Category Archives: Reviews

The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning

The Bookman’s Wake is the second book in a detective series starring Cliff Janeway. Janeway is a former cop who gave up police work to become a rare book seller. In this story he is approached by a former colleague, another ex-cop who has become a private detective. Janeway neither likes nor trusts the man, but is tempted by his offer—five thousand dollars to arrest a woman who has jumped bail, and bring her back to Denver for trial. Her picture looks nice, the money sounds good, and her case is interesting. She is accused of stealing (twice) a rare book printed by a legendary small publisher named Darryl Grayson, whose books are famous both for being almost perfect and extremely hard to find.

Things go badly very quickly. Janeway approaches her under an assumed identity (her name is—seriously—Eleanor Rigby), and finds they have much in common. She’s a “book scout.” She makes a precarious living prowling used bookstores and thrift shops for underpriced books she can sell to dealers at a profit. Though very young, she can teach Janeway some things about books. He meets her family, printers themselves (her father worked for the famous Grayson) and likes them too. She makes a sexual advance, but he turns her down, partly because of his deception and partly because of her age.

About the time he decides he can’t bear to turn her over to the police, Eleanor gets arrested anyway. Janeway ends up escorting her as originally planned, but then she is kidnapped by a mysterious thug with an agenda of his own. Janeway must pick his way through the intricate maze of an old mystery in order to rescue her.

I liked Dunning’s writing. He uses words with real skill, and his characters are interesting and mostly well drawn. His knowledge of the book trade makes reading his novel educational in itself.

I had a problem with his hero though. Cliff Janeway is supposed to be both a cerebral book lover and a very tough guy. The combination isn’t impossible or even unlikely, but Dunning didn’t make it work for me here. The contrast between Janeway’s normal narration and the action sequences where he becomes deadly and violent struck me as too extreme. It was as if there were two characters, with no connection between them. I’d have liked to have seen some transition, some reflection of each facet in the other. But perhaps I’m just operating from a preconception about book people.

Also, except for the final showdown, I thought Janeway was just too good in a fight. In particular, he comes up against one criminal supposed to be a shadowy, dangerous, deadly killer, but he handles him with ease. It would have increased plot tension and improved believability if Dunning had made the struggle a little harder.

I was also irritated by Dunning’s politics. He’s entitled to them, of course, and I’d defend to the death his right to work them into his novels, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy his books. Conservatives, here, are uniformly either stupid or venal, all television evangelists are evil con men, and any dissent from environmental causes is a sign of moral turpitude.

I was also amazed by one bad word choice that astonished me in a book so well-written. This is the offending sentence:

“But the deal had to be handled with tenterhooks. The woman was extremely nervous”

A guy who knows words as well as Dunning ought to be aware that tenterhooks are not instruments of delicate manipulation. Tenterhooks were tools in the old weaving industry. Lengths of cloth were hung from them for stretching. “Being on tenterhooks” means to be in a state of tension, not caution.

The Bookman’s Wake has much to recommend it, but I don’t think I’ll be patronizing that particular shop again.

Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I spent the bulk of my weekend in Wireless Router Purgatory. I got a little shopping in and went to church and all that, but Saturday and Sunday evenings were pretty much spent on the phone with a series of East Indians, most of whom seemed to be consulting the manual between instructions.

I’d tried wireless networking before, but gave it up after three set-ups because I always had to call Earthlink for a “bridge,” and Earthlink always made it fairly clear that I was cheating by not using equipment rented from them, but they’d stretch a point just this once.

So when I needed high-speed access for my tenant, I figured I’d just bite the projectile and order the fixin’s from Earthlink. All the difficulties I’d had setting up wireless in the past, I was sure, must have been due to the basic incompatibility of open-market equipment with Earthlink’s Own. This time it should be easy.

Ah, to be young again, guileless and starry-eyed.

After several hours with tech support I had everything working Saturday night. It worked right up to the time I signed off the internet on both computers. After that, neither computer had access anymore.

Finally yesterday I got to talk to a supervisor who knew what he was doing. It took 2 ½ hours, but we got it up and running in the end. Except that the laptop still doesn’t have access. He’s sending a new adaptor. For now I’m back to the same access I had before, except that I’m running it through more complicated connections.

Oh yes, I was going to review a book, wasn’t I?

Stephen Lawhead’s Hood is the beginning of a new trilogy. Lawhead has taken on the legend of Robin Hood this time, but of course, being Lawhead, he’s doing it his own way. I was a little wary of his approach, but all in all it worked for me.

Lawhead’s Robin Hood is not the Robin of the movies and television shows, nor even the Robin of the old English ballads. It’s Lawhead’s belief that such a legend could never have risen in the England where it finally established itself, but must in fact have older roots in a different place—Wales in the time of King William Rufus, successor to William the Conqueror.

