Category Archives: Reviews

‘Dead Wood,’ by Dan Ames

Dead Wood

Sometimes there’s nothing much really wrong with a book except that it annoys me. That was my problem with Dead Wood, the first volume of the Grosse Pointe Pulp series, by Dan Ames.

The hero, John Rockne, was once a Grosse Pointe policeman – very briefly. Then one night he made a well-meaning decision that cost a man his life, and him his career. Today he’s a private investigator in the upscale Detroit suburb. He’s married and a father.

He gets a visit from a retired Country music star. The man’s daughter, a brilliant guitar maker, has been brutally murdered. The police blame a junkie who broke into her workshop, but the old man is sure it was his daughter’s boyfriend, whom he never liked.

John’s investigation leads him into the world of music recording, where the daggers in the back are not always metaphorical. He also comes face to face with a very old enemy.

This synopsis makes the story sound fairly grim, but in fact the tone is relatively light – which was one of the problems for me. John Rockne (who has a Norwegian name but never mentions being Norwegian, only one of the things I didn’t like about him) is a wiseacre. Now wiseacrey is a cherished tradition among hard-boiled private eyes. But you’ve got to earn the right to it, and John doesn’t (in my opinion). He’s not really hard-boiled. In fact, he’s kind of a wimp, constantly nagged by his wife and his older sister. He doesn’t show much sign of fighting ability – but nevertheless manages to survive, apparently mostly by luck, even when set upon by a pair of bodybuilders. In a related issue, he suffers from Fictional Transitory Injury Syndrome, the condition common to TV and movie heroes, where a guy suffers fairly serious injuries one day, and then seems entirely untroubled by them the day after.

On the plus side, I thought the prose wasn’t bad, and the ending of the book was quite affecting.

But, although this is a three-book set, I didn’t like Dead Wood enough to read the follow-up books. At least for now. Your mileage may deviate.

Cautions for language.

‘Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland

Rachel Griffin flies again (on a broom) in the third entry in the Unexpected Enlightenment series by L. Jagi Lamplighter: Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland.

If you’ve missed my reviews of the first two books, Rachel is a freshman at Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts, an institution invisible to the Unwary (non-magical) World. Similarities to the Harry Potter books are obvious, but there are important differences too. The chief one is that the Unwary World of these books is different from ours in important ways.

Rachel has only been in school a short time, but has already been through a series of perilous adventures. This time out, she and her friends (who include a princess and a dragon-slaying orphan boy) are refining techniques for traveling in dreams. One of their friends has the ability to enter the dream world and move through other people’s dreams, which allows them to travel anywhere that someone is dreaming of, so long as they keep holding hands. As before, Rachel acquires knowledge that permits her to help thwart the plans of demonic forces – though she never gets credit.

A highlight of this book is a daring visit to the Ghost’s Ball at Halloween, where Rachel and her boyfriend meet various ghosts, some pathetic, some evil, some quite nice – and are able to do favors for a few of them.

As with the previous two installments, the whole thing ends in a rousing sorcerous battle scene, well worth the cost of admission.

I’m enjoying the Rachel Griffin books quite a lot, and look forward to the release of the next one. I was particularly pleased to see that Christian themes are beginning to come into focus.

Recommended.

‘The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel

Rachel Griffin, student sorcerer, returns in The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel, the second entry in L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Unexpected Enlightenment series. It’s another delightful exercise in exuberant fantasy.

We pick up the story immediately where the last book left off, on a terrible night when rogue magicians nearly succeeded in destroying Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts. Only the quick actions of Rachel and her friends (but mostly Rachel) prevented disaster. Soon they learn that the evil magician behind that attack, Montague Egg, has escaped. Egg has much bigger plans than the destruction of the school – he wants to destroy the whole world. And various Roanoke students, including Rachel, are his targets in a diabolically cruel scheme that will break down all protecting walls if it succeeds.

Through the course of the story, Rachel comes to understand her own powers better, and receives guidance from potent supernatural entities. She also learns terrible secrets about her own family history.

