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A. Ross (Washington, DC)

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BUtterfield 8
BUtterfield 8
by John O'Hara
Edition: Paperback
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Surpirsingly Fresh After 70 Years, July 15 2004
This review is from: BUtterfield 8 (Paperback)
Sparked by the mysterious real life drowning in 1931 of a young New York woman who was later revealed to be a bit of a good time girl as well as victim of childhood sexual abuse, O'Hara's second novel remains remarkably fresh and readable, with surprising sensibilities for the time toward topics such as pedophilia and alcoholism. Of course, alcoholism is something O'Hara had first-hand experience with. A contemporary of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and an intimate of Dorothy Parker, he was a renown nasty drunk, with a penchant for three day benders. This experience serves him well in this study of Gloria Wandrous, a pretty, promiscuous woman who spends a good part of her young life trying to drink her demons away in Manhattan's Prohibition-era speakeasies. Her demons stem from being sexually abused as a child, a trauma that led to her sexual promiscuity when she is more mature (interestingly, recent studies have revealed a significant correlation between sexual abuse as a child and promiscuity later in life).
Gloria is what used to be called "damaged goods"óunderneath her brittle shell and drunken pain, she is smart, kind and caring. Despite these fine qualities, she's emotionally unequipped to deal with true love and tries to run away from it, as she does from everything else. On the first page we learn that she will meet an unhappy ending, and then the story begins with Gloria waking in the apartment of her latest one-night stand and walking out with the man's wife's fur coat. This spur of the moment decision has a series of repercussions, which play out over the next few days as a whole slew of characters intersect and the threads of the simple plot are brought together. The book's main flaw is that there are far to many of these characters coming and going throughout the pages, and one needs a scorecard to keep track. This may have been a result of his playing to his strengths, which were a keen eye and the ability to quickly capture a person in a few lines. Much of this skill is directed in a strident satire of the upper classes (which he had a strange envy/hate relationship). A good deal of effort is expended in portraying their lives as either endlessly trivial or monstrously prurient. And it is significant that it is eminently respectable men who abuse Gloria in her youth.
This is not a cautionary tale of a young woman corrupted by the big city, but a lament for the effects of a monstrous crime perpetrated against a child. The style is very simple and direct, which is perhaps why it remains fresh and contemporary. It is remarkably frank about sexual matters considering it was written seventy years ago by a mainstream popular writeróbeyond the simple promiscuity, group and public sex acts are described. It's not the most fascinating book, but it can definitely be recommended to those with an interest in New York City, Prohibition, or sexual abuse. There is a fair amount of ambiguity in some of the episodes, and most especially in the ending, so those who need clean resolutions are hereby warned.

