Category Archives: Reviews

‘Lost in a Good Book,’ by Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book

“You’re the Cheshire Cat, aren’t you?” I asked.

“I was the Cheshire Cat,” he replied with a slightly aggrieved air. “But they moved the county boundaries, so technically speaking I’m now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it….”

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels were recommended to me by a reader of this blog. I found Lost in a Good Book, the second in the series, amusing. But alas, I didn’t love it.

The world of female Special Operative Thursday Next is an alternate one from ours. In this world England was occupied during World War II (though they beat the Germans at last), and the Crimean War went on for more than a century. The cloning of extinct species is routine, so that many people keep pet dodos, mastodons roam the land, and sad Neanderthals work at menial jobs. The plots and characters of works of fiction are not entirely fixed, so that agents like Thursday keep occupied running down truant literary characters.

When a nobleman discovers a lost play of Shakespeare’s in his ancient library, Thursday helps to authenticate it, but it’s not what it appears. Thursday’s husband vanishes at about the same time she discovers she’s pregnant. The people who abducted him pressure her to enter the world of Poe’s “The Raven” to do a job for them, in spite of known dangers. In need of money, she moonlights as a “JurisFiction” agent, helping fictional characters police their own under the tutelage of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. And, according to Thursday’s father (who doesn’t technically exist), the world is about to end in a couple days.

The closest parallel I can think of is A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The action is non-stop, and so are the jokes. If you like puns, these books will please you.

I think my problem with it was that I’m deficient in a certain kind of imagination. I want to have a sense of the logic of a story, and I was never really sure what the rules were here. Oddly, the parts that really spoke to me best were the brief passages involving Neanderthals, sad strangers in the world who find no place for their distinct way of thinking, and have no hope of posterity because they’ve all been cloned sterile.

Lost In a Good Book is a very clever, very creative book, and you may enjoy it a lot. Cautions for some bad language, and for strange religious concepts.

‘Sword of Honor,’ by Evelyn Waugh

Sword of Honor

Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster, as though in retribution from the God of Kipling’s Recessional.

For Evelyn Waugh, World War II was not a great crusade, or the triumph of western democracies over tyranny. It was the moment (subsequent to the alliance with Stalin) when the West gave up its purpose entirely, and submitted to the whims of totalitarianism.

The hero of Sword of Honor is Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient, noble Catholic family in England. As the last of his line, he has failed in his duties of succession through marrying a frivolous Protestant who divorced him and has since moved on to a couple other marriages. Now he can’t marry again under church law. World-weary, he is living in a villa in Italy when the war begins, and he goes home to England to volunteer for service. Eventually he finds a commission in the (fictional) Royal Halbardiers, and later transfers to a Commando unit. An official misapprehension of his status as a security risk generally keeps him out of action, and when he gets into it he gets involved in disasters. Gradually he grows disillusioned with the Great Cause, but he persists in quietly attempting to do his duty, in the midst of increasing absurdity.

I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in the sense that this is a darkly comic book about the insanity of war. Only Waugh’s presuppositions are very different from Heller’s. His hero longs for a reason to fight – even to die – but is denied it. There were also similarities to Graham Greene, another Catholic writer. But Greene admired the Communists and hated Americans, while Waugh loathes the Communists, and find Americans merely vulgar.

Sword of Honor can be very funny, but it’s also rather depressing. The writing, needless to say, is top drawer, with many memorable passages and a full cast of farcical characters.

Recommended, if you’re looking for this sort of thing.

‘Terminus,’ by Pete Brassett

Terminus

Pete Brassett’s Inspector Munro series of police procedurals, set in Scotland, are in some ways hard to tell apart from other similar series I’ve been following, set in other parts of the British Isles. But this series manages to distinguish itself in some ways from the others. That’s partly because Munro is just a bit less curmudgeonly than other aging fictional detectives (he shows genuine concern for his colleagues, and often picks up the check in pubs), and partly because his (almost obligatory) female sidekick is an alcoholic who could crash her career at any moment.

