Category Archives: Reviews

‘When One Man Dies,’ by Dave White

When One Man Dies

There are times when I read a book that doesn’t grab me, and I just delete it from my Kindle and move on.

And there are times when a book annoys me so much I have to finish it, just so I can give it a bad review.

When One Man Dies, by Dave White, is an example of the second category.

The book has good reviews on Amazon, and was nominated for awards.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

The first, obvious problem is that of paragraphing. As I’m sure you know, it’s the protocol among all writers of English dialogue that when a new speaker talks, you give him a new paragraph.

This book does not do that. One character will speak at the beginning of a paragraph, and the other will reply at the end of the same paragraph, without attribution. This is highly confusing. The reader has to stop frequently to figure out who said what. However, that may not be the author’s fault. It may be the fault of whoever set it up as an ebook. This appears to be a digital reissue of a previously published work. Continue reading ‘When One Man Dies,’ by Dave White

‘The Survivor,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Survivor

Cielle curled her legs beneath herself on the couch. “Is it scary?”

“Being sick?”

She nodded. Her fists rose to her chin, elbows on her knees. She might have been six or ten. “What’s it like?”

He could feel Janie, too, focused on him. The stillness was electric.

“It teaches you that no part of you is sacred,” he said. “And that other people are.”

Dear heavens, what Gregg Hurwitz puts me through with his novels.

Listen to the premise of The Survivor:

Nate Overbay has nothing left to live for. He lost his family, thanks to PTSD. Now he has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). And so he climbs out on a ledge on the 11th story of a bank building, to get it over with before the real suffering starts.

But instead of killing himself, he stops a bloody bank robbery, killing four out of five of the bank robbers. The lone survivor, before fleeing, tells him, “He will make you pay, in ways you can’t imagine.”

Soon, in spite of a steadily failing body, Nate is fighting desperately for the lives of his wife and daughter. Along the way he finds redemption he’d never thought possible.

Completely implausible. I didn’t believe the premise for a second. This book is so over the top it would never work if it weren’t being told by a consummate storyteller who knows how to flip all our switches. You will care – deeply – about this man and his family, people who come alive in stirring ways. You’ll even care about the villain, to an extent. The Survivor is, simply, a moving, irresistible read.

Cautions for language, violence, and plain intensity.

‘The Crime Writer,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Crime Writer

“You’re living an investigation?”

“A story. We all are, but this segment of my life has a pleasing structure to it.”

“Maybe that’s why it happened to you.”

“I don’t believe in intelligent design.”

“Sure you do.” She waved a hand at the book spines in all their eye-catching glory.

Drew Danner, the hero of Gregg Hurwitz’s novel The Crime Writer, is precisely that. He writes crime thrillers, and has gotten a movie deal and a TV series. He’s kind of a minor big shot in LA.

Until the day he wakes up in a hospital bed with a cop watching him. He is informed that a brain tumor has been removed from his head, and that he has murdered his ex-girlfriend. He can’t remember anything about it.

Drew gets off on a temporary insanity plea, thanks to the tumor, but he’s haunted. He needs to know whether he did this thing or not. He becomes even more frantic after another woman is murdered, with evidence pointing to him again. Has he become a danger to society, homicidal during blackouts?

His investigation (in which he learns, embarrassingly, that he knows less than he thought he did about the things he’s been writing about) leads him to meet an emotionally fragile, damaged woman with whom he begins a relationship. In Hurwitz’s trademark style, the tension zooms rather than ratchets up, and the stakes are soon greater than just Drew’s freedom – they involve his sanity and his very sense of himself.

I think I liked this book better than any Hurwitz I’ve read to date (I also think it’s the first thriller he wrote). Aspects I appreciated included some Christian characters who were treated simply as decent human beings, without a trace of condescension. There was a homosexual character who was so subtly revealed that you only began to suspect his orientation gradually, as is often the case in real life. And – perhaps for the first time in a novel for me – there was a sex scene that actually did advance the plot. It was done in good taste, and was very touching.

I probably need to mention that I did figure out whodunit fairly early on. That didn’t really bother me, though. I loved The Crime Writer for its own sake.

Highly recommended. Cautions for the usual.

‘Hitler’s Religion,’ by Richard Weikart

Hitler's Religion

It still amazes me that some people actually believe the public religious image that Hitler created for himself, as if Hitler would never have stooped to deceiving anyone about such important matters.

