Category Archives: Reviews

‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

Think of a Number

It was a curious thing about the past – how it lay in wait for you, quietly, invisibly, almost as though it weren’t there. You might be tempted to think it was gone, no longer existed. Then, like a pheasant flushed from cover, it would roar up in an explosion of sound, color, motion – shockingly alive.

And we have a winner. I have the pleasure of recommending to you an author and a novel that I can heartily recommend. Think of a Number by John Verdon is a remarkable book, not only a superior mystery-thriller, but also a story told in a fresh and interesting way.

David Gurney is a retired New York City police detective, a decorated hero. He had a reputation for finding and stopping serial killers. But he took early retirement to move to a farm in the Catskills with his wife. It’s her turn, so to speak – she put up with New York life, which she hated, for his sake. Now they’re living in the country, where there is scenery and trees and flowers and animals, a place where she thrives. But David is unhappy there. He has an intense, analytical mind, a need to solve puzzles and bring order out of chaos, that rural life doesn’t satisfy. Although they love each other, it’s not certain their marriage will survive.

One day David gets a call from an old college acquaintance, Mark Mellery, who has grown rich running a religious-self-help retreat center. Mellery is desperate. He tells David that he got a letter containing a small sealed envelope. The letter, hand-written, told him to think of a number between one and 1,000, and then open the envelope. He found the random number he’d chosen written on the note inside. After that he got more letters, hand-written in verse, threatening him with death in vengeance for some unstated crime in the past. Continue reading ‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

‘Perdition,’ by Pete Brassett

Perdition

I was happy to find a new release in Pete Brassett’s DI Munro series. I found Perdition amusing and entertaining, as its predecessors have been.

Detective Inspector Munro, a rural Scottish policeman, is slightly hampered this time out by the fact that his long-impending retirement has finally come to pass. However, he finds retirement boring in the extreme, and soon begins meddling – unofficially – in a current investigation by his team. An investment bank employee is found dead in his car, killed by a powerful painkiller. Eventually they learn that the man was involved in loan sharking, but not before another man is found dead from the same cause, and one more nearly beaten to death.

Also, someone kills a goat with a crossbow.

The whole thing is fairly complex, with intertwining and backtracking trails and plenty of red herrings. Throughout the investigation DI Munro, as unobtrusively as possible, attempts to guide his successor, “Charlie” West, a female detective he’s been mentoring for some years now. Munro is a charming character, self-possessed, opinionated, and mildly curmudgeonly.

Lots of fun. There’s a minimum of violence and bad language. Some opinions were expressed that I don’t agree with, but I really have no serious cautions to deliver about Perdition.

‘Mirror Mirror,’ by Nick Louth

Mirror Mirror

I’m enjoying reading Nick Louth’s novels. I enjoyed reading Mirror Mirror too, but found it a tad disappointing in the end.

Mira Roskova (who, in spite of her name, is English), is currently acclaimed as the most beautiful model in the world. She appears on countless magazine covers and in dozens of ads, she has hordes of fanatical fans, and she’s dating England’s most popular “footballer.”

Unfortunately, the footballer is jealous and possessive and prone to violent rages. So her management company hires Virgil Bliss, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, as her personal bodyguard. As Virgil accustoms himself to the profoundly shallow world of international modeling, he begins to understand that Mira faces dangers far more serious than having an abusive boyfriend. The most dangerous criminal in the country has claimed her as his own – and merely being confined to a high security mental hospital will not stop him from taking her.

As usual with Louth, the dramatic tension was satisfying and the characters interesting. But he does have a weakness for over-relying on coincidence in his plots, and that’s especially true in Mirror Mirror. The ending featured a surprise twist, which didn’t entirely surprise me (I’d noticed the clues with my writer’s eye), and I found the ending a disappointment.

On the other hand, some bleeding heart liberals in the book are made to look like complete idiots, which is always fun.

Cautions for language, violence, and fairly explicit sex. Not Louth’s best.

‘Heartbreaker,’ by Nick Louth

Heartbreaker

I’m working my way through the novels of the English writer Nick Louth. The writing is professional, and I like the way he handles his characters. I especially like the fact that, although it seems apparent his politics are pretty leftish, he hits pretty lightly on that element.

The hero of Heartbreaker is Chris Wyrecliffe, a BBC celebrity journalist. Today he works mostly from a studio in London, but about 20 years ago he was a front-line reporter in Lebanon. There he went through a traumatic, guilt-inducing experience that caused him to set up a foundation for the aid of Palestinian refugees. Around the same time he also fell in love with an elegant Arabian woman, a westernized relation of the Saudi royal family.

