Category Archives: Reviews

‘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.

‘The Crooked Staircase,’ by Dean Koontz

The Crooked Staircase

…In this world of rapid change, there were few things to which you could hold fast. Wisdom acquired through centuries of experience, traditions, and beloved neighborhoods eroded and washed away and with them went the people who found solace and meaning in those things, who once would have been part of your life for most of your life. Now a rootless population, believing in nothing but the style and fashion of the moment, produced a culture of surface conformity under which the reality was a loveless realm in which soon everyone would live as a stranger in a strange land.

Oh man. I thought this one would kill me. Dean Koontz’s Jane Hawk novels are tours de force in the thriller genre, and The Crooked Staircase just ups the stakes and speeds the pace.

This time out, Jane Hawk, former FBI agent and now a wanted fugitive, framed because she knows too much about a horrific conspiracy in high places, is hunting for the remaining top conspirator whose identity she knows. Finding him and “breaking” him are easy, compared to the fresh mysteries his information generates.

Meanwhile, an oddly matched, ruthless team of government agents are hunting for Jane’s son, whom she has hidden away with people who (she hopes) they can’t identify. But the agents have access to an infinite amount of information, and they are patient. And they’re getting closer.

The tension and suspense just never let up in The Crooked Staircase. Koontz’s skill in creating characters you really like and care about just makes it more nail-biting. Sometimes you’ll want to laugh, and sometimes you’ll want to cry. But you won’t be able to put it down.

Highly recommended. Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes, jolting in their effect but fairly mild by the standards of the genre.

‘The Whispering Room,’ by Dean Koontz

The Whispering Room

Those chosen for elimination were on what the conspirators called “the Hamlet list,” a fact Jane had learned from one of the two men she’d killed in self-defense the previous week. With the self-righteous air of a politician justifying graft as a form of social justice, he had explained that if someone had killed Hamlet in the first act of Shakespeare’s play, more people would have been alive at the end. They seemed really to believe that this ignorant literary interpretation justified the murder of 8,400 people a year.

I haven’t made a secret of my dislike for “Rambette” stories, where tiny little women run around beating up big, bad guys in the manner of Sly Stallone. However, I’m willing to cut Dean Koontz some slack, because he’s Dean Koontz and his work delights me. I enjoyed the first book in the Jane Hawk series, The Silent Corner, and The Whispering Room is equally good.

In a Minnesota town, a sweet, beloved teacher of children with learning disabilities kills herself in a horrific act of terrorism. The town sheriff, Luther Tillman, grows suspicious when federal agents sweep in to handle the investigation and put out information he knows to be false. His decision to investigate further will put him – and his family – in mortal danger. And worse.

Meanwhile Jane Hawk, our heroine, a former FBI agent and now the FBI’s most wanted fugitive, continues her quest to find and unmask the leaders of a nation-wide conspiracy aiming to kill off people who might alter history in the “wrong” way, and to create an army of brain-controlled automatons. She must travel in disguise, deal with criminals, and keep on the move to retain her freedom and her hope – and to protect her son, who is in the conspiracy’s sights.

I can find nothing to criticize in the storytelling in The Whispering Room. The tension is almost unbearable, the action (generally) plausible, the characters interesting. I particularly love how author Koontz finds ways to remind us that, even in the most perilous times, there is still goodness in the world.

Cautions for violence and language. Highly recommended.

‘Wrongly Convicted,’ by P. F. Ford

Wrongly Accused

P. F. Ford’s Slater and Norman series has been reading candy for me for some time now. The books are not demanding, but they’re cheerful and likable. The previous book in the series showed signs of a rushed release. Wrongly Convicted was better.

Former police detective Dave Slater comes back to England from a vacation in Thailand and decides to join his friend Norman Norman in his private detective agency. Business isn’t quite booming, so they’re happy to be approached by a woman whose husband was convicted ten years before of murdering another woman. She is convinced he’s innocent, but her source of information is dead. Now she asks them to find the real murderer.

It’s a feature (or bug) of this series that secondary characters tend to change in serious ways between books. This time out, Slater’s girlfriend “Watson,” who went with him to Thailand, turns out to be something he never suspected. The police come to question him after the car he loaned her turns up demolished by a bomb.

Wrongly Convicted isn’t top-tier fiction, but I liked it and always enjoy a new release in the series. I thought the conclusion was a little artificial, but not enough to complain about in terms of the genre. Only minor cautions for adult themes.

Reading report: ‘Macbeth,’ by Jo Nesbo

Macbeth

My feelings about “Scandinavian Noir” are pretty well established. With rare exceptions, I dislike the genre. I find it nihilistic and depressing.

