Never Go Back by Lee Child

Never Go Back

Jack Reacher books are a guilty pleasure. They’re not good books; they’re perfectly fine for what they are. Call them potboilers or beach reads, these mysteries all showcase how awesome the main character is.

Never Go Back is no different. A quick read, the book shows off Reacher’s skillset as an ex-Army MP in many different ways. Reacher, who in the book is 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds of muscle, gets to knock some heads and generally carry the day.

However, this particular Reacher book is lighter on action than some of his others. There’s a daring prison break, a showdown with backwoods thugs and some solid scenes on a plane, but for the most part, this is a talky action book.

Reacher and new partner slash love interest Major Turner talk a lot. They talk about motive. They talk in the car. They talk on the aforementioned plane. They talk to other people about the case. We even get snippets of the bad guys talking to each other.

That’s what makes it so fascinating as the sequel choice for the movie franchise starring Jack Reacher. Tom Cruise plays the titular hero, even though he’s nowhere near Reacher’s described size.

Still, he carries the world weariness well, along with the sense that Reacher himself is virtuous to a fault. That’s there in both the book and the movie, but there’s not a lot left between the two.

While most of the time, these are meant to be book reviews, I’m not sure I can do much good telling you about the book itself. It was fine. Read it if you like these books. But figuring out why they chose this book for the movie is much more interesting.

Like I said, much of the action in the movie is done through discussions. Long talks about bank accounts, motives and forged documents carry the book’s pages. That’s not easily done in a movie, especially not an action franchise.

The movie also chose to take one of the book’s final third elements (a mysterious daughter for Reacher) and make her a cute moppet who bonds with her absent maybe-father. From Cruise’s perspective, you can see why that part of the story is great. It gives him a sweet counterpart to sand down his gruff edges while still having room for a love interest.

Oh, and that’s the other thing the movie does. It G-rates the love story between Reacher and Major Turner. In the book, the relationship is James Bond-esque. Reacher meets Turner, breaks her out of prison, bingo bango they’re in bed together. At the end (spoilers), they go their separate ways amicably.

It’s how Reacher’s relationships always go. You can’t have a drifter stay tied down to a longterm relationship, can you?

The movie plays down that romance quite a bit. It’s a credit to Cobie Smulders that her part is as vital to the movie as it is. She’s good in the action scenes, as she’s proven time and again in her Marvel role. However, the suddenness of the relationship with Reacher is played as crazy and their attachment is more of a mutual respect than a torrid love affair.

Having said adorable moppet around, unlike the book, also quashes any pantless time the two could have.

What I also found fascinating is the movie’s decision to set the third act in New Orleans instead of Los Angeles. The movie made a mess of the ending, with bad guys running around for no particular reason. That’s probably for the best, since Never Go Back’s villains had one of the weaker endings to the series. There wasn’t a big shootout; things just ended.

Why change the location, you ask? Well, Louisiana has tried hard to get all sorts of motion picture money into the state. They give plenty of rebates and tax credits for productions who shoot there. I’m sure it was much cheaper to make the movie in New Orleans than if they had tried to shoot in Washington D.C. and L.A.

Overall, though, the movie was forgettable. The book, at least, had some good scenes and was a pretty solid mystery until the end. There weren’t any great twists, but the identity and motive of the bad guys was held late enough to be interesting.

Wikipedia claims Never Go Back the movie was a successful film. I’ll be interested to see if Cruise decides to make another in this series. If he does, I bet he picks one with some better actions scenes and maybe still a cute kid for good measure.

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The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

When I was a kid, I was dinosaur crazy — just like many kids. My parents used to read all sorts of dinosaur books to me. In college, I read Robert Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies for fun and seriously considered majoring in anthropology so I could be an archaeologist.

Steve Brusatte was also that kid but…extra. He did a typical kid thing of learning all about dinosaurs, but he also became a groupie of paleontologists. He went to museums constantly, corresponded with many preeminent minds in the field and was able to work with many of the best scientists through his academic career.

He went a different way than I did, but the similarity automatically made his story more relatable.

How do I know so much about Brusatte’s life and phone contact list? His best-selling book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, reads as a who’s who of his life. A chapter doesn’t go by without the author dropping another name of someone in his field. It’s either a mentor, a graduate advisor, packs of too cool for school paleontologists and lots of the best and brightest scientists in the field.

