Category Archives: Reviews

Repost: Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan

(Tonight, another reposted Klavan review.)

One-line review of Andrew Klavan’s Damnation Street: “Woo-hoo!”

I got a Barnes & Noble gift certificate for Christmas, and Damnation Street was one of the books I chose to get with it. I don’t generally buy hardbacks, but I felt this was a special case.

It was, in fact, a more special case than I knew. Because it appears that Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop books (the previous ones are Dynamite Road and Shotgun Alley) are not going to be an ongoing series, but a trilogy (unless I read the ending wrong). Continue reading Repost: Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan

Nothing But the Blood

I watched I am Legend tonight. I enjoyed it. It will make a great discussion film for those of us who enjoy talking philosophy and such after seeing a film. The gospel is in this movie, and I suspect some reviewers saw it and hated it.

The darkness hates the light to a degree.

If you don’t know the story, I’ll brief it for you. An air-born and contact virus breaks out in New York City and spreads across the world. 90% die; 9.9% become dark-seekers. The remaining are immune to the virus somehow. Robert Neville is the lone man on Manhattan island, what he calls Ground Zero. He believes he can stop the virus by staying there and working out vaccine.

Neville believes he is one man against a world turned bad, and in that role he plays a type of Christ. “God didn’t do this,” he says, “We did.” We made the world a hellish place. We turned ourselves into monsters—seekers of darkness.

And what does God care? He sits in his heaven, and all is right with the world as far as he’s concerned. But God is not absent. He still has a voice, directing, moving. Why he’s whispering may be a good question, but does it matter how he speaks if we refuse to listen? “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

The cure for humanity is in the blood. Whose blood? That’s the final question.

When I got to the end of the story, I wondered how many bad ideas have some of us dressed up in biblical language. We need redemption. The closing song in this movie said we could find that redemption only in ourselves. That’s the human struggle, isn’t it? Can we save ourselves? Are we the hope we’ve been looking for?

If we saw ourselves as dark-seekers, we’d know there is no hope in us.

Repost: Shotgun Alley, by Andrew Klavan

(Mark this down as a good day. I got an e-mail from somebody I’d been waiting to hear from, who’s sending me a FREE BOOK ABOUT VIKINGS [more information on that later]. I got going on a project I’ve been putting off in the library, and actually found it engrossing. Time flew. Also my doctor told me I could go off the iron supplement she’s had me on, which means I ought to have a lot less heartburn in my life. Below is another Klavan review, this one from October, 2006.)



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? Continue reading Repost: Shotgun Alley, by Andrew Klavan

Repost: The Uncanny, by Andrew Klavan

An Israeli newspaper somehow obtained the slip of paper that Barack Obama slipped into a crack in the Wailing Wall during his recent visit, according to this report. It’s traditional for visitors to leave such slips with prayers written on them. The newspaper printed the text of the prayer today.

I have very little time for the Democratic candidate, but that’s just beyond the pale. Shame on them.

Yesterday I panned Andrew Klavan’s The Animal Hour. Today I shall soften the blow to his ego (since I’m sure he follows this blog) by praising his horror novel, The Uncanny.

I kept thinking as I read The Uncanny, “This book is almost perfect. I wish I’d written it.”

I’d like to see it done as a movie, but only if they respected the text. Obsequiously. Because this book is like a fine Swiss watch, all its parts rotating and ratcheting together, making a small, regular “tick-tick” sound (which, by the way, is a recurring theme in the book).

The book begins with a short story called “Black Annie,” a note-perfect pastiche of a Gothic horror tale. The reader then discovers that it is being read aloud by Richard Storm, a Hollywood producer who has made a pile of money with a series of horror flicks, but has moved to England due to a personal setback.

He reads it at a London party, and when he finishes it a woman drops a glass. That brings about Storm’s first sight of Sophia Endering, a lovely, lonely, emotionally damaged heiress and art-gallery owner, with whom he falls immediately in love.

But Sophia has other things on her mind. A man spoke to her one night in the street, imploring her to watch to see who will buy a certain obscure painting at an auction. The man who buys it, he says, is the devil. He can’t do it himself, he says, because he’s going to be murdered. Which prediction comes true.

And Sophia is deeply troubled, because her own father has instructed her to buy the painting for him. “At any price.”

Richard is advised in his assault on Sophia’s romantic defenses by Harper Albright, the proprietress of a magazine devoted to supernatural phenomena. Harper is an interesting character, a resolute skeptic whose life is centered on a kind of affirmation of faith.

