The Lost Canyon

The Lost Canyon is an interesting book on several levels with a strangely dissatisfying ending. There is much fodder for discussion for book clubs; plenty of interest for those who have spent time in the natural world to ponder on; issues of race and class; and a meditation on living in the modern world – both the urban one and the natural one.

The book starts with a fitness instructor who organizes a four day hiking expedition in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a few of her clients. Inexplicably, right at the beginning of the novel, two participants immediately drop out. I thought it was strange to even introduce these characters and then remove them – better to have edited the idea out in the first place because it did not add to the story in any way.

The four main characters – a white male, a Japanese American female, an African American female and a Hispanic male, head off for a four day hiking trip. There is some back story provided about each. There are some stereotypes inserted into each of these people: the white male has experience in the outdoors, the Hispanic and African American characters are urban only with little or no outdoors experience and some fears around the journey and the Japanese American is the fitness instructor who acts with a mysterious mix of being a survivalist and also talks about disappearing into the wilderness. It would have been interesting to see some of the stereotypes turned on their heads.

At any rate, the first part of the story is almost a Waldenesque meditation on each person’s connection with the natural world. A very calm, peaceful setting is established and the reader falls into the rhythm of the hike as they traverse the wilderness. There is definitely a sense of peace that reminded me of Walden pond and Thoreau as I read.

About halfway through the book, the whole thing is turned on its head as the hikers are taken at gunpoint – first by Mexican cartel members protecting their pot farm and then by white supremacists, who kill the Mexican guard and then take the hikers hostage as they protect their own pot farm and use the hikers as slave labor to destroy the cartel farm.

A series of action packed events occur that are potentially life changing for each of the hikers. There would be too many spoilers at this point so I will save all those twists and turns for the readers.

But as I indicated at the beginning, the conclusion is strangely dissatisfying. For me, part of that is because I have been on some intense hiking and backpacking adventures with people I didn’t know and it creates bonds that I feel are much stronger than the ones in the book appear to be at the end. I think the idea is there but the feeling doesn’t come through in the story. The other issue for me was that there were new story ideas introduced at the end that were really stories on their own and the threads of a whole new series of ideas. It didn’t make sense.

I was never comfortable with the fitness instructors/hike leader’s character. In fact, from the earliest descriptions right through to the end, I felt that she was almost mentally unstable and I would never have set out on that hike with her at all. A hike leader should encourage and inspire participants and would never push inexperienced hikers like these beyond their capable limits. In fact, it is possible that if the characters had more experience, it could have been an even more challenging story between all of the characters. One could almost call this book Deliverance Lite.

That is not to say there are not a lot of important issues that come up for discussion here. One is of course that of race and the stereotypes of what being “outdoorsy” means and race in relation to hiking, camping etc. Another is the divide between the urban/suburban experience and that of the natural world. Set in Los Angeles with the Sierra Nevada mountains only a few hours away, it shows that we as humans in some ways have strayed far from nature but in fact, nature is close to many urban centers and can reclaim quickly.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and hike and have the luxury of nature all around me. There have been several murders in the mountains and this book made me ponder criminal enterprise in using the national forests as pot farms. Cartels and organized crime are no doubt ruthless in protecting those interests and it made me wonder how often innocent parties have stumbled onto these enterprises and been seriously injured or murdered in the act of doing so. To that end, this book offers an excellent jumping off point to discuss that issue.

It is also offers good discussion points about how we pursue our livings in modern society and the cost to our mental and physical health in so doing. Each of the characters discovers in the course of the trip that there are compromises we make in life in the pursuit of money. One character had given up his connections to the natural world because of the time required for his corporate gig. Another realized that while he strove for a white collar living, he wasn’t living a balanced life and that money will come and go quickly. The discussion point here is about balance in life and that balance includes understanding, incorporating and investing ourselves and our children in the natural world. The questions around conservation and ecology that continue to arise in each generation are important questions.

Despite the unevenness of the book, I enjoyed the ideas. I loved the discussion points that were raised and I have to admit, the twists and turns made this book so interesting that I read it in two days. This is a great read for those who want to ponder thoughts about the natural world and for those who are in book clubs or discussion groups because there are a lot of weighty issues to discuss here.

The Lions of Lucerne (Scot Harvath #1) by Brad Thor

The two stars I am giving this book is for a plot that moves along and is interesting enough to keep you reading. It is a typical airport thriller and is adequate in that sense.