The Book of Ralph: A Novel
The Book of Ralph: A Novel
by John McNally
Edition: Hardcover
17 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Book, July 8 2004
Several years ago I came across McNally's short-story collection Troublemakers, and enjoyed it immensely. Three of the stories from that collection (The Vomitorium, Smoke, The Grand Illusion) reappear here in slightly different form as chapters, and almost every other chapter has appeared in various lit journals or alternative media. Indeed the book is really an anthology of related stories about one character which share a tone that mixes humor, pathos, and keen observation. Those looking for a strong narrative framework may be disappointed, but this free-form approach allows McNally to create a series of extremely strong stories that form a very compelling coming of age story.
The book is about Hank, a 13-year-old kid growing up in southwest Chicago in the late '70s, and develops his friendship with Ralph, who is two years older. Hank is a prototypical lower-middle class white kid, average grades, unremarkable looks, dead center in the pecking order, and nothing to distinguish himself except being friends with Ralph. Ralph, on the other hand, is known throughout the junior high and neighborhood as someone to avoid at all costs. Without firm parental authority at home, he's turned into a bit of a bully and small-time juvenile delinquent, but is also wildly imaginative, and constantly dreaming up bizarre schemes to raise money and extract revenge on the world. Their friendship is unlikely, and Hank ascribes it to an innate politeness. From their first encounter, Hank has always been too polite to reject Ralph, and so he becomes a kind of default sidekick. This creates a tension that runs throughout the first section: will Hank ever be able to break free of Ralph, or will he get caught up in and dragged down by the effects of the older boy's wildness?
The book's style is very direct and full of satirical and deadpan humor. Hank and Ralph are vivid fictional versions of instantly recognizable types that will be familiar to anyone who's spent their early teen years in America. Beyond Hank and Ralph, most of the supporting characters are equally vivid. Hank's father is a factory worker at the 3M plant who's always drinking and thinking about how the world is trying to screw him over. Hank's sister Kelly is a sardonic mystery who can't wait to grow up and move on to her real life. Ralph's 20ish cousin Norm and his best-friend Kenny are the quintessential Midwestern metalhead hoodlums who hang out with younger kids and inexplicably involve them in their own bizarre schemes.
The first thirteen chapters (over half the book), are set in that late '70s period, and are only connected in time and place, with little if any linkage between stories. Topics include a scheme to sell a trunk full of stolen Tootsie Rolls, Hank's kleptomaniac grandmother, a creepy ex-hippie record store owner, Hank's father's attempt to win a neighborhood Christmas decoration contest using salvaged junk, a trip to the shopping center, a trip to the drive-in, a trip across town to spy on an alleged fellatrix, a day dressed up as Big Bird to promote a new auto dealership, dressing up for Halloween as Gene Simmons, trailing a nerdy collector of Star Wars cards to bite his ear off, falling in love with CB radio, and other random encounters with life. Although set in the past and ripe with period details about clothing, pop culture (Styx, Kiss, etc), and cars, this isn't particularly a nostalgia-driven story. Rather, it shares a deft sense of discovery tinged with loss of innocence, in the vein of books like Tom Perrota's "Bad Haircut" and Chris Fuhrman's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys." At the end of the first section, the relationship between the two boys comes to its natural conclusion, and the curtain is drawn.
The book then flashes back to a brief interlude in 1975, where Hank encounters Ralph for the first time. What at first seems like an odd choice (why wouldn't this come first?), the story would lack meaning without the reader knowing the friendship that would later develop between the two boys. A final 75 pages picks up the story of Hank and Ralph in 2001, when they bump into each other on the street. This reacquaintence comes at a particularly low point for Hank, and he is rapidly drawn back into Ralph's world ó which hasn't changed much. Living at home and subsisting on income derived from selling fake "Made in Occupied Japan" items on eBay, and a job cleaning up crime scenes, Ralph is same as he ever was. Soon, Hank is living a strange life as sidekick again, and is slowly trying to rebuild his life. This section is rather more madcap and improbable than the rest of the book, but it makes a hilarious and kind of sweet sense as McNally ends things on just the right note. Full of compassion and sharp-eyed wit, this work confirms the promise of McNally's first collection and leaves one anxious for more.

Doomsday Book
Doomsday Book
by Connie Willis
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.82
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4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, If Not Brilliant, July 4 2004
Time-travel fiction is its own subgenre of science fiction, and pretty much anyone who reads sci-fi has their own take on it. Willis adopts an unusual and refreshingly simple approach to time-travel in her lengthy award-winner. Instead of the usual questions about paradoxes or nefarious schemes to profit from time-travel, she sets it up as a smart system that protects itself from any paradox and abuse. Simply put, nothing that will cause a paradox or severely influence events can travel through "the net", as the system simply doesn't allow it in either direction. And since one can only go back in time, and one can't bring stuff back from the past, there's not much utility to it other than for scholarly research. Some reviewers have complained that "the net" would never be put to such a routine purpose as observing daily life in the Dark Ages, but they forget that the system basically doesn't allow one to travel back to critical events or to meet major historical figures. Fortunately, Willis doesn't waste much time trying to cobble together a technical or philosophical basis for any of this, it's just the way it works, and that's all one needs to get along with the story. Of course, readers who prefer more science in their science-fiction are likely to be a bit disappointed.
The story is set in Oxford around Christmastime in 2054, and it's a future that's awfullyóindeed implausiblyósimilar to our present. Even though mobile phones were in existence at the time of the book's writing, they don't exist in Willis' 2054 (much less pagers, PDAs, or any other wireless communication), which is either strangely short-sighted, or a very weak contrivance. A great deal of the story is propelled and/or prolonged by the inability of characters to communicate in a timely manner, and had the protagonist had a simple cell phone at hand, many problems would have been averted. Indeed, much of the plot has a kind of "comedy of errors" aspect to it that the reader will either go along with or be driven crazy by. It more or less works in the context of Willis' whole approach, which is a kind of affectionate mimicry of an old-fashioned British formalism.
The gist of the story is pretty simple, since time travel is basically so useless, it's become a sort of historical archeological tool. The acting head of history at Oxford has decided to use the absence of the dean to launch a female graduate student back to pre-plague 14th-century England. Her advisor is all against this, but she proceeds, and lo and behold, something goes awry and she is stuck there. Not only is she stuck in the past, she's stuck in the wrong past! A technician error has dropped her into the middle of the Black Death! But it's even worse than that, 'cause the technician falls ill with a mysterious virus before he can tell anyone what has happened! The book is a compendium of missed connections, misinformation, and general confusion, which can get a bit tiresome.
The book then unfolds over several hundred pages to tell parallel stories. One is about the grad student stuck in the midst of the plague, and how she handles life in the 14th-century amongst a small village of "contemps". Meanwhile, in Oxford, the mysterious virus is striking down people left and right, impeding the advisor's attempt to figure out what went wrong and how to get the student back. The 14th-century story is clearly more compelling, as Willis uses it to dispense five years of her research into life during Medieval times. The social life, customs, costumes, and details are remarkable, as we see the plague devastate a small community. It's not a pretty sight, and gets rather grim at times. The story at the other end of time is quite different in tone, attempting to even the tone with a more comic approach. I use the word "comic" very loosely here, since much of Willis' attempt to lighten the proceedings are lame. For example, the nagging Mrs. Gadson, or the nasty Mr. Gilchrist, or the sly stud William.
The book is strong is showing the effects of an epidemic, both historical, and in a semi-contemporary setting. Willis is clearly trying to say a little something about human nature, and how we act in such crises and breakdowns of social order, but it's nothing particularly striking (This topic has been perhaps most ably handled by Nobel-winner JosÈ Saramago in his brilliant work Blindness). Similarly, there is a none-to-subtle critique of organized religion at work, again, both in the past and the present. The book isn't helped by occasionally placid pacing, and a whimper of an ending which leaves at least two major plot points unresolved and fails to provide the satisfying denouement such a lengthy work deserves. And yet despite these various weaknesses, the book is a mostly enjoyable page-turner as long as one isn't searching for epic quests or adventuresome escapades.