Those two circumstances have won him, unbeknownst to him, an implacable mortal enemy. This enemy is implementing a masterful plan, not only to kill Chris, but to make him an instrument in a world-shaking terror plot.

In the tradition of thrillers, Heartbreaker surpasses credibility now and then. But my main problem with it was its length. The book grabbed me, and I read it in big chunks, but I thought it would have benefited from a faster pace. The lesson of the book would seem to be a cautionary one – westerners should just not meddle in the Middle East – their noblest intentions are inevitably brought down by invincible cultural barriers.

However, the conclusion of the book seemed to belie that interpretation, at least to some extent. The picture of the Muslim world here seemed to be balanced – both appreciative and appalled, depending on the particular Muslims.

I enjoyed Heartbreaker, but it was long. Serious cautions are in order for explicit sex scenes and rough language. Not Louth’s best (in my opinion), but enjoyable if you’re prepared for the ride.

‘Bite,’ by Nick Louth

Bite

I realized his sculptures describe the character of the physical world more eloquently than any chemist or physicist. He said it best: ‘You torture the metal to get it to show you its soul.’

Having enjoyed Nick Louth’s The Body in the Marsh so much, I immediately bought his first novel, Bite. As a thriller, Bite is different from The Body…, but it’s extremely successful in its own way.

On a transatlantic flight, a mysterious man sets some mosquitoes loose in the First Class section, which is filled with officers of a large, ruthless pharmaceutical company. Shortly after the plane unloads in Amsterdam, where the pharma people are planning to attend an international conference, people start coming down with a never-before-seen strain of malaria. This strain doesn’t respond to available treatments, and seems to thrive in a northern climate.

Meanwhile, Max Carver, an American sculptor with military experience, arrives in Amsterdam on the same plane, along with his girlfriend, Dr. Erica Stroud-Jones. He will be having a big gallery show in the city, while she will be delivering a paper at the pharma conference – explaining her discovery, a revolutionary approach to treating malaria.

But on the day she’s supposed to address the conference, Erica disappears. The police immediately suspect Max of murdering her, and it’s only with the help of a shadowy group of American agents that he gets out on bail. He sets out to find her, and enters a dangerous world of criminals, spies, and professional killers. He will test the very limits of his courage and endurance in the process.

Meanwhile, extracts from an old journal of Erica’s tell the story of a time in her earlier life when she was a hostage in Africa, and plumbed the depths of suffering and despair.

As I read, I compared Bite to a summer action movie. It has the same quality of being exciting to follow, but being fairly implausible when objectively considered. But it was as exciting as advertised, and I could hardly put it down. The characters were fascinating, too.

Cautions for language and mature situations, including rape and torture. There were some references to the Bible and Christianity, and they were fairly positive. Opportunities for leftist propagandizing were generally avoided. Recommended, for adults.

‘The Body In the Marsh,’ by Nick Louth

The Body In the Marsh

As you may have noticed, I’ve written a string of negative book reviews recently.

Here, at last, is one I really liked.

The Body in the Marsh, by Nick Louth, centers on Detective Chief Inspector Craig Gillard, who operates in southern England. Craig rescues an attractive woman from a mountainside while rock climbing, and believes he’s stumbled onto a good thing when he learns that she’s fun to be with and a fellow cop – though a lowly constable.

But he begins to neglect her when he gets caught up in a case of a woman’s disappearance. Liz Knight, the wife of a prominent criminologist who’s been very critical of the police recently, has disappeared. Soon after that Knight himself disappears.

Craig has a personal reason for being concerned. Long ago, Liz was his first love. She dumped him to marry Knight. If – as looks increasingly likely – Knight has murdered his wife and fled abroad, Craig has a double motive for hunting him down and seeing him imprisoned.

But it turns out it’s all a lot more complicated than that. Craig will have to reevaluate his whole life because of the shocking things he’ll learn.

The Body in the Marsh is a first-rate (though not flawless) detective thriller. The characters are complex and layered, and Craig’s passion catches the reader up. I thought there were a couple weaknesses in the plot, such as coincidences, but the whole thing worked together very well to give me a very exciting reading experience. I saw hints of liberal politics, but they weren’t shoved down my throat.

Highly recommended. Cautions for adult language and situations.

‘Red Alert,’ by James Patterson & Marshall Karp

Red Alert

In spite of James Patterson’s immense popularity, not to mention rumors that his political views tend conservative, I had only tried one of his novels up to now. And I didn’t finish that one.

