Category Archives: Reviews

‘Cold Harbor,’ by Matthew FitzSimmons

Cold Harbor

Matthew FitzSimmons’s Gibson Vaughn series of novels has generally been a pleasure to follow. The new third entry, Cold Harbor, is satisfying – more so than the previous book, Poisonfeather, which irked me a bit by ending with a cliffhanger.

When Cold Harbor begins, Vaughn, ex-marine and computer hacker, is finally set free from confinement, but he’s not quite ready. For eighteen months he’s been a “guest” of the CIA, and aside from being physically weaker, he’s now slightly insane. Ghosts out of his past appear to him and nag him to fulfill his duties, duties which pretty much contradict each other.

His first item of business is to get revenge on the CIA agent who kidnapped him – something he accomplishes, but which provides less satisfaction than he expected. His other priority is to reunite with his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife. But he comes to realize that would not be good for her.

Instead, an old friend shows up asking for his help in rescuing a mutual friend. That friend has been kidnapped by Cold Harbor, a sinister military contracting company. There’s only one chance to get the man free – a slim one – and it depends on cooperating with his greatest enemy in the world.

The writing in the Gibson Vaughn novels is very good, but the characterization is the most interesting part. Good and bad characters are textured and multi-leveled. We get to see Vaughn’s friends and enemies in their best and worst lights, and hard choices force him to make strange bedfellows. As a moralist, I suppose I should demand white and black hat stuff, but complexity, when applied to people, provides excellent moral exercise, in my view.

And this book doesn’t end in a cliff-hanger.

Recommended, with cautions for the usual.

‘A Dark So Deadly,’ by Stuart MacBride

A Dark So Deadly

I keep reading Stuart MacBride novels, unintentionally. I had followed his Logan McRae books for a while, but then they got kind of… icky for my taste, and I dropped them. Then I read another, by oversight. It was OK. Now I picked up this stand-alone, A Dark So Deadly, by another oversight, and I was extremely impressed. This is a good novel, and a unique one.

It starts out very like the Logan McRae books, following a long-suffering, decent cop through various humiliations. DC Callum MacGregor, a detective in the city of Oldcastle, Scotland, has been assigned to the “Misfit Mob.” That’s a squad where the department dumps morons, goldbricks, screw-ups, and the corrupt. Callum is considered one of the latter, after confessing to contaminating a crime scene in an important case against an organized crime boss. Everyone thinks he took a bribe to do it. In fact, he wasn’t even guilty. The mistake was really made by his girlfriend, another officer, and he took responsibility because she’s pregnant with his child and would have lost her salary at a time when they can’t afford it. Continue reading ‘A Dark So Deadly,’ by Stuart MacBride

‘What’s In a Name?’ and ‘A Puzzle of Old Bones,’ by P. F. Ford

What's In a Name?

A Puzzle of Old Bones

I’m catching up on reviews here, having been rudely interrupted in my posting schedule by some idiot who insisted that I go to North Dakota. Who was that guy? Oh yeah, it was me.

I’m up to the ninth and tenth in P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater mystery series here. Number nine is What’s In a Name? Ten is A Puzzle of Old Bones. It’s been enough time since I finished them that I’ve gotten a little vague on the details. So this will be a short review, despite covering two books.

Dave Slater, our hero, is a former police detective in the fictional town of Tinton, England. In the last book he quit the force, tired of the politics and backstabbing. Now he’s beginning a private investigation agency with his old partner, Norman Norman. But he feels uncomfortable in that role. At heart he’s still a cop.

In What’s In a Name? he and Norman are asked to discover the truth about an old man who died in his home. It seems like no mystery at all at first, but suspicious elements begin popping up. And now a chief inspector from London appears, offering Dave and Norman the help of a talented female detective, Samantha Brearley, in their investigation. All he asks in return is that Dave consider the offer of a job working for him. Dave likes the idea, but fears he would be betraying Norman.

In A Puzzle of Old Bones, Dave (spoiler alert) has taken the new job, and is working with Samantha, and Norman – a regular in all the books up till now – barely appears. The assignment is to solve the murder of a little boy whose bones have been found in a ditch. It’s a challenge, though not unexpected, when the boy’s presumed parents refuse to believe it’s actually their son. Things get really strange when they are proven right.

As I always say when reviewing these books, they’re not great literature, but they’re fun and engaging and positive. And it’s oddly compelling that author Ford keeps moving his characters around and changing them from sympathetic to repellent for no apparent reason except to change things up.

Anyway, there isn’t much objectionable in these books, and they’re good entertainment.

‘A Killing Sky,’ by Andy Straka

A Killing Sky

In the second book of the very promising Frank Pavlicek detective series, A Killing Sky, set in the Charlottesville area, Frank is hired as an investigator by the daughter of a shady Virginia congressman. Her twin sister has vanished, and although everyone thinks she just ran off, Frank’s client suspects something bad has happened to her. What really troubles her is that the girl had been investigating her own father, some of whose activities have been shady – to say nothing of his serial womanizing and a possible hit and run killing.

Frank starts looking into it all, and the congressman’s “staff” – in classic hard-boiled fashion – immediately raise his suspicions by stonewalling him and threatening violence. But there’s also the boyfriend the girl recently dumped, who doesn’t look innocent either. Meanwhile, Frank is preparing himself emotionally for his daughter’s departure for college, and trying to talk her out of joining him in the PI business. It’s also time for him to release the falcon he’s been training into the wild.

Good book. I still find Frank a little dull as a character, but the story is well told, and the writing is above average. Also, Christianity (represented by Frank’s girlfriend) is treated with respect. I noted one obscenity in the book, which makes it pretty clean by contemporary standards. Recommended.