The Beardless Warriors: A Novel of World War II
The Beardless Warriors: A Novel of World War II
by Richard Matheson
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.12
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4.0 out of 5 stars Newsflash: War is Hell, July 4 2004
Before Matheson became a prolific writer of science fiction stories, novels, Twilight Zone episodes, and films, he served as a replacement infantryman in World War II. Some fifteen years later, he set down his experiences as a novel about a teenager sent to the front lines for the Allied advance into Germany. The story covers the first two weeks of Private Everett Hackermeyer's war, as he joins an understrength squad under the leadership of a grizzled Sergeant who acts as a father figure. But having been abandoned by his drunk father to be raised by his nasty uncle, Hackermeyer has no conception of what a father figure is, or really of what it means when people are nice to him. The result is that when thrown into the tight camaraderie of small unit combat, Hackermeyer is often confused, and retreats into his head to analyze the meaning behind every gesture and phrase directed at him.
He survives his initial baptism by fire, and accidentally discovers that he has an actual talent for killing the enemy. The question becomes, will he be able to operate as a good soldier, or will his inner demons lead him into increasingly risky and bloodthirsty acts? He's a bit of a stock character, the poor kid raised by wolves and never given a chance, who blossoms under a firm and wise guiding hand. But his mental issues keep him from becoming the kind of everyman hero common to World War II stories. His fellow privates are also somewhat stock figures: the sardonic joker/college boy from California, the bumbling idiot, the religious nut, and so on. The Sergeant is an incredibly cliche figure, who even offers Hackermeyer a job on his ranch, should they ever make it back home. These character deficiencies aside, the book is notable for its ability to put the reader in the middle of the terror and tedium that was World War II. The descriptions of shelling are truly horrific, and the chaos of small scale combat really comes to life. Matheson clearly pulls no punches in his description of what it meant to be on the front line, and the fear that inspired.
I read this at the same time as watching the "Band of Brothers" miniseries, and found it very complementary. Both do an excellent job at showing the mix of boredom and horror that infantrymen faced, however this book emphasizes how utterly alone each man is on the battlefield, while the miniseries (per its title), emphasizes the camaraderie. Ultimately the book is somewhat cliche across the board, but still well worth reading if you're interested in World War II.

