Category Archives: Fiction

How Landing on the Moon Changed Us

We once thought nothing was in the heavens, at least nothing like what we saw around us. We didn’t see the moon as a destination of any kind. Joseph Bottum says that began to change after the Renaissance. Authors used the moon as a metaphor for their own commentary for a while; later sci-fi authors explored how we could get there and who might meet us. Before the moon landing, authors told new stories of an uninhabited moon.

But after the 1969 moon landing, the expectation shifted again—to the notion that now we would see a rapid expansion of human settlement out into the solar system. The moon would be a pawn in interplanetary politics, a hostage in the fight between such dominant powers as Mars and the moons of Saturn.  . . . That space mission 50 years ago—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalking on July 20, 1969—felt to science-fiction writers mostly a precursor, a first step, to the planets beyond. 

Image by Ponciano from Pixabay

‘The Gray Man,’ by Mark Greaney

As hard to criticize as a roller coaster, and just about as true to life. That’s The Gray Man, by Mark Greaney.

A friend recommended the series, so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a fun ride, and a nice time off for the critical brain.

Court Gentry is “The Gray Man,” a legendary contract assassin. Former US military, burned CIA operative, he now kills for hire – but never targets a man he doesn’t consider worthy of death (remember, this isn’t about realism). He never misses, and never gets caught. He is rarely even seen.

But now he’s a hunted man. A powerful African dictator wants him dead, and is offering both money and threats in exchange for his head (literally). A nefarious international security organization has pulled out all the stops, sending about twenty highly trained teams to hunt him down. If one can’t get him, another will. On top of that, they’ve kidnapped Court’s boss and his family, including his two granddaughters. To save his family, the boss will betray Court.

A sensible man would just go into hiding until it blows over – there’s a deadline. But Court isn’t like that. When the deadline passes, the granddaughters will be murdered. Court will not stand for that. He will traverse hundreds of miles, kill dozens of men, and sustain wounds that would stop or kill another man. But he will not fail in his rescue mission, even for the man who betrayed him.

As you can tell, this story is way over the top – the plot involves the kind of suspension of reason you usually find in action movies (I’m sure there’ll be a movie of this one). I didn’t believe the story for a second. But it was fun, like the aforementioned roller coaster. Pure entertainment, with rising tension and all the dramatic buttons pushed at precisely the right moments. For sheer action reading fun, it would be hard to beat The Gray Man.

I’ll probably read more. After all, my massive brain requires a rest now and then.

‘Stray Cat Blues,’ by Robert Bucchianeri

I was prepared to like Robert Bucchianeri’s Stray Cat Blues very much. I’m always on the lookout for a good Travis McGee clone, and this looked like it might be just the thing. But in the end, a couple problems turned me away.

Like Travis McGee, Max Plank, hero of this story, lives on a houseboat – in this case in San Francisco. His business model, though (unlike McGee’s “retirement in installments”), is never really explained. He’s just an unlicensed investigator who does whatever jobs he likes. (We’re also never given any hint what he looks like, except that he’s “big.” I find that lazy.) Instead of McGee’s large, genial friend Meyer, Plank has what most contemporary fictional detectives have – what I call a “psycho friend.” This friend is named Marsh, and he is an extremely wealthy lawyer and developer who also happens to be a master of the martial arts.

When Max gets a visit from a little girl named “Frankie,” who wants him to find her sister, he can’t refuse. The sister (cutely named “Johnnie”) had shadowy sources of income, and seems to have gotten on the wrong side of very dangerous people. Max’s investigations will lead him from ghetto dives to the heights of the San Francisco power structure. Johnnie was swimming in very perilous waters.

The writing was pretty good, and Max was an interesting – and sympathetic – character. Only two story elements put me off.

One, his friend Marsh is homosexual. I already follow one series with a steady homosexual character – Milo Sturgis in Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series. But Milo is a schlub and in a stable relationship. We don’t actually see him do much about his sexual orientation. In Stray Cat Blues, we observe Marsh actually putting the moves on a young man. And that creeped me out.

Also, I found Max Plank’s machismo kind of stereotyped and implausible. Once again, we see a detective sustain what is certainly a concussion, and he refuses treatment and is (apparently) all better the next day. I’m tired of that trope.