As he gets embroiled in Sophia’s perils, Richard finds that his own dreams—even his movies—seem to be entwined with the diabolical plot he uncovers, bit by bit. Other old stories, a ballad, and a memoir punctuate the story, and it all comes together in a climax worthy of Hollywood (as Richard can’t help noticing).

It’s a thriller and it’s a parable (a Christian book, I think, though there are no Christian characters). Women will enjoy the love story; guys will enjoy the adventure and thrills. I loved it.

Repost: The Animal Hour, by Andrew Klavan

(I’m bummed tonight. I stopped for groceries, and not only has my usual store rearranged the sections again [for the sole purpose, I’m convinced, of trying to get us to look at stuff we’ve already decided we don’t want to buy], but Banquet TV Dinners appears to have discontinued their Yankee Pot Roast meal. The things that made the Yankee Pot Roast irreplaceable were not only that it tasted surprisingly good, but it was only 210 calories. Oh yeah, and it was cheap. I’ll never stay on my diet now, and it’ll be all Banquet’s fault.

(Another Klavan review, this one from June, 2006. It has the distinction of being the only book of his that I’ve panned. It’s a stinker.)

I’ve been gushing over the books of Andrew Klavan recently (found one I hadn’t read in the store tonight—hurrah!). However, I feel obligated to warn you about one of them.

I finished The Animal Hour the other day. It’s one of Klavan’s earlier books, and I get the impression it was a kind of an experiment.

In my opinion, the experiment didn’t succeed.

It starts out with a great hook. A young woman in New York City goes in to her job and starts to settle down at her desk, when another woman comes into her office and asks her what she’s doing there. The conversation becomes a confrontation, and soon a number of employees have gathered. It quickly becomes clear that no one there has ever seen her before.

That’s a terrific start. Unfortunately, at least to my taste, the rest of the book doesn’t live up to it.

The mechanics of a great thriller are all there. Suspense mounts, and mysteries abound.

The problem is with an element that’s usually Klavan’s strong suit—the characters. There were very few characters in this book who raised my sympathy much. Most of them were creepy in one or several ways.

Also the gore level was high.

Also Christianity didn’t come off looking very good.

I’d skip this one.

Repost: The Scarred Man, by Keith Peterson (Andrew Klavan)

(My original plan was to repost all my previous Andrew Klavan reviews before addressing Empire of Lies, but I got carried away. So I’m picking up the reposts now. This is second in the series, and like the previous repost, comes from May 2006.)



Oh, by the way,
I forgot yesterday the first Andrew Klavan novel I read (actually it was written under the Keith Peterson pseudonym)–The Scarred Man. This is a psychological thriller with one of the best hooks I’ve ever read.

I love a great “book hook.” Perhaps my favorite is the beginning of The Man Who Wasn’t There by Roderick MacLeish (a much underappreciated novelist). That book (as I recall–I don’t have a copy) began with the main character, who was something of a celebrity, being recognized by a stranger sitting beside him on a plane. Instead of admitting to his identity, he played a trick he liked to play in such situations, claiming to be his own (non-existent) non-famous twin, whose story he made up on the spot.

The next morning he got up and read in the paper that this imaginary twin brother had been killed in a plane crash.

That’s a great book hook.

But the hook in The Scarred Man is almost as good.

Michael North is a young New York reporter who accepts an invitation to spend Christmas in Connecticut with his boss. There he meets the boss’s daughter, Susannah, and falls hopelessly in love in about a nanosecond.

To entertain themselves, the party members agree to tell ghost stories (I thought of you here, Phil). Michael makes up a story on the spur of the moment, telling a tale of a murderous, undead psychopath with a scar down the center of his face.

Susannah goes hysterical, shouting “Stop it! What are you trying to do to me!” She flees back to school before he can discuss it with her.

Later, when he drives up to Susannah’s college to talk to her, he pulls into the entrance and sees, in his headlights–the scarred man. When he finds Susannah, she tells him she’s been having nightmares about this man all her life.

The great thing is, this isn’t a supernatural novel.

Empire of Lies, by Andrew Klavan

I just finished reading Empire of Lies by Andrew Klavan, and I’m still decompressing.

I have a hard time imagining how this book can ever succeed commercially. But I sure hope it does.

As the story begins, the hero/narrator, Jason Harrow, a journalist turned realtor, is sitting in the back yard of his Midwestern home, watching his children play. He’s thinking about a girl who worked at his office, who’d made a pass at him. He didn’t take her up on it, but he can’t avoid a (purely hormonal) wistful feeling. Shortly thereafter he’s joined by his wife, and it’s obvious that they have an excellent relationship. She trusts him, and he deserves her trust.

