12 Challenge, book two – State of Terror

Late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. Book one was Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates, and book two is State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.

So, first: I don’t usually read political thrillers. Expanding reading horizons is part of the challenge, and the friend who recommended it pointed out that maybe it’s a stretch.

That being said, it reminded me a lot of Dan Brown‘s Robert Langdon books. You know. Angels and Demons? The Da Vinci Code? There’s a lot of globetrotting and seeing the sights, calling out different locations and well-known sights. There’s also the sort of “very few people in the world even know what I’m telling you” aspect to it that always made me wonder how, exactly, Dan Brown learned this secret information (and why it’d be safe to just tell the world in a best-seller if the information is indeed secret) but, in State of Terror, makes you remember who one of the authors is.

I spent a lot of time being very aware who one of the authors is.

The main character is, after all, the Secretary of State. She’s just come on board after a very awful president who gets a bunch of jibes thrown his way. Ellen Adams is also blonde and gets called names that quickly go viral – it’s not “nasty woman,” but … you know it totally is. So clearly any state secrets Ellen Adams reveals to readers can’t actually be real, but … I mean, it makes you wonder.

If I hadn’t known Hillary Rodham Clinton was one of the authors, some of those things probably wouldn’t have jumped out at me like they did. It’s all “write what you know” until “what you know” happens to be about a high-ranking informants’ council but I do trust that, when Ellen Adams says something in Washington, DC is a ten minute walk, it’s a ten minute walk.

I did struggle some with the chronology. I’ve talked about narrative timelines before, but this wasn’t an issue of how all travel takes place between chapters, with a single turn of the page. They sleep on flights or hey, nothing interesting happens, and then they go for hours and hours without sleeping. They’re running on adrenaline. That’s fine.

What really threw me – and it’s something that happened for the first time on page one – was how a chapter would open with a line of dialogue, bang, in media res, and then the narration would back up so we knew where we were, who was there, and what was going on … but that dialogue never showed up again to place it in proper context.

If a chapter opened at 8:00 PM sharp, the narration would back up to 7:30, where we’d last left everyone, and then apparently go until 7:59 … but skip ahead to 8:01? Maybe? I’m still not entirely sure, but until I caught on to what was happening, I was just forcing myself along and hoping it would make sense later. (Which happens a lot when I read large cast books for the first time. Stephen King, I’m looking at you.)

There’s also the fact that, as I said, I don’t read political thrillers, so maybe that’s a genre thing. You get the snappy dialogue immediately and then have to sort out all the rest as you go.

There was also a fair amount of head-hopping. It’s totally the bane of a lot of writers’ existence. It’s really easy to do subtly – have your point of view character understand what someone else is thinking, oops – but this was jarring at times. You’re following Ellen and suddenly you’re in someone else’s head, looking at Ellen and reading about her in terms she wouldn’t use for herself.

But those are structural things. Maybe generic things. (As in, specifically genre-related.) Was it a good book?

Wait, how do we define a good book?

I don’t like rating books for this very reason. I just keep a list of which ones I’ve read and that’s that. But if, for whatever reason, I want to keep reading to figure out how it all turns out – even if it’s because I want to know if the author’s actually going to give a good explanation (cough Stephen King again cough) then I consider it a good book. It did what I wanted it to do: took me away from whatever’s going on in the world or my life at the moment and made me care about something else for a bit.

So, by that standards: yes, State of Terror is a good book. I read it in a day. I’m a fast reader, sure, but if I don’t like a book, it’s slower than molasses. I wanted to know what was happening with Ellen, and to see if I figured out the FSO’s secret, and how some of the other characters’ relationships would shake out in the end. Plus I wanted to know the big whodunit, and there were a couple times I doubted my original impression, which is major for me. I read so many thrillers that it’s rare for a twist to truly shake me.

But I still don’t think I’m much of a political thriller fan.

Have you read State of Terror? Or do you read political thrillers and have some answers for me?

12 Challenge, book one – Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates

Late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. I’ve finished my first selection from that list: Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates, by Robert Walsh and Wayne Clingman, recommended to me by Robert himself.

It’s a subject I knew nothing about. I read a lot of true crime, sure, from various centuries, but river pirates were new to me. I even looked through the indices of some of the surveys of murder in America that I’ve read to check for some of the names Walsh and Clingman mention, and nothing popped up. So at least I didn’t already read about these people and then forget them.

They cover multiple groups that worked along the Ohio River prior to 1850, and they all seem to be groups. River piracy wasn’t for loners, and it died out with the paddle steamers. Pirates depended on outnumbering their victims and being able to make a quick getaway.

There are different chapters for different groups, and some highlights include:

The Harpes, brothers – or maybe they were cousins – who get presented as “often been called America’s first serial killers.” This is where I first went to my other books, because … who? I’d never heard of them. But apparently river piracy wasn’t just for men who wanted to rob the rich. It was a good profession for men who just wanted to kill people.

James Ford, who was either “Lucky Luciano or Fagin with a Southern accent.” A lot of these pirates have a very mobster feel to them, and I don’t usually read books about the mob. The way to get around the law – aside from crossing the river and moving to land under control of another country entirely – was being the law, or at least paying those who had high positions.

The Potts Hill Gang, who may or may not have been fictional, but who had a very interesting story. Possible spoilers here: a son who had been kicked out of the gang decided to return years later, in disguise, to surprise his family. A “spotter,” sent out to gage the apparent wealth of travelers so the gang would take an unnecessary risk killing a poor man, decided the son looked like a good target. When the “stranger” came along, the father killed him. Which seemed fine, until rumors started that the son was supposed to have come back. In order to keep his wife from wailing that he’d committed filicide, the father dug up his latest victim so she could have a look … and positively identify her son. (Moral of the story: don’t try to trick pirates.)

There’s also some interesting information about forgery, a crime I also don’t usually read about. It’s very much situated in the time and place, between different countries and with changing/emerging laws to contend with, along with Regulators and lawmen and the rest.

It was an interesting read, although I think it’s pretty niche – these stories aren’t usually covered even in lengthy surveys of the history of crime in America. If that’s a crevice you’re interested in exploring, pick up a copy and dive in.