So, sadly, I decided not to follow up on the Max Plank series. Your mileage may vary. Considerd purely as a hard-boiled detective novel, it’s not bad at all.

‘Grift Sense,’ by James Swain

When it came to bad relationships, he had no equal, and Valentine couldn’t help but like him, even though he liked practically nothing about him.

James Swain writes novels about cheating in the gambling world, based on the expertise of a magician. I took a chance on Grift Sense, the first book in his Tony Valentine series, because I thought it might be interesting to peek into that world.

Tony Valentine is a former Atlantic City cop who knows just about everything there is to know about gambling cheats. He’s retired in Florida now, but casino owners still send him surveillance tapes, so he can study them and identify some particularly clever scam.

He gets a request from Nick Nicocropolis, who owns the Acropolis casino in Las Vegas, once a premiere venue, now aging and on its last legs. A guy has come in twice and won big. Too big for the odds. And the video offers no explanation for his “luck.” Tony doesn’t care for Nick much, but he accepts his offer to fly out to Sin City for two reasons – one is the challenge. The other is to avoid his estranged son Gerry, whom he wants to avoid just now.

Tony will learn, after a lot of looking, that Nick has a bigger problem than just a single card shark. Something major is being planned, a crime that will shake Vegas and destroy Nick – unless Tony can stop it.

There was a lot to like in Grift Sense. Author Swain plots with the instincts of a sleight-of-hand artist, equipped with big surprises up his sleeve. He’s also a good writer, capable of turning out a pretty good sentence. His characters are interesting and layered.

But I won’t be reading any more. I find that I just don’t like the world of gambling. It’s full of predators, and cynicism is the only sensible attitude. The nicest, most sympathetic people are either victims or con artists. I feel no desire to revisit that world.

You might have a different response. If so, this is a pretty good book.

‘The Damaged,’ by Brett Battles

In the latest installment in Brett Battles’s solid Jonathan Quinn thriller series, he takes us on a diversion back in time. The Damaged is a prequel, telling us what happened before Jonathan Quinn first appeared in The Cleaner.

Jonathan Quinn, if you’re not familiar with him, is a “cleaner.” That is, he’s one of the guys who cleans up the scene after a government agency assassinates or abducts somebody. In The Damaged, he’s still building his reputation. He’s efficient, honest, and thorough in his work. He owes his career –and his life – to his former mentor, Durrie.

But Durrie’s star is in decline. Always a gruff and surly type, recently he’s become erratic. He takes shortcuts at his work, and blames his mistakes on others. His narcissism is devouring his personality.

Quinn wants to help him, both for friendship’s sake, and for the sake of Durrie’s girlfriend, Orlando, with whom Quinn is silently in love. So when he gets an assignment and is asked to take Durrie along as his helper (a demotion for Durrie), he agrees, hoping to help him get his footing again and reinstate himself.

But Durrie has his own plans. In the classic style of bad characters, he’s incapable of believing in virtue in others. If Quinn is helping him, he must have ulterior motives. He must be planning to move in on Orlando.

Durrie is going to thwart this “plot.” And he doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way.

The Damaged was a pretty good story in a dependable series. Its chief defect is a somewhat anticlimactic ending, but that’s because it’s setting the scene for The Cleaner. New readers will find it a decent introduction to the series, and old fans will find it entertaining.

‘I Have Sinned,’ by Caimh McDonnell

He had always been a deceptively good athlete, in the sense that, to look at him, you wouldn’t have thought he was any kind of an athlete at all.

Bless me Father, I loved this book. Loved it to death. I’ve enjoyed all Caimh McDonnell’s novels, but this one was a special delight.

If you haven’t been following the series, fat old drunken Bunny McGarry, former Dublin policeman, is thought by his Irish friends to be dead. He is not. Instead, he’s in the United States on a personal mission. The love of his life is living in hiding, protected by a shadowy, renegade order of nuns called the Sisters of the Saint. He needs to contact her and warn her about something. As I Have Sinned begins, he has learned the name of a man who might be able to put him in touch with those women. But that’s another challenge. The man is Father Gabriel de Marcos, a priest in a New York ghetto neighborhood. Father Gabriel has no time for Irishmen on missions – he’s trying to save a few of the kids in his flock from the trap of gangster life – a girl who can box, a boy who can paint, a young man with a gift for words.

