Category Archives: Reviews

Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben

Oh my goodness, Gone For Good is a splendid novel.

I hate to blaspheme Andrew Klavan by calling it the best suspense novel I’ve ever read, but I’ll go so far as to say I’ve never read a better one.

Will Klein, the hero and narrator, is a do-gooder. He works in New York City for Covenant House a (real-life) humanitarian organization that tries to reach out to street kids and (when they’re lucky) help a few of them escape that world before they’re irreparably damaged (which doesn’t take long).

He lives with his girlfriend, Sheila. She’s his “soul-mate,” and he’s planning to propose soon. The only reason he put it off was because his mother died of cancer recently, and life got complicated.

It didn’t help that, shortly before her death, his mother told him his older brother Ken was still alive. Obviously she was just raving.

Ken had been Will’s hero as a boy, up until the day his girlfriend (Will’s former girlfriend) was found murdered, and Ken disappeared. The official assumption has been that Ken killed her and ran.

Believing his brother innocent, Will has always assumed he was also murdered, his body never found.

Then Sheila receives a mysterious phone call, leaves a note saying, “Love you always,” and vanishes completely.

Will has always been a passive guy (I identified with him heavily). But now, the weight of personal loss becomes too heavy to endure, and he sets out (with the help of his friend “Squares,” a millionaire yoga guru) to find the woman he loves. Quickly he learns that it has something to do with his brother’s disappearance. And we are given just enough glimpses (in Hitchcockian fashion) of the plans and deliberations of his enemies to understood the extreme danger he’s walking into. Very powerful, very ruthless people are interested in the whereabouts of Ken Klein. But even this information leaves plenty of surprises along the way. The twists come relentlessly, right up to a jaw-dropping revelation at the end.

What I loved about Gone For Good was that the plot and the surprises all rose from believable, complex characters. Coben understands Solzhenyitsin’s dictum that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Every character in this book is flawed, but also well-meaning (by his own lights). The wide disparity between the things that individuals consider right and necessary is almost a part of the background scenery, like the Grand Canyon.

Outstanding. Recommended highly for adults.

The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor

I was trying to figure out why I feel so depressed today, and then I remembered that Al Franken is going to be my new senator.

In related news, the official Minnesota State Accessory is now the red rubber clown nose.

I decided to try reading a mystery by Steven Saylor
on the recommendation of James Lileks (not, I probably ought to add, a personal recommendation, but one heard on the Hugh Hewitt Show). I’m glad I did, and I’ll be reading more. But they’re odd books.

The hero of The Venus Throw is Gordianus the Finder, an established private detective in Rome in the time of Julius Caesar. This story takes place in the year 56 BC, and is based on actual events.

Gordianus is visited, unexpectedly, by an acquaintance from the past, an old Egyptian philosopher named Dio, with whom he used to have informal dialogues when he lived as a young man in Alexandria. Dio explains that he is part of a delegation from Egypt which has come to petition the Roman Senate. One by one or in groups, most of the original 100 emissaries have been murdered or scared off. Dio asks Gordianus for just one favor—to do a sort of security check on the house where he is staying, so that he can eat the food without fearing poison.

Gordianus, very regretfully, has to refuse. Not only does the case involve political risks, but he is leaving on a trip to visit his oldest stepson (a soldier of Caesar’s in Gaul) the next day.

On his return from Gaul, Gordianus learns that Dio was murdered that very night. Continue reading The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor

The Children of Hurin, by J. R. R. Tolkien

(Yes, I finally got around to reading this book.)

The trouble with Tolkien’s Middle Earth writing,
apart from The Lord of the Rings, is the acute lack of hobbits. It’s hard to carry off the high heroic tone for a modern audience without offering non-heroic, funny intermediaries with whom the modern reader can identify. The moment I came up with the character of Father Aillil for my Erling books, I understood that the books could work. Modern readers find purely heroic characters and situations kind of clunky. I say it to our shame, but there are few old-style heroes among us (I’m talking about a whole cultural ethic here, not people who do heroic things), and we experience culture shock when we encounter such characters.

