Category Archives: Reviews

A couple reviews

I read a couple books over the holiday, but I don’t think they’re really worth separate reviews. I’ll take a few superficial swipes and move along.

Strangers by Dean Koontz appears to me to be a transitional work for the author. First published in 1986, it shows considerable improvement in character development and dialogue from much of his other early work.

It follows the adventures of a group of people, scattered all over the country, who begin to have similar anxiety symptoms (but not identical symptoms—there are interesting variations and contradictions). Most of them are suffering nightmares. Some of them develop obsessions. The moon, in particular, becomes the focus of more than one. Continue reading A couple reviews

Frankenstein: Prodigal Son and City of Night, by Dean Koontz, Kevin J. Anderson and Ed Gorman

A few years back, as Dean Koontz explains in an introduction to the first book of this series, Frankenstein: Prodigal Son, he made a deal with the USA Network to write a contemporary television series based on the characters of the old Frankenstein book. One assumes that the network execs either misunderstood his script, or understood it all too well, since both parties agreed to go their own ways in the end, each party producing a Frankenstein after their own heart.

The conceit in this series of books is that, although Mary Shelley’s famous novel is based on fact, she got the ending wrong. The monster did not kill Dr. Frankenstein, nor did he die himself. Instead, endowed with extremely long life through being struck by lightning during his creation, he has lived on, mostly in hiding because of a facial injury, gradually learning to control his rage. At the start of Prodigal Son he is residing in a Tibetan monastery. He does not yet know that Dr. Frankenstein has survived the last two centuries as well, his life extended through a series of self-designed surgeries. When he does learn this, the monster leaves the monastery and travels to New Orleans, where Dr. Frankenstein now lives the life of a biotech millionaire and VIP, under a new name. Continue reading Frankenstein: Prodigal Son and City of Night, by Dean Koontz, Kevin J. Anderson and Ed Gorman

The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter

It’s late in the day, but to all you veterans, thank you for your service. Slackers like me owe you big.

The Second Saladin, it appears to me, marks a milepost on author Stephen Hunter’s journey toward finding his niche as a novelist. Some of the elements that will make his Bob/Earl Swagger books so compelling are already there, but he hasn’t yet shaken off a tendency to demonstrate his realism through grim pessimism.

Nevertheless, I found it a compelling book. Though published in 1982 and set in that same time period, the centrality of Kurdistan to the plot makes the whole business remarkably relevant more than two decades later. Continue reading The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter

The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

I feel the need to say something political on this last evening before the election.

But I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been said. And since I know for a fact that our readers are a smart, erudite segment of the population, I’m pretty sure you’ve already made up your own minds.

So I’ll do a book review. It must be days since I’ve reviewed a Dean Koontz novel.

Koontz’ latest in paperback is The Darkest Evening of the Year. On a purely technical level I can make a lot of criticisms.

Since the death of his beloved Golden Retriever, Trixie, Koontz seems to be writing out his grief, with occasionally uneven results. The dogs in his books have gotten wiser and more mystical. In this book he cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of transcendence completely, coming close to caninolatry (if there is such a word. Of course there is! I just made it up!). That “Dog is God spelled backwards” palindrome that so impressed Annie Hall is almost (almost) at work here. Continue reading The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

Nice review

Thanks to frequent commenter Loren Eaton for this review of Erling’s Word on his blog, I Saw Lightning Fall.

I wish you’d have bought The Year of the Warrior instead, though, Loren. It’s a double volume, incorporating Erling’s Word entirely, in a slightly improved version. When you buy it, you don’t need to buy EW.

Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

I’ve been a fan of John Sandford’s for a few years now. He writes a gripping, fast-moving story, with interesting characters and lots of verisimilitude. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a Minnesotan (he’s really the journalist John Camp) and sets most of his stories in our (his and my) state. (I have this odd delusion that places aren’t really important until there are stories about them. The places I enjoy visiting, or want to visit, are generally places where stories I like took place.)

But I’d gotten a little disillusioned with Sandford’s recent work. Lucas Davenport, hero of the Prey series, started out as a fascinating madman, a borderline psychopath cop (who also happened to be a video game millionaire) so passionate about hunting down serial killers that he often crossed the line into “judge, jury and executioner” territory.

The problem was, it was clear Davenport couldn’t go on like that indefinitely. If he kept doing his police work in that manner, eventually he’d either get caught or lose his mind entirely. So Sandford, discovering he had a hit series on his hands, took the rational course of finding Davenport a good woman, getting him married, and settling him down.