The story is (pardon the term) enchanting. I take it on faith that Christian themes are being served here, because they’re only hinted at in the actual narrative. One thing that troubles me is a recurring pattern of Rachel disobeying her elders and superiors, and being generally proven right in doing so. That’s somewhat surprising in books that pay occasional homage to C.S. Lewis, both his Narnia books and his Ransom trilogy. I await further enlightenment on that point in the volumes that follow.

I recommend the series highly, though I’m not entirely sure they’re suitable for children inclined to rebelliousness. No objectionable material except for the magic itself.

‘The Day That Never Comes,’ by Caimh McDonnell

I was much taken with A Man With One of Those Faces, by Caimh McDonnell. I praised it here, and we even got the attention of his publisher in comments.

I won’t say that its sequel, The Day That Never Comes, was a disappointing book. It was a pretty good mystery/thriller, with the expected amount of slapstick humor. But… it didn’t work for me as well as its prequel.

In this outing our heroes, Paul Mulchrone, Brigit Conroy, and police detective Bunny McGarry, have just failed to start a private detective agency. It seemed like a good idea. Paul has finally moved out of his late aunt’s house, Bunny has been forcibly retired from the force, and Brigit has always wanted to be a detective anyway. But it all fell through. Paul sent Brigit… unfortunate photos from his cell phone on a drunken night, ending their engagement. And Bunny has now disappeared, his beloved car abandoned at a spot where many people commit suicide. But Bunny wouldn’t kill himself… would he?

Meanwhile Paul, left alone in the detective office, is approached by a Raymond Chandler-esque leggy blonde in a red dress, who wants him to follow her boyfriend, something he’s not actually sure how to do. And Brigit is certain Bunny wouldn’t commit suicide, so she’s looking for him. Though they don’t realize it at first, both their cases are related to the trial of three property developers who swindled thousands in the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger boom. After those three are acquitted, one of them is tortured to death. And that’s just the beginning of violence that will convulse all of Dublin.

The Day That Never Comes wasn’t a bad book, but it disappointed me. It was as if someone sat down with author McDonnell and said, “Now this time, tone down the funny writing. Concentrate on character development, back story, and social awareness.” There are plenty of humorous situations in the book, particularly slapstick arising from Paul’s adoption of a flatulent German Shepherd with an attitude. But the funny lines aren’t here. McDonnell’s Wodehouseian gift for hilarious phrasing isn’t much on display.

But it’s a perfectly fine humorous mystery. I recommend it, with cautions for the usual stuff.

‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

A Man With One of Those Faces

She was not a bad looking woman, truth be told; a couple of years older than himself, short brown bobbed hair, decent figure – she wouldn’t be launching a thousand ships any time soon but she’d undoubtedly create a fair bit of interest in a chip shop queue.

Paul Mulchrone is “A Man With One of Those Faces” – a face so ordinary that people frequently mistake him for other people. This comes in handy when he helps out in a Dublin hospice, sitting with dying old people, holding their hands, letting them imagine he’s a family member or a friend. He does this to fulfill the terms of his aunt’s will, which allows him to live in her house on a small stipend so long as he puts in a certain number of public service hours every month. It’s all fine until one night when Nurse Brigid Conroy persuades him to stay a little beyond his time with a particular old man, in return for a drive home. In the event, the old man tries to murder Paul with a knife he’s somehow acquired, and then drops dead.

Turns out the old man is a gangster whom everyone thought dead years ago, one who was involved in a legendary unsolved kidnapping. And his old partners in crime don’t know what he might have told Paul in those last moments. Best to kill him, just to be on the safe side. And Nurse Brigid too. Continue reading ‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

‘Ready Player One,’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One

An online friend urged me to read Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. He wanted to know how I’d react to it.

Well, having read it, I’d say it’s a geek fest – a video gamer’s fantasy wish-fulfillment story…

But it’s an excellent gamer’s fantasy wish-fulfillment story.

Wade Watts is a teenager living in a mid-21st Century American dystopia, in Oklahoma City. The world’s fossil fuels have run out, and the alternative technologies haven’t kept pace. So multitudes of Americans, like Wade, live in “the Stacks,” mobile home parks where the trailers are stacked high on steel racks. He shares a trailer with his aunt and several renters, but most of his time is spent in a hiding place, where he lives a virtual life in OASIS. OASIS is a sort of virtual-reality Facebook, where you can live an entire, ultra-realistic digital life, except for taking care of the most basic physical needs.