I’m not saying The Children of Húrin fails for this reason. I read it with great enjoyment. But you should be prepared for a rather different experience than what you get from Tolkien’s masterwork. If you’ve read The Silmarillion, you know what I mean, and indeed you will have read this story already, in a different form.

The Children of Húrin has been compared to an Icelandic saga. That’s true, if you’re thinking of the high heroic sagas, like the Volsunga Saga, sagas about heroes of old who were larger than life in every way—braver, crueler, more passionate than you and I.

Húrin is not the hero of this book, but his story frames it. At the beginning we learn how he earns the enmity of Glaurung, the evil dragon, who curses him and his family, then forces him to sit watching on a mountain as the curse works itself out. At the end he reappears for a brief epilogue.

The central character is his son Túrin, who (as the Vikings would have put it) has every good quality except for luck. Mighty and brave in battle, devoted to his family and friends, he nevertheless takes every wrong turn. He makes disastrous choices, trusts the wrong people, is offended by his best friends and offends those who should be his allies. In the end the dragon’s curse works itself out in his personal relationships, in a manner worthy of Greek tragedy (something Tolkien imposes on the saga form here, like the recent movie, “Beowulf”). Pity and terror are here in full measure.

I enjoyed it a lot, but it wasn’t lighthearted reading.

Recommended for serious-minded readers. I think it would be all right even for younger teens, if they’re mature.

“The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”

Just got an e-mail today from a reader (not of West Oversea, but of The Year of the Warrior) who thanked me for it somewhat ruefully. This person said that the story had given them the courage to turn down an employment opportunity which would have involved violating their conscience.

I am not a good enough man to have this effect on people.

I saw the movie, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” on DVD over the weekend. It’s one of those movies that got dynamite reviews but never received the distribution it deserved. And it must be admitted that it’s not popcorn fare.

I read the book it was based on, written by Ron Hansen, way back in the ’70s, when it first came out. As best as I can tell at this distance, the movie follows the novel pretty closely. Continue reading “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”

The Last Thing I Remember, by Andrew Klavan

Andrew Klavan’s The Last Thing I Remember is his first young adult thriller. That doesn’t mean a grizzled old man like me can’t enjoy it, though, and I did.

Nobody sets up a grabber opening like Klavan, and it would have been hard to better this one. As the story begins, we find our hero, high school junior Charlie West, waking up strapped to a heavy metal chair, in a room full of torture instruments. He has wounds and burns that he can’t remember getting. In fact, the last thing he remembers is a fairly ordinary day of school (which turns out, on closer examination, to have been not so ordinary at all). Outside the door, he hears men talking, and the one in charge says, “Kill him.”

Now we both know they won’t succeed at that, because otherwise there’d be no book. What follows is a two-stranded story—Charlie describes his desperate escape and his attempts to get back home and avoid the police (who are hunting him), alternating with his memories of that “ordinary” last day—the karate demonstration he did for a school assembly (he has a black belt, and it’s a good thing, too), working up the nerve to talk to a pretty girl and getting her phone number, a session at the dojo and a talk with an estranged friend, work on a history paper, and bed.

The formula for a good thriller is to put your hero in an impossible situation and find ways for him to survive and reach his goals, even though the impossible situation gets even worse. Klavan hits every stop, and the story just speeds along. It seemed too short, and now I’ll have to wait a whole year to find out what comes next.

Charlie is a Christian and a patriot, and just the kind of hero you want your kids to have.

I have some minor quibbles. Charlie frequently draws strength from a quotation from Winston Churchill that he got from his karate master—“Never give in, never give in… never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense….” It gets a little didactic, but of course this is a young adult novel, and you almost have to do that if you want to teach the reader anything. Nuance doesn’t go very far with younger readers.

