Category Archives: Fiction

‘Holy Ghost,’ by John Sandford

Holy Ghost

John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers novels take a different approach from his more famous “Prey” novels starring Lucas Davenport. Virgil investigates in small town and rural Minnesota, and he generally handles less horrific crimes than Davenport. But that makes the stories no less interesting, and the puzzles in Holy Ghost are plenty challenging for any reader, I’d say.

Wheatfield, Minnesota was a moribund little town until the young mayor and a friend come up with a questionable scheme for reviving the economy. It involves a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the local Catholic church. They mean no harm, though they certainly profit from the situation. Pretty much everyone is happy with how things are going (including a skeptical visiting priest), until somebody starts shooting at visitors.

Virgil Flowers, former lady’s man (he’s now in an exclusive – though unmarried – relationship), and part-time outdoor writer, goes to Wheatfield in his capacity as an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He meets a series of colorful characters (described pretty much without condescension), and pokes into everybody’s business in his low-key style. These are simple people, but the mystery is not simple at all.

I liked Holy Ghost the best, perhaps, of any of the books in this series. And that’s in spite of the depiction of a religious hoax, which is handled more casually than I approve of. But I liked the treatment of small-town people, and the dialogue was often quite funny.

Cautions for language, dirty jokes, violence, sexual references, and lighthearted handling of religious matters.

‘The Forbidden Door,’ by Dean Koontz

The Forbidden Door

I’ll read pretty much anything Dean Koontz writes these days, and the Jane Hawk series definitely has an intriguing concept. But frankly, I think The Forbidden Door is an unnecessary book.

We continue the saga of Jane Hawk, former FBI agent who is all that stands between civilization and The Arcadians, a high-level conspiracy of elites who are gradually taking the country over through implanting nanomachines in people’s brains, turning them into slaves without free will. The Arcadians have already murdered her husband, and now they’ve turned Jane into the FBI’s most wanted criminal. Legal and extralegal resources are being marshaled to capture her. She hid her son Travis with friends, but now that hiding place has been discovered, and Travis is now staying with the most unlikely protector in the world – a brilliant agoraphobe who lives in a hidden bunker. If the Arcadians capture him, they’ll use him to bring Jane in.

I was interested to read The Forbidden Door, but I found it hard to read. Jane actually doesn’t do much in this story. Most of our time is spent either with her vile enemies, or with their victims or potential victims. The level of unease is high, and it’s not relieved as often as I would have liked.

I have a suspicion (probably wrong) that Koontz sketched this series out as a trilogy, and the publishers persuaded him to pad the story with one extra volume, to increase revenue. This book mostly represents that padding.

So I don’t recommend it highly, except in the sense that if you’re reading the whole series – which is worthwhile – you’ll probably need to read this one.

Cautions for language, violence, and disturbing themes.

‘The African Connection,’ by Mark W. Sasse

The African Connection

Mark Sasse’s bizarre “Forgotten Child” series continues with The African Connection. An unconventional fantasy in an unconventional trilogy. I got a free review copy from author Sasse.

The first book in the series, A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far (which I reviewed previously) told the story of Francis Frick, the original Nasty McNasty, you might say. Rich, powerful, greedy, cruel to his employees and to his daughter, he seems irredeemable. Until he is awakened one night by “Bee,” a fairy-like creature who hovers over his bed eating a pomegranate. She transports him to strange places and past times, where he gradually learns to empathize with others, and finally saves a child from the Cambodian holocaust. He also finds a cause – destroying Heinrich Ulrich, an amoral arms dealer with whom he formerly did business. But there are repercussions on the spiritual level – Bee is not following the rules for spiritual beings. Disaster follows, in a cliff-hanging climax.

In The African Connection, we find Francis in FBI custody, frustrating the agents with his nonchalance. Meanwhile Hatty Parker, a young woman, a new character in the story, steals a document linking her boss to Heinrich Ulrich. Arrested by the FBI as well, she ends up accompanying Francis on a series of hops through space and time, in which they grow attached to one another and he learns shocking things about his own origins. And gradually their support from Bee diminishes, as she finds herself under pressure from other spiritual beings, and in danger of losing her protector, the powerful Ash.