But a friend recently recommended the NYPD Red series, so I figured I’d give Patterson another chance with Red Alert.

Alas, he’s just not my cuppatee.

Zach Jordan and Kylie MacDonald are the New York Police Department’s “Red Squad.” Their job is to handle threats and crimes involving the city’s rich and elite. So they’re on hand the evening a prominent architect is killed by a shaped charge while giving a speech at the elegant Pierre Hotel. At first the reaction is that such a thing was unthinkable. The man was a do-gooder, part of a foundation devoted to helping the less fortunate. But gradually a different picture emerges. He was one of a group of four men, all rich and powerful, who, years before, had gotten into trouble trying to smuggle drugs from Thailand. When another of the four is killed by a similar explosion, the truth becomes obvious – someone has a grudge against the four of them, and is picking them off one by one.

Meanwhile, a female filmmaker is found dead in what appears to be a “strangulation fetish” accident. But it’s not an accident.

The story here is told with the competence one expects from an author of James Patterson’s experience and prolific output. But somehow I had trouble caring. The characters seemed to me to have the depth of cardboard. And the heroes were pretty stereotyped – a solid, sensible male cop partnered with a wild and crazy female cop who likes to beat people up, shoot people, and drive fast. I’ve seen that one too often in the last couple decades.

So my reaction is that the book is adequate light reading, but it failed to provide the vicarious human element I personally crave. Your mileage may (and likely will) vary.

Cautions for language and adult stuff.

‘The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride

The Blood Road

Hardie rubbed at his face. ‘We’ve got two missing girls; an ex-police-officer who was stabbed to death; an exhumed murder victim no one can identify, a serving police officer who’s been hanged, and now you say the body you dug up in the middle of nowhere wasn’t just murdered, it was tortured first!’ He pressed his palms into his eye sockets and made a muffled screaming noise.

It is my plan not to read any more of Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae novels. I bought this one by accident, as I explained a few reviews ago. But it’s not because they’re bad novels. They’re well-written and exciting, with moments of excellent, witty prose. I just don’t like the world they take me into.

In The Blood Road, our hero, Detective Inspector Logan McRae, has made a move to the Professional Standards police squad in his part of Scotland. His former boss is now his subordinate. Other cops don’t like him much because of his job, but short-handedness means he gets pulled into a murder investigation anyway.

A body is found stabbed to death in a car along a lonely road. When it’s identified, it’s a shock – it’s a former police colleague, who was supposed to be dead years before. Meanwhile there’s been a string of child abductions, and rumors are spreading of a secretive “livestock market” where these children will be auctioned off to pedophiles. Evidence mounts that somehow – it’s almost impossible to believe – this twice-dead policeman was involved with that ring. Continue reading ‘The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride

‘Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw,’ by Ian Crockatt

Crimsoning the Eagle's Claw

Complicated stuff, but interesting for Viking buffs. I bought Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw: The Viking Poems of Ragnvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney, by Ian Crockatt, on the recommendation of Grim over at the Grim’s Hall blog. He reviewed it here, and makes some insightful comments (he understands the subject, frankly, better than I do):

Scholars who want to understand the poems thus wisely grapple with them first by direct translation, then by seeing if they can translate them poetically as Crockatt does. It is a useful exercise for him for another reason. The poetic form shapes the word, but learning to use the form shapes the mind. Habituating the mind to the creation of poems in just this form is going to alter the way one thinks, slightly but definitely. In learning the compose poems in this strict form, you are learning to think just a bit more like the Viking who is your historical subject.

Kali Kolsson (ca. 1103-1158) adopted the first name Ragnvald in honor of a famous predecessor as earl (jarl) of Orkney. Technically he wasn’t a Viking, having been born after 1066, but it’s hard to deny him the title. He went on a great raid, fighting in Spain and off North Africa (and then doing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and proceeding to Constantinople). And he was a master of the old Norse poetic form; if his poems aren’t Viking poetry, I don’t know what they are.

Ian Crockatt succeeds in producing vigorous poems in the spirit of the originals. Some of his word choices seem strange to me – especially substituting “Eve” for the names of Norse goddesses. But in a project like this you’re going to end up making a lot of subjective choices. I can’t fault him. Oddly, in discussing previous translations, he does not mention Lee Hollander’s efforts along the same lines, which seems to me a strange omission.

Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is fascinating reading for anyone interested in its esoteric subject. And it’s not long.