If you’re in the mood to start an argument and lose some friends on Facebook, you can hardly choose a better topic than Hitler’s religion (or lack thereof). Hitler is the great hot potato of ideologues – whoever gets him in the toss tries to pass him on to somebody else as quickly as possible. Atheists like to declare that Hitler was a Christian, and Christians like to retort he was an atheist, or an occultist.

Richard Weikart, author of Hitler’s Religion, says they’re all wrong. He provides pretty convincing documentation that Hitler was in fact a pantheist. Hitler remained a member of the Catholic Church for political purposes, and appealed to God and the Creator in his public statements. But, like so many modern figures, he cherished very private, secret definitions of those terms. Continue reading ‘Hitler’s Religion,’ by Richard Weikart

‘They’re Watching,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

They're Watching

A sometime model from Bulgaria, she had a knee-weakening accent and natural eyelashes longer than most Hollywood prenups.

Patrick Davis briefly realized his dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. He saw his script turned into a major picture. Then one day, on the set, he managed to sabotage his career, and shortly thereafter his marriage began to fall apart. Now he’s sleeping on the couch, contemplating a separation, and has taken a job teaching college-level writing. He feels pretty bad, but it’s about to get worse.

At the beginning of They’re Watching (by Gregg Hurwitz) Patrick brings in the morning paper one day to find an unlabeled DVD inside it. The video on the disc demonstrates that someone has been watching and filming him – even coming inside his house. After a couple more DVDs are delivered – and the police say they can’t help – he starts getting demands that he carry out certain tasks.

The odd thing is that they’re nice tasks.

But what follows is not nice at all. Soon Patrick is the chief suspect in a headline homicide, facing the prospect of conviction and execution. All indications say that the people manipulating him are powerful on a world-class scale, and have resources neither he nor the police (even if they believed him) can match.

I think They’re Watching is one of Gregg Hurwitz’s earlier books, and it seemed to me he hadn’t quite mastered the “start with an earthquake and then escalate” style his most recent books demonstrate when he wrote it. And frankly I liked that. The more leisurely beginning was easier for me to handle. But the stakes got high quickly enough, and I was riveted (despite the highly improbable plot – but after all they’re all highly improbable). It’s the kind of book designed to be made into a Mark Wahlberg movie with loads of choppy action and chase scenes. Lots of fun.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes, as you’d expect. Recommended for its proper audience.

‘The Star Fox,’ by Poul Anderson

The Star Fox

What I liked best about this book was that it’s a military science fiction novel written before political correctness. Thus, Poul Anderson’s The Space Fox is blessedly free of tiny little girls with mystic ninja skills who throw 200-pound men around in the manner of Summer Glau.

Centuries in the future, the earth is ruled by a Federation, which also has jurisdiction over various space colonies. One of the most promising of those colonies, New Europe (settled by Frenchpeople), has been conquered by an alien race, the Alerians. The Alerians report that all the human settlers have (unfortunately) been killed. The earth government, dominated by pacifists, is inclined to accept the fait accompli and cede the planet to them.

Gunnar Heim, industrialist, is not so sure. He knows New Europe and doesn’t find the Alerian story plausible. He expects that the humans there survive in the wilderness, and are waiting for relief from earth. When he meets a Hungarian folk singer who has brought evidence of just that, but can’t get a hearing from the government, he starts moving. With the help of a combative French (!) legislator, he concocts a scheme to exploit a loophole in the law to set out in his own war ship, the Space Fox, becoming a latter-day privateer.

The Star Fox was recommended to me by a friend as right up my alley, and it has numerous theoretical attractions for me. It was written by a Danish-American who grew up partly on a Minnesota farm. The hero, Gunnar, is a Norwegian-American who lapses into Norwegian in his conversation from time to time. And it was written as a commentary on the Vietnam War, which Anderson supported, as did I.

And yet, I didn’t love it as much as I should have. I don’t know what it is that puts me off about Poul Anderson. I’m in the habit of criticizing his characters, but I couldn’t really find fault with the characters here. Gunnar especially is very well drawn, and I was even moved by his troubles from time to time. Yet when I was finished, I had no great yearning to pick up another Anderson. So I guess it’s just me.

On that understanding, I recommend The Star Fox. In keeping with publishing norms in its time in history, it has no elements that make it unsuitable for any age of reader likely to enjoy it.

‘Murder in the Mind,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder in the Mind

‘Do you catch by logic, Daniel – or is it gut feel?’

Skelgill turns to her, blinking.

‘You mean fish?’

‘Fish – or criminals. Is there a difference?’

Now Skelgill is forced to contemplate the distinction.