The African Connection is a strange read – I still haven’t made up my mind whether it’s quirkily brilliant or just naïve. It can be very funny and very poignant in turns. There are a few instances of mistaken word use – “extolling” for “exhorting” – that sort of thing. Still, I’m interested in finding out how it all turns out.

No cautions that I can recall for language or objectionable adult themes. Recommended.

‘Pretty Girl Gone,’ by David Housewright

Pretty Girl Gone

Her smile was bright, but brittle. You could smash it with a word.

There is a town of Victoria, Minnesota. It’s a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities, and I was there for a community festival just a few weeks ago. However, in David Housewright’s third Mac McKenzie mystery, Pretty Girl Gone, the town (or at least its name) is transported to southwestern Minnesota. That’s where Jack Barrett, fictional governor of the state, grew up. He launched his career there as one of the “Victoria Seven,” a Cinderella basketball team that famously won the state championship.

Barrett’s wife is named Lindsay, and she comes from St. Paul where she was once the girlfriend of our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, pro bono private eye. She meets with Mac and asks him to go to Victoria to investigate a nasty rumor that’s going around – that Jack murdered his high school sweetheart, who died the night before the big game.

Of course Mac goes to check it out. He will turn over a lot of old rocks, and tangle with some local thugs, before he manages to discover the shocking truth.

So far so good. I’m enjoying this series. The politics sometimes seem to lean left, but there are interesting exceptions (as when Mac makes fun of Minnesota’s concealed carry law, and then carries his piece past a “Firearms Forbidden” sign anyway). One thing I like is that author Housewright seems to have a pretty balanced view of small town and lower-middle-class people, who tend to get treated pretty badly by liberal writers.

Pretty good. Recommended, with the usual cautions.

Clinch by Zachary Bartels

“How many Marilyns do you know who go to our church?” she asked, “because I only know one.”

“This is none of our business, Judith.”

“And that’s her car,” she said, pointing at a battered old Lumina with a Clinch Rock Wrestling bumper sticker. She looked over to Trent. “Marilyn Fisher.”

“Look, we shouldn’t have been eavesdropping in there. Just let my Dad deal with this, okay?”

“But he can’t now. Don’t you see? Confidentiality, the confessional and all that stuff. He can’t go the cop route. He’s stuck. But I’m not.”

At the start of this summer, Zachary Bartels released the half of the script of his podcast of fiction and not-fiction. It was the fiction half called Clinch. The story follows a couple teenagers who start at a Christian summer camp and just about end up there. Trent is the son of the small town’s chief of police who is transitioning to full-time pastor. His long-time friend, Judith, is also very close to his dad, who treats her like the daughter he never had.

Their close relationship is tested in part by the bad guys, because this is a YA thriller, and in part by a book called, Insane Faith: A Guide to Extreme Christianity for the Truly Faithful. It’s a book that urges readers to give 120% of everything for everything.

“Jesus never said no to anyone who asked for his help,” the book teaches. “When we say no to an opportunity to exercise insane faith, we’re refusing to be like Jesus.”

Such a mindset pushes Trent’s dad into full-time ministry, challenges Trent’s perspective of his fairly average life, and inspires Judith to take up a superhero mantle. Because despite the real world setting, big city bullies, teen antics, and cool Goonies-level mystery, Clinch is essentially the story of a girl who sees corruption in her town and works to oppose it. With an ox goad.

I loved it. I listened to the whole podcast series and enjoyed all of the not-fiction parts too. If that’s not quite your thing, you can pick it up as an ebook or paperback.

Finding Truth, Finding Hope

Elizabeth Garn is finding truth in fantasy.

Good fantasy challenges us to think about the world differently. Something about wading through the darkness and uncertainty in a made-up world makes confronting both in our own that much easier. And confront it we shall, for the courage to do so is tucked in the pages of stories like this.

… [Quoting Chesterton] “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God …”

Karen Swallow Prior is finding hope after an apocalypse. 

[In McCarthy’s The Road] Hope is characterized by “quiet confidence,” a quality the man embodies throughout the story. When the novel opens, the two have already set out toward a warmer clime and the sea, not knowing what might lie before them there or anywhere else. They travel for months along burned-out highways, sleeping in woods or abandoned homes. They seem to be alone in the world. Yet, the man promises the boy, “There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see.”