At the beginning of Terminus, we find DI Munro in the hospital (or “in hospital,” as they say over there), after being hit while walking by a hit-and-run driver. He refuses, of course, to obey doctor’s orders, and escapes without being formally released. All indications are that the hit-and-run was intentional, related to a drug case Munro worked on earlier. The drug kingpin (a Norwegian!) has disappeared and is thought dead. But is he?

Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated matter, the team learns that a shady lawyer has been falsifying the wills of elderly people, to his own profit. Before they finish kicking over rocks, some very surprising beasties will come scuttling into the light. And the whole thing culminates in a shocking (if slightly improbable) confrontation.

Good fun, and I didn’t notice any unacceptable language. Recommended.

‘Full Dark House,’ by Christopher Fowler

Full Dark House

When John looked at the posturing actresses angling their best sides to the audience, he saw nothing but mannequins and painted flats. Arthur saw something fleeting and indefinable. He saw the promises of youth made flesh, something beautiful and distant, a spontaneous gaiety forever denied to a man who couldn’t open his mouth without thinking.

The premise is promising – a secretive, small unit within the London police apparatus, devoted to handling cases that fall outside the parameters of science and reason. The Peculiar Crimes Unit exists for cases with hints of witchcraft, the paranormal, and myth. The actual execution of Full Dark House, first in a series by Christopher Fowler, however, was at once delightful and disappointing to this reader.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s primary investigators are two men, very different but complementary. John May is handsome and affable, a man who prefers reason and hard evidence. Arthur Bryant is dumpy and socially awkward, fascinated with the esoteric and the arcane. In spite of their differences, they are devoted friends.

The story is told in “envelope” form. The outside envelope is set in the present day, when John is called to view the smoking ruins of their office, destroyed by a bomb. Arthur’s body is taken away from it. Grieving, John makes up his mind to discover the guilty party, despite the fact that he recently retired (improbably, in his 90s). Arthur (also improbably) had stayed on in the Unit.

John’s inquiries convince him that the bombing is related to their first case together, back when they were very young policemen promoted to detective ahead of schedule due to wartime manpower shortages. A ballerina was discovered murdered in the Palace Theatre – her feet cut off. A string of murders followed in the same building, in the midst of the even greater horror of the London Blitz. Their suspicions came to center on the theater’s owner, a Greek millionaire with a grudge to settle, but some surprises were in store.

What I liked best about Full Dark House was the prose. Author Fowler is an excellent stylist. He can put a sly (and hilarious) slant on seemingly ordinary sentences, making reading his work a delight. His characters and dialogue are also quite good.

But the plot didn’t work for me. I found the final resolution improbable and overly convoluted (and not because of paranormal elements). Also there were some subtle hints of leftist politics. And there’s the eternal problem for the Christian, so common in supernatural stories, of the treatment of witchcraft and the occult as positive (or at least neutral) forces.

So I can’t recommend Full Dark House to our readers, despite some superior qualities.

‘Jack of Hearts,’ by Christopher Greyson

Jack of Hearts

I’ve been following Christopher Greyson’s entertaining series of mystery thrillers starring Jack Stratton. They are both exciting and wholesome, a rare combination.

Jack of Hearts, for my money, was not among the best in the series. It’s certainly worth reading, but I didn’t think it entirely worked.

Jack Stratton and Alice, his girlfriend, take a flight to Florida to visit Jack’s adoptive parents. Due to unexpected circumstances they have to bring along Lady, their gigantic German Shepherd. This turns out to be both a good and a bad thing.

In the retirement community where Jack’s folks live, the chief topic of conversation is “the burglaries.” Someone has been stealing fairly worthless stuff from people’s lawns and homes. The retirees are delighted by the excitement, and a group of them, including Jack’s mother, have started their own investigation. They’re all mystery readers and eager for adventure.

Unfortunately, amid the petty crime, there are a couple real criminals, people without scruples or mercy, who will pose a deadly threat to Jack’s family.

Much of the book is taken up with the antics of the retiree-detectives, which are intended to be funny. For me that element just didn’t work. Broad humor isn’t author Greyson’s forte. Most of the comic situations seemed to me contrived and improbable.