‘After I’ve caught a fish – when I’m thinking about it – maybe driving home, walking the dog, whatever – I can explain how I did it.’ He pulls of his Tilley hat and absently combs back his hair with the fingers of one hand. ‘I can’t honestly say I always see it at the time.’

I think I have a codependent relationship with Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill mysteries, set in England’s Cumbria county. The man is annoying by design, and he does annoy me. He’s obsessive, exploitative of his underlings, and insensitive to others generally. And yet I keep coming back to the books.

In this outing, Murder in the Mind, Skelgill is more irritating than usual (even after appearing to make progress in the previous book). He and the long-suffering Sergeant Leyton drive out to a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane. The complaint is – apparently – a trivial one. Some supplies have gone missing. Yet before long two patients are dead, and later two more escape, one with a hostage. Continue reading ‘Murder in the Mind,’ by Bruce Beckham

Film review: ‘The Case for Christ’

The Case for Christ wasn’t what I hoped it would be, but on consideration, I don’t think such a thing is possible. I liked it anyway. I think it’s one of the better Christian films I’ve seen.

Granted, that’s a low bar. But this is pretty good, within its limitations.

If you don’t know already, it’s the story of how Lee Strobel, hotshot young Chicago Tribune reporter, came to write the famous book of the same title.

In 1980, Strobel’s daughter’s life is saved by a nurse who gives the credit to Jesus, who (she says) told her to be there at just that place and time.

Lee’s wife is intrigued by the woman’s faith, and befriends her. She goes to church with her, and is drawn into the fellowship.

For Lee, this is a major betrayal. He’s a confirmed atheist who refuses to believe anything not based on reason (though his resistance to faith, we will learn, also has other, more emotional roots). Fearing that he’s losing his family, he sets about writing a book to prove, once and for all, that the Resurrection never happened.

And you know how that turns out.

The acting is excellent, the script good. I particularly liked the recreation of the world of 1980, as Lee fusses with his long hair and depends on a pager to keep in touch with his wife. The filmmakers may not have recreated the period perfectly, but it’s pretty much how I remember it.

The problem with the film is that it’s kind of a mixed offering. The book it’s based on is an attempt to do a dispassionate, rational examination of the relevant evidence. You can’t really do that in a feature film – you’d have to make it a documentary longer than anyone would sit through. So the focus has been changed from the objective logical argument to the subjective lives of Lee Strobel and his friends and family. That’s certainly appropriate – it’s what a feature film does – but it’s a different thing from the book. If you’re looking for proof of the Resurrection, you’ll need to read the book. The movie is not that.

But it’s good. A superior film in the low-rent neighborhood that is Christian cinema. No doubt there are people out there for whom The Case for Christ will be just the thing they need to see.

The Fist of Iron and Clay

Marvel’s latest Netflix series Iron Fist has its moments. There’s a fight with a hatchet-wielding gang that’s reminiscent of the hallway battle in Daredevil’s first season only a step less exciting. I don’t know if that’s because it reminded me of the earlier scene or the hatchet fight was less dramatic. But it may be that this fight would have been better in a better context. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

I don’t want to write a negative review of Iron Fist. I want to love it, but somewhere in the middle I began wondering if the story could be told differently, and by the end I thought it was relying on clichés. How many master warriors or chosen heroes say they need to complete their training? Just about all of them nowadays. Did a gunslinger ever say, “I need to get back to the Broken Hand Ranch to complete my training”? This is the story of a man who has been given the mantle of The Iron Fist, living weapon, protector of a holy city against an eternal enemy.

Before I finished the series, my wife and I watched Jackie Chan’s 1994 action-comedy The Legend of Drunken Master. It’s hilarious overall and increasingly intense. The finale was amazing, somewhat comical, and exhausting. When Chan’s character confronts the strongest henchmen, a tall man who relies on kicking, you wonder if Chan can really win. I know Iron Fist is a completely different show with different skill sets, but it didn’t have fighting anyway close to this.

In many Kung Fu movies, someone confronts the hero with his gang, and they begin fighting two on one, then four on one, then eight or sixteen. A formula like that would have been perfect for a gauntlet run Danny undertakes in the series’ first half. He does start against two, but then he moves to a one-on-one of a very different nature and then another one-on-one with a type of weapons master. That last one is pretty good, but could we not bring in eight or more guys in the middle of that fight to increase the intensity?

Another common scene in Kung Fu movies is when the master happens into a gang of thugs who won’t let him go without a fight. He takes them down without breaking a sweat. Danny sweats through every fight. Maybe the writers considered similar ideas and left them in rehearsal. Perhaps they considered them cliché.