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

The Almost Christian Theme of Luke Cage 2

Isn’t it hard to hear the truth come from a hateful, abusive mouth? It can sound like a lie just from the context of who speaks it.

In the first few episodes of Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage season two, the most Christian things spoken came from Luke’s abusive father, James Lucas.  We had heard in the first season how Rev. Lucas mistreated his wife, committed adultery, and favored the son of the other woman over Luke. He was a minister of self-righteousness, who beat people with the Bible and knew nothing of its power.

At the beginning of the second season, we heard him practicing a sermon that asks whether Cage serves the Lord or himself. When he runs into Luke on the street, he just wants to tie a leash around his neck, demanding the respect due a father though he has undermined that relationship for many years. Luke tells his girlfriend Claire he cannot reconcile with his father because he blamed Luke for his mother’s illness and death. He didn’t believe Luke was innocent of the crime that sent him to prison. He seemed to hate his great strength now. Luke has too many wounds to heal to return.

This sets up a character theme for these men–forgiveness. I just wish it had gone another step further.

When the violence escalates, Luke and the Rev come together out of necessity and finally share their sins. The Rev owns up to at least some of his past and Luke does his part as well. They forgive each other, but the Christian language disappears. Their forgiveness stays on a human level. Even with a prayer for safety at the beginning of a night of hiding, talk of faith seems to be watered down so as not upset the science-fiction. The Rev speaks of “science, magic, God” as if to blur each those things together.

It would have been so easy to have the Rev see the truth that sets us free in that Bible he professes to love and put a few words of real redemption in his mouth.

(Image of Luke Cage from IMDb.com)

‘Tin City,’ by David Householder

Tin City

I felt as if I were committing four of the seven deadly sins just by walking with her.

I’m sticking with Rushmore McKenzie, private eye character created by Minnesota author David Householder, even in spite of the liberal virtue-signaling he seems compelled to inject into his stories. So far the stories have been worth the annoyance. So far.

In Tin City, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, gets a request for help from a friend. That’s what Mac does, after all. He came into a lot of money and no longer needs to work as a cop. So he helps friends. This friend is his late father’s best friend, a man who helped to raise him. Mr. Mosley is a beekeeper out northwest of Minneapolis, and he wants Mac to help him find out why his bees are dying off. It’s not the usual kind of mystery Mac investigates. It certainly doesn’t look to be very dangerous. But he wants to help Mr. Mosley.

Little does he know. Soon people are shooting at people, and people are getting raped and kidnapped and killed, and Mac finds himself in the center of converging whirlwinds of criminal and law enforcement plans and plots. And the price to be paid will be high indeed.

One thing I like about the McKenzie novels is that author Householder generally avoids the common trope of the Great Secret Conspiracy. He understands that big conspiracies don’t work very well in the real world, and what looks like some master plan generally turns out to be half-ignorant people making assumptions and stumbling against each other in the dark.

Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. There’s a church and a pastor in the book, and they get treated pretty well.

‘A Hard Ticket Home,’ by David Housewright

A Hard Ticket Home

After Minneapolis author David Housewright wrapped up his Holland Taylor detective series (temporarily, as it turned out) he moved on to create another Minneapolis PI with a slightly more Travis McGee flavor – Rushmore McKenzie, former St. Paul police detective. “Mac” didn’t leave the force because of a traumatic experience or a principled conflict with the brass. He recovered several millions of embezzled money, and the insurance company paid him a 50% finder’s fee – but only after he’d resigned. Now he lives in a big house and, like Travis McGee, just “does favors for friends.” Unlike McGee, he doesn’t care about being paid. Hard Ticket Home is the first book in the series.

The Carlson family of Grand Rapids, Minnesota needs a favor. Their youngest daughter is dying of leukemia and has to have a bone marrow transplant. They think their older daughter Jamie might be a compatible donor – but Jamie ran away several years ago. Mac agrees to try to find her.

This leads him to walk into – and partly set off – a murderous crime spree involving some of the most successful people in Minnesota – people hiding a very dark secret. They have dangerous associates who don’t like private eyes snooping around, and some of them have no scruples about killing Mac – or the people he cares about.