The darker elements worked better. Once the light stuff was out of the way, the story actually got going and had me by the throat. Also there’s a new (and moving) development in Jack’s and Alice’s relationship.

If you’re looking for clean adventure with romance and an understated Christian element, the Jack Stratton books are definitely worth reading. You may even enjoy the “cozy” humor in this one more than I did.

‘Angels in the Moonlight,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Angels in the Moonlight

I suspect author Caimh McDonnell is having us on.

He’s producing three books called the Dublin Trilogy. I’ve reviewed the first two already (loved the first, thought the second was OK). Now, instead of releasing the third book like a decent citizen, he’s come out with a prequel.

I’d be miffed if it weren’t so bloody good.

Angels in the Moonlight is set in Dublin in the fall of 1999, when the whole world is worrying about the Millennium. Detective Sergeant Bunny McGarry (whom we know from the previous books) is living life his own way, dividing his energies between his police work and the schoolboy hurling team he coaches. He worries about his partner and friend, “Gringo” Spain, who’s feeling the pressures of a failing marriage and a gambling habit.

They’re assigned to a task force devoted to bringing down a gang that runs a particular housing project. It started out kind of noble, when honest citizens, frustrated by the impotence of the police, took matters into their own hands and drove the drug dealers out.

But the original leader is dying, and his son is taking over. That son is highly intelligent and possesses formidable fighting skills, being a veteran of the SAS. But he has a different attitude from his dad, and intends to get into the drug business himself. As he masterminds and carries out a string of “Robin Hood” style operations against banks and wealthy businesses, he is not only always two steps ahead of the police, but he finds ways to make them look foolish. It’s fun until people start getting hurt. And killed.

Meanwhile Bunny is falling in love with an American jazz singer who has extremely dark secrets. She lives in a house of very unconventional nuns. Bunny would die for her – and may have to. He will certainly bend the law.

Angels in the Moonlight is funny and tragic. It’s profane and obscene and full of off-color jokes. But I enjoyed every page. This is a brilliant, hilarious, touching, and moving book. Highly recommended, if you can handle its earthy qualities.

‘The Kidney Donor,’ by P. F. Ford

The Kidney Donor

I expect you’re tired of my reviews of P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater novels, but that’s what I read last, and I don’t have any deathless thoughts about Labor Day to share (I labored today, for the record). I promise the next one will be from another author.

In The Kidney Donor, we find our hero Dave Slater freshly separated from the Tinton (England) police force and freshly returned from a vacation in Thailand. He and his former partner, Norman Norman, are thinking about starting a private investigation agency. Norman takes him to meet a vicar and his wife, who run a soup kitchen out of their church. When one of the homeless men they care for is killed in a dumpster fire, while sleeping in another homeless man’s usual place, they wonder why their former police colleagues are taking so little interest in the death. When more deaths follow, they grow even more suspicious. Their pro bono investigation uncovers organized crime connections, police malfeasance, and a very old grudge.

I’m amused by the fact that I enjoy these books so well. The writing can be very uneven. Author Ford has a particular problem developing his characters. In one scene here a tough old gangster carelessly speaks to Dave and Norman about a very personal tragedy – something a hard man like that would never mention to cops (or ex-cops) in real life.

But I have fun with the Dave Slater books. They’re light and positive in tone. I recommend them on that basis, with cautions mostly for language.

‘No Moon to Pray To,’ by Jerry Guern

Everyone talks to me with Your voice, Enik thought. Everyone but You. Every time I’ve ever set out to serve You, it’s all turned out wrong. All my life I’ve begged You to tell me, to show me what You want. Nothing else. Why did You make me Your knight and then refuse to command me?

It’s a rare pleasure to discover a Christian fantasy I can really recommend. It’s even rarer (unprecedented, I’m pretty sure) to find a vampire story I can recommend. No Moon to Pray To, by Jerry Guern, impressed me very much.

Father Michael is a member of an ancient Church order, a secret fighting order devoted to hunting vampires. The order is led by a strange old bishop who has a secret – a secret Michael shares, though he doesn’t know it yet.