Continue reading The Fist of Iron and Clay

‘You’re Next,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

You're Next

“And it means the world to Mike. I’m worried about him. He’s been really… angry. I’ve never seen him like this.”

“You don’t worry about Mike when he’s mad,” Shep said. “You worry about him when he’s quiet.”

Mike Wingate, the hero of You’re Next, by Gregg Hurwitz, doesn’t know his real last name. As a boy of four he was abandoned by his father at a playground, with a promise that he’d come back to reclaim him someday. Mike waited, but he never returned.

Growing up in a group home, Mike learned to survive. He and his friend Shep formed a simple code: “Endurance. Loyalty.” Shep becomes a criminal but Mike, after a brief term in prison, goes straight. He marries and fathers a daughter. Eventually he becomes a property developer. He builds a “green” community that gets his picture in the papers with the governor of California.

And that’s when everything starts to go horribly wrong.

Someone has been looking for Mike all his life. Someone who wants him dead, along with his daughter. Mike will see his perfect life shattered, and he’ll have to call on Shep to help him protect his family and solve a decades-old mystery involving land and bloodlines and merciless greed.

The plot is Hitchcockian, the stakes high, the tension tight enough to snap steel. Honestly, these novels by Gregg Hurwitz are almost more than I can handle (but I’m kind of a wimp, as you know). Just when you think the danger can’t get worse, it does. Just when you think the mystery is solved, a new wrinkle appears. I was scared and I was moved. When it was done, I bought a Bruce Beckham novel to read next. I can’t handle too much of this all at once.

Cautions for language and violence. There are a couple of political barbs, but they point both ways. Highly recommended, unless you have a weak heart.

‘Tell No Lies,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Tell No Lies

Everyone’s got a con, a pinch of deceit, a green light at the end of the dock. And a dream, however grand or modest. A way they want it to be and an angle to get there.

Daniel Brasher is the scion of a San Francisco elite family. He turned his back on all that, and on his egregious mother’s wishes, to marry a “community organizer” and become a counselor to parolees. He’s tough on them. No lying in his group. He’s good at his job, and his marriage is happy, especially after his wife survived cancer.

The mail room in the moribund building where he works is little-used, so Daniel is surprised, visiting it one day after ignoring it a while, to find several envelopes addressed to other people in his box. He takes them home, planning to forward them the next day. Then he learns that one of the addressees was murdered. Opening the envelope, he discovers a letter threatening that person, giving them a now-expired deadline to “tell what you done.”

Daniel calls the police, but that’s not the end of his involvement. As further murders occur, he finds that a circle of violence is coming to center upon him personally. Fighting to save his own life and his wife’s, he’s forced to confront his own secret wrongdoings – his own kinship with the criminals he counsels. That’s the premise of Tell No Lies.

Gregg Hurwitz does not disappoint in this thriller. The writing is great, the tension merciless, and the characters throb with life. I sometimes find Hurwitz’s books almost more suspenseful than I can handle. And yet I keep coming back.

I might mention that there are political themes in Tell No Lies, but they’re handled right. Both conservatives and liberals get held up to scrutiny and are generally found wanting. The author is looking for a deeper truth here than mere party slogans.

Highly recommended. Cautions for language and violence.

‘The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World’

Robert Louis Stevenson

James McNamara reviews a new novel, written in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, in the Washington Post:

“Stevenson spent his days roaming the sprawling legendary city by the bay, spending miserly sums on food and half a bottle of wine per night, and writing furiously to try to make enough money to support the family he would instantly have when married.” He also kicked around an idea for a novel, “Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World,” but, as Doyle writes, no evidence of his manuscript or John Carson has ever emerged.

From this truthful starting point, [Brian] Doyle imagines the book Stevenson might have written: a glorious, swashbuckling tale that celebrates love, friendship and the sheer delight of being alive.

Hat tip: Books, Inq. Which got it (of course) from Dave Lull, Man of Mystery.

‘The War of Art,’ by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

Someone suggested to me that I might enjoy Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (and yes, I caught the reversal on Sun Tsu’s The Art of War… eventually). I’ve been struggling with my work in progress (it’s coming, but I’m fighting for every inch of ground), and I thought, what could it hurt?

It’s a remarkable book. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it, though.

It might save you the cost of purchase if I give you the basic message right here – the only way to succeed as a writer is to become a professional. Sit yourself down at your desk at the same time every day, and work at your craft. Don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. Especially don’t listen to the ones that say, “I’ll just skip it today.”