‘In the Cold Dark Ground,’ by Stuart MacBride

In the Cold Dark Ground

“Officer, I swear I didn’t mean to read another Logan McRae novel. I soured on Stuart MacBride’s black comedy cop series a while back. But I confused The Blood Road with part of another series of Scottish police procedurals (I must be following about ten), and I bought one. Then I noticed that I hadn’t read the previous book, so I bought that too. Then I realized I didn’t like the books. But I paid good money for them, so I went ahead and read them. I’m not proud of it.”

That’s my personal rationalization for reading In the Cold Dark Ground. Stuart MacBride is a very good author. He knows how to ramp up a story, and he can get off marvelous ironic lines, like, “When he smiled, it was like small children screaming.” But the darkness of the story and the ugliness of most of the characters wore me down. It’s probably an accurate picture of police work; it just leaves me feeling grim. And I started out grim enough.

Anyway, in this book Sergeant Logan McRae of Banff, Scotland, who’s been an inspector but didn’t like it, is faced with doctors’ recommendations that he turn off respiratory support for someone very dear to him. He also discovers that his mother has lied to him all his life about a pretty important matter. Meanwhile, a local businessman is found brutally murdered, and there is evidence of a secret life and deep debts to organized crime. Speaking of organized crime, a local crime lord is dying. He has taken, for some reason, a liking to Logan, and is threatening to leave him his money and whole organization. This would not look good to the Professional Standards department, but it looks even worse to one of that boss’s underlings, a psychopath who has personal plans for Logan involving slow carving and pig feed. Meanwhile that same Professional Standards department is pressuring Logan to find evidence against his superior, Inspector Steel, a blousy lesbian with a remarkably unpleasant personality, but a friend nonetheless.

So Logan has quite a lot on his plate. Things will get very tense before he finds a way out.

In the Cold Dark Ground is compelling, fast-paced, and well-written. I just don’t enjoy the overall experience of entering that world. Your mileage may vary. Cautions for very crude humor.

And I’ve got one more to read.

What’s a Movie Critic to Do?

The stars of the new heist release Ocean’s 8 (are the estates of Frank, Dean, and the boys still making money on this?) aren’t wild about critical reaction to their film.

Cate Blanchett said, “A studio can support a film and it’s the invisible faces on the internet, and often male reviewers, who can view it through a prism of misunderstanding.” I gather that means they don’t like it because they don’t get it because they’re men. Sandra Bullock followed up, “It would be nice if reviewers reflected who the film is for, like children should review children’s films, not a 60-year-old man. I guess his opinion would be kind of skewed.”

And if children were the driving forces behind children’s movies, it wouldn’t be long before all we’d have is Axe Cop. May I remind our studio audience that Milne first wrote Winnie the Pooh when he was 44 years old?

But the stars are talking about critics, not producers or directors, on which point Alissa Wilkinson replies to say critics aren’t being paid to support films. They are paid to write essays (sometimes works of art in themselves) about the movies they watch. With many reviews of one movie, you’ll want a diversity of perspectives, because that makes for better reading and understanding in general.

In short, a good critic develops a large capacity for imagination. They can’t know what it would be like to see the movie as someone other than themselves. But the good critic tries very hard to put themselves in those shoes anyhow, especially when they detect that the movies’ target audience will be someone other than themselves.

That’s very different than saying a movie wasn’t meant for you, so we don’t want your professional review possibly prevent our target audience from watching what we made. As Wilkinson points out, most studios want to attract a wide audience in order to make money on a single film. Discounting someone’s opinion because he’s not the right type of person doesn’t help.

‘The Excoms,’ by Brett Battles

The Excoms

I’ve grown fond of Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn novels, but I resisted trying his spin-off series, which begins with The Excoms. I noticed in the descriptions that it involves a special operations team made up mostly of women, and I feared it would be a “you go, girl” fest.

Sadly, I was right.

“Excoms” is short for “Excommunicated.” The members of the team are experts in various covert activities (legal and illegal) such as assassination, hacking, and driving. Each of them has suffered some bad luck, and is now in danger of death or imprisonment. A mysterious group called The Committee rescues each of them, brings them together, and offers them well-paying work doing what they do best for good causes.

Their first job is the rescue of a group of children from a gang of kidnappers. The story is tightly plotted, the action and dialogue are crisp, and the story is compelling.

I just didn’t like the basic concept.

I don’t know if author Battles is doing penance for some misogynist transgression, but he has produced a very stereotyped story – stereotyped in the contemporary manner. There are five members on the team – three women and two men. Each of the women is smart, competent, deadly, and efficient. Of the men, one is a good driver, but shows no particular flair. The other is a narcissistic womanizer who can’t follow instructions and messes up repeatedly.