But Bunny stubbornly insists on sticking around until Father Gabriel can help him. Bunny can even help with coaching the kids in the church gym. Reluctantly, Father Gabriel lets him move in as a type of assistant priest –a tough gig for Bunny, devoted as he is to getting drunk and cursing. Gang leaders are threatening Father Gabriel, accusing him of stealing “their” people. But the priest insists he has no need of Bunny’s  protection.

And it’s almost true. Father Gabriel has secrets, and a history. A history that’s catching up with him.

It all comes together in a farcical explosion of improbable action, slapstick, and genuine heroism and grace.

What I loved most about I Have Sinned was that along with exciting fights and witty writing, there was genuine goodness and sweetness here. Father Gabriel is a tremendous hero, a sincere man of God, loving his neighbor and struggling to redeem his past (I could quibble that he has a poor understanding of grace, but what do you expect from a Catholic?). I was charmed even while I laughed. You’d have to go far to find a more positive portrayal of a man of God in any novel.

Nevertheless, you need to be prepared for lots of foul language. But other than that, I highly recommend I Have Sinned. You’ll probably want to read the rest of the books first, though.

‘Nowhither,’ by John C. Wright

I very much enjoyed John C. Wright’s wildly creative – and wildly fun – fantasy novel, Somewhither, which I reviewed a while back. There we met one of the strangest heroes in fiction – teenaged boy Ilya Muromets, who always knew he was adopted – after all, he looks like a Neanderthal, while the rest of his family is slender and blond. What he has learned since is that he is actually an alien from another universe, and pretty much invulnerable. If he gets wounded – even beheaded – his body just reassembles itself. So one day when he saw the girl he had a crush on – scientist’s daughter “Penny” Dreadful – pulled through an interdimensional portal into an alternate reality, he did what came naturally. He followed her, wearing a bathrobe and carrying his grandfather’s katana sword. After all, he’d always wanted to be a hero. Then followed the bizarre adventures of that book.

At the beginning of Nowhither, the second book in the series, Ilya finds himself trapped in a sort of interdimensional transit station, besieged by evil wizards who are slowly breaking down his own wizard’s defense spells. With him are some friends he’s made plus 150 pretty slave girls he’s rescued, all of whom look to him as a leader for some reason. At last he and his friends work out an escape plan, and they manage to escape to Penny’s home planet – an undersea world peopled entirely by something like mermaids. Here Ilya will be reunited with part of his family, and learn some hard truths about himself and the consequences of his actions.

Nowhither is an unabashedly Christian novel – though the Christianity is emphatically Roman Catholic, which will probably bother some Protestant readers. The theological implications all through are complex, and I generally didn’t bother worrying about them. The book is fun, and I wish I could say it was as fun as Somewhither was. But in fact I have some reservations.

One is complexity. Author Wright has created a richly imaginative world, full of characters, nationalities, religions, and even universes – all anchored in the Book of Genesis. But a by-product of that fecundity of invention is that lots of exposition is required. It seemed to me that about half of Nowhither consisted of people explaining stuff. There was some action, but a lot less than in the last book.

The second problem is one I hesitate to name, but can’t avoid. Nowhither is a very sexy book. Young Ilya gets subjected to a level of sexual temptation that’s hard to describe. His (successful) efforts to keep his chastity are admirable, exemplary, violent, and biblical. But lots and lots of time is spent describing the sensual delights of “the drowned world.” (The “mermaid” on the cover is dressed much more modestly than the ones in the book.) I fear that, for teenaged male readers, that may have… unintended results. This much “skin” in a book will not, I fear, contribute much to the Gross National Continence.

Maybe I’m just a prude.

Anyway, I do recommend Nowhither, but mainly so you can keep up with the series and be ready for the next book. And for the jokes, because it’s pretty funny.

‘Only the Dead,’ by Malcolm Hollingdrake

The formula for the British police procedural seems to be fairly well established. You have your stalwart Inspector, both wise and experienced (and always male for me, because I don’t read the other kind). You have his stalwart, younger partner – usually, but not always, male – who seems dumb but only in comparison to his boss. Underneath these, a scattering of team members of both genders – the females usually more gorgeous than is probable, but correspondingly smart, and one or two members of racial minorities. You pretty much need to resort to personal quirks to distinguish one series from another.