I don’t generally care for literary relocations. I like my heroes in their proper places. I don’t like stories where Sherlock Holmes goes to New York (or Minnesota), or Philip Marlowe is transplanted to London. I don’t like stories about cowboys in Africa. Nevertheless, Lawhead got over my reservations and won my close attention.

This Robin Hood is Bran ap Brychan, the willful and immature son of a minor Welsh king. When his father is treacherously killed by invading Normans, Bryn first travels to London to appeal to the king’s justice. What he gets is a demand for payment for the restoration of his kingdom. When he returns to Wales he falls afoul of the Normans in possession and becomes a wounded fugitive. Wandering in the forest, he is rescued by someone who heals his body and helps him to discover his destiny.

I found Hood compelling reading. I don’t think Lawhead has ever managed to become the author his early career arc promised, but the story kept me turning the pages, and the characters were sharply drawn and appealing. Bran himself is fascinating—a spoiled, rebellious boy whose instinct is to flee his responsibilities, but who is led by grace to take up his destiny.

One element that worked well for me was an addition to the Robin Hood mythos—Lawhead puts Robin in a disguise. He wears a hooded feathered cloak and mask to resemble a large, supernatural raven (hence the title of the series, The Raven King Trilogy). This might possibly rise from the influence of Russell Thorndike’s Scarecrow of Romney Marsh stories. It worked marvelously well here, I thought.

Lawhead didn’t talk me over, personally, with his historical reasons for moving Robin to Wales. One fact he never mentions seems a weighty one to me—that Hood (or Hode) is a very common family name in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, the area where most of the ballads place the outlaw.

But that said, the book was a great ride and I look forward to the next one. I was also relieved that the reflexive anti-Catholicism of Lawhead’s recent work is nowhere to be seen here. There are good priests and bad priests, but no broad-brushed denunciations of the Roman church. So Catholic readers can relax. I discerned no major moral or theological lessons in the book (except for the importance of maturity and unselfishness), but Lawhead likes to leave that sort of thing for the very end.

Hood is suitable for teens and above. The morality is OK, considering the time and place. Robin Hood is a thief after all (I think we all knew that), but you can justify that on the basis of his being a king carrying on a war.

Pretty good book.

Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Brother Moloch arrived Sunday afternoon. All is well. He observed more than fifty baptisms and three exorcisms in Tanzania.

I had two calls from prospective renters over the weekend. One left his work number on my machine, then never returned my messages. The second left me a number that doesn’t work.

However: A young man came to see the room this evening. He is alleged to be a handyman. Might be good.

Once Moloch was gone on Sunday, I found myself at loose ends and remembered I’d been wanting to see “Stranger Than Fiction.” So I did that. Short review—I have lots of quibbles, but it was the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in some time. I do enjoy these existential fantasy movies, like “Groundhog Day,” “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind,” and “Bruce Almighty.”

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, an IRS agent who is obsessed with numbers. He counts the strokes as he brushes his teeth, and can multiply large figures in his head. His life is barren emotionally. He lives in an apartment that looks like a motel suite, except that the suite would be homier.

One morning as he’s counting out his brushing, he begins to hear the voice of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) narrating what he’s doing. The narration isn’t constant, but he finds it distracting when it’s there. He sees a couple counselors who tell him he’s going schizophrenic, but he rejects that explanation. Finally, on the theory that he’s involved in somebody’s story, he goes to see a literature professor, played by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman sets about analyzing what kind of story Harold is part of, and has him journaling his experiences to see if it’s a comedy or a tragedy.

Meanwhile Harold is auditing a charming baker, Anna Pascal, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I was ambivalent about her character. First of all, she’s a tax protestor who refuses to pay the portion of her taxes earmarked for National Defense. Secondly she’s fairly heavily tattooed, which just creeps me out. On the other hand she has a very sweet smile, which was enough to get me over the rough spots.

As you’d expect, Anna starts out hating Harold, but gradually warms to him, and they end up sharing a bed.

Harold’s story is intercut with scenes where we see author Eiffel, who is fascinating (but then all authors are, aren’t they?). She thinks like me and walks around half-dazed, drinking and smoking like… well, like somebody I knew well at one time. When Hoffman’s character (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name) finally figures out that Harold is in a Kay Eiffel novel (she always writes tragedies), Harold sets about finding her to beg for his life.

I can quibble with the movie all night. Are we supposed to believe that Kay Eiffel created Harold Crick, or did she just somehow commandeer his life narrative? Various authorial comments suggest that Harold’s watch has something to do with his ability to hear Kay’s voice, but how that might work isn’t explained (or else I missed it).

And why must it be taken for granted that people immediately go to bed with each other the moment they fall in love? I know lots of people do, especially nowadays, but there must be a few exceptions. And why does Harold have to approach her with the words, “I want you,” instead of “I love you”? Is that supposed to make him authentic?

But for all that, it was a very good movie. I thought its portrayal of writer’s block was pretty authentic (how many of us have been stopped in our tracks by a reluctance to hurt a character we liked?). And there’s a theme of selflessness and laying one’s life down that did my heart good.

