan Brown, not EVL).  Setting aside that all of the many unlikely connections in McClure's current case to his somewhat cliched and bizarre past, the shifts were just sort of strange and, though they sometimes kept the story interesting, they also sometimes made it hard to follow, or disrupted the flow and made me lose interest.  I found myself liking the past sections more than the present, but it was the shift between them that really irritated me, and for the longest time, I couldn't figure out why.  Genius that I am, it came to me: the sections in the present are told in past tense (Jack did this), and the sections in the past are told in the present tense (Jack does this).  How loopy is that?  It just made the whole tone read kinda funny, and once I noticed it, I couldn't get past it.

Now.***  There were a few things I liked.  Jack has a lot of interesting things going on in his life, and a really interesting past, so he makes a good lead.  Also, he has dyslexia, which he has worked hard to manage, but which also gives him an advantage in his work.**  I thought it was an interesting character-builder, and gave McClure a relatability and memorability that I did like.  I also like the sort of Stockholm Syndrome aspect to the story.  Well, let me clarify; I liked that the element was there, but I thought it could have been handled better, and that some of the elements in the build-up of SS seemed forced and even farfetched.  But I did think it was a nice layer, once it was obvious that was where it was going (though before that, it had me rolling my eyes).

Alright.  After all of that, I may have scared a lot of you off of these books, but really, I think there are going to be people who are into this genre who will really like these.  They're not great literature (and for me, they're not even good fluff), but if you go into it knowing this is what you're in for and wanting something over the top and a bit mindless in an adult, political kind of way, then this will probably fit the bill.

*I would have went in with a machete in this case
**I don't know how accurate the portrayal of dyslexia was, and I certainly could have done without being told a million times that he had it, that it made him think a certain way, etc.  Once or twice is enough, please, Mr. Van Lustbader; give your readers some credit for not being total morons incapable of remembering a piece of information.
***Okay, but really, I have one more negative side-note.  There were a lot of pop-culture references that felt to me like they were tossed in but not really understood.  LOTS of references to current indie music, but they felt forced, like EVL googled and inserted thusly.  Though I like seeing bands I listen to name-dropped, and I like pulling up lyrics and considering how a song may fit into a story, I don't like feeling like they are used as a disingenuous ploy.  Maybe I am being silly here, but that was how I felt.

Oh, and one last thing: congrats, Mindy A.  You won both books!  Anne at The Book Report Network has been given your info, and they will be on their way to you soon.  Hope you like them.
For those of you still wanting to read them, my copies will be going into the prize pool that I keep hinting at darkly...

1 comment:

  1. Ouch. FBI books are not my thing, but I must confess to a weakness for Dan Brown. It's those tiny little chapters that you hate. I keep thinking, "Just one more. Just one more," until I'm done. Even I wish he would lay off the heavy-handed foreshadowing though. "I got it already! He's claustrophobic and it will play a Big Part in the story later!" But they're fun. For me.


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