What I disliked about this story was the main character and the dialogue. I can’t stand Scot Harvath. He is a poorly written, poorly constructed stereotype. It is like the author watched a really good James Bond movie and then tried to apply those characteristics to his main character and failed abysmally. Harvath is a Secret Service agent who in the first chapter of the book allows almost 30 agents under his supervision to be massacred and the President of the United States to be kidnapped.

After saving the President’s daughter by being the only Secret Service agent to survive an avalanche, he bucks every order given by his superiors and heads out on a mission to recover the POTUS. In so doing, he is able to foil every attempt at assassination that comes his way while also outrunning the FBI, CIA and Secret Service who also want to reel him back in and hold him accountable.

I knew the story had jumped the rails early when Harvath, a Navy Seal who also happened to be a former Olympic skier, was caught in an avalanche without a recovery beacon. There is no way that a Secret Service agent would allow a president and his family to ski a black diamond run known as “The Death Chute” without having rescue beacons on everyone.

As a Navy Seal and member of the Secret Service, he would have had a very real sense of discipline and grasp on chain of command. Even James Bond was written with that aspect in his personality. Though Harvath is a quintessentially American cowboy, he lacks any sense of discipline and therefore any sense of realism. He spent the entire book going off half cocked and telling everyone off.

To that end, the author attempted to have Harvath begin or end battle scenes, fight scenes or kills with a quip. Again, that may work in a James Bond movie but read Fleming – Bond isn’t written that way and it works even less for this character. I have to admit, by the end of the book I was actually rooting for the assassins to take this ass out!

He also made a mockery of the Swiss agent that ended up helping Harvath. Aside from concentrating on her “beauty”, she kept getting into situations where Harvath would inevitably save her. Please. If she was a trained agent, she would be much better than the way she was written and would surely know what the six o’clock position is when working with a partner.

I don’t know if the author has a deal with business but the number of times labels and brand names were dropped into the story was excessive. In addition, there were plenty of loose ends and gaps in the story that made me wonder why they were introduced at all.

Of course the end result is that it is all wrapped up in a nice bow with Harvath getting a promotion and the stage being set for more ridiculous stories to be presumably bought by Tom Cruise to star in at a later date as agent Scot Harvath.

I’m always looking for a storyteller with great action and a gripping story. I think I’m going to keep looking. This just didn’t hit the mark for me

Let the Devil Sleep (Dave Gurney #3) by John Verdon

I guess I joined the Dave Gurney series at volume three. I don’t think this was a disadvantage however. The story gave enough background that you could get the sense of this character without necessarily reading the other books. I enjoyed the book so much that I would not hesitate to recommend readers to pick up the other two.

I am still trying to put my finger on exactly what it is about this novel that has me thinking about it almost a week after finishing it. The main character, Dave Gurney, is a retired New York City detective that now lives upstate and is recovering from gunshot wounds received in the line of duty.

He is drawn into a support role for the daughter of an acquaintance who is currently working on a documentary about a serial murderer called “The Good Shepherd” who has been at large for the last ten years. The student who is producing this documentary has become embroiled with both a psycho ex-boyfriend and a tabloid driven television channel called RAM who made its reputation and fortune on 24 hour news coverage of the “The Good Shepherd” murders ten years earlier.

Unlike many detective/mystery/thriller novels, the twists and turns were so deftly executed that I was not able to pin down the “who done it” until it was revealed. Normally these things are so telegraphed by the last third of the novel that most readers can figure it out. There were plenty of options but still, the answer was not easily discerned.

There is a depth in the characters that was somehow different. I cannot put my finger on it but I can tell you that I would put the novel down to go to sleep and find myself picking it back up – sometimes after only a few hours of sleep- driven by a curiosity to finish this book.

There was one weakness that takes a star away from the rating. There were a few interesting story lines that were pursued in the course of the story that were wrapped up rather quickly and superficially at the end of the book. If the author was under pressure to limit pages, then I say shame on the editors. I think those story lines were worth more than the quick wrap up they got.

Overall, an entertaining novel with a certain indefinable something that I loved.