I found that lesson a little painful, personally. The principle’s a good one, but there are a lot of people out there—especially young people—who aren’t in a position to act as Charlie does. These people are in situations where they literally have no power, and trying to “never give in” will only make their situations worse. I know, because I was one of those kids once.

But that’s something that’s probably more significant to me than to most people. This is a book you’ll want your son or daughter to read (mild violence, no sex or bad language), and you’ll enjoy reading it too. A lot.

Praise from (Sid) Caesar

Anthony Sacramone, late of Strange Herring, alerts me (in a comment on my dyspeptic post below about his hiatus) to his review, just posted, of my The Year of the Warrior, over at First Things blog.

If he knew how deeply I appreciate such fulsomosity, especially in view of the source, it would inflate his already prodigious ego to a level almost unimaginable to our pure-minded readership.

So I won’t say anything about it.

Winter Haven, by Athol Dickson

I raised a small controversy in this space a little while back, when I gave a less than enthusiastic (though positive) review to Athol Dickson’s The Cure.

I liked his Winter Haven considerably better, though I still have a couple reservations.

I criticized The Cure for offering a weak sister protagonist for whom I found it hard to root. No such problem with Winter Haven. The protagonist here is Vera Gamble, a Texas accountant whose nearly obsessive-compulsive passion for numerical balance drives her to go to any lengths to rectify the imbalances in her own life. She has lost her mother (to cancer) and her autistic brother (he just disappeared one day), and finally her father, whose abusive religious teachings drove her to never, never, never ask God why He let anything happen. Now she’s received word that her brother’s body has washed up on a beach on the Maine island of Winter Haven. When she makes her way there to take him home, she discovers that, although thirteen years have passed since his disappearance, he looks precisely the age he was when he ran away.

The story unfolds in the classic manner of a Gothic novel (and a good one). The island residents seem oddly hostile, and they are greatly disturbed when their (unwritten and unexplained) rules about where she may go and what she may do are transgressed. A handsome sea captain who lives alone in a crumbling mansion is the one who discovered her brother’s body. He has recently announced the discovery of Viking artifacts, which (trust me on this), if verified as being discovered on this island, would mean a huge historical breakthrough. But is his story true? Why won’t he show anyone where he found them? What is he hiding? And what is the strange, inhuman voice that Vera hears everywhere, speaking almost-intelligible words?

I found the mystery fascinating. Winter Haven is a genuine page-turner.

Maybe it’s just me, but I thought Dickson tied everything up a little too neatly at the end. The theme of answered questions, and mysteries explained, is central to the book, but I (personally) find too much resolution a little unbelievable. In my own books, I like to leave a few threads untied, because life’s like that.

But that’s my only quibble. I recommend Winter Haven.

The Cure, by Athol Dickson

A while back I made an attempt to write a novel in which one main character was someone who (like me) suffered from Avoidant Personality Disorder.

I wrestled with that book for months before finally giving up on it. I realized at last that the character was so timid and passive that even I—who was him, more or less—didn’t care what happened to him.

That was kind of my problem with The Cure, too. I’m not saying it’s a bad book. I recommend it, especially as compared to most Christian Booksellers Association fare. But I had trouble, especially with the main character.

The Cure concerns the town of Dublin, Maine. Homeless people have been collecting in Dublin in unusual numbers, because of a rumor that’s gotten around that somebody—no one is sure who—in Dublin has a cure for alcoholism. The town’s economy is bad, and an influx of non-productive visitors is the last thing it needs.

Among these homeless is Riley Keep, who grew up in Dublin. Once he was a pastor here. Once he taught at a nearby college. From here he went to Brazil as a missionary.

But a tragedy in Brazil (explained to us gradually, in flashbacks) broke his heart and most of his faith. He became an alcoholic, abandoned his wife and daughter, and went on the road. He’s only come back now because he has a friend who won’t last much longer without the Cure.