I enjoy Housewright’s stories very much, and I always relish a Twin Cities setting. My only concern is that as he goes on he comments more and more on politics. He’s fairly mainstream, but I think he hits the right harder than the left.

But he hasn’t lost me yet. Cautions for language, very ugly violence, and mature themes.

Why Read James Fenimore Cooper’s Books?

American author James Fenimore Cooper was born September 15, 1789. He died September 14, 1851. Daniel Webster said the following year, Cooper’s work was “truly patriotic and American, throughout and throughout.”

“He possessed the power of amusing,” he said, “and of enlightening readers among the younger classes of the country, without injury to their morals or any solicitation of depraved passions.”

But that was then. Do we still need to read The Last of the Mohicans or The Leatherstocking Tales today? Kelly Scott Franklin of Hillsdale College says we should. “For all his long-windedness, Cooper is the master of light and shadow; his American landscape is surreal, rugged, beautiful, and dangerous.” (via Prufrock News)

I’d Rather Ye Saw on the Ship Knees Than Mine.

September 19 is Talk like a Pirate Day, so here’s a selection of dialogue from Walter Scott’s The Pirate.

“The lads,” he said, “all knew Cleveland, and could trust his seamanship, as well as his courage; besides, he never let the grog get quite uppermost, and was always in proper trim, either to sail the ship, or to fight the ship, whereby she was never without some one to keep her course when he was on board. — And as for the noble Captain Goffe,” continued the mediator, “he is as stout a heart as ever broke biscuit, and that I will uphold him; but then, when he has his grog aboard — I speak to his face — he is so d—d funny with his cranks and his jests, that there is no living with him. You all remember how nigh he had run the ship on that cursed Horse of Copinsha, as they call it, just by way of frolic; and then you know how he fired off his pistol under the table, when we were at the great council, and shot Jack Jenkins in the knee, and cost the poor devil his leg, with his pleasantry.”1

“Jack Jenkins was not a chip the worse,” said the carpenter; “I took the leg off with my saw as well as any loblolly-boy in the land could have done — heated my broad axe, and seared the stump — ay, by — ! and made a jury-leg that he shambles about with as well as ever he did — for Jack could never cut a feather.”2

“You are a clever fellow, carpenter,” replied the boatswain, ” a d—d clever fellow! but I had rather you tried your saw and red-hot axe upon the ship’s knee-timbers than on mine, sink me!

Continue reading I’d Rather Ye Saw on the Ship Knees Than Mine.

‘Another One,’ by Tony Faggioli

Another One

I’m ambivalent about the “naturalistic” school of Christian fiction. There’s a small group of Christian authors – and make no mistake, they are brave souls – who’ve decided that the gospel is badly served by the sugar-coating and bowdlerizing so common in Christian fiction. They believe it’s time to drop the taboos, because how can we expect people to believe what we say about heavenly things when we don’t tell the truth about earthly things?

I salute their courage and honestly, and I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong. I try to steer my own fiction closer to that line than many, so I’d be kind of hypocritical to condemn them. But I can’t deny they make me a little uncomfortable. It may be just because I’m old.

Tony Faggioli is the author of Another One, the first in a trilogy of supernatural crime novels starring Evan Parker, a Los Angeles police detective. The book is presented from multiple viewpoints, following Parker (an Iraq War veteran with PTSD) as he and his partner investigate the murder of a Hispanic gang member shot to death in a Korean neighborhood. We follow Father Bernardino Soltera, who is trying to help a young girl who has gotten pregnant by her gang member boyfriend, and is contemplating abortion. And Hector Villarosa, a gang leader just released from prison. He finds that his girlfriend has taken up with another man, and is contemplating revenge even as he struggles with guilt over setting his own cousin up to be murdered.

These men are bound together, not only by intertwined crimes, but by the visions they see – beings of good and beings of evil who respectively promise to protect or to kill and damn them. Continue reading ‘Another One,’ by Tony Faggioli

‘Darkness, Sing Me a Song,’ by David Housewright

Darkness, Sing Me a Song

I’m not sure why author David Housewright decided to resurrect his Holland Taylor detective series after turning his attention to a much longer series with another character. But so he did, just this year, six years after the previous installment. I liked Darkness, Sing Me a Song, though I was a little annoyed by the addition of politics to a series that had been pretty evenhanded up to now.