Most of his time is spent studying the life and work of James Halliday, the genius who developed OASIS. Halliday died several years earlier, and instead of a will he left a game. Clues, he said on a final video, are hidden in the world of OASIS. They lead to three keys, and the keys in turn lead to an “Easter Egg.” Whoever finds the Easter Egg first will inherit Halliday’s entire fortune and control of his company. Continue reading ‘Ready Player One,’ by Ernest Cline

‘Cold Granite,’ by Stuart MacBride

Cold Granite

Behind the approaching van the North Sea raged, grey and huge, the frigid wind making its first landfall since the Norwegian fjords.

I like to tell you right off when I think a book is well done. Cold Granite, by Stuart MacBride, is an extremely well done mystery/thriller, a book that handles a troubling subject about as well as any writer could.

Detective Sergeant Logan McRae has been nicknamed “Lazarus” by his fellow officers. It’s his first day back on the job, after a long convalescence from knife wounds received from a serial killer. He’s hoping to take it easy for the first few weeks, as he still feels some pain.

No hope of that. The first day a three-year-old boy is found murdered and mutilated in a flooded ditch. Soon other children go missing – or are discovered dead. Long hours will be required, in the extremely unpleasant weather of Aberdeen, Scotland in December (the rotten weather is a major character in t this book). Logan will have to deal with sniping associates, demanding (or lazy) superiors, maddening defense attorneys, and persistent news reporters (one of whom attaches himself to Logan as his special project). Apparent connections between murders prove illusory, while apparently separate murders turn out to be linked. It’s one step forward, two steps back all the way to a pretty cinematic climax.

The writing is top-notch, vivid and epigrammatic. The characters of Logan, his fellow officers, and a variety of scaly suspects are well drawn. What particularly impressed me about the story is the way author MacBride conveys the frustrations of the work of policing – I began to wonder why anyone puts up with it. There is no attempt to soften the horrific suffering and deep grief involved in the crimes, but he makes it endurable through a kind of slapstick – Logan’s many frustrations, disappointments, and injuries are not laughable, but they’re presented in a way that lightens the mood and keeps the whole effort from being too much for the reader to bear.

I very much enjoyed Cold Granite, and look forward to reading further Logan McRae mysteries. Many cautions are in order – language, sexual themes, and very disturbing crimes against children.

‘The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

I am manifestly on record as mistrusting a) books by women (in my experience they tend to do male characters badly), and b) modern Christian fantasy books (because by and large they are amateurish).

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin by L. Jagi Lamplighter is both. And I loved it.

So sue me.

A kind of cross between Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia (with just a tincture of Jane Austin), The Unexpected Enlightenment takes us to a world where, familiarly, a school of sorcery exists out of sight of the ordinary (here called Unwise) world. But there are differences – one being that, although the culture is recognizably like ours, nobody has ever heard of monotheism.

Rachel Griffin is the daughter of an English duke who is an important official in the Magical World. She is sent to Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, which exists invisibly on an island in the Hudson River in New York. Rachel is a gifted child, younger than the other freshmen. She has never had serious friends, and dreams of acquiring real ones, like in the books she reads. She also hungers for knowledge – any and all knowledge. One of her gifts is a photographic memory.

At Roanoke she does make friends – and some Mean Girl enemies. Her friends include an Australian (!) princess, a boy who slew a dragon and sleeps on a bed of gold, and an aspiring reporter. Rachel’s memory gives her an advantage most magicians lack – when she reviews her memories, she can see invisible things that she missed the first time through. By means of this power, she is able to identify sinister, magical activities, and manages to save a friend from an assassination attempt. Trying to figure out the reason for this crime sets her on an investigation of mysterious currents moving beneath the surface of the school’s day by day activities. Eventually she realizes that something very big and very bad is being planned by someone… even as she falls for a handsome upperclassman… who may be evil. Continue reading ‘The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

‘Conan the Barbarian,’ by Robert E. Howard

Conan the Barbarian

Is it possible to be a great writer without being a good writer? I guess it depends on what you mean by great and good.