But I’ve read a couple of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole books all the way through. And when I saw that he’d written an updated version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in the police force of a fictional Scottish city, I thought it was an interesting concept, and bought the book.

Alas.

I’d only gotten a fifth of the way through when I noticed I was approaching my reading with dread. This was a journey I didn’t really want to take.

The pleasure of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” (as we “actors” call it), is largely in being able to hate Macbeth almost from the start. He’s pretty one-dimensional, and you look forward to seeing MacDuff lay on against him.

Macbeth here is the leader of a SWAT team when the book starts, a pretty admirable guy. He has a couple serious flaws, though, and it’s easy to see how he could be corrupted.

I felt like I knew what was going to happen, and I didn’t think there’d be much enjoyment in it. There was no pleasure here. No moments of lightness. So I put it aside.

It’s well written, and if this is your cup of tea, you’re likely to enjoy it. Cautions for adult material.

‘A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far,’ by Mark W. Sasse

A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far

“Are you real or am I hallucinating?”

She laughed hysterically at that question. “I could ask you the same question. You’ve lived your life like a fictitious person.”

A sort of a cross between A Christmas Carol and Winter’s Tale. That’s what comes to mind in trying to describe Mark W. Sasse’s A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far. The book is more complicated than Dickens’ book, and less brilliant than Helprin’s (but what isn’t?). But it’s that sort of thing. Kind of.

Francis Frick is a 72-year-old banker, and a harder man than Ebenezer Scrooge. He happily does business with arms dealers who supply some of the world’s worst despots. He has no friends, terrorizes his employees, and treats his unmarried daughter with coldness and insult.

It all begins to change one night when he discovers a small, bright, laughing creature – something like an angel or a fairy – hovering over his bed, eating a pomegranate. Her name is Bee. Francis refuses to believe in her until she transports him to a desert island. It’s beautiful there, but there’s nothing for him to eat or drink. His suffering is real enough.

This kicks off a series of transportations (some of them quite disturbing), in which he gets to see the consequences of his amoral actions in the world. A desire begins to grow in him to make up for his sins as best he can – but has no idea how. Doing good is outside his expertise. Bee, and her ominous guardian Ash, exhort him to find something “that doesn’t matter.” That’s the key. It all leads to an explosive climax.

It’s hard to evaluate an idiosyncratic book like A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far. It’s the beginning of a trilogy, so a lot of things remain unexplained. We don’t learn clearly what sort of creatures Bee and Ash are, and what their purpose is. This might even be a Christian book (Sasse is a well-known last name in American Lutheran theology), but I’m not sure.

But the book was fascinating, easy to read, and enjoyable. I look forward to reading more. Recommended.

‘Married Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Married Lies

Number five in the Detective Tom Mariner series of police procedurals by Chris Collett, set in Birmingham, England. In Married Lies, a wealthy and well-liked woman is found dead in her house, poisoned in a particularly cruel way. And another woman contacts the police about a stalker. There have been strange phone calls and unrequested packages in the mail, and she’s sure someone has been following her home at night.

Tom Mariner works the murder case, though he’s still reeling emotionally from the break-up of his relationship with a very good woman who finally ran out of patience. He assigns his subordinate Millie Khatoon to the stalking case. Both cases gradually converge, and the end of the book is a real shocker.

I enjoy the Tom Mariner books, and this may have been the best so far (though the ending was disturbing). But I’m stymied in reading the series, since books #6 and #7 are only available in dead tree form, while #8, the most recent, is available for Kindle. I don’t want to jump ahead, so I guess I’ll wait for the intervening books in ebook form, before going on to #8.

Cautions for intense situations and language.

‘Baby Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Baby Lies

Another novel in the Inspector Tom Mariner series, by Chris Collett.

Baby Lies begins with the heartbreaking abduction of a baby from a “creche” (that’s what the English call a day care center for very young children, as I understand it). This was the first time the mother in question had ever left her baby in anyone else’s care, and she’s understandably distraught.

The Birmingham police pull out all the stops in investigating, and everyone is thankful when the baby gets returned unharmed a few days later. But there’s more going on than that, as Inspector Mariner begins to realize when elements of a previous unidentified body case start intersecting with the baby snatching. What they begin to uncover is bigger and darker than they could imagine.

Meanwhile Mariner and his girlfriend Anna are planning to move to a smaller, quieter town. It’s what Anna wants, and Mariner is willing to go along to please her. But can it work for them?

I found Baby Lies suspenseful and compelling. The ending was a little disappointing, but only from an emotional perspective, not a storytelling or plot perspective.

Cautions for mild adult stuff.