This “girls rule; boys drool” approach annoyed me a lot. So although the book was well-crafted, I won’t be following the series. I’ll probably continue with the Jonathan Quinn books, though.

Cautions for mature stuff, but not too bad. It might be noted that there’s a possible homage to Chesterton here, as the members of The Committee are designated, not by name, but by a day of the week.

‘To Die in Vienna,’ by Kevin Wignall

To Die in Vienna

I’m fond of Kevin Wignall’s novels. Between Graham Greene and Ian Fleming on the espionage scale, his books run much closer to Greene, but I don’t like Greene much, and I do like Wignall. To Die in Vienna is not my favorite of his works, but it’s pretty good.

Freddie Makin used to be an intelligence agent, but after a very bad experience he gave it up – mostly, except for the nightmares. Now he does electronic surveillance, for clients whose identitiesw he does not care to know. For a year he’s been in Vienna, monitoring the life of a genius scientist named Jiang Cheng. He’s grown rather fond of the man, whose activities seem in no way suspicious.

Then one day Freddie abandons his monitoring early to go home with a headache. He finds a man in his apartment, waiting for him with a gun. Freddie manages to kill the man, almost accidentally. Then Jiang Cheng disappears. Freddie doesn’t understand what is happening, but some things are clear. Jiang must have seen or done something that made him a danger to someone. And whoever got rid of him clearly wants Freddie dead too.

So he has to disappear. Fortunately his experience as a spy has prepared him to change identities. But that’s a temporary measure. He’s certain of one thing – he must find out what the “too much” was that Jiang knew, find out who the killers are, and make a deal with their enemies – whoever they are.

To Die in Vienna is leisurely as spy novels go, but I liked that. The emphasis is on personalities, and we get to spend time with them. That makes for enjoyable reading, for my taste.

I thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidence at a couple points. Otherwise I can’t find fault. Recommended.

‘The Killing Season,’ by Mason Cross

The Killing Season

Carter Blake, the continuing hero of a thriller series authored by Mason Cross, is a sort of special investigative contractor. Even the FBI will call him in from time to time, because of his unique gifts. That’s what happens in The Killing Season, the first of the books.

Caleb Wardell is a convicted serial killer, nearing his execution date. He’s supposed to be under top security, but somehow a van transporting him gets hijacked by Russian gangsters. Wardell is not slow to take advantage of the situation. The Russians die and Wardell is in the wind.

Carter Blake has met Wardell briefly once, a long time ago. He has a gift for reading criminals, getting into their heads and anticipating their next moves. One moment was enough for him to know that his best move would be to kill Wardell before he could do any more harm, but he missed the opportunity. Now he’s determined to remedy that mistake.

He’s teamed up with a female FBI agent, Elaine Banner, an ambitious single mother. Then – for no reason they can understand – they are pulled from the case. But that doesn’t put them off the trail. Wardell has threatened people each of them care about, and they’re going to stop him – preferably with extreme prejudice.

The Killing Season is an exciting book. The writing was good and the characters intriguing – though I found Carter Blake’s skill set a little implausible. I also found the surprise final revelation unconvincing. And it hinted (to me) at political bias.

Still, an entertaining novel. Moderately recommended, with cautions for adult stuff, but not extreme.

‘The Fractured,’ by Brett Battles

The Fractured

When I discovered there was a new entry in Brett Battles’ enjoyable Jonathan Quinn series, it was the work of but a moment for me to download it for my Kindle. The Fractured is an enjoyable thriller, like all its predecessors.

When The Fractured begins, our hero, Jonathan Quinn, and his wife Orlando are still recovering from the disaster that occurred in the last book – where an important member of their team died. Not only did they lose that person, but there was a rupture with Quinn’s old protégé, Nate, who has vanished.

But the bills need to be paid, and they’re delighted when they’re contacted by an old friend, who is trying to revitalize the secret semi-government office that used to employ them as “cleaners” (removers of evidence after “wet ops”). There’s a chance to get inside the compound of a white nationalist militia. This job gets done successfully.

But there’s a bonus. What they find in the compound gives them a chance to nail the money man who’s been funding the group. And not only can they get him, but they might also get a mysterious international arms merchant, a man who keeps his identity so secret that few have ever seen his face.

But one of the few who has is the missing Nate.

If they can locate Nate and persuade him to cooperate, they may be able to prevent an apocalyptic disaster in the United States.

The Jonathan Quinn novels are neither deep nor fancy. But they’re fun and they move fast. Recommended. Cautions for language and violence, but not as bad as many.