The downside of that was that Davenport got a little dull. Sandford appears to have compensated for that by making the crimes more appalling; adding an increased level of horror to his stories. It works to an extent, but I don’t like the series as much as I used to.

So I’m happy to report that Dark of the Moon, starring the spin-off character Virgil Flowers, is much less edgy. Its main appeal comes from fully realized characters and an intriguing mystery. Continue reading Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

“The Wish,” by Johann Sigurjonsson

While I was at Dale Nelson’s house on Sunday, he lent me an English translation of an Icelandic play, “The Wish,” by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, and asked for my reaction. Here’s a link to the text, in the same Einar Haugen translation I’ve got.

It’s a strange play, with considerable numinous power, even in this somewhat clumsy translation (Haugen wrote the textbook from which I learned Norwegian, but he’s no English stylist). It’s a sort of Icelandic Faust story, about a young man obsessed with obtaining knowledge—not for the sake of wisdom, but for the sake of power. He believes that if he obtains access to a certain “Red Book,” which a long-dead bishop took with him to his grave, he’ll obtain total power, not only on earth but in the spiritual realm. Continue reading “The Wish,” by Johann Sigurjonsson

Havana, by Stephen Hunter

Stephen Hunter’s most popular books are the two series about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger, father and son. It started with Point of Impact, in which he introduced Bob Lee Swagger, a decorated sniper from the Vietnam War whose highway patrolman daddy had been murdered in his childhood. Then Hunter started giving Daddy Earl stories of his own. This creates continuity problems, as Hunter attempts to shoehorn incredible adventures (I suspect he may like Earl as a character even better than Bob Lee) into the short lifespan decreed by the first book. Sometimes continuity breaks down, and a new book contradicts a previous one. Hunter cheerfully admits this fact in the Acknowledgements, but he makes no apologies. Each book, it would appear, exists in its own alternate universe.

Hunter is very canny in writing his thrillers. His politics (or so I heard him say in a radio interview) are libertarian/conservative, but he makes sure to be evenhanded with his heroes and villains. The Swaggers seem to be pretty conservative (they’re certainly NRA members), but the villains of this book are the thuggish police of Batista’s Cuba, and cynical CIA agents.

Havana begins in the year 1953. The CIA is looking for a sniper to assassinate a dangerous revolutionary in Cuba. (Several U.S. corporations and the mob are also concerned.) At the suggestion of a young agent named Walter “Frenchy” Short (whom we know from the novel Hot Springs), they select Marine veteran and Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger, persuading him to travel to Cuba as a bodyguard for a goatish Arkansas Congressman.

This is Batista’s Havana, a year-round Carnivale for Americans with money to spend, and there’s plenty of opportunity for humor as the upright Earl, a solidly reformed alcoholic and relentlessly faithful husband, observes it all but keeps his distance. Continue reading Havana, by Stephen Hunter

Last Call for Blackford Oakes, by William F. Buckley

It’s been longer than I thought since I’ve read a Blackford Oakes novel. Stuff has happened in Blackie’s life that I wasn’t aware of, and I fear some of the information I gained in Last Call for Blackford Oakes will take away some of the suspense when I read the ones I’ve missed.

On the other hand, I’ll probably forget.

I wrote a few days back that the late William F. Buckley’s novels are a quiet pleasure for me. The Oakes books are my favorites in that group. It’s nice to read about a spy who knows which side he’s on, and isn’t tortured by doubts about whether democracy or a police state are superior systems. And instead of shadowy puppetmasters in darkened rooms, Oakes’ bosses are the actual, historical people who ran the CIA. A number of other historical figures also make appearances.

Chief among these are the British defector Kim Philby, about whose character Buckley (and Oakes) is/are in no doubt. There is no romance in Buckley’s portrait of Philby.

In this final book of the series, Oakes is a senior agent, something of a legend in the CIA. In the first chapter, in December, 1987, he’s called in to meet with President Ronald Reagan. There are rumors of an attempt to assassinate Soviet Prime Minister Gorbachev, and Reagan wants Oakes to look into it. Continue reading Last Call for Blackford Oakes, by William F. Buckley

Nuremberg: The Reckoning, by William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley’s novels have always been a quiet, minor pleasure, at least for me. Buckley wasn’t a great novelist. He was a fine writer, and his books are well-researched and informative. But they lack strong characters, and everybody in them talks like William F. Buckley. Not a bad thing in itself, but it plays hob with T.W.S.O.D.*

I learned interesting things about the Nuremberg Tribunals in the reading, but I never worked up a whole lot of personal concern for the characters.

