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2017 Reading Challenge

Jill Elizabeth has read 2 books toward her goal of 150 books.
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Book Review: How Existentialism Almost Killed Me by Michael Bernhart

I met Mike Bernhart, the author of this delightful romp that brings you through the killing fields of the Khmers Rouges by way of drug counterfeiters and a Thai elephant sanctuary, earlier this year when he asked me to review an earlier installment in his exceedingly entertaining Max Brown Tetralogy. I enjoyed it – and talking with the author – so much that I asked if the other books in the series were available. I was promptly sent How Existentialism Almost Killed Me: Kierkegaard was Right, the fourth book (as well as the first two, which I will get to in due course), with the explanation that it continued Max and Sally’s saga and was right in my wheelhouse (I used to work in Big Pharma and drug counterfeiting is a topic that I’m sadly all too familiar with as a result). So I dove in – and once I did, found I could not put the book down…

You can get a bit of background on Max and his indomitable partner in crime (and wife) Sally by (re)reading the earlier review. I’m going to jump right to the new book, which delivers an excellent study of evil, elephants, and madcap mayhem that is extreme but yet somehow always still just this side of plausible (especially once you know the characters).

Some years have passed since we last heard from Max and Sally. The twins are all grown up (well, as much as college-aged kids ever are, anyway). Max has passed 65 with his tell-tale grin and a smile. And Sally is, well, Sally. In short, the two of them are, well, a bit bored. Finding themselves at a bit of sixes and sevens, they manage (in their uniquely charming way) to work (worm?) their way into some secret agent work, reuniting along the way with old friends from Max’s earlier adventures. Mayhem follows in their wake, as always, and before they know it the death toll is rising, they’re on the trail of international drug counterfeiters, and the Khmers Rouges is hot on their tail… It’s a zany, madcap description of a zany, madcap plot – in the best possible way. What should be utterly, eye-rollingly, unbelievable, somehow never is with Max and Sally. I don’t know exactly how Bernhart manages that, but he does – and handily. It means he can provide a seemingly never-ending stream of action, while still keeping his protagonists accessible to the average reader. That’s no small feat, and a testament to his talent as a writer.

I love how these books always seem to take me into settings that I’m unfamiliar with; it adds a nicely informational, travelogue-esque, element to the books that I really enjoy. The Khmers Rouges angle was really unique for me and I enjoyed it (as much as one can enjoy rampant genocide and corruption, teehee…). And I just LOVE these characters. The stuff that I thought was a little tough to swallow because of the presence of the child-twins in the earlier book (see my review) was much more in the flow when it was Max on his last hurrah and Sally along to keep him alive. They still have WAY more adventure than I imagine *regular* people having – but then again, they’re not really *regular* people, now are they? I thoroughly enjoyed the story; the drug counterfeiting angle was pretty spot-on with what I learned while working in Big Pharma, and those plot elements really held me interest because I know (unfortunately) that nothing there was exaggerated.

Bernhart has really hit his stride with this book and these characters – which is marvelous while you are reading but sad going forward, since this is book four of the tetralogy… It sounds like, from the end of this one, Max feels like his stories are done (which is a crying shame – and at a sprightly 66, it’s hard to believe he’s just going to fade into the sunset, don’t you think??). A little bird tells me Sally may pick up the reins though – and she’ll be a fantastic narrator, given her propensity to shoot first and ask questions later! I don’t think we can consider the Browns anywhere near out of the game just yet – which is a fantastic thing indeed.

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