‘Paris In the Present Tense,’ by Mark Helprin

Paris In the Present Tense

“Look,” he would say, “at home I have a stainless steel drain strainer, which when struck with a spoon produces a perfect, unclouded C with fifteen seconds of sustain. Were I younger I might be able to hear thirty seconds. The quality of beauty is implicit in my kitchen-sink strainer despite its uninspiring form and function – implicit in the steel, implicit in the form, and brought out by what? Accident? Perception? Illusion? Or perhaps by something greater, waiting to spring, that would sound, and sing, forever?”

A new Mark Helprin novel, as a rare an occurrence as that is, is always cause for celebration in my world. His latest is Paris In the Present Tense, a book, on the surface, about music. It’s essentially a caper story and a revenge story, though unlike any such that you’ve read before.

Our hero is Jules Lacour, seventy-five years old, a teacher of music at the Sorbonne. He is a Holocaust survivor, a veteran of the Algerian War, and a widower. A brilliant teacher, he has never advanced far in his career because he cares only for the music, not for fashionable theories.

Today he faces the prospect of seeing his only grandson die of cancer. Once, long ago, he was unable to save his parents’ lives. Now he will go to any length necessary to save this boy. Meanwhile, he kills two Arab boys one night, when he finds them trying to murder an orthodox Jew. The surviving assailant runs away shouting, “Racist!” which makes Jules the subject of a somewhat leisurely police investigation.

I won’t go into the plot any further, for fear of spoilers. The greatest pleasure here, as in all Helprin’s books, is in his digressions, the stories within the story, the flashbacks, the meditations, the long, baroque lists that render the narrative almost tactile.

Paris In the Present Tense is not my favorite of Helprin’s books, and parts of it are morally problematic. But Helprin doesn’t really need my approval, and Jules Lacour certainly doesn’t care about it. This is a rich, beautiful book with much to say to us about music, and about what music tells us about the nature of the universe. Social and political issues are addressed – especially the problem of resurgent antisemitism in France. But sops are thrown to the liberal side as well – a greedy corporation comes in for particular condemnation, and there are probably more sympathetic Muslim characters than strictly necessary.

Highly recommended.

‘A Witness Above,’ by Andy Straka

A Witness Above

…and for the first time I may have caught a glimpse of grace from a higher station, where eyes see earth more clearly and the hunter waits, her quarry known.

The first book of a detective series, Andy Straka’s A Witness Above is a competent hard-boiled story with interesting spiritual elements. The hero is Frank Pavlicek, a former New York City detective. After he and his partner, Jake Toronto, killed a young black man (with an apparently blameless record), they were kicked off the force. They moved south to the Charlottesville, Virginia area, where they keep in touch with another officer also involved in the fateful shooting. They operate as private detectives, and in their spare time they train hunting falcons (I don’t think any literary detective has ever done that before).

One day, out training his hawk, Frank discovers the body of a young black man, killed by a gunshot. He keeps some things back from the police when he calls it in, though, because this young man was known to his daughter, who has recently come to live with him after his ex-wife’s permanent hospitalization. Both the police and the FBI suspect Frank, but he’s determined to discover the truth while protecting his daughter, even at the cost of his life.

This was a pretty good book. I wouldn’t rank it at the very top of the hard-boiled heap, mostly because I found Frank a little flat as a character. He never really came into focus for me. But the story was fascinating, the suspense honest. The writing was excellent. And the Christian characters in A Witness Above (there are several) are authentically and sympathetically drawn. (You won’t find characters like this in a Lee Child book.)

Mild cautions for language, but all in all I’m fairly confident in giving A Witness Above a B+, and recommending it to you.

‘Shadow Shepherd,’ by Chad Zunker

Shadow Shepherd

I have previously reviewed Chad Zunker’s first Sam Callahan novel, The Tracker. I gave the book high marks for storytelling and values, but thought the writing weak. The second book in the series, Shadow Shepherd, is pretty much the same.

Sam Callahan has now finished law school, and is working for a legal firm. His first big assignment is to interview a potential client in Mexico City. The client insists that he will deal only with Sam, so Sam takes a trip south of the border. Unfortunately, while he’s interviewing his client in his hotel room, an assassin breaks in and murders the man. Sam barely makes it out alive. What’s worse, the police don’t believe his story. So Sam finds himself on the run in a foreign city, without his passport.

But that’s just the beginning. Soon he gets word that his girlfriend has been kidnapped. The kidnappers demand that he meet them in New Orleans in a matter of hours, or she will die.

Fortunately, Sam has the skills and resources to meet those challenges, and to elude the world-class assassin who is stalking him.

I give author Zunker full marks for exciting storytelling. The action in Shadow Shepherd never lets up, even if it sometimes challenges credibility (and I have to say I thought the final resolution kind of hackneyed). But the writing is still pedestrian and clichéd – Zunker twice uses the redundancy “hollow hole,” for instance.

Still, I applaud the enterprise overall. The Sam Callahan books are written from a Christian point of view, without preaching. They are conceptually exactly the kind of Christian fiction many of us have been calling for, for years. The entertainment value is high. I just wish the author would take a composition class.

‘Katharine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg,’ by Jenna and Shanna Strackbein

Katherine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg

In the spirit of the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, I have received a free review copy of Katharine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg, by Jenna and Shanna Strackbein, with illustrations by Emily and Jenna Strackbein.

This is a book for children — intermediate readers, I’d estimate. It narrates the life of the woman who became Martin Luther’s wife, from her childhood to the early years of their married life. The text is clear (with German pronunciations provided, which is a nice touch), and there’s a glossary in the back, as well as a timeline. The colored pictures are numerous and lively.

The story is addressed from a Lutheran theological point of view, so non-Protestants – or even some Reformed – may not appreciate parts of it. But it’s pretty handsome.

‘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.