The main character in Nuremberg: The Reckoning is Sebastian Reinhard, a young German-born American. The book opens with a prequel, showing Sebastian’s father, an architect, as he works desperately to get his wife and son out of Germany. He succeeds, but fails to escape himself. Some time later he is reported dead.

Sebastian reaches draft age just as the war is winding down. Instead of seeing combat, he is assigned to serve as an interpreter in Nuremberg, assisting in the prosecution of a fictional war criminal named Gen. Amadeus. Through Sebastian’s eyes we are able to observe the struggles of life in postwar Germany, and the complicated legal and diplomatic maneuvers involved in conducting a series of trials for which there was no historic precedent. Most of the cast of characters are people who actually lived, and there is much to learn for those who (like me) hadn’t studied the trials (or even seen the movie).

Yet somehow, when it was done, it felt unfinished to me. Perhaps that was Buckley’s intention, in view of the moral ambivalencies of the whole project, the impossibility of making the criminals suffer proportionately to the sufferings they’d inflicted; the hypocrisy of allowing the Soviets to sit in gleeful judgment on monsters not appreciably worse than themselves.

But one way or another, there wasn’t a whole lot of satisfaction here.

*The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Review: So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger

From what I’ve seen of readers’ reactions to So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger’s second novel, I think most people liked it, but found it a little less wonderful than his first book, Peace Like a River.

It seems to me it should be noted that trying to write a better book than Peace Like a River is a little like trying to produce a better flavor than milk chocolate.

If Peace had never been written, I think readers would hail this book as the work of a masterful new novelist, and it would immediately go on many favorites lists.

It’s not so much a fantasy as Peace was. I think there are fantasy elements, but they’re buried, running beneath the surface like secret rivers. There’s symbolism in plenty, and the gospel permeates every chapter.

Intriguingly, the second book question is really central to the story. I think Enger’s use of it in the narrative enriches the whole project. Continue reading Review: So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger

Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

With the sequel to Auralia’s Colors coming in mid-September, I will post an overdue review of Overstreet’s first book. I keep thinking I should give a plot summary up to a point, but I won’t. I’ll give you my original loop the loop review. Perhaps you will find it readable, if not enlightening.

Many will remember that the Bible states “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil,” but the sacred text goes further than that. “Some by longing for [money] have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Change that warning to the love of colorful things, and you have a fair summary of Jeffrey Overstreet’s debut fantasy, Auralia’s Colors.

The people of Abascar live in browns and grays. Many years ago they gave up every bit of color they had to please the Queen, whose idea was to collect and mature the beauty of the kingdom before returning it to the people, royally blessed by her. In this way, the whole kingdom would be glorified over the other kingdoms of the Expanse. But the Queen never returned the promised honor to her people, so anyone making or finding something beautiful is required to give it to the king for storing in the vast royal vault.

Enter an orphan with enchanting spirit and eyes for nature’s color. Continue reading Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

Review: Viking Norway, by Torgrim Titlestad

I wouldn’t ordinarily review a book that can’t be purchased in this country (though you can get it through this web site, if you’re willing to pay the freight and can pick your way through the Norwegian), but I think this book is genuinely important in its field—and not merely because it has a picture of one of my novels on page 296.

Viking Norway, by Torgrim Titlestad (Professor of History at the University of Stavanger) is important because, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the first English-language book aimed at presenting to a popular audience some “new” theories about Norway and the Viking Age that are being debated in Scandinavia today.

The book attempts to refute two views that have been standard up till now, and offers a new theory about Viking Age Norwegian politics. Continue reading Review: Viking Norway, by Torgrim Titlestad

Repost: Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan

(And another Klavan review recycled tonight. Have a good weekend. I’ll be playing Viking for a Sons of Norway youth event at Danebo Hall in Minneapolis on Saturday. I’ll let you know how it goes, if I live.)

Hunting Down Amanda is a masterful book. It’s fascinating in its own right, as a brilliantly crafted, smart, moving thriller.

It’s also fascinating to the Christian reader as an artifact of the conversion process. Because Klavan, who was not a Christian when he wrote it, was clearly on the way, and his growing interest in matters eternal informs the whole product.

The Amanda of the title is Amanda Dodson, a five-year-old girl who, when the story begins, witnesses a terrible air crash. She wanders to the crash site, and is carried out by a man. Her mother, who has been searching for her, sees this and says, “Oh God. Oh God. Now they’ll come after her.” Continue reading Repost: Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan