Friday, May 04, 2012

On Target

The day before Easter I brought the kids over to a friend’s house for an egg hunt. After the scavenging for poultry products had ended, we spent some time catching up on what we had been reading of late. He mentioned that he had recently received a book featuring a critical examination of the US approach to the War on Terror. This lead to further discussion on the topic of terrorism itself and what had and had not transpired in the years since 9/11. Both of us expressed surprise that there haven’t been more attempts at “lone wolf” or “Nike terrorism” type attacks in the US. It seems like such attacks would be relatively easy to carry out, are difficult to prevent, and would create a level of fear and distrust among the public at large far out of magnitude to the actual impact of the attacks themselves. Why Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups haven’t attempted more of these attacks is a mystery.

Not too long after that, I learned that Mark Yost had released a novel called Soft Target:

"Soft Target" is Wall Street Journal writer Mark Yost's debut novel.

Nick Mattera is a former Marine Corps bomb squad technician who survived four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's come home to his Italian-American neighborhood on Chicago's North Side and becomes one of the fire department's young hotshots. But Nick never expected to run into Abdullah and Jhalil.

The two al Qaeda terrorists have come to Chicago with one goal in mind: indiscriminately kill Jewish Americans and open up a whole new front in the War on Terror. Adding to Nick's troubles are Jack Weinstein, an opportunistic politician who wants to close Nick's firehouse, and Rachel Cohen, Weinstein's sexy legislative aide who has eyes for Nick and doubts about her boss.

The story that unfolds in "Soft Target" is best described as Tom Clancy meets Backdraft meets 50 Shades of Grey. Mark Yost is himself a firefighter/paramedic and gives readers an unparalleled look at life inside a firehouse. More importantly, he shows just how easy it would be for two dedicated extremists to use America's open society against it and carry out these dastardly missions. When readers finish "Soft Target," they'll be anxiously awaiting the next book in the Nick Mattera Series, and nervously asking themselves, "Why hasn't something like this really happened here?"

Which of course was exactly the question my friend and I had just been asking. So the timing for Mark’s initial foray into the world of action adventure thrillers (if that’s what they’re calling the genre these days) couldn’t have been better. And yes, I refer to the author in the informal manner as I am personally acquainted with him. I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Mark a bit when he was living in the Twin Cities some years ago. So this will not be a completely objective review although I will do my best to avoid it becoming nothing more than a over-the-top plug for a chum.

I have to say that coming in to the book, my expectations were not high. This is a not a slight in way toward Mark. It’s just that his previous writing had been fact-grounded topics such as sports, history, politics, museums, etc. Moving to novels is usually not easy an transition to make for any writer to make and Mark’s decision to enter ground well-trod by the likes of Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn and a host of others would invite inevitable comparisons and raise skepticism about how good the book could possibly be.

For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered in the electronic pages of “Soft Target.” I haven’t read a work in the genre for some time and sort of assumed that all the possible compelling story lines had already been played out. Yet Mark was able to create one that held my interest from the beginning and made me want to know what the eventual outcome would be. That in itself is an accomplishment in a novel of this sort.

Mark also does a nice job exploring a number of different subjects with details that are more often than not quite interesting and even informative. As mentioned in the description, he delves into the inner workings of firefighters and paramedics in a way that I thought was thorough without getting in the way of the story. I’ve read authors who know a lot about particular subjects and seem to feel the need to share EVERYTHING they know on them to the point where you find yourself skipping ahead until you can back an area that’s relevant to the plot.

Among other subjects that Mark touches on in addition to firefighting/paramedics and terrorism are:

- Immigration
- Chicago politics
- Unions
- The Mafia
- New York pizza
- Craft beer

That’s far from a complete list as at some point I lost track of the all the macro and micro topics broached at some level in “Soft Target.”

I would say the strength of the book is the characters. The good guys are flawed, but likeable people that you can identify with. The bad guys (and there are many of them, only a few who are actually terrorists) are people that are easy to dislike yet also real. They’re not outlandish stereotypes, but believable villains whose misdeeds run the gamut from the relatively petty to pure evil. Seeing a number of them get their comeuppance in some manner another provides the reader with a measure of satisfaction as well.

The only issue I really had with the characters was one which misfired badly:

“We know you went to the fire academy with Paul Happe, president of the IAFF. You two play golf together, ride motorcycles together. You even went to Sturgis last summer.”

Paul Happe? Not exactly a Dickens’ level of cleverness or creativity with the name there.

The ending did a feel bit rushed and I felt it could have been played out just a little longer. But again, from an overall perspective the plot was engaging and the story was well-paced.

Okay, now for my biggest criticism, which some many find odd. I should have been warned by the description of “Soft Target” as “Clancy meets Backdraft meets 50 Shades of Grey” that there was going to a fair of sex involved, but I was still surprised by the amount of time spent detailing various goings on between the sheets. Now, I’ve got nothing against reading about sex per se. But I expect whatever liaisons are being detailed in a novel to be in some manner germane to the overall storyline and not unnecessarily gratuitous. And I felt a fair amount of the sex in “Soft Target” was exactly that: gratuitous. Not the girl on girl action of course. That was just about the right amount.

But hey, when the worst thing you can say about a book is that there was too much sex, it’s not exactly the most damning of criticisms. And at $2.99 for the digital version at Amazon, you can hardly find a better value for the money. If you buy “Soft Target” before May 7th, 100% of the proceeds will go to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. A good read for a good cause.