I consider Robert E. Howard one of the great fantasy writers, on a level lower than Tolkien but higher than most of the others. And yet his writing has many, many weaknesses. The whole, however, is greater than the sum of the parts.

Like most Baby Boomer Howard fans, I first discovered Conan – warrior, thief, pirate, mercenary, and king – through the old Lancer series of paperbacks, most of them with amazing Frazetta covers. That series printed all the Conan stories in what the editors considered proper biographical order. What purists don’t like about them is that the publishers, sensing a cash cow, padded the series out. Unfinished Conan stories were “completed.” Non-Conan Howard stories that could be wedged into the timeline were rewritten to make them Conan stories. And they added pure pastiches done by the editors.

This present collection, Conan the Barbarian, takes a bibliographical approach. All the Conan stories published in Howard’s lifetime are here, in the order published. That means that we begin with two stories of Conan at his pinnacle, as king of Aquilonia, then turn aside to a number of stories about his earlier adventures, and finally conclude with the novel The Hour of the Dragon, a last tale of King Conan (and in my opinion the best Conan story). The collection concludes with Howard’s essay, “The Hyborian Age,” in which he explains the rise and fall of the imaginary prehistoric world in which Conan lived, loved, and slew. Continue reading ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ by Robert E. Howard

‘Season’s Revenge,’ by Henry Kisor

Season's Revenge

I hate it when I encounter a writer who’s good in himself, and even gracious in his attitudes, but still feel obligated to turn from his work for ideological reasons. So let’s get it out of the way at the beginning. Henry Kisor is a fine writer, and Season’s Revenge is a pretty good rural mystery. My reason for stopping after the first book in his Steve Martinez series is that I’m an ideologue, and I prefer to stay away from books written from certain points of view. To the extent that you find my attitude narrow-minded, you are likely to like Kisor’s books. In that case, I heartily recommend them to you.

Steve Martinez is a sheriff’s deputy in fictional Porcupine County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In spite of his name, he’s Lakota Sioux by heritage, and was raised by white evangelical Christians, who died while he was young. He ended up in Porcupine County, with which he had no previous ties, more or less by chance. In other words, he feels somewhat disconnected in the world.

One day in early winter the richest man in the county is found dead in his camping tent, mauled by a bear. The coroner’s verdict is heart attack, caused by shock. But Steve is skeptical. Why did this man, an accomplished outdoorsman, commit a rookie error like eating breakfast in his tent, where bacon grease could spill and lure a bear in? Continue reading ‘Season’s Revenge,’ by Henry Kisor

‘Who is Conrad Hirst?’ by Kevin Wignall

Who is Conrad Hirst?

Call it conscience, if you will; all I know is that it’s a sadness for which I’m profoundly grateful, no less than if my sight had been restored to me after years of blindness. What overtook me yesterday was a longing to be the person I once was.

Conrad Hirst, titular hero of Kevin Wignall’s Who Is Conrad Hirst?, is a professional hit man. He works (or so he thinks) for a German crime boss. Years ago he stumbled into the profession after a devastating personal loss and time spent as a mercenary. He has been good at his job because he felt nothing, and because he displayed so little personality that people tended to overlook him.

But now he’s had a shock. “I saw myself in a mirror,” is how he describes it. He wants out. He wants to stop being this person.

His exit strategy seems clear. Because of the compartmentalized nature of the organization he works for, only four men know who he is – all of them bad men. He’ll just kill them and walk away with a clean slate.

Of course it’s not that easy. He soon discovers that he isn’t working for the people he thinks he’s working for, and a whole lot more people know about him than he guessed. He keeps on the move, improvising as he goes, trying to figure out who his real boss is and to eliminate him. As he goes, he makes an effort to overcome the bad habit he’s acquired – killing inconvenient people. When most of us slip in our efforts to end a bad habit, the results aren’t that devastating. When Conrad slips, people die.