There’s some bad language and a little nudity (though it’ll only be prurient if old guys in a health club shower room get your motor running), but it’s fairly unobjectionable by contemporary Hollywood standards.

I recommend “Stranger Than Fiction” highly, for smart grownups. Especially ones who like books.

Revelations by M. Scott Byrnes

Part of the appeal of Scott Byrnes‘ science fiction novel, Revelations, is the story behind it. He wrote a screenplay, probably catching a writing bug during that time, and decided to make it into a novel. He says he wanted to bring a pretty outrageous idea down to earth as an enjoyable thriller in the way he believes Michael Crichton does with stories rooted in an odd scientific observation. So Mr. Byrnes saved some money and quit his day job in order to write his first novel. That’s admirable dedication.

Does it pay off? Well, I must say I felt compelled to finish the story. The characters aren’t too round. The writing style is good enough, though a couple parts are laughably bad. One part that should hold several pounds of suspense drops it all by dwelling too long on the characters’ thoughts. The plot stretches thin a bit, the worst coming about midway when the characters tackle some language translation. But storyline is compelling.

A team of scientists are on Mars hoping to uncover something earlier exploratory results have hinted at. In the process, they discover something that radically changes scientific understanding of the red planet. About the same time, a brilliant young man, named Tim Redmond, is ushered out of an African Red Cross camp by federal spooks when his name is called out by a terrorist who has taken international hostages. The terrorist wants world leaders to make a fast decision made about the Martian discovery, saying it will destroy mankind, but how he knows about it and what he wants Tim to do are big questions.

I believe Mr. Byrnes is planning to write more, which is probably a good idea. Judging from this book, he appears to have the talent and perseverance to write strong, entertaining stories. I look forward to hearing of his success in the future.

Shotgun Alley by Andrew Klavan

Hard-boiled detective stories are one of my favorite genres. So it was good news for me when I learned that Andrew Klavan, my favorite contemporary author, had begun a detective series (I love series! It’s almost like having real friends!).

And I wasn’t disappointed. If Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop series isn’t moving Hard-boiled into fertile new territory, it’s at least discovering new treasures in the old fields.

You gotcher tough-guy protagonist. You gotcher smart-guy protagonist. You gotcher psycho killers and your dangerous dames. You gotcher dead bodies and threats and violence. You gotcher subtextual deconstruction of postmodern philosophy. What’s not to like?

The continuing main characters in the series are Scott Weiss and Jim Bishop. On first glance they kind of resemble Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, in a dim light. But they’re more complex than Wolfe and Goodwin (whom I also like), and they inhabit a grittier, more perilous world.

Scott Weiss is an ex-cop. He is tall and fat and lonely. His loneliness comes from his over-romantic view of women—he puts them on a pedestal, and they respond by wanting to be just friends. Although he’s smart, his success as a detective comes from an emotional-imaginative quirk. He’s an empath. He has the ability to get into people’s heads, understand their thinking patterns, and predict their actions. It’s good for business, but he can never be a happy man.

Jim Bishop is his alter ego. A burned-out Special Forces veteran, he nearly became a career criminal before Weiss pulled him out of the mud and gave him a chance. He’s physically strong and a dangerous fighter. He rides a Harley and flies planes and helicopters. An adrenaline-junkie, he uses women and throws them away and they adore him.

The two of them make a fascinating moral study. Weiss is a good man who does bad things (he drinks too much and uses prostitutes. He also allows Bishop to operate his own way, though it offends his ethics). Bishop is a bad man who does good things—sometimes. Often to his own amazement.

The stories are told by an anonymous narrator who presents himself as the author. We are apparently meant to believe that Klavan himself worked at the Weiss Agency as a young man, and that these stories are his reminiscences (oddly though, there is no indication that the stories took place in the past. All the technology seems completely up to date. It’s almost as if these are memoirs from the future).

I liked the first book, Dynamite Road, very much, but I liked Shotgun Alley even better. Weiss and Bishop are hired by a very wealthy man, an aspiring political candidate, to find his daughter, Honey. Honey is only seventeen years old, but has run away from home and gotten involved with an especially vicious motorcycle gang. Weiss turns Bishop loose on the case, knowing that Bishop will do a number of things that he (Weiss) doesn’t want to know about.

There’s also a subplot about a case that Weiss works himself, with the help of Our Narrator. It involves a doctrinaire feminist college professor who hires them to trace the identity of a man who’s been sending her obscene e-mails.

Shotgun Alley is a love story, when you lay it all out, only the love is pretty messy.

You need to be warned about sex, violence and bad language. This book has them all, in pretty strong doses. Klavan is a confessed Christian, but he does not—repeat, not—write CBA fiction. I have a stomach for this kind of stuff, especially in a good cause, but it may not work for you.

I for one eagerly await the appearance in paperback of the next installment, Damnation Street.