In the Harrogate Mystery series, set in English Yorkshire, the main character is Detective Chief Inspector Cyril Bennett. He distinguishes himself by being a good dresser, and somewhat OCD about organization. At least in this book, he’s unusual in suffering from Bell’s Palsy, which temporarily paralyzes half his face, leaving one eye constantly staring.

But that doesn’t keep him from working in Only the Dead. On the grounds of a teacher training college, workmen discover the buried bodies of two infants. At the same time, a vigilante is walking the streets of the city, using mustard gas recovered from unexploded World War I shells to attack and incapacitate (not kill) certain disgraced members of the elderly care industry. Investigation will lead to an insidious human trafficking operation.

I found Only the Dead a little hard to get into at first – the descriptions seemed kind of amorphous. But that got better. After that, the story moved right along and kept my attention.

My problem with the book stems from my personal beliefs and reactions. This book is not an apologia for the “gay” movement – the gay characters in the book are fairly unpleasant people. But we spend a fair amount of time with them, and the scenes get kind of… intimate. I find that icky.

So all in all, my verdict is “neutral.” Not a bad book; the writing was good. There seemed to be a strong moral sense undergirding all – whether it’s consistent with my own sense it’s too early to say. But the “ick” factor may keep me from going back.

‘Thicker Than Water,’ by J.D. Kirk

I was impressed with J. D. Kirk’s first DI Jack Logan novel, A Litter of Bones. So I pre-ordered the second book, Thicker Than Water. It’s out now, and I’d say the quality has been maintained, though I have cautions.

For the convenience of the reader, Detective Inspector Jack Logan has decided to leave his former post in Glasgow and move permanently to the Highlands, where he solved the Litter of Bones mystery. Now he’s officially in charge of the squad he headed up last time, even including another outsider who also conveniently transfers in.

The body of a woman is found floating, wrapped in a tarpaulin, in Loch Ness. She was murdered in a particularly savage way, and it’s extremely aggravating that internet nutbars are flocking in in droves to proclaim with delight that the Loch Ness monster is responsible.

The mystery leads to some pretty ugly worms under pretty weird rocks, and Jack will (in the honored tradition of fictional detectives) have to “walk off” a concussion and several broken ribs in his effort to bring a very twisted killer to some kind of justice.

The strength of the Jack Logan books is the characters and dialogue, especially the constant teasing of a junior detective. What I have the most trouble with is that the murders seem to be selected for their extreme cruelty. Also, I’m not sure what to make of one purportedly Christian character.

But all in all, pretty good, if you like this sort of thing.

‘A Long Time Coming,’ by Aaron Elkins

I was weary of the string of brainless mystery/thrillers I’d been reading, so I looked for a change of pace. A novel by Aaron Elkins showed up on an Amazon list. I have no idea where or when I conceived an opinion on Aaron Elkins, but I had an idea he wrote intelligent mysteries. I was not wrong.

In A Long Time Coming, we meet Val Caruso, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Val is preparing for a trip to Milan, to do prep work for a touring exhibit. He gets a call from his friend Esther, who works with a foundation devoted to returning art stolen by the Nazis to its original owners. The case she wants help with now is one they lost. Italian courts have a high view of the rights of good-faith purchasers, and so old Sol Bezzecca has lost his claim to a pair of early Renoir paintings that once hung in his great-grandfather’s home. But the current owner of the paintings is a friend of Val’s. Would it be possible to persuade him to lend the old man one of them, just until he dies, which can’t be long now?

Val agrees to try. He’s helped the foundation out before. In Milan he approaches his friend, art dealer Ulisse Agnello, and proposes the deal. Ulisse says he’s inclined to agree, but there are “complications.”

The complications involve a high-class loan shark and a slightly dubious art restorer. Eventually there will be murder, and Val’s knowledge of Impressionist art will enable him to untangle a devious, ruthless scheme and make an old man happy.

I enjoyed A Long Time Coming quite a lot. The details about the art world and Milanese culture were interesting. The characters were plausible and quirky. The writing was very good, sometimes moving. And it was a great relief to finally read a book where the detective has the sense to listen to his doctors and stay in bed after sustaining a concussion.