Enik is an old French knight, a former crusader. Once a hero, he went home disgraced. Now he lives in self-imposed poverty in his castle, devoted to one thing only, the protection of the peasants in his care. Right now he has to protect them from an attack by a nest of vampires.

Fate, or the hand of God, will throw them together. But that will only make things more complicated.

One of my chief problems with run of the mill Christian fiction is a lack of ambiguity. Good and evil tend to be pretty obvious, making choices easy for the characters, and making the stories irrelevant to actual human experience. It also makes them boring. Author Guern is not guilty of this sin. No Moon to Pray To is chock full of ambiguity. The best of his characters are always in doubt about God’s will, and his worst characters (even some of the vampires) have their admirable moments. Sometimes you wonder whom to root for.

The characters were well-drawn. The dialogue was generally good. The prose was good, with a few slips. I think there may have been some factual errors (Guern doesn’t seem to know how a mail shirt is taken off), but overall I’ve got no real complaints.

I can heartily recommend No Moon to Pray To. In fact, I’ll go so far (if this actually constitutes praise) as to say that if you enjoy my novels, you’ll probably enjoy this one too.

Cautions for adult themes, violence, and gore.

Small talk

It’s one of those nights when I don’t have anything worth writing. Whatever follows is guaranteed, certified piffle.

I did read another book, but it’s one in a series I’ve been following and reviewing for a while. You already know what I have to say about these books. A Skeleton in the Closet is the seventh in P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater series, about a small town detective in England. What can I say? Like the others, it’s lightweight but likeable. I estimate the Dave Slater books at about the intellectual level of a TV series – an American TV series. Which means they’re entertaining, but they won’t change your life. In this one, a colleague dies in an explosion, and Dave must delve into this person’s personal life, which turns out to have been full of secrets. At the same time, he’s under pressure from what in America we’d call Internal Affairs. In all contemporary fiction series, there’s a moment or two – or several – when certain cultural boxes must be ticked, in order to satisfy the commissars. This is a story where author Ford ticks off one of them. Upbeat and cheerful, good entertainment even with the social freight.

A Skeleton in the Closet

Classes begin at school next week, and I’m in the final throes of setting up the bookstore for fall textbook sales. Nearly done now. Tomorrow should finish it. My main thought as I survey the shelves of required textbooks is, “I ordered too many. I always do. Will the sales of books previously in stock cover the loss?”

God bless instructors who assign books we already have plenty of.

On the writing front, I’ve found my way at last after a long stretch wandering without a map. I feel keenly the fact that a few faithful readers have been waiting patiently for this book for years. All I can say is, I’m bringing it as fast as I can.

Product review: Fire 7, 7th generation

Fire 7

As I’ve been chronicling here for years, I’m a Kindle addict, thanks to the devious machinations of Hunter Baker, who gave me my first hit. A while back I transitioned to the Kindle Fire, which is now called the Fire Tablet. I recently acquired the latest (7th generation) Fire 7, and my review reads as follows.

I’d grown a little frustrated with my previous Fire, the 4th generation of the 7. I found it slow, and it had developed a habit of hanging “fire” (Get it? Fire?). So I ordered the 7th generation model (double 7s. Has to be lucky). (Why don’t I get an 8 with the 8-inch screen? Because the 7 fits neatly into my coat pockets in the winter. This matters to me.) I even sprang for the model with 16 GB storage capacity. All in all, I’m pleased with it.

I immediately noticed that this model was perceptibly lighter than my previous Fire. It’s a tad longer and narrower when you hold it in portrait position (can’t let those screen protectors or protective covers be interchangeable, can we?). The screen is bright and the definition pretty high, but no noticeable difference from my last one. It’s faster and streams movies without a problem so far (pausing to load was another frustration with my last Fire). A few minor changes have been made in the Kindle reader app (which have probably shown up in earlier Fires as well, I imagine), and I think it’s a little more intuitive.

My main concern was with the speaker. I say speaker rather than “speakers,” because this new Kindle 7 has only one. It’s mono. You get stereo when you use earphones, though. Since I mainly want stereo when I’m watching videos, and since I always use earphones when I watch videos, it’s not a big problem for me.