Pass on Gory, Here’s Cute and Fluffy

Since we’re writing movie reviews, let me offer a few thoughts on those movies you’ve probably seen in the video store or in the online rental categories and thought to yourself, “Is it time for these movies? Are they any good? Will they hold my daughters’ attention?” Of course, I’m talking about the Barbie Princess animations.

I have four daughters. One has yet to be delivered, but she’s here nonetheless. All of them love the movies they’ve seen, which for the ones out of the womb is all of the movies. I have seen all but one, and in short they aren’t bad.

Last night, we watched the most recent fairy tale, Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses. Of course, it barely resembles the original story of twelve dancing princesses who use a magic drink to enslave men in their nighttime enchantment so that they want nothing but to dance with the women all night, every night. That’s a pretty interesting story, and the illustrations in my Portland House collection are beautifully intricate, if a bit weird. The story doesn’t have that gap in cultural understanding which many traditional or foreign fairy tales present to me, that moment in the story when something is explained or done which seems unnatural to me or maybe just gruesome, like when a man stops to help a woman and kills her after a few minutes. He goes on to live happily ever after. Nonsense.

The Barbie version has a pleasant musical theme, which becomes a pop song during the closing credits. It’s one of those catchy melodies which needs to go with a more complicated composition to make it really good, but Barbie has an audience of young girls who don’t care about that. Apparently, they do care about talking animals, because every movie has more-or-less irritating pets who usually talk to other animals and occasionally talk to the people. In Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses, there’s a cat, monkey, and parrot—cute, annoying, and funny respectively. (My sweet wife doesn’t give them that much credit.)

Positive messages, classic music, and dancing patterned after live ballet dancers are the strengths of these movies; occasionally lame dialogue, mediocre animation, overuse of magic are the weaknesses. I say lame dialogue instead of depictions of popular childishness which kids are supposed to relate too. The mean, selfish, whiney daughter of the villain in Barbie in Swan Lake was the very type of character my eldest daughter didn’t need to see in action. At the beginning of The Magic of Pegasus, the story looks as if it will go in a bad direction with a handful of pop references, but it ends well. All of them end pretty well, I suppose.

The 12 Dancing Princesses focuses on a family sticking together to protect their father, noting that everyone in the family has something to contribute. There’s a lot of dancing too. Swan Lake deals with inspiring individual aspirations and certain ballet moves. The Magic of Pegasus is about second chances and ice skating. This one shows Barbie disobeying her parents in the beginning and repenting without excuses in the end. The Nutcracker focuses on Tchaikovsky’s music and ballet. I forget the message–courage, maybe.

The best one is the only musical. The Princess and the Pauper is about twins separated at birth—stop me if you’ve heard this one. At the beginning, the two women sing about wanting their freedom from social obligations or poverty, but they end the song with words on their duty to their families, not the usual follow-your-heart line. The music is good, and the talking cats, dog, and horse don’t ruin the story.

Another plus overall: Barbie doesn’t marry whatever man shows up at the end of every story. There is occasional talk on the man’s cuteness, but I manage to stomach it.

Forgive me if you still can’t believe I’m blogging long on Barbie movies, but the best may be yet to come. I hear the next animation will be Barbie and The Merry Wives of Winsor. They may even tackle Romeo and Juliet. That way they can sell Barbie-sized coffins. Maybe the talking pets will draw first blood.

Movie Review: Beowulf & Grendel

(At last I’ve got my desktop back, and substantially operational. Now I can post the movie review I promised last weekend.)

I’ve been waiting for Beowulf and Grendel for some time. There was an official website, where they posted photos and production information, but as is the case with so many movies, there were problems in the distribution phase. I had high hopes for it. The costumes, in particular, looked to be far more authentic than anything we’ve seen in a Viking movie to date. (Technically it’s not really a Viking movie, since it takes place in the 6th Century, and the Viking period didn’t officially start until the 8th Century. But I doubt if a Northman living in those times would have seen any important difference.)

The film never did get meaningful release. It played in a handful of theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and now has gone to DVD. This is unfortunate in many ways, since it’s a well-acted, visually fascinating piece of work.

But I don’t like it much.

It was great to look at. The costumes, as I said, were outstanding. The armor and weapons were (thankfully) done with exacting care, barring some not-unthinkable improvisations (in contrast to the ones used in The Thirteenth Warrior, apparently the result of a scavenger hunt through the props department). The Icelandic locations were grimly beautiful as only Iceland can be–though a little disorienting, since the story is expressly set in Denmark, and Denmark has never–now or then–looked much like Iceland (it was heavily wooded in Beowulf’s time).

But Beowulf and Grendel is a preachy movie, and what’s worse, it’s a sort of preaching I don’t like.

If you read the Beowulf poem, you read the story of a heroic young man (played by Gerard Butler in the movie) who kills a mighty monster in order to protect the people of a family friend, King Hrothgar of Denmark. It’s a black-and-white story. Grendel, the monster, kills because he’s bloodthirsty and evil. Beowulf kills him (and later his fearsome mother) because he’s brave and strong and good.