Beyond Belief: My secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

Beyond Belief is an interesting read. The four star rating is for content. This is not a perfectly authored book but it is an incredibly honest and detailed look at the cult of Scientology. I would add this statement as a rider: if you are a Scientologist, you can consider me a suppressed person and not bother to email me a litany of verbal abuse about my opinion and your support of Scientology. I fully admit to not only not believing in it but viewing it as a pernicious abusive cult.

One thing this book cleared up for me was why celebrities seem to be attracted to Scientology. Essentially it is because of the heavy handed rules, security measures and that the abuses don’t happen to them because of the huge amounts of money they donate to the cause and the celebrity Scientology center which is a long way from what the average member sees and experiences.

Sadly, the woman brought up in this cult, Jenna Miscavige Hill, started out as a child in Scientology when her parents and grandparents became heavy Scientologists in the early 1970’s. She is also the niece of David Miscavige, who was mentored by L. Ron Hubbard and is currently the head of Scientology.

Although they call this a church, I am of the firm belief that their 501 status should be revoked immediately. They basically get as much money as possible and those in the upper echelons of the cult live high on the hog while those below live in substandard conditions – food, shelter and clothing and even those at barely subsistence level. They are grossly underpaid for the work they do and that work is not just foisted on the adults but on the children as well. Incredibly, this woman worked as the medical officer at what Scientologists called “The Ranch” but which was essentially a child labor camp. She was seven years old.

The inner workings are exposed in this book and they are bizarre to say the least. Everything from addressing both males and females as Mr. and Sir, to splitting up families – parents from children and husbands from wives. Classic brainwashing tactics. Divide and conquer.  There is hard labor and physical abuse as punishments, endless auditing sessions which are really used to obtain secrets about individuals to be used at a later date when individuals start to realize what is actually happening and attempt to pull away from the cult.

Indirectly, it even explains what happened with Tom Cruise and his two marriages. When the upper echelons of Scientology realized that Nicole Kidman, whose father was a psychologist, started to succeed in the deprogramming of Tom Cruise, he was immediately grabbed by David Miscavige and his marriage was dissolved and the children they adopted, taken, and brought into Scientology to be influenced to stay away from her. The same thing was happening to Katie Holmes who contacted her father to remove she and her daughter from the clutches of the cult.

Jenna Miscavige Hill went through hell and it took her years to separate from the cult even though they made every attempt to keep her there. Her parents, siblings and grandparents have all left Scientology and after she was gone with her husband, whose parents are still public Scientologists, she was informed of many of the abuses and the controls she was subjected to by her uncle and others in the cult.

The book contains an intricate glossary of Scientology terms as well. There are some that are made up words and sound ridiculous when rolled around on the tongue. My favorite was “enturbulated” which supposedly equates with being upset. The glossary goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. It would be highly comedic if it weren’t so sad.

I can certainly say this after reading this book: L Ron Hubbard was an amazing cult leader and con man. He was able to invent the craziest movement ever, get it a nonprofit status and call it a church (which it bears no resemblance to whatsoever) and keep it going long after his death by telling members he would be back in a new body and that they needed to sign a contract for a billion years. I feel terrible for those whose lives have become enmeshed with this cult and who have lost family members and friends to it.

Good has come out of it. Jenna, her husband and others who have successfully left, have started speaking out and providing support for others. Those folks are going to need it. This book is a great insight and for those who who saw Going Clear this is a wonderful bookend.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

A posthumously published work is like a double edged sword for both reader and  author. For fans, if the work is not “up to par” it can be a disappointing experience leaving a sense of dissatisfaction and comparisons with other more polished work. For authors, it may have been a personal piece meant only for them to enjoy or a draft for a future novel still in the rough and nowhere ready for publication.

Pirate Latitudes was dug out of Michael Crichton’s filing cabinet after his death.  Yes, it is not as polished as his more famous work but I also understand that it is most likely a draft meant to be subject to extensive editing and re-writing.  You know what? I didn’t care.

There is something fun about the pirate story. This is very traditional pirate stuff. An English outpost in Jamaica with a Governor-General fond of drinking and privateering is approached by Captain Hunter. A Spanish galleon located on a neighboring island is said to contain a mother lode. It lays at anchor in a heavily fortified bay. Hunter is given the o.k. by the GG with the understanding that he himself, as well as the Crown will both get their share.