Just Like a River
Just Like a River
by Barakat Maher
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.64
11 used & new from CDN$ 1.86

4.0 out of 5 stars Another Lost Generation?, June 30 2004
This review is from: Just Like a River (Paperback)
Originally published some twenty years ago, this touchstone of modern Syrian literature became popular for its articulation of frustrations in Syrian society. The author is a member of the so-called "Sixties Generation", whose attitudes were formed during the rise of Arab nationalism and socialism, and twenty years later found most of their heady idealism unrealized. The novella's themes are applicable to many Third World countries where traditional values are in transition, and the optimism of the post-colonial era has given way to resignation to the stifling rule of military autocrats. Migration is one such theme, as those of the '60s generation moved from the village to the city in search of opportunity. This echoed more problematically in the '80s, as the next generation looks to move overseas for opportunity. This is linked to another theme, the increase in education coupled with the lack of opportunities for the newly educated.
Set in the early 1980sówhen threat of war with Israel loomed large in day-to-day lifeóthe story is told in a social-realist style, in which a different character is followed in each chapter. The core of the book is Chief Sergeant Yunis, a father of four whose family becomes emblematic of Syrian society. His career in the army has created a fairly comfortable middle-class life for his children. The eldest son has been studying medicine in Russia for years, and Yunis longs for him to return to the family's bosom. As in many traditional societies, the parents' most fervent hopes are lodged in the eldest son, who is expected to provide comfort and support in the parents' old age. But since this son is absent, Yunis projects some of these hopes onto his daughter Dallal and the dream of living as a large family back in his ancestral village. However, Dallal has been raised to be a modern, progressive, college-educated woman, and is struggling with what that means in terms of sexuality and personal freedom. She is at college, and is ostensibly being raised as a progressive woman, and yet when push comes to shove, her parents revert to traditional paradigms of the role of a daughter. The middle son is an aimless youth who dropped out of school and joined the army, and the youngest is still a child.
Next to Yunis, the most important character is Yusef, a respectable teacher in a small town who is courting Dallal. He is who visits Damascus frequently and stays with his friend Zuhayr, an activist turned journalist. The two of them are well-educated semi-intellectuals who feel trapped in the provincialism of life in Asad's Syria. Their cafÈ conversations and late-night ambling around to movie houses and bookstores reflect this alienation while bringing the city to life. Yusef's ambivalence with life is reflected in his awkward courtship of Dallal, which lurches fitfully along to its inevitable end. These are modern people, but they're not sure how to become modern lovers. Ultimately, the book is about them, and seems to be foretell another lost generation.

Sarajevo Marlboro
Sarajevo Marlboro
by Miljenko Jergovic
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.95
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4.0 out of 5 stars Sarajevo Calling, June 28 2004
This review is from: Sarajevo Marlboro (Paperback)
This debut collection of stories from journalist Jergovic was first published a decade ago in his native Croatia (he has since written nine more books). Then in his mid-20s, he lived in besieged Sarajevo for the bulk of the war, reporting and chronicling the human suffering he witnessed. These twenty-nine stories are drawn from his experiences, and yet are not the standard-issue thinly veiled reportage than so much wartime fiction ends up as. Rather, these are brief character studies and snapshots into daily life, lives where the war has changed everything, and yet must continue. Each is only a few pages, moving quickly to the point, and then ending. Fatalism runs heavily throughout the book, as do the obvious themes of displacement, confusion, anxiety, and occasional absurdity. Although each is distinct and precise, these brief snapshots do tend to blur together into a larger picture when read as an ensemble. The collection is probably best approached as something to dip into once a week, and then contemplate. Otherwise, the stories of suffering and surviving tend to cancel each other out and their impact is greatly diminished.
The strident introduction by Ammiel Alcalay rather oddly asserts that translated works such as this can provide only an out of context and fragmentary taste of a culture and place, and that to really "get" a book like this, you need to posses all kinds of background context such as the social and political history of Yugoslavia as well as an understanding of the relationship between performance spaces, art galleries, visual artist, musicians, and filmmakers, and so forth. It's a bizarre way to introduce a bookóby stating that the reader has no hope of empathy. And this is after bemoaning how books that do get translated in the West are those that reinforce prevailing Western prejudices about a culture! It is true that the reader without any knowledge whatsoever of the war in Bosnia will read the stories differently than an expert in Yugoslav history and all the cultures thereof. But I'm not sure that the "naive" reader won't actually get more out of the stories and be affected more significantly.