The movie turns all this on its head. The new slant isn’t really revolutionary, because we’ve heard it all before, time and time again. It merely spoils the story. Grendel is now the heroic social outcast. He’s the utterly innocent victim of racial prejudice. He never kills anyone except those who’ve injured him (he’s able to pick those precise ones out through his superhuman sense of smell). It’s the Danes (typical imperialist, bigoted Europeans!) who have killed his father for sport.

I have no objection to humanizing villains. It’s something I take pains to do in my novels. A villain is more effective, more believable and more morally useful when the reader can sense our common, perilous humanity and recognize once again Solzhenitsyn’s profound dictum that “the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.”

But it can be overdone. The filmmakers (director Sturla Gunnarson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins), instead of offering insight into human complexity, have essentially switched sides. Now it’s the Danes who are mindless, bloodthirsty monsters, and Grendel who is the pure and unsullied Ideal.

Aside from being a cliché, this approach makes the movie a lot duller than it might have been. Beowulf, pretty much the only Dane with a lick of decency or compassion, fights without enthusiasm, and his victory is a hollow one. Suddenly The Thirteenth Warrior (which was based on the same story) looks better as a movie. At least there was serious fighting with important stakes in that movie, not to mention a hero who cared about what he was doing.

The whole thing is summed up in a line at the end, where one of Beowulf’s men, listening to a friend composing the first draft of the epic poem, says, “[His] story is sh*t.” That’s what this movie all boils down to. It’s a movie about Beowulf done by people who despise Beowulf.

It’s rated R and deserves it. Lavish use is made of the “F” word, and there’s some gore (though not as much as there might have been) and sexual situations. An Irish priest (unimaginatively named Brendan) shows up in order to demonstrate how impotent and misleading Christianity is. The real voice of wisdom in the film (again, predictably) is a witch played with offputting smugness by Sarah Polley (who was the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

I’d planned to buy this movie. I’m glad now I rented it first.

Paul by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos [in George MacDonald’s Phantastes]. I do now. It was Holiness. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, Chapter XI).

For some years I have told people that there is one author in particular whose sandals I feel myself utterly unworthy to untie. That author is Walter Wangerin. If I could trade my entire past and future literary output for the ability to say that I’d written The Book of the Dun Cow, I’d… well, I’d be strongly tempted. If any work of expressly Christian fiction written in my lifetime is likely to endure, I think it will be that marvelous book. Not only for its outstanding literary quality, but for the Holiness Lewis found in MacDonald and I find in Wangerin.

Still, I haven’t been a big reader of Wangerin’s books. That was partly because I thought he’d gone over the top with his sequel, The Book of Sorrows, a book almost unendurable for me from an emotional point of view. Also he’s a pastor in good standing in the Very Large Lutheran Church Body Which Shall Remain Nameless, and I have to assume that means we have major theological disagreements, particularly in terms of our views of Scripture.

But if Paul is typical of the stuff Wangerin’s been putting out all these years, I’ve got some catching up to do. I can quibble with some of his dramatic choices, but taken all in all this is a fine, spiritually nourishing work of fiction, one that I heartily recommend to all readers.

The book is largely a retelling of the material we are given in the Book of Acts in the Bible. The story of Paul’s life is told from multiple viewpoints—people who knew Paul like Barnabas and Prisca and James the Apostle and Timothy (one exception is the philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor, who keeps us posted on events in Rome). Each chapter presents the story from a different point of view, friendly or hostile to Paul. Each narrator is well-defined and believable as a character. Wangerin makes use of historical research to flesh out Scripture’s spare accounts, helping stories and passages we’ve known all our lives take on new vividness.

I can hardly think of a better commentary on Acts and the Epistles than this, as a gift for a new Bible reader.

I wouldn’t have handled some of the material the way Wangerin does. He alters the scriptural account in small ways. For instance, as he tells it here, Barnabas’ break-up with Paul was not a result of a fight over giving John Mark another chance to accompany them, but over the dispute about eating with Gentiles. Dramatically, though, it works better this way, and we all know that it’s possible for two witnesses to remember different causes. Wangerin is also bold enough to add small paragraphs to biblical passages, as if restoring lost sections. I don’t think I’d have the nerve (or the temerity) to add to Scripture that way.

Wangerin also invents some unrecorded incidents (though not many), and one in particular (concerning a prison escape) struck me as kind of far-fetched.

But overall I enjoyed the novel very much, and it improved my comprehension of the New Testament (and I speak as one who’s read the New Testament many times).

I encourage you to read Paul. Drink in the Holiness. Wangerin’s health is bad. We may not have many more books from him.

The Man Of My Life by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

I’m not sophisticated enough to read Montalbán.

All my life I’ve had a reputation for being fairly bright, but I’ve borne this secret shame—there’s lots of modern literature, highly praised by people of greater intellect than mine, that I just don’t comprehend. I read these works through (or did, when I was in school and had to), but they speak to me not at all, and I have to assume it’s my own fault.

