Category Archives: Fiction

‘Deep Freeze,’ by John Sandford

Deep Freeze

John Sandford’s novels are always entertaining. The latest Virgil Flowers novel, Deep Freeze, delivers pretty much what you paid for.

As you probably guessed from the title, this story takes place during the Minnesota winter. Virgil Flowers, laid-back agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is called back to place he has no desire to revisit – Trippton, in the southeastern part of the state. He recently closed down a murder ring there involving some of the town’s most prominent people. This time a woman has been found floating in the warm recycling runoff from the local water treatment plant. Evidence in her home indicates she was murdered there and dumped in the river. She was a local VIP, the town banker. She had had a meeting with her old high school classmates the night she died, planning a reunion. All the obvious suspects seem to have ironclad alibis.

At the same time, Virgil is asked to assist a female private detective who has the blessing of the governor. She has been hired by the Mattel Corporation to hunt down a ring of locals who are altering Barbie Dolls to make them into sex toys. Virgil is reluctant to get involved in this case, partly because the illegal business is helping out some people in tough economic circumstances. But he’ll do what he can, when he can. Especially after a bunch of them attack him and leave him badly injured.

If you read Sandford, you know what to expect here – a pretty good mystery with amusing, colorful characters and a lot of obscene dialogue and dirty jokes. One thing I’d advise author Sandford to do is to sprinkle a few more Scandinavian names among his characters, especially the poorer ones. I don’t say that for reasons of ethnic pride (or not entirely). When his rednecks get to talking, I have trouble not imagining them speaking with southern accents. It would help if a few of them were named Olson or Lindquist; it would be a reminder.

Recommended for Sandford fans. If you can’t handle a lot of f-bombs, you’d do best to stay away.

‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third?

“It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking this way.”

Our commenter Paul suggested Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See to me, as a work with similarities to Mark Helprin’s Paris In the Present Tense, which I reviewed with approval. And it is indeed reminiscent of that work, not least in its French locations. It’s one of those heady books that I’m not sure I understood, but I enjoyed it as an experience.

The book is told out of sequence, beginning with the Allied bombing of the French coastal city of Saint-Malo in 1944. We are shown, within that city, two people – a blind girl named Marie-Laure, left alone in their house by her guardian grand-uncle, and a German radio operator named Werner Pfennig, sheltering in the cellar of a hotel. Through the story that follows, we learn the events that brought these two people into proximity. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the Master of Locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. By chance, he is entrusted at the beginning of the war with a precious stone, a legendary treasure said to have healing powers. That stone becomes the obsession of a dying Nazi officer, who systematically follows their trail.

In a smoky mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig grows up in an orphanage, destined for a short, backbreaking life laboring underground. He finds and repairs a broken radio, beginning a lifetime of fascination with electronics, and listening with his sister to mysterious late-night broadcasts about science, in the French language. It looks as if his life is saved when he’s recruited for an elite school run by the Nazi Party – but it turns out to be as deadly as the mines, in a more profound way.

Werner builds a device that triangulates radio signals, enabling the Nazis to locate illegal radio transmitters. The idea of triangulation seems (to me) to be a theme of the book. A kind of triangulation of events brings Werner and Marie-Laure together, eventually, for one magical moment. And then the world resolves once more into the static of war. I’m not sure what All the Light We Cannot See means. It seemed to me, in its final resolution, too modern for my tastes. But it was a fascinating and beautiful book to read.

Cautions for language, tragedy, and mature themes.

Ragging on Dan Brown

Matt Walther has jotted down a few notes on how bad Dan Brown’s latest work is.

Origin is not a thriller. No writer honestly attempting to concoct one would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art . . .

Nor, finally, would anyone who is not going out of his way to subvert the very notion of suspense as a factor that might conceivably motivate us to turn pages attempt even as a joke what must be the most banal chapter-ending cliffhanger in the history of fiction: “‘This getaway car was hired,’ Langdon said, pointing to the stylized U on the windshield. ‘It’s an Uber.'”

In the following chapter, a cop boggles at this feat of deduction.  And there’s far, far worse, if you find such things entertaining. (via Prufrock News)

Kirkus Leans Heavily on Identity Perspectives

burned book on fireRecently, Kirkus Reviews printed a review of the Young Adult novel American Heart by Laura Moriarty. It’s a futuristic story that follows a Huckleberry Finn pattern with its leading teenager helping  an Iranian immigrant and professor on the run in an America where Muslims are interned in camps.

Apparently the review was not damning enough, because presumed readers on the social webs decried American Heart for having a white savior narrative. The reviewer, who is a non-white Muslim woman, did think it was that big of an issue, but online pressure got Kirkus to pull the review for re-evaluation. When reissued, the review said this: “Sarah Mary’s [the teenager’s] ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device, but it is problematic that Sadaf [the Iranian] is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”

Vulture’s Kat Rosenfield spoke to Kirkus’s editor-in-chief about how this revision was made.

And while Smith says the call-out of said problematic element is not meant to dissuade readers from reading the book — “If readers don’t care that this novel is only told about a Muslim character, from the perspective of a white teenager, that’s fine” — he acknowledges that Kirkus does care, and does judge books at least in part on whether they adhere to certain progressive ideals. When I ask if the book’s star was revoked explicitly and exclusively because it features a Muslim character seen from the perspective of a white teenager, Smith pauses for only a second: “Yes.”

I wonder if this will put American Heart on the banned books list for 2018.

‘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.

‘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.

Talk like Charlton Heston

It be “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” ye lubbers, and this here be a stub from what’s to my mind the most squared away and Bristol fashion version of Treasure Island ever filmed, the 1990 TV version starring Charlton Heston as Long John Silver, and a young Christian Bale as Jack Hawkins.

You can’t say fairer than that; ye has me affy-davy on it.

‘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.

Eddison, Influence on Tolkien, Lewis,

Michael Dirda describes the little-known book he says inspired many great fantasy epics. “Published in 1922, the same year as so many modernist masterpieces, The Worm Ouroboros [by E. R. Eddison] combines elements of Homeric epic, Norse saga, and Jacobean drama, while its opulent style borrows the vocabulary and verve of Elizabethan English.”

Here’s a bit of Eddison’s voice from the book:

Dismal and fearsome to view was this strong place of Carcë, most like to the embodied soul of dreadful night brooding on the waters of that sluggish river: by day a shadow in broad sunshine, the likeness of pitiless violence sitting in the place of power, darkening the desolation of the mournful fen; by night, a blackness more black than night herself.

(via Prufrock News)