He’s worked with them all. He lets you know it all the time.

It was hard to keep my eyes on the page when they were rolling so often at his name-dropping. Which is a shame, because in a breezy 300 pages, Brusatte does a great job of breaking down the world of modern paleontology through a narrative on the timeline of the dinosaurs.

For someone like me who was dino crazy, there was still quite a bit to learn in this book. Brusatte does a great job first of breaking down the Triassic period. This may have been the most interesting section for me. He depicts the rise of protodinosaurs, how they moved and effortlessly puts you in the atmosphere of the epoch. He not only describes dinosaur species but describes how their environment altered how they lived.

He also does a good job of putting science into layman’s terms. Brusatte was able to explain how scientists carbon date fossils much more easily than my Anthropology 101 professor did. A similar discussion of how we know certain species of dinosaurs had feathers or how we know what color a dinosaur was.

Finally, Brusatte won me over with his history of dinosaur hunters of yore. Michael Crichton’s estate recently put out a half-finished book of his based on these self-same dino hunters. It was nice to get this perspective on that period of time and what that meant for the dinos we did discover.

Overall, Brusatte does an admirable job of showing the global nature of paleontology and all the diverse people advancing the field. His prose is effective and accessible. I just wish he’d have dropped all the glowing descriptions of his friends and mentors. Everyone we met in the book was a friend, was awesome and helped him so much.

The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale

220px-Bottoms05cover

Not many books have been set in the woods of East Texas. Certainly, those that have number less than those set in California, New York or Florida.

That’s what I liked most about Joe Lansdale’s standalone mystery, The Bottoms. Told from the perspective of an old man thinking back to his childhood in the Great Depression, Lansdale does a great job of setting the scene in the bottoms of the Sabine River.

When I was a kid, my grandparents had a cabin in Deweyville, which I imagine is close to what Lansdale is describing here. Through that cabin, I can see the dirt roads, the mud banks of the river and the forested areas where his characters roam.

The mystery at the heart of the book is who committed a series of murders. The mystery itself is solid. Lansdale lays out his characters carefully, checking in on many of them as the book moves along briskly and sending out enough red herrings to make the ending a surprise.

The characterization for some people in the story was also solid. The main character had a journey, though his coming of age story felt a little rushed over the 300-odd pages of the book. The time frame only covered six to nine months, yet our narrator pretty quickly went from being seen as a child to being read into adult actions.

Maybe finding a body will do that to someone. Maybe saving a father from a lynch mob also helps.

The narrator’s father has his point of view pretty clearly defined, too, along with the mother and grandmother. The secondary characters are thinner and are there to either be suspects in the ongoing mystery or the unwitting victims.

As a first-person story, the narrative also goes through some backflips to make sure our hero can experience all the events to bring the plot around, no matter if it makes sense for him to be there. Over the course of the book, he sees or hears important scenes from the roof of an icehouse, under a porch and in a barn. Oh, and of course there was the aforementioned lynch mob, but to say more spoils part of the plot.

The other big issue here is the setting itself. As the story of a kid recollecting his time growing up in the Depression and in East Texas no less, race and class are at the forefront of the narrative. The narrator and his family are white, but they’re good whites who think it’s wrong their black neighbors are mistreated.

This leads to all sorts of problems for the family and brings in a fairly harrowing scene with the Klu Klux Klan.¬†And yet. It’s still too pat to have the narrator’s family be so good, they’re not affected by societal pressure. Showing the family as being of their time may not be as aspirational, but it may be more accurate.

Oh, this innate goodness leads to another groaning plot point: the father falls hard off the wagon after that pesky lynch mob scene, getting falling-down drunk on the regular for maybe a month in book time? The passage of time is nebulous at best.

The narrator finds out, disapproves and shames his dad into quitting for good. The mom and the grandmother knew, but it was the boy who did the trick.

This seems like a pretty negative review, but The Bottoms was an enjoyable read! The mystery was genuinely entertaining and twisty enough so that I didn’t figure it out until close to the end. The relationship between the grandmother and the kids was entertaining, as she showed a conspiratorial spirit that made them partners in some of the book’s adventures.

The main thing that stood out was the setting itself. When the characters tramped through the forests and bottoms of East Texas, the book came alive. If you’ve spent time there and think of it fondly, it’s worth reading just for that.