But I’m not entirely sure that’s the reason I didn’t like this Spanish novel. I have a suspicion that this one is just plain superficial and dull. Somebody sent it to Phil for review, and he passed it on to me without finishing it. I read the whole thing because I enjoy writing nasty reviews better than he does.

Montalbán’s detective hero, Pepe Carvalho, is advertised as Barcelona’s answer to Philip Marlowe. I suppose that’s true. Just as Marlowe embodied a certain world-weary, mid-twentieth century American cynicism which, being American, retained a reservation of personal integrity and courage, Pepe Carvalho is the perfect postmodern European.

Pepe is, above everything else, cool. He’s too cool to have close personal relationships. There is Charo, his on-and-off girlfriend, a former prostitute. There is Biscuter, a physically unimpressive young man whom Pepe rescued from the streets and made his personal assistant. But Pepe doesn’t open up much to either one. He cares about gourmet cooking, and he likes to start fires in his fireplace with books that have displeased him. I suppose that’s supposed to constitute character development.

Pepe’s too cool to believe in anything, religious or political. This novel puts him in contact with a confusing array of cults, parties and movements, and he analyzes them all with the detachment of a man who has transcended all that. He has been, we are told, both a Communist and a CIA operative in his time (the CIA, of course, taught him to commit soul-destroying cruelties, assuming one has a soul).

The plot involves a young man, son of a powerful capitalist, who has rejected his father’s values to start a satanic cult, “Lucifer’s Witnesses.” He has been accused of murdering his male lover, another leader of the same cult, who happens to be the son of a rival capitalist.

Then the plot, such as it is, begins a confusing wander (or meander, the pace is pretty slow) among groups like neo-Cathars and rival parties of Catalan nationalists. I quickly lost track of them.

And why should I be interested? Pepe himself doesn’t seem very interested. He didn’t seem to me to do much actual detecting in the book. He’d get calls from various people telling him to meet someone at this or that spot, and generally he’d go there and be beaten up or witness a crime. But, after all, he knows that it’s all a put-up job, that the real criminals are multinational, globalist corporations who kill people for profit and have innocent people blamed. Justice, such as it is, is something Pepe will dispense himself in the end, as he has no faith in the corrupt justice system either.

The only point at which Pepe displays anything like human emotion is in connection with “Yes,” a mysterious woman who introduces herself to him first through anonymous faxes, daring him to guess which character from his past she is. She is, he learns at last, a beautiful American-born woman with whom he had a brief affair when he was younger and she was very young. For her he displays real feeling, but he is reluctant to take her away from her husband and children. This is commendable, of course, but one can’t tell whether the refusal springs from any kind of moral scruple, or from a more basic inability to give himself wholly to anyone or anything.

But maybe I misjudge the book. Maybe it’s just too good for me.

I’ll tell you this, though—the translation isn’t. I speak as a man who does bad translations himself when I say that this translation is very, very poor. The dialogue, in particular, has the tinny sound you hear in dubbed Italian westerns. Take this excerpt, from a scene where the suspect young man is being pursued by thugs. A young woman named Margalida sees the baddies (or goodies, one is never sure) pursuing him by motorbike:

Furious, she turned back to Carvalho.

“Your pistol! Why didn’t you get it out?”

“I hardly ever carry one.”

“Some private eye you are! You have to have a gun for this kind of thing. Now they’re going to catch Albert.”

Well, I finished it at last. But if I had a fireplace in my house, I know which book I’d use to start the first fire of the winter.

The Big Law by Chuck Logan

Chuck Logan was recommended to me as a good thriller writer who, like John Sandford, lives in and writes about Minnesota.

I can’t say that I won’t read any more of his books. But I’m afraid I liked this one a lot less than I hoped to.

I would have preferred to start with the first book in the Phil Broker series, Absolute Zero, but my bookstore didn’t have a copy. So I went with Number Two, The Big Law.

I’ve written before about male fantasy figures as series heroes. I think Phil Broker (mostly) fits into this category. He’s rich as a result of finding a huge treasure of gold in a foreign land. He lives in his own big, rustic house on the shore of Lake Superior, having retired young from police work. Over his fireplace he has hung a Viking dragon’s head ship’s prow (that wins him points with me).

On the other hand, most male fantasies don’t include raising a baby singlehanded.

Phil has a wife, a female soldier (and hero). She has returned to active service and is currently serving in Bosnia (the book was published in 1998) when Broker gets involved in a case involving his ex-wife, Caren Angland.

Caren calls him unexpectedly, asking to come and see him. She’s frightened. She’s married now to Keith Angland, another cop and Phil’s former friend. She has proof that Keith is crooked. That he has taken money from the Russian mafia and murdered an informant.