I recommend A Long Time Coming. There may have been some bad language, but it left no impression on me.

‘Wild Justice,’ by Tripp Ellis

I’m a sucker for boats. That’s my problem, I think.

Recently I’ve been reading a string of mystery/thrillers set in the coastal American south, most of them having boats on their covers. I like boats, and stories about boats. I really loved the sailing mysteries Bernard Cornwell wrote a long time ago, but apparently nobody else liked them. So he went on to historical epics, which I don’t like nearly as much. At least I don’t like his approach…

Where was I?

Oh yes, so the last book I reviewed was Wild Ocean by Tripp Ellis, and although the story didn’t shiver my timbers, I gave the series one more try with the second installment, Wild Justice.

I think that’s plenty.

Tyson Wild, hero of the series, former black-ops contractor now living in Coconut Key, Florida, is approached by the local sheriff, who’s short-handed. He wants Tyson and his buddy JD to help him investigate the murder of a reputed drug dealer. They agree, mostly for the fun, and in between juggling their various gorgeous girlfriends and intervening in JD’s drug-using daughter’s problems, they do this. An innocent woman gets killed in a horrible way, and a good deal of implausible heroics are indulged in.

I’ve had enough. Wild Justice is low grade male entertainment, comparable to a shallow-end romance novel for women. I don’t recommend it. Also, there are a lot of homonym errors, and an annoying tendency to end speculative sentences not phrased in the form of a question with question marks.

‘Wild Ocean,’ by Tripp Ellis

I had hoped for more than I actually got from Tripp Ellis’s Wild Ocean. This thriller begins with the main character enduring a vision of Hell, as he lies unconscious in a hospital bed. He awakens determined to avoid Hell at all costs. I thought that might be an opening for some deeper elements in the story, but alas, it’s just a jumping-off point.

Tyson Wild works for one of those “private” security companies to whom governments contract out some of their more dubious clandestine work. When he survives (pretty improbably) an assassination attempt while he’s recovering from a gunshot wound, he learns that he’s under suspicion from his employer, who is keeping his liquidation as an option. He decides to go home to Coconut Key, Florida, where his sister runs a bar and an old friend, JD, runs a charter boat service. Before long a friend of his sister’s will be murdered, and Tyson and JD will need all their skills to uncover the murderer and save some innocent people from being collateral damage in a big drug bust.

I would rate this book as OK entertainment. Nothing very profound, competent writing (except for a few misspellings), lots of action and lots of beautiful women and sex (nothing too explicit). I probably wouldn’t have bought the second book in the series if I saw anything more interesting coming up, but I didn’t.

‘Lost In the Storm,’ by Mark Stone

There’s much to be said for Mark Stone’s novel Lost In the Storm, the first in a series. The hero is Chicago police detective Dillon Storm. For the first time in a dozen years, he’s back in his home town, the elite city of Naples, Florida. He didn’t want to come. He’s the illegitimate son of the richest man in Naples, and was never acknowledged by his father. But that father is dead now, and there are questions. When his father’s lawyer is found murdered with Dillon’s phone number in his cell phone, it starts getting personal.

Dillon will re-kindle some old relationships and learn some things he never knew about the family that shut him out. And he will discover important things about himself.

The story in itself was pretty good. I liked the characters, and found Dillon Storm a compelling hero.

The problem was the writing. The book needed heavy editing. There were lots of misspellings. And in one amazing passage, the author moved the sunset from the west to the east.

I might try another in the series, hoping the proofreading improves, because I did like the story. There were even some positive references to Christianity.

But I can’t wholly endorse it as a work of literature.

The ‘Titus’ series by John D. Patten

I had a fair amount of time to read over my long weekend out of town, and in that time I polished off the three books (to date) of John D. Patten’s Titus series of mystery/thrillers. I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say about them. They’re strange. But fun.

Titus (he never tells us his last name) is a former Boston police detective who did some time in prison, though he was exonerated and released. Recently he went to Miami, with the sole intention of killing a man. That man, he believes, killed the only woman he ever loved.