There are far more powerful tablets out there than the Fire. But if you primarily use it as a reader and video viewer, like me, it’s not a bad device for the money. I’m happy I upgraded.

Update: I meant to mention the battery. Battery life on the Fire 7 is noticeably longer than on my last Fire.

Netflix review: ‘Norsemen’

Norsemen

I really wanted to like Norsemen, a Viking Age comedy produced by the Norwegian NRK network. The series is filmed at the reconstructed Viking farm at Bukkøy, which is associated with the North Way Interpretational Center at Avaldsnes, Karmøy, Norway. Avaldsnes is the parish where my great-grandfather Walker was born and baptized. I’ve been to the Viking Farm, so when I watch this show I’m looking at a familiar place.

In the first episode, a shipload of Viking raiders under the command of Chieftain Olav return to their home in Norway. Olav’s brother, Orm, has been in charge in his absence, and he’s so bad at it that old men are reduced to jumping off a cliff to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Orm’s wife, Frøya, was along on the raid as a warrior, while Orm himself is pretty much useless with weapons. She despises him. Olav’s chief warrior is named Arvid. Olav arranges for Arvid to marry a widow – or rather, she becomes a widow after he’s killed her husband. But they find themselves incompatible. Meanwhile, the chief slave, Kark (saga fans will recognize that classical reference), gives instruction to the newest slave, Rufus of Rome, a professional actor who seems to think he’s on a pleasure cruise and keeps complaining about the accommodations.

What you’ve got here, essentially, is the History Channel’s Vikings series, crossed with The Office. The costumes and hair are intentionally similar to those on the Vikings show (which is to say, even worse. Black leather, which real Vikings never had, abounds). But the dialogue is straight out of The Office, with people talking in 21st century jargon. That dialogue concerns a lot of killing, which is played for laughs, and it’s also very smutty. The program was filmed in both Norwegian and English, so what you see on Netflix is neither dubbed nor subtitled.

I watched three episodes. The first two, which mostly introduced us to the characters, seemed to me kind of rudderless. But the plot began functioning at the end of Episode Two, and I went on to watch the third one. I could probably continue, because the story got more interesting once I detected a plot, and realized that the characters I’d felt sorry for were pretty much as awful as the characters I’d hated. What it boils down to is that this is one of those shows about appalling people whom I don’t care about at all. And considering the level of profanity (very, very) black humor, and casual violence, plus a little nudity, I don’t think I’ll continue with it. And I don’t recommend it to our readers.

‘Brass in Pocket,’ by Stephen Puleston

Brass in Pocket

The idea of an obsessive-compulsive detective is not a new one. Most of us are familiar with the American TV series, “Monk.” The difference with Stephen Puleston’s North Wales detective, Inspector Ian Drake, is that Drake’s OCD isn’t played for laughs. His affliction puts a genuine strain on his relationships, his career, and his personal safety.

In Brass in Pocket, Inspector Drake is called to a crime scene where two policemen have been murdered – with a crossbow. An array of traffic cones has been arranged by their car, forming the number “4”. And then the killer sends the police a message, consisting of the lyrics of a 1970s rock song.

Struggling with lack of sleep and his need to carry out his personal, calming rituals, Inspector Drake, with his team, follows every lead they can find to stop a killer who’s constantly a jump ahead of them, as the numbers count down and the rock lyrics keep coming in. The solution, when they find it, is almost unthinkable.

The OCD element in the book is intriguing, but it wasn’t enough to make it work for me. Drake and the other characters just didn’t come alive. Physical descriptions were rare, and the players were hard to tell apart. The suspects completely blended into one another, for this reader.

My perceptions may be skewed, however. It’s possible that, since I have certain obsessive characteristics myself, I just found Drake’s character too close to home, and reacted against it. But I found the plot hard to keep track of, and the story undistinguished.

So I can’t recommend it. Your kilometerage may vary.

‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver

The Vikings: A New History

Another history of the Vikings. This one, by Neil Oliver, a Scottish archaeologist and TV presenter, is more subjective than, say, The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth, which I reviewed recently. I don’t rate The Vikings: A New History as highly as Winroth’s book purely as a scholarly work, but I expect it might be just the gateway book for some readers.