Things have changed since Dearly Departed (reviewed below). Minneapolis detective Holland Taylor has broken up with his girlfriend, and is instead seeing a married woman, off and on. He moved out of his house, into an apartment. He now has a partner in his private investigations business.

His work is mostly dull, and he’s not complaining. But one of his best clients, a high-powered law firm, asks him to help with the legal defense of Eleanor Barrington, one of the richest women in the state. She is accused of shooting her son’s fiancée, Emily Denys, to death. She denies guilt, though she does not hide her contempt for the young woman.

Investigation reveals that Emily Denys did not exist – her identity was false. Trying to trace her true name leads Taylor to a small Wisconsin town, where feelings are running high on both sides of the (fracking-related) sand mining business. Taylor will also uncover very dark secrets about the Barrington family. There’s a “surprise” twist near the end, which didn’t surprise me at all, nor do I think it will surprise many seasoned mystery readers. However – it must be noted – it’s not the surprise itself but the original twist author Taylor puts on the surprise that makes the book work in the end. And it does work.

I enjoyed Darkness, Sing Me a Song, but not quite as much as the previous books. Recommended, with cautions for language and mature themes.

Oh yeah, at one point he says that the city of Shakopee is southeast of the Twin Cities. It’s actually northwest. Weird.

‘Dearly Departed,’ by David Housewright

Dearly Departed

I put the older man at sixty. Hard. You could roller skate on him.

The saga of Holland Taylor, Twin Cities PI, continues with Dearly Departed. I like the way author David Housewright puts fresh spins on old plot themes. Dearly Departed, a story in the tradition of the movie “Laura,” was my favorite in the series so far.

Hunter Truman is the sleaziest of ambulance-chasing lawyers, a man unesteemed even in his own profession. He sued Holland Taylor once. And yet here he is, asking to hire Taylor to look for a missing woman. Taylor wants nothing to do with him – until he looks at the fascinating photograph of Alison Emerton. Truman plays him a tape Alison left behind, in which she states that if anyone hears this, she will be dead, and her ex-boss is the killer.

Alison has disappeared without a trace. All her possessions are still in her house. She must be dead, but Truman’s clients want to know exactly what happened to her.

Against his better judgment, drawn by the visceral appeal of the photograph and the voice, Taylor agrees to look for her. His hunt will take him to a resort town where residents are at each other’s throats over the question of a new Indian casino. There’s a plot twist that isn’t much of a surprise, but that just sets the stage for further surprises.

Dearly Departed drew me in and kept me fascinated. I enjoyed the characters and was fascinated by the mystery. I appreciated the examination of men’s perceptions of women, realistic and delusional.

Cautions for language and mature situations. Recommended.

‘Practice to Deceive,’ by David Housewright

Practice to Deceive

I felt about as big as a period at the end of a sentence.

The second book in the highly enjoyable Holland Taylor series by David Housewright is Practice to Deceive. I liked it as much as the first book.

When Taylor’s parents invite him to visit them in Florida, they have an ulterior motive (their relationship is awkward). His father introduces him to Mrs. Gustafson, a friend who’s been swindled out of all her money by a slick Minnesota investment counselor. Can Taylor do anything to help her get it back?

At first he resists. It’s not his kind of case; he doesn’t understand these matters. But when his father explains exactly what the investment counselor did – getting her power of attorney, then investing her funds in a risky real estate project after she’d suffered a stroke and was expected to die – he’s outraged and agrees to look into it.

Since the counselor has technically not broken the law, Taylor decides to take a more high school approach to the problem – harassing him, hacking his online accounts, working juvenile practical jokes. And it almost works – until somebody kills the counselor and steals the money he was going to pay Mrs. Gustafson back with. Suddenly the game is deadly serious, and Taylor’s own life is on the line.

Great fun. Although there’s plenty of traditional detective stuff, Housewright can take very unconventional approaches to his plots, turning old situations fresh. Cautions for language and mature situations, including some fairly creepy scenes involving a transvestite. And some hard-boiled irony.