The moral contradictions of being a professional killer are boldly explored in Who Is Conrad Hirst? What is a hero? What is a villain? There are truly distressing moments – lots of them – when we bounce back and forth between sympathizing with Conrad, and hoping someone will just kill him and put him and everybody else out of his misery.

Who Is Conrad Hirst? is a fascinating, troubling book, like all Kevin Wignall’s work. I salute the author’s focus on questions of human choice and moral reformation, though I think he gives more credit to human nature (unassisted by divine grace) than it deserves.

Also, there’s a very neat twist at the end.

Highly recommended, with cautions for violence, language, and extremely shocking situations.

‘A Death in Sweden,’ by Kevin Wignall

A Death in Sweden

Inger said something under her breath in Swedish, something affectionate, brought on by the sight of the old man. And Dan understood the sentiment even if he hadn’t understood or even heard the words properly, because it was reassuring after a day like they’d had, to be reminded that there were good things in the world, and good people, simple food cooked well, strangers sharing their kindness indiscriminately. Dan had been outside that virtuous circle himself for most of his adult life, but he was grateful to be inside it now.

In northern Sweden, a lumber truck crashes into a passenger bus. Only one person survives, a teenage girl. A fellow passenger, a stranger, had thrown himself on top of her to save her life.

That’s how A Death in Sweden starts. Dan Hendricks, an Englishman but a former CIA operative, now makes his living as a sort of bounty hunter for various employers, some governments, some less legitimate. Doing a job in Madrid, he gets word that several of his colleagues are dead. Shortly after, he and a friend barely escape a hit squad. It becomes clear that someone powerful is liquidating a particular group of intelligence freelancers. Dan’s old boss asks him to go to Sweden to investigate Jacques Fillon, the man who saved the girl’s life on the bus. Jacques Fillon was not his real name, and his boss thinks he is the key to the motivation for the vendetta.

Dan goes to the town, where a Swedish agent, Inger Bengtsson, joins the investigation. As they pry into Fillon’s secrets (fending off more than one assassination attempt as they do), they grow closer to each other. This is something Dan wasn’t prepared for, having cut himself off from ordinary human life for far too long.

As in his other novels, Kevin Wignall trains a spotlight on an aspect of intelligence work that is generally passed over lightly in spy novels – the morality of killing. Again he paints a portrait of men who have reached moments of clarity, who have had to reevaluate not only their professions, but their very approaches to life. Again he contrasts profound human feeling and relationships with the kind of injury a professional killer must do to his own soul. Choice is at the center.

Another very satisfying, though often harrowing, novel by Kevin Wignall. Recommended, if you can handle the violence, language, and adult themes. Like all Wignall’s books, it’s not for the faint of heart.

‘No Snakes in Iceland,’ by Jordan M. Poss

No Snakes in Iceland

What do you say when you imagine yourself the only author in the world to write a certain kind of novel, and then find yourself reading a novel of a very similar kind, in a very similar style?

If you’re me, you breathe a sigh of relief. Because it means you’re not the only one who sees a need for such a book.

I don’t mean to suggest (let me hasten to add) that I think Jordan M. Poss, author of No Snakes in Iceland (he could have found a better title, I think) borrowed from my work in any way. I think he’d have handled some things differently if he’d read my books. But this is a Christian fantasy story of Vikings, told from an outsider’s point of view, written in a style that leans heavily on Old English vocabulary in order to convey a flavor of the time and the original language.

Edgar, the hero of No Snakes in Iceland, is an Englishman, a poet and a chronicler, formerly in the service of the king of England. Following a personal tragedy he went slightly mad, and the archbishop of Canterbury bade him go abroad somewhere where his enemies dwell, to learn to forgive them. So now he’s living in a missionary monastery in Iceland (a fictional institution; I’m pretty sure no monasteries existed there at that point). When a distant chieftain asks his abbot to come to his home to “kill a ghost,” the abbot pleads his age and sends Edgar instead, along with a pair of monks.

There Edgar engages, mostly against his will, with a variety of Icelanders, chieftains, common folk, and slaves, and faces the challenge of an Icelandic ghost – the Norse kind who walks by night in a physical body, grown to giant size, kills livestock and people, and rides houses like horses. Gradually he learns to respect and even like these people, as he tries to find a way to do the seemingly impossible.

