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Book Review of: The Silent Man

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Review of The Silent Man, by Alex Berenson (Hardcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

I savored this book, enjoying a few dozen pages each evening. And as the next evening approached, I looked forward to reading more of the story.

Before coming across this solid work of fiction, I'd never heard of Alex Berenson. He's a reporter for the New York Times, a publication that strikes me as more concerned with distorting the news than reporting the news. I would not accuse them of having a high regard for editorial integrity. Despite coming from that background, Berenson wrote a book that has strong cultural and political themes and yet didn't  proselytize. In addition, he wrote a darn good book.

Much of what gets into the thriller genre isn't thrilling, but this is. In typical "thrillers," cardboard characters save the world from cardboard villains and get the girl in the end. In this novel, the characters are complex and the villains are real people with real motivations. As a reader, you feel like you understand what drives them but you can't quite predict what they are going to do. And the hero in this book didn't get the girl in the end.

This book is significant. How so? In several ways, actually. Before I explain why, let me provide a synopsis of the story.

The story begins with the theft of two warheads from the Russia’s nuclear complex in Mayak. The way this gets pulled off makes for a great story within a story. Once these are stolen, the stage is set for our hero (CIA agent John Wells) to make his entry. His entry also makes for a great story within a story.

Wells has made several enemies, and one of them put a hit out on Wells. He is traveling by car with his fiancée (Jennifer Exley), when the hit goes down. The attackers are pros, but so is Wells. In the ensuing battle, Exley is severely injured. At the hospital, Exley's children and ex-husband arrive. Some tension and drama there.

We that find Wells has inner conflicts and that demons haunt him. He needs to let go, but he can't. He has a compulsive need to be where the action is. Exley is similarly conflicted, but the need to be with her children is drawing her toward a more peaceful existence. Wells' need to be with Exley similarly draws him that direction. But he's also strongly pulled in the opposite direction and therein lies one of the main threads in the story.

The man who contracted the hit realizes he made a big mistake. He realizes it even more, after the body count rises. He knows it's only a matter of time, and not much of it, before Wells takes him out. He needs to offer Wells something in way of a truce. Because he's an arms dealer, he has information about people seeking to buy beryllium (#4 on the Periodic Table). The purpose in obtaining this metal can only be to build an atomic bomb. With reports of "missing nuclear material," the arms dealer thinks he can buy a truce with Wells by giving him this information. So he does, and they treat.

It turns out someone really is building a bomb, and it looks like the target city is in the USA. Wells and his allies have to track these people down. One way we know for sure they are making a bomb is Berenson spends most of the novel with the people building it. It's almost, but not quite, a though the bomb-builders are the heroes of the story and Wells is the intruder. Berenson inverts the normal ratio of  villain-time to hero-time. This inversion works, because the villains are far from cardboard characters that exist merely to advance the plot or give the hero something to do.

Berenson presumes readers already are familiar with Wells, and alludes frequently to things readers of the first two novels would know. I found this a bit off-putting, though for the most part Berenson handled it smoothly.

As I said, this book is significant. It's significant because it's over 400 pages long (in hardback format). Compare that to a typical novel that runs a couple hundred pages in a smaller format. The book is heavy, but the reading doesn't weigh you down. With its crisp dialogue and good character conflict, it seems to move fast.

It's significant because the story is a story for our times, yet it involves a struggle that has lasted over 1500 years.

It's significant because we don't need to "suspend belief" for this story to grip us from the outset. Everything seems plausible. And while reading, you can't help but think, "Hey, that could really happen."

It's significant because it's the third novel in a series by an emerging author. The third in a series is often a turning point in a writing career. This could be Berenson's last good novel. Or, it could be the threshold over which this author steps into a career that will be followed by an ever-growing number of fans. I think it's the latter.

Typically in thrillers, the characters serve the plot. An author may come up with a plausible "save the world" plot we haven't seen before. The author might even do it twice. Plot-driven authors pump out the same basic stories and if you've read one or two you have probably read all of that author's stories. Names and places change, but each book is basically a retread. To make up for this, the author may resort to more ridiculous "bigger badder" elements with each new release.

The same thing happens in movie sequels, and it usually flops. You can look at, for example, The Matrix sequels for an example of how the "bigger badder each time" thing just doesn't work. You need more.

If the stories are character-driven, the story tension and level of interest can arise from an almost infinite set of variables. An author whose stories are character-driven can write a large number of unique stories. Such an author has staying power in the book market because the story doesn't depend on coming up with some idiotic twist to the same tired plot. Nor do we get the lipstick on the pig effect so common in sequels.

For these reasons, I feel Berenson will be around a while. We'll be buying his books because his characters compel us to keep reading what he writes. Even the minor characters seem real.

Something else struck me about this book after I finished it. It's in English. A rarity.

We readers are frequently assaulted by language abuse on the part of authors. Many seem completely ignorant of standard written English. I hate having to second guess meanings in something that was presumably written for entertainment. The mental gymnastics just aren't appealing.

Pick up any work by John Grisham, and the labor of trying to guess his meaning while wading through the Pidgin English is tiresome. Unfortunately, his books appealed to a market segment that made him a financial success. He helped make Pidgin English acceptable to publishers. Today, you take a risk when buying a book that it's not only going to be a dud but it's going to be a barely comprehensible dud.

Berenson, on the other hand, respects the reader enough to write in straightforward English. I find that to be significant. It's not why I enjoyed the book. Writing correctly is a minimum standard. Berenson's adroit storytelling on top of that is why I enjoyed the book. Having read this novel, I now want to read the two that came before it.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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