The Matter of Desire: A Novel
The Matter of Desire: A Novel
by Edmundo Paz Soldan
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.50
30 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Same Old Themes in a New Package, June 23 2004
There has long been a dearth of fiction from Bolivia available in English, so this recent translation from one of Bolivia's foremost contemporary writers is very welcome. The translation is very smooth and readable , which even attempts at times to recreate "Spanglish" dialogue where sentences start in English and switch to Spanish halfway through (and vice versa). Soldan is part of the "McOndo" literary movement, which seeks to move Latin American fiction away from magical realism and into a reality where North American pop culture reigns. Indeed, one of the book's themes is the extent to which American pop culture has become the lingua franca of Latin America, and how although the intelligentsia moves easily between the North and the South, this comes at the steep price of a confused identity.
The narrator is emblematic of this, and interestingly bears several similarities with the author (they are about the same age and both are professors at liberal arts colleges in upstate New York). The story is told by the professor taking a leave of absence from his school and returning to Bolivia to live with his uncle in a fictional city (the setting of other works by Soldan). His ostensible aim is to do research for a book about his fatheróa famous militant insurgent killed by the army in the '70sóhowever he is also running away from a torrid affair with a student who is affianced. These two threads form the main plotlines that drive the narrative, which are underpinned by repeated references to puzzles (the narrator's uncle is a popular crossword creator) and hidden messages.
On the one hand, the book is highly accessible for Western readers, with a great deal of flashbacking to life in a thinly veiled Ithaca, and a life in Bolivia that revolves around trips to shopping malls, trendy nightclubs, the internet, iBooks, and music. On the other hand, the narrator's dilemmas are pretty old hat. The professor who finds himself obsessed with a beautiful student. The educated third-worlder torn between the comforts of life in the North and the nostalgia of life in the South. The young man seeking to understand his dead father and discover the "truth" about him. The academic who's lost the drive to play the tenure game. We've seen all this before, and Soldan doesn't add anything particularly new to the mix. Sure, there's some decent writing about a sex (always a tough nut to crack), and there are a few twists and turnsóbut even these are pretty well telegraphed. It's not a bad book, just not particularly compelling or original or insightful. The people who will get the most out of it are probably those for whom the notion that there are people outside the West who like to download music and carry their iPods everywhere is a stunning revelation.

Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction
Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction
by Catriona Kelly
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.76
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not for Novices, June 23 2004
If you're looking for a basic introduction to Russian literature, this is probably not a very good place to start. Now, I know the title has the words "Russian Literature" and "Introduction" in itóbut don't let that mislead you. Kelly has purposely set out to avoid the "standard" approach to the topic, which she says tends to take one of three forms: a chronological canon of writers and their works, a chronological trip through literary movements and cultural topics of relevance, or a more personal essay of appreciation. In retrospect, I now recognize that, not having read a great deal of Russian literature, I was looking for a mix of the canon and the literary movements. Instead, what I found in Kelly's work was a confusing attempt to attack the material by using the "Russian Shakespeare" (Aleksander Pushkin) as a framing device.
Through the seven essayish chapters, Pushkin is used as a starting point for the discussion, and then various other writers and themes are introduced in relation to his work or attitudes. As one jacket blurb puts it, this is "an unexpected approach to the subject". And as another blurb puts it, "you may love it, perhaps loathe it, or feel perplexed, but not remain indifferent." Well, mark me down for perplexed. I'm not at all opposed to this approach to the topic, it just doesn't seem particularly well suited as an introduction. It's hard to imagine anyone without a solid grounding in the major Russian writers being able to summon up love or hate for this brief work. It simply assumes too much familiarity on behalf of the reader to be of any utility to the newcomer to Russian literature. So, perhaps I'll return to it in 15 years, after I've had a chance to read some of the vital works, but in the meantime, I'm still trying to learn what those might be.

Good Cripple
Good Cripple
by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.16
21 used & new from CDN$ 6.06