Hunter goes about the town under cover of darkness gathering together a crew of specialists to help him undertake this daring expedition, considered impossible by more conventional privateers. These specialists include Bassa the Moor – the brawn; Lazue a female pirate with a knack for navigation; Black Eye aka “The Jew”, a merchant with a sideline in explosives and a Frenchman named Sanson who may be an ally or an enemy – only time will tell.

On their journey they are faced with all manner of obstacles. Cazalla, a Spanish pirate who controls the fortress at Mantaceros where the galleon is anchored, must be faced first. He captures their ship on the way to the raid and again at the fort during the capture of the galleon. Storms in the Caribbean waters of a mild nature right up to hurricane force winds force them to negotiate a treacherous reef to find shelter.

Arawak cannibals on an unnamed island and a kracken, both, attempt to take the crew and they are further hindered by having to rescue the Governor-General’s niece who had been captured by Cazalla and who was also was dabbling in witchcraft – a hobby she picked up during a stint in France.

Upon their arrival back to home port the Governor-General has been imprisoned in a coup by some unscrupulous underlings and more adventures abound as the crew attempts to save themselves from unfriendly government troops, unsavory politicians and each other.

Yes, this is not the most polished novel, but it was a great story, a quick read and I could only imagine what may have become of it had Crichton been able to work with it as he probably wanted. This was never really meant for readers – I’m sure the publishing house was just looking for that final pay day from an author that was gone too soon.  Enjoy it for what it is and appreciate that Crichton took the time to write it.

Flypaper by C.K. Vile

Flypaper is a strange little novel. It is creepy in a good way, not very long and has an aspect to it that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering how this is all going to end. It is the first book in what is going to be an ongoing series of stories about a writer holed up in the woods in small town U.S. A., trying to write horror stories.

Nick Dawkins is not well liked by the locals except for the local grocers. He is a thorn in the side of the sheriff’s department due to a constant stream of phone calls reporting nuisances to his residence. As the book opens, a crazed fan has invaded Nick’s sanctuary, not for the first time.

There is also a creepy group of followers who were kicked off the writer’s fan site due to the explicit and outrageous ideas and opinions they express about Nick. They have a particular brand of fandom that goes way beyond what is considered average or normal and is actually very scary.

A super fan manages to ensnare Nick and a number of things happen that get progressively more weird and stalker-ish in nature. No spoilers but the end of this book opens the door to what will be the next in this series of books.

I’m not sure if I will get the next book or not but it was just strange enough and eccentric enough to pique my interest and anything is possible!

The Shroud Key (A Chase Baker Thriller) by Vincent Zandri

Do you love Dan Brown? Do you love Indiana Jones? Then do not waste another minute and grab The Shroud Key. You will not be disappointed. In fact, this story was so good that I finished the book in one sitting. I just could not put it down.

Chase Baker is a man for all seasons. He has worked as an excavator for archaeologists, has written books and done a million other things that take him around the world. As the book unfolds he is living in Florence, Italy working on his next novel. To make ends meet he conducts city tours and ends up in a fracas with a man in the first few pages. This lands him in the local lock up and the Captain running it has a proposition for Chase – find a missing archaeologist or be deported.

Chase loves a challenge and heads for his home to begin preparing. Before he even leaves he is confronted by Israeli security and the Vatican’s private police force. Why? Because what Chase and the archaeologist are looking for are the bones of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Chase believes they should be available to the public to gaze upon; the Vatican wants them hidden because to expose them will diminish Jesus as a divine and mystical being; and the Israeli’s want to ensure that the bones remain in the Holy Land.

In addition to those pursuing him, Chase is joined by the archaeologists ex-wife – a professor with deep pockets due to family wealth. He also has a fixer, located in Florence but whose reach extends well beyond Italy. Both have their own agendas in assisting Chase and those unfold as the story does.

So the pursuit commences. Along the way we discover the many viewpoints of the characters to this mission they have undertaken. There are many scrapes to be caught in and got out of, there are a number of characters who assist or hinder the mission and there is non-stop action and some very good, snappy dialogue between the characters.

There are also many twists and turns that are unexpected and keep the story moving. The twists are good ones. They are not telegraphed and it is not easy to guess at what will happen next. That is one reason I could not put it down. The other was that the writing is so good – really good. It is crisp, it is focused and at the end, when the long awaited result is finally achieved, the writing is moving.

5 stars and no regrets in buying such a good book. I may even read this again.