As she flees her husband, Caren picks up a newspaper reporter, Tom James, who is supposed to document the story. But Keith follows and gets to Phil’s house ahead of her. In the violence that follows, Caren falls into a waterfall to her death, Tom James gets shot, and Keith is arrested for Caren’s murder.

But if that’s the end of the story, why do both Phil and his soldier wife get threatening letters shortly afterward?

And what happened to the money Keith got from the mob?

Chuck Logan is a good writer. The story builds tension nicely. The writing is fresh and sharp. Logan chooses his words carefully, and places them for maximum effect.

And yet… I had trouble caring much.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I couldn’t identify with Phil Broker. I can’t point to a single defect in Logan’s depiction of his character.

But I felt like I couldn’t get near the man. He never came alive for me. Even though he displays great passion in his concern to protect his baby daughter, he never gets my full sympathy.

I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be able to analyze these things. But I can’t identify what’s wrong here.

I’ll probably have to read another in the series to see if the problem is Logan’s or mine.

Once Upon a Time at the movies

Today has been gorgeous in the City of Lakes and its environs. The weekend’s blessed rains washed the humidity out, and the temperature stayed south of 80. This is what outsiders imagine a Minnesota summer day to be like, but it happens all too rarely in real life.

By way of Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog, I have discovered one of the funniest blogs I’ve ever read. Luther at the Movies purports to be film criticism as practiced by Dr. Luther, whose natural exuberance cannot be stifled by the mere accident of death. If this doesn’t win all you thin-blooded Calvinists over, I don’t know what will.

I bought the DVD of Once Upon a Time in the West a while back, and I watched it yesterday. What an incredible piece of work that film is.

If I were to read the things I’m about to write about a movie I hadn’t yet seen, I’d probably boycott it for life. Fortunately for me, I first saw the movie without knowing anything about it (I’d never even seen an Italian Western before), so I was caught in the majesty and sweep of the thing, and nothing I’ve learned since can cut that visceral connection.

It was 1969, my second year of college. I had an evening at loose ends, and decided I wanted to see a movie. This western was playing at the theater in Forest City, Iowa, so I walked downtown to see it.

It was the strangest western I’d ever seen. Parts of it troubled me a great deal.

But it stuck in my head as few movies ever have.

Westerns are generally “about” scenery, when it comes down to it, and OUATITW certainly lays the scenery on heavy. It was filmed both in Spain and in the United States, and director Sergio Leone used John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley to particular effect. On a big screen, the spectacle is breathtaking.

But even more than scenery, this movie is about music. One of the commentators on the DVD notes that the film was shot like a music video. Before there was a script, the genius Ennio Morricone, who’d already done the classic scores for the “Dollars” movies, wrote the music. The script was built on that. I’d nominate it as the greatest film score ever written, and there are those who agree with me (actually I agree with them, but I’m on an ego trip here).

They don’t make movies like this nowadays. Today’s action movies are all about speed. Forget plot consistency. Forget character development. Just put bodies in motion and crash them into each other a lot. Blow things up. Set things on fire.

Once Upon a Time in the West is purposely slow, like Henry Fonda’s walk. It’s about tension that builds and builds, from Charles Bronson’s shoot-out with three familiar gunmen at the beginning, to his and Henry Fonda’s climactic showdown, in a corral around which the whole world revolves.

Slowly.

Mysteries abound. What was Brett McBain’s secret? Why is Charles Bronson pursuing Henry Fonda, and what is the meaning of Bronson’s recurring flashback of a man walking toward him? How can any heterosexual male manage to spend time around Claudia Cardinale without spontaneously combusting?

There’s a political subtext, I’m afraid. At the time some people congratulated the Italian Westerns for bringing to us a newer, grittier, more realistic picture of the American West than the old Westerns had.

This is balderdash. Even granting that the old movies were bowdlerized (of course they were), that doesn’t mean that the kind of cynical violence and cruelty we see in spaghetti westerns is closer to reality. Cowboys were Victorians. Yes, there was a lot of prostitution in the West, but men still took their hats off to ladies, regardless of their reputations. Even cold-blooded killers like Kid Curry, or genuine psychopaths like John Wesley Hardin never killed innocent people for sport (not white people, anyway). They believed in virtue and considered themselves respectable men. Jesse James taught Sunday School off and on.

When Sergio Leone shows us Henry Fonda murdering a little boy, he has a purpose in mind. He wants Americans to think differently about themselves and their history. He wants the viewer never to be able to watch My Darling Clementine or Young Mr. Lincoln the same way again.

And he succeeded. More’s the pity, in my opinion.

But the spectacle. The music. I can’t get free of Once Upon a Time in the West.

New Light by Annette Gilson

Brief Summary: Beth comes to St. Louis, Missouri, hoping to start a new chapter in her life. She doesn’t expect to have visions and get caught up in the drama of a New Age commune.