3.0 out of 5 stars But What Does It Mean?, June 17 2004
This review is from: Good Cripple (Paperback)
This sparsely written novella appears to be fairly straightforward on the surface. The indolent 20ish son of a wealthy Guatemalan is kidnapped and held ransom by a criminal gang. When his father doesn't pay up after they send a toe, they cut the son's foot off and send it to his girlfriend. The father pays up, but the gang's plan doesn't totally work out... The son is eventually released and spends the next decade moving around the world with his wife, seeking happiness. Then, one day, he sees one of his kidnapper/mutilators. Will he seek revenge or won't he?
Rosa attempts to liven up this simple tale by tweaking the structure. The book begins with a 15 page "Part One " which itself starts with one of the kidnappers having just met with his victim some eleven years after the event. Chronologically, this should come at the end, and I'm not sure why Rosa swapped this around, other than to try and inject a little more tension into the narrative. Part Two starts with the kidnapping and proceeds from there to catch up to Part One. Which is not to say Rosa explains everything. A few important items go unexplained, for example, who is the lawyer in Part One? And did the father receive the toe or not?
More importantly, what does it all mean? Is the victim's decision regarding revenge meant to have some larger meaning in the context of Guatemalan or Central American politics or society? If so, what is that meaning? Or perhaps his actions (or lack thereof) are in some way meant to be emblematic of Central American elites in general? The publishers imply a deep allegory at work in the book, but I'm still waiting to discover what it is. I should mention that I have little background knowledge of Guatemala or the region, which may explain my not getting it. Or maybe there's nothing to get... In any event, the writing is simple, sparse (or as the publisher would have it, "muscular"), and quite readable.

Warning of War: A Novel of the North China Marines
Warning of War: A Novel of the North China Marines
by James Brady
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.78
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2.0 out of 5 stars Great Idea Poorly Executed, June 17 2004
The premise for this WWII novel is excellent, however the execution is awful. This is just about the worst written historical novel I've ever read, and I've read a bunch. The story is based on a Marine Corps myth, which the author notes there is absolutely no record of, or any of the participants, in any USMC records. A number of readers seem to have totally missed this distinction, and think it really happened! Oh well... the story starts by establishing wartime Shanghai, the far eastern city of spies, where American soldiers mix with British administrators, exiled White Russians, and diplomats of all shades and stripes. When a warning of imminent war with Japan is sent out to all American forces in the weeks prior to Pearl Harbor, it becomes clear that the American units will need to retreat from China, which is largely under Japanese occupation. Although most of these troops are concentrated in various bases, there are a few isolated outposts. This is where Cpt. Billy Port, USMC comes in.
The younger son of a prominent and somewhat notorious Boston family, Port is highly regarded in the Marine Corps for his works with Gen. "Chesty" Puller in Central America. The first part of the book establishes the lush life of Shanghai and his comfortable living, including an "arrangement" with a beautiful young White Russian exile woman, and weekly tennis matches with an American-born, UCLA educated, Japanese officer. No points for guessing that the latter part of the book will pit friend against friend... When the warning of war comes, Port is tasked with traveling across China to gather up the far-flung American units, and lead them to safety. To do so, he handpicks a small unit and sets up a convoy of four trucks and his Bentley convertible for the mission.
The unit he assembles is part central casting, part improbable fancy. There's a Mexican sergeant who's gimmick is that he served with Pershing against Pancho Villa and talks about it incessently. Somehow this manages to be as equally irritating to the reader (because it's not funny), as it's meant to be to the other characters. There's "Sparky" the radio guy, the grease-monkey/mechanic, a big brave lummox carrying the heavy gun, a bunch of anonymous BAR grunts, a college-boy Naval reserve lieutenant, and (I'm not making this up!), his Chinese butler, a world-famous French race-car driver, and a White Russian alternately referred to as "General", "Count", and "Prince" Yusopov. Along the way, they pick up a female Chinese doctor, and a British Catholic priest/paleontologist. Now, an able writer (such as George MacDonald Fraser) could have had a lot of fun with this wild and wacky cast, but Brady just isn't up to it. These characters either seem to serve no discernable purpose (such as the Naval officer), or are very convenient devices (the Russian teaches the Marines how to make a Molotov cocktail and just happens to have a brother at a monastery where sanctuary is available at a critical time, the English priest just happens to know the whole country like the back of his hand and speaks the dialects, etc.).
The bulk of the book is one extended chase scene, as this motley band of brothers makes its way across the Chinese country, skirmishing with bandits, ducking Japanese Zeros, suffering in the elements, and ultimately, racing for the Soviet border. The action sequences are far and away the strongest parts, from ambushing a pursing patrol, to facing down huge bandit hordes, it's good stuff (if somewhat predictable). Alas, the bulk of the book is riddled with cliche, repetition (for example, the term "top sergeant" is explained several times), and awkwardness (for example, every time Port meets with his "staff", Brady feels compelled to run through the roll call of who is present). It's the kind of story that might work better as a film, where one is a little more forgiving of hokiness and the dialogue would be much tighter. In any event, Port's race across China is a promising idea for a story, but this book just doesn't deliver the goods.

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