It’s a good book. I liked it a lot. The author has clearly done a respectable amount of research, though I can point to a number of minor inaccuracies – he has a thrall carrying a sword, he thinks there were towns in Iceland in the Viking age, he makes wine more common than it was, etc., etc. But the overall effect is admirable. He excels in descriptions of nature and the conveyance of atmosphere. And the Christian passages are handled well, generally the chief challenge for the Christian novelist.

So I recommend No Snakes in Iceland highly. If you liked my Erling novels, I think you’ll like this one. Cautions for a very small amount of coarse language.

‘The Hunter’s Prayer,’ by Kevin Wignall

The Hunter's Prayer

‘Nothing happened. I just decided to change.’ He said no more, and yet he wanted to warn her that it wasn’t that easy – something he and Bruno Brodsky and her own father all would have testified to. Once in, there was always a route out; staying out was where the difficulty lay.

Another novel by Kevin Wignall. Again I was impressed, but in a somewhat different way. The Hunter’s Prayer is equally well executed, but it’s much darker than The Traitor’s Story. It contains, I must warn you, one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction.

Ella Hatto is an American college student, on vacation in a small Tuscan town with her boyfriend, when they are suddenly attacked by hit men. Just as suddenly a rescuer appears, an efficient killer who dispatches the assassins and spirits Ella and her friend away in a taxi cab. This is the end of Ella’s old life. From now on, everything will be different for her. At the beginning she gets some support and advice from Lucas, her rescuer, a man who is trying to overcome his social isolation, to break out of a lifetime of separation from humanity. “You don’t get it, do you?” he says at one point. “See, I am the bad guy.”

Then their paths separate and they take very different roads. One road culminates in the truly awful moment I warned you about. Another leads to a kind of redemption. If it weren’t for the redemption angle, I’d probably have panned this novel as just too nihilistic. But it works in the end, in a somber way.

I recommend The Hunter’s Prayer, with cautions. Not only for language and the other usual stuff, but for the shock. I’m finding Kevin Wignall’s books profoundly moral – but the morality isn’t precisely Christian.

‘The Traitor’s Story,’ by Kevin Wignall

The Traitor's Story

…And Finn had probably undersold himself – he was acting out of self-preservation, out of revenge for everything that had gone wrong in the past, but he was also acting out of conscience and a sense of moral outrage, traits that until that moment he’d believed he no longer possessed.

From time to time a book hits you square in the sweet spot, and that’s what happened to me with The Traitor’s Story, by Kevin Wignall. It’s a gripping yarn, and it’s told in a fresh and fascinating way.

Finn Harrington is a popular historian, the author of several successful books. He lives in an apartment in Geneva with his girlfriend who, half as a joke, tells people he used to be a spy. The problem is that she’s right. Six years ago Finn was working for British Intelligence, and he was “corrupt.” He didn’t sell state secrets, but he used his contacts to enrich himself, and he left the service under a cloud.

Then one day a neighbor couple comes to him in panic. Their teenaged daughter Hailey, they tell him, has disappeared without warning. Maybe Finn, with his “spycraft,” can help them find her. He refuses at first, but then relents.

What he discovers explodes his world. The girl left home saying she was afraid that someone was following her. Finn discovers that she and a friend had hacked into another neighbor’s computer. When he discovers what they found, he’s appalled – the man they’d hacked, who has since moved out, had been surveilling Finn himself. He realizes that his peaceful life is over; someone from his old life is coming after him for revenge.

I enjoyed the story for its own sake, but I enjoyed its execution as much. Author Wignall has a remarkably spare and lean, no-nonsense style. The style matches the dispassionate attitude Finn has adopted to the world, up until now. That unadorned narration continues as the story grows steadily more violent and suspenseful. The contrast between style and action makes the fireworks – and there are plenty – all the more surprising and effective.

I have nothing but praise for The Traitor’s Story. Cautions for adult themes, language, and violence. There are numerous opportunities to take cheap shots at religion, and the author avoids them all.