The Vikings: A New History takes a generally chronological approach, which is a useful thing. Books on the Vikings, even histories, tend to separate various geographical spheres of interest into watertight sections. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there’s also a need for a work that displays the sweep of Viking activity overall, decade by decade. So author Oliver has done a service in that regard.

The execution is a little idiosyncratic. The book begins (apart from personal reminiscences by the author, telling how he came to be interested in the Vikings) with quite a long survey of Scandinavian history beginning in the Ice Age. In compensation, perhaps, it seemed to me the later stages of Viking history got treated in a somewhat perfunctory manner. As if the author was running out of pages and needed to compress. Continue reading ‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver

‘A Fragile Thing,’ by Kevin Wignall

A Fragile Thing

“I worry about you, that’s all. And I want you to be happy.”

He smiled, but said no more because he didn’t want to lie to her again, not about something so unimportant.

There is a class of authors whose work just flies over my head. I don’t get them. I accept their greatness based on the testimony of readers smarter than I.

Kevin Wignall is an author I sometimes don’t understand, but I like him anyway.

A Fragile Thing is a challenging book presented in disarmingly simple form. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure how to evaluate it.

Max Emerson is an international money man, and fabulously rich, living in Italy. He invests money for some of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most evil people in the world – dictators, crime lords, drug kingpins, human traffickers. He tells people (frequently) that he never breaks the law. And that’s technically true. But he has facilitated and turned a blind eye to a number of crimes. Now he’s under pressure from the FBI, and hackers are threatening his records.

Max is alienated from his older brother and sister, and their families. His brother in particular is ashamed of Max’s reputation. This makes family events awkward, and Max generally visits his parents, in their Swiss mansion, only when his siblings aren’t around.

But when his parents are killed in an accident, and Max gets a posthumous letter from his mother, saying that if they die suddenly they’ve probably been murdered, Max is the one family member with the knowledge and resources to hunt down and punish the killer. Which he does, in a very surprising way. Continue reading ‘A Fragile Thing,’ by Kevin Wignall

‘Time and Tide,’ by Peter Grainger

Time and Tide

As you’ve probably noticed, I have a fondness for British police procedural mysteries. Of all the series I’ve sampled, I think I like Peter Grainger’s DC Smith mysteries best.

It’s probably mainly the central character I enjoy. Detective Sergeant D.C. Smith is a curmudgeon, an older cop who conceals an essentially kindly nature behind a crusty exterior. He uses his dry sense of humor as a tool to keep his opponents – both professional and criminal – off balance. He’s nearing retirement as Time and Tide begins. Police work is changing. He’s never warmed to the use of the computer (though he’s happy to have his underlings take advantage of them), and recent force reorganizations have played hob with his carefully trained and organized team. Although he’s only a sergeant (he rejected promotion; it would confine him behind a desk), he’s effectively the leader of that team.

In Time and Tide, a body is discovered floating in the sea off the Norfolk coast by a party of seal-watching tourists. The deceased was a large, tough-looking specimen dressed in an expensive suit, without any form of ID. In time he’s identified as a London businessman, once a gangster but now “legitimate.”

DC Smith is (or feels himself to be) as much hampered by the police bureaucracy as by the villains. He has a new detective inspector over his head, and he happens to be a man who once questioned Smith in connection with a murder. On the civilian side, he faces the challenge of a small community looking after its own – confident it can take care of its own problems, and resentful of official interference. And in the background, there’s a mysterious elderly woman of great natural beauty, a one-time pop star who has been living in obscurity on the coast for decades.

There’s a valedictory quality to Time and Tide. Smith has given his resignation and named the date of his retirement, and everything happens in the shade of that deadline. But there’s a couple months left, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if author Grainger doesn’t find a way to squeeze one or two more mysteries into that window of time.

Some people may find this book slow, because it’s pretty realistic about the amount of time and effort paperwork and legwork take up in any investigation. But I enjoyed it immensely. Only mild cautions for language and mature themes.