In New Light, Annette Gilson’s remarkable debut novel, her narrator, Beth, tells the curious story of her experience in St. Louis shortly after arriving from New York. It opens with what I consider the sticking point of drama, Beth’s intense visions. Without explanation or drug use, she feels her spirit burgeon, swelling into the night sky, pressing so close to stars as to feel their burn. Her vision gives her common ground with Houdini White, a scientist who has been studying vision phenomena and the New Age communities which claim to work with them. One of those communities, called New Light, is relatively close by, so Beth and Houdini visit it for several days.

It’s a quiet story, broken up by Beth’s short discussions of mystical science and conflict between the characters. Gilson’s writing carries the tension and mystery effectively throughout the book. (I love the conclusion.) At New Light, Beth and Houdini meet a leader named, The Mother, who cultivates a mystery for the dozens of people living with her. Everyone there is supposed to be a visionary, but each one comes at it differently and all interdependently. Because Beth has experienced vision outside the group, she could have remarkable gifts for their enrichment.

But do these supernatural visions tell them anything? Nothing that deep introspection wouldn’t. In this novel, supernature appears to exist as a nebulous expression of oneself. The message resolves to this: watch your world and those in it; be aware of yourself and your surroundings, then maybe you’ll have more peace than the people who strive and yearn too much.

Perhaps this is understandable peace, which is the reason the Lord God described his peace as beyond understanding. Like the poor community which doesn’t complain about filthy water, the understandably peaceful decide to be content with transcendence that doesn’t surpass their skin.

Beyond the Summerland, by L.B. Graham

Summary: The son of a nobleman journeys to a beautiful southern city for extensive training and is caught up in an adventure which appears to be the harbinger of an epic war.

Beyond the Summerland, the first of five in the Binding of the Blade series, is a fairly exciting story once you get into it. Joraiem, the son of one of the nobles who rule Kirthanin, is of the age to go to the Summerland for the political, physical, and academic training that all of the young nobility receive. Along the way, he meets several interesting people who will also be trained for leadership, the most interesting being a large warrior who carries an ancient sword and is mystically connected to a tiger. A dozen or so men and women train in the Summerland for weeks before the danger increases and all of them feel compelled to risk everything on what may be a doomed mission.

This is L.B. Graham’s first novel, so perhaps I should ignore some stylistic matters, but those matters are the reason Beyond the Summerland takes some patience. The prologue or opening chapter should be 2/3 shorter due to needless detail. Throughout the book, the story bogs down in a few paragraphs of narrative which don’t sound unnatural to me but are unneeded. For example, Joraiem may think through a situation and give the reader no more understanding than that a few story points are being made too obvious. Despite this, it’s an enjoyable story, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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Turning Freetime into Books

[First posted May 24, 2003] The Boston Globe reported on Massachusetts resident Francis McInerney, who is Amazon.com’s #7 reviewer [Now he is #36]. He began writing reviews a few years ago in his free time and has become influential among some editors. At least, I assume he has some influence with those editors who send him advance reader copies and galleys.

Quoted in the article, Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, said, “I tell reviewers that a review should be a letter to a very smart friend. It should be rigorous, intellectually enterprising, artfully written, persuasive, and the reviewer should be clear about any conflicts and about point of view.” That reminded me of something George Grant said about the books he reviews. He said that after he had read a few chapters, he could usually tell whether the whole book would be worthwhile and if it was, he usually praised its merits. If it wasn’t, he stopped reading. That’s why, he said, most of his reviews were positive. He didn’t want to waste his time or his readers’ by reading and reviewing an avoidable book. World Magazine Editor Marvin Olasky made a similar comment regarding the books he reads while on his treadmill.

That’s as it should be, isn’t it? What purpose is served by negative reviews in general? Steve Almond, who had a short story collection published in 2002, wrote an article on the pain of negative reviews in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It supports my notion that book reviews in general ought to be positive. The existence of the review draws attention to the book being review, and some believe that no publicity is bad; so why do some books warrant a special warning for the hapless reader? I think I understand negative reviews of bestsellers. Books on the Top 10 lists attract attention, and if a particularly bad book makes it there, professional reviewers may feel obligated to warn their trusted readership against it, as does David Prather of The Huntsville Times in his review of the best-selling The Da Vinci Code. He wrote, “How much dreadful writing can [readers] accept to follow an interesting plot?” But of course, a bestseller must have something going for it or it wouldn’t be a bestseller—or maybe, it wouldn’t be a bestseller for weeks on end. But for those books which receive a lot of hype, like Mrs. Clinton’s upcoming, deserve honest reviews from a professional. (first seen on MobyLives.com)

Speaking of reviews, The Mobile Press-Register reviewed a biography of the great Southern writer Peter Taylor. Reviewer Thomas Uskali summaries the book by Hubert McAlexander by writing, “McAlexander covers every year of Taylor’s life, but in a manner that bogs down in details gleaned from interviews, letters and other research. Taylor himself told McAlexander that he didn’t consider his own life worthy of a biography, and while it is absolutely certain that Taylor’s life warrants one, it is also clear that there is much richness that gets overlooked in the barrage of minutiae.”