Riley’s ex-wife is mayor of Dublin now. But nobody recognizes him at first.

Then one day he wakes up in an alley, his hunger for alcohol completely vanished. In his pocket he finds a small packet of powder, along with a note explaining its use, and a chemical formula.

He gives the powder to some others, and they are immediately healed. Then everybody finds out about it, and the others want the Cure too, and Riley is attacked by a mob. That’s only the beginning of the trouble, as the army of the homeless becomes a genuine civil threat, and powerful people who want the Cure start pressuring Riley and everyone he cares about.

It’s a good idea for a story, but (in my opinion) the execution here could have been better. Riley Keep is essentially a passive guy, and he deals with all crises by taking the line of least resistance. This provides an excellent moral object lesson, but makes a story that might have been very gripping, just irritating in places. A better protagonist, I think, would have been the mayor, Riley’s ex-wife, who has some spirit. It would have called for some re-plotting, but I think it would have made for a more compelling narrative.

Another flaw is that what is supposed to be a big revelation toward the end was telegraphed miles off, because the author falls into a much-overused character stereotype.

Dickson is Dickson, and he’s not capable of producing a really bad book.

But I wanted to like The Cure more than I did.

Phantom Prey, by John Sandford

The infiniteenth installment in John Sandford’s “Prey” series finds Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension officer Lucas Davenport butting heads with his superiors over security preparations for the Republican National Convention (which pretty well fixes the story in real history). Davenport keeps telling them that they need to take terror threats seriously, while all his superiors seem to be able to reply is, “Bush is an [expletive deleted].”

This is about as profound an observation on Minnesota politics as I’ve ever read, and I give Sandford full marks for it.

But that’s not what the main plot of Phantom Prey is about. The main plot concerns Alyssa Austin, a wealthy recent widow, whose daughter, Frances, has recently disappeared. The police don’t seem to be giving the case a high priority, so Davenport’s wife Weather, a friend of Alyssa’s, asks him to look into it.

Very quickly Lucas gets shot in the leg by a man accompanied by a mysterious, unidentified, beautiful woman. And people who knew Frances, largely members of the “Goth” community, start showing up murdered, often after being seen with that same woman.

About half-way through, we discover who the murderer is, and then tension rises through watching Davenport try to put the pieces together in time to stop a killer who’s gone completely out of control.

I liked this book better than some of the recent entries in the series, which have dwelt unnecessarily (I thought) on kinky and sadistic sex practices. There was plenty of sex and depravity (and bad language) in this book, but they were kept more offstage. Also one scene took place in Cherry Grove Township, near Wanamingo. This should have been “near Kenyon” (my home town), because Cherry Grove Township is generally considered a Kenyon township rather than a Wanamingo one, but I always enjoy a reference to my childhood stomping grounds under any circumstances.

Also it was a great relief that the New Age religious adherent in the book was not portrayed as wise and possibly in touch with vast, glorious spiritual resources. The New Ager in this book is just plain wrong, and there’s a (faint) suggestion that Christianity might be a whole lot better choice.

So I liked Phantom Prey. A solid, page-turning entry in the series. Recommended for adults.

The Woods, by Harlan Coben

Paul Copeland, the hero of The Woods, is a county prosecutor in New Jersey. He is currently handling a case which looks very reminiscent of the Duke lacrosse team rape case a few years back (but which, he insists in his Afterword, is in no way connected. He came up with the idea before the Duke case happened. Such things do occur).

Paul has had a rough time in life. He’s the son of Russian immigrants who suffered greatly under Soviet rule. His father died recently. His wife died of cancer a few years ago. His mother disappeared years back, and never made contact again.