But the value of the book is (of course) in the reader’s journey. In polished, powerful prose Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and other bestselling books) analyses the writer’s problem (we have an enemy, which he calls “Resistance,” and we must learn to tread it under our feet). And he tells the story of his own evolution from a blocked, self-pitying wannabee to a fulfilled professional (anyone can do it, he says, which I think is an exaggeration. Not for me, of course, but for you other folks).

What troubles me about the book is its religious nature. When Pressfield talks about his Muse, he’s not being metaphorical. He lays out a whole theory of reality and consciousness (based on Jung), and says he believes that his muse actually exists. He prays to her each time he sits down to write.

On the negative side, he condemns all forms of Fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism and art,” he says, “are mutually exclusive.”

I take that kind of personally. I think you could call the medieval Roman Catholic Church fundamentalist, by his definition, and they did pretty well on the art front. The Puritans themselves gave us Milton and Bunyan.

So I’m uncomfortable with Pressfield’s religious statements. Speaking as a fundamentalist, I worry that he may have sold his soul to a devil, or be possessed in some way.

So I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The War of Art. As a motivational book, it’s excellent (I had a pretty good writing day the day I finished reading it). But spiritually I found it hazardous.

Also, cautions for language.

‘The First Rule,’ by Robert Crais

The First Rule

I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to observe that when you pick up a novel advertised as an action thriller and it begins with a happy family doing ordinary stuff, something awful is about to happen.

And so it is in Robert Crais’ The First Rule. The man whose life is destroyed here is Frank Meyer, a guy who used to work for Joe Pike as a mercenary. The police inform Joe of this, and question him. The other victims of this particular gang of murderers and thieves have been involved in organized crime, so they figure Frank must have been dirty too. Joe cannot believe that. With the help of his friend and business partner, private detective Elvis Cole, Joe employs his formidable military skills to unravel a scheme involving prostitution, illegal arms sales, and a kidnapped baby.

Author Crais has intentionally moved the Elvis Cole series from straight mysteries to action thrillers, which means a bigger role for the mysterious and dangerous Joe Pike. This has been a good move, as Joe is one of those laconic characters – few words and economical but explosive action – who work extremely well in high tension stories. A particular pleasure in The First Rule is the ironic scenes showing Pike’s developing relationship with the rescued baby – all the more touching in contrast with Joe’s cold, focused, almost monastic persona.

It occurred to me as I read that there are theological implications here (certainly not intended by the author). Joe is the kind of rescuer every true victim dreams of, though often silently. He does not only inflict violence on evildoers – he is terrible (in the sense of inspiring terror) when he does it. People who live in relatively safe and just environments have trouble understanding the need for a terrible avenger. It’s not enough that the wicked should be slain – they should be frightened as they die. Modern westerners don’t generally understand the aspect of terror that belongs to the just God of the Bible, but the oppressed and the persecuted do.

Anyway, I recommend The First Rule for those who can handle the language and violence. First class action entertainment.

‘Murder by Magic,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder by Magic

I’m liking Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series better and better as the novels go on. However, there’s one problem with Murder by Magic that means I’ll have to include in this review a warning for our readers.

This time around, Inspector Skelgill of the Midlands CID grows curious about a spate of sheep mutilations in the Lake District. Then he and his team look into the disappearance of an eastern European tourist, who seems to have disappeared on an extensive estate recently purchased a foreign scholar.

The inquiry leads to human trafficking, a black magic coven, and a violent climax in which Skelgill shows considerable personal courage, and even (surprisingly) a modicum of consideration for one of his sergeants, Sergeant Leyton, a Cockney he tends to run roughshod over. It’s less surprising that he takes care of his female sergeant, Sergeant Jones, an attractive woman he’s been flirting with passively throughout the series.

My problem with the story is a theological one. It’s pretty much impossible nowadays to write a story with evil black witches, I guess, unless you throw in a good white witch to prove you’re not a Salem Puritan. So here we have an attractive, wise, and helpful white witch who provides material assistance to the inquiry.

No mention of Christian spiritual teachings about magic are in evidence.

I suppose author Beckham had no choice. The story as a whole was good enough – the best in the series so far, I think – that I’ll probably read more, even in spite of the detour into the occult.

I suppose that means I’m getting old and soft.

Otherwise, recommended. The violence is not graphic, and the bad language is masked with circumlocutions, some of them pretty creative. Beckham also excels at descriptions of nature, which will be a special draw for certain readers.