But his first night in town, his car was stopped on a bridge by a beautiful policewoman. For some reason, after that encounter, he lost some of his fire. He’s delaying killing his target, instead renting a room and working in a bar, waiting for… something.

One night, a very rich woman approaches him in the bar’s parking lot. Titus was referred to her, she says, by a friend. Her daughter has disappeared. The girl has had some trouble with drugs, but was straightening her life out. Can Titus look for her?

Titus has an intuition that something’s hinky about the woman’s story, but he takes the case, having nothing better to do. He enters a world of Miami nightclubs, drugs, excess, human trafficking, lies and betrayal. That’s the premise of the first book, Miami Burn.

In the second book, Miami Chill, Titus takes a bodyguard job which leads him to deal, again, with human traffickers. He also discovers some secrets about his personal and family history.

The third book, Miami Storm, starts with Titus in a hospital bed, recovering from a gunshot wound he can’t remember sustaining. A surprising friend rescues him (he was being held by people who wanted him to remember valuable information), helps him regain his physical strength, and turns him loose to run down some international criminals and to discover shocking truths about his own past.

What can I say about the Titus books? Back when I was young, before Robert B. Parker raised Spenser’s (another one-name detective from Boston) consciousness, there used to be a lot of mysteries aimed at the male market. Prominent representatives were Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott. Aside from action and mystery, these books featured a whole lot of sex. Improbably gorgeous women constantly threw themselves at these heroes, and the heroes took ample advantage of their opportunities.

Titus is kind of like that – women are always jumping on him, sometimes going to the trouble of disrobing before propositioning him. Titus is a little more reluctant than the old school private eyes – he generally tries to resist, especially when (as is often the case) the women are much younger than he. But he gives in a lot, too, especially when he’s had too much to drink. The sex isn’t explicit, but there’s a lot of it.

On the other hand, there’s the character of “The Reverend.” Like Spenser, Titus has a big, muscled, dangerous black friend. But this friend is a preacher, a reformed thug who runs an inner city mission and often preaches to Titus. But he’s also a good man to have at your back in a fight. And he gradually influences Titus’s thinking.

So what we’ve got here is kind of a Crossway Books story by way of Mickey Spillane. An odd concoction.

But I have to admit – I had more fun with these books than I’ve had with many books in a long time.

So I recommend them conditionally – if you can handle the sexual situations, the violence, and the profanity, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had here. And even a little inspiration. The writing isn’t bad either.

‘A Litter of Bones,’ by J. D. Kirk

The office was small, but fastidiously neat to the point it didn’t look like a functioning workplace at all. Rather, it was like something IKEA might use as a showpiece for its new office range designed for the deeply unimaginative.

I dislike calling books “un-put-down-able.” A book can always be put down. Just let your house catch fire and you’ll see. But there are books that keep you turning pages, that you have trouble putting aside. It’s a quality I find rarer as I grow older. But that’s how I found A Litter of Bones. And when I note that it’s a first novel, I’m deeply impressed.

Jack Logan is a police detective in Glasgow, Scotland. He made his reputation solving the “Mister Whisper” serial abduction-murder case years ago, finding a man who tortured and murdered several little boys. One boy’s body was never found, and that haunts him. The trauma of the whole case marked him, destroying his marriage.

Now a boy has been kidnapped in the Highlands, and Logan is dispatched to go and lead that investigation. The case mirrors the original case closely – including details never made public. So the question arises, did Logan get it wrong the first time? Logan is certain that can’t be true. He doesn’t know where the copycat got his information, but the original Mister Whisper is behind bars.

A Litter of Bones features some excellent character development. Jack Logan seems unsympathetic at first. He’s driven, obsessive, abrasive, certain of his own judgments.

But as we get to know him better, we see his motivations. He cares, perhaps too deeply. He has reasons for his certitude. And he will go to any lengths to save a victim – even at the expense of his career, his freedom, and his life.

The final solution was a blindside punch. Followed by a bittersweet anticlimax.

I’m really looking forward to the second book in the Jack Logan series, which I’ve pre-ordered.

Cautions – there is deeply disturbing material in this story, including the torture of animals (some people, for some reason, are more troubled by that than by the torture of children). So be warned that this is no feel-good story. But I recommend it highly, if you appreciate this sort of thing.