But worst of all was what happened one terrible night twenty years ago. He was a camp counselor, charged with security that night, but he went off with his girlfriend to make out instead. While they were having sex, four campers were murdered, though only two bodies were ever found in the deep woods. One of the missing was his own sister. Continue reading The Woods, by Harlan Coben

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

If you don’t talk about the trouble in your community, does the trouble still exist? That’s the question Miss Eugenia Phelan faces in 1963 when she begins asking the colored women of Jackson, Mississippi, what it’s like to work as maids for white families. Many things could be said, but the maids don’t want to talk and the white women wouldn’t know what to talk about if asked.

For them, racism is a lifestyle they cannot recognize. It isn’t only the unjust acceptance of a black boy being beaten for using the wrong bathroom. None of the main characters in this novel would do something horrible like that, but many of them do believe the maids are essentially unlike their employers. They probably carry Negro diseases. They are intellectually inferior. And if one of them act as if there is no difference between whites and blacks, they may as well be insulting the family. All of this is condoned by those who claim to disbelieve it, because it isn’t what they believe that counts in many cases. It’s what Mississippi believes.

Kathryn Stockett’s beautiful debut novel, The Help, is told masterfully by three narrators: Continue reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz

What could be better than a new Odd Thomas book in paperback?

I’ve said before that I consider Dean Koontz less than an ideal author in the technical sense. His word choices are sometimes poor, and he’s not always as funny as he thinks he is.

On the other hand, he continues to improve as he works. And as he’s found his voice and theme as an author, his books have become—taken as a whole—sources of joy; almost means of grace.

Technically, Koontz is a horror writer. But the average horror writer explores the mystery of evil. Koontz has taken on a much more difficult task, exploring the mystery of goodness. Anyone who’s ever tried to create a good character that is neither a prig nor a wuss understands how brilliant Koontz’s achievement has been, the creation of innumerable characters who are good without being insufferable.

Chief among these is Odd Thomas, almost his only continuing character.

Odd Hours is the fourth Odd Thomas novel, and is just as good as the others. Continue reading Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz

The Porkchoppers, by Ross Thomas

I went through a Ross Thomas phrase quite a few years ago, and once I’d gotten a little ways into The Porkchoppers, I realized I’d already read this one. But that was OK. I’d forgotten who did what—not that that was the chief delight of the book anyway.

Ross Thomas (he passed away, much regretted, in 1995) specialized in quirky, cynical crime novels featuring low-life characters who nevertheless were recognizably human and, to one degree or another, sympathetic. He could also be very funny. He wrote political novels too, and the way Thomas portrayed it, politics wasn’t much different from crime.

The world of labor union politics would seem custom made for Thomas’ method, and the master does not disappoint. The Porkchoppers (“porkchopper” is union slang for an officer primarily concerned with his own personal benefits), first published 1972, centers on Donald Cubbin, long-time head of a major union. Cubbin is almost the walking definition of an “empty suit”—he never really cared much about the job, and is mostly operating on autopilot nowadays, his alcoholism having become acute. His real dream in life was to be a Hollywood actor, and he nearly got the chance once—a missed opportunity that still haunts him. He has a personal handler who keeps his booze level topped up, and his much younger wife is sleeping with someone else.

He’s largely a sympathetic character.

His election opponent is Sammy Hanks, a hard-driving, ugly little scrapper who seems like a better candidate in many ways—except that he’s slightly psychotic, and occasionally goes into uncontrollable, spitting tantrums.

Very powerful, very wealthy men are highly interested in the results of this election. The very opening of the novel informs us that a murder contract has been taken out on Cubbin.

But it’s not as simple as that.

The most sympathetic character in the book is Cubbin’s son Kelly, a failed policeman. He’s kind and honest, and (thus far) untouched by the corruption all around him, though he also takes it for granted. He supplies his dad with drinks without qualms.

Thomas has the rare gift of empathizing with his characters without sentimentality. He shows his reader the wheels within wheels of power, and it’s a fascinating tour.

If there’s a lesson or a moral, I have no idea what it is. But I enjoyed the trip.