Jason is being entirely honest with the reader. And that’s sort of the point of the whole book. He’s telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even to his cost.

From the very beginning, references and turns of phrase warn us that he’s going to go through a terrible test; that he’s going to become famous, and not necessarily in a good way.

Jason goes inside the house to answer the phone, and (as so often happens in stories of this sort) the caller is a voice from his past. It’s Lauren, the woman he lived with in another life, when he resided in Manhattan, thought he was an intellectual, and was part of a very kinky sex “scene.” Jason is a Christian today. He’s turned his back on all that.

But when he agrees to go to New York to help Lauren out with a problem with her daughter, he doesn’t tell his wife about it. He has to go anyway, because his mother recently died and he needs to empty out her house. He doesn’t plan to break his marital vows. But his motives aren’t entirely pure, and he can’t bring himself to bring it into the open.

When he sees Lauren, he’s somewhat relieved to find that she’s changed. He no longer finds her attractive. But she talks him into looking for her daughter Serena, who has disappeared.

He finds the girl, sick drunk, in a night club and takes her to his mother’s house when he finds that Lauren isn’t at home. The girl is raving, and one of the things she says is, “I didn’t know they were going to kill him.” Continue reading Empire of Lies, by Andrew Klavan

Weekend movie report

I know I should have gone to see The Dark Knight, and I really want to see Hellboy 2, too. But instead I watched DVD movies this weekend.

Two were silents from my new Douglas Fairbanks collection. The first was Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), which is notable for featuring Warner Oland (the Swedish actor who later became Charlie Chan) in a character role, and Mary Astor, who would later play the dame fatale in The Maltese Falcon. I always found her kind of brittle and uninteresting in TMF, but here, as an ingénue, she’s completely adorable.

Then there was Robin Hood (1922), an impressive epic-scale effort by Fairbanks which is completely sabotaged by some idiot’s decision to have the Merry Men actually skip and prance everywhere they go in Sherwood Forest. Now I know what Mel Brooks was lampooning in Men In Tights. It looks unbelievably silly and fey. Oddly enough, Little John is played by Alan Hale, who would reprise the role in the far superior Errol Flynn vehicle in 1938.

I capped it off with a viewing of Master and Commander / The Far Side of the World with Russell Crowe. I’d only seen it once, back when it first ran in theaters, and remembered that I liked it. But I’d forgotten how good it was. I’m crazy about that whole tall ships thing. Maybe it’s genetic. One of my great-great-grandfathers sailed on a merchant voyage to China around the turn of the 19th Century, and one of my great-grandfathers was a cook on a whaling ship.

Of course you can’t help wanting to scream, “What in the living color were they thinking of, putting those little boys in harms way?” But that’s the way it was. It’s still a rousing seafaring movie, maybe the best ever made.

Tomorrow, back to Andrew Klavan.

Hancock, A Human Story

My wife and I saw “Hancock” Saturday evening. The prelude to it was a delicious Roasted Sirloin Focaccia Sandwich at Outback Steakhouse. I want to try to work out something like that at home–sliced steak or roast beef, provolone, and herbs in garlic focaccia bread with French Onion soup for dipping. Good food.

But in the movie, Will Smith plays the down and out superpowered man who gets a grip on himself. He begins as a self-centered jerk and ends as a respectable hero. It’s the same story we’ve told a thousand times. Someone moves from self-destruction to productive citizen, overcoming alcohol, drugs, abusive behavior, doubt, fear, and anything keeping him from his full potential. “A life lived in fear is only half lived,” as the lead dancer’s father said in “Strictly Ballroom.” Hancock is the same story within a superhero fantasy. That’s why it’s a strong movie.

“Hancock” is essentially a comedy. That’s why it ends the way it does. Even in the serious tension of the final scenes, you can see comedy elements at play. They aren’t funny, but they are more lighthearted than the atmosphere and action call for. What themes are in the story are not heavy handed, so they could be missed, but I think it would be a good film for youth leaders and professors to watch with a group and talk through the messages afterward. Continue reading Hancock, A Human Story

Repost: Grand Klavan

(Note: Phil has suggested that, in honor of Andrew Klavan’s new release, Empire of Lies (which I’m reading now with great pleasure), I should repost my previous reviews on his work. That sounds like a very wise and thoughtful suggestion, but–more important–it means less work for me. So herewith, from my entry for May 16, 2006 on the old blog site, is my first Klavan review. This one concentrates on his blockbusters, True Crime and Don’t Say a Word.)

Back in the 90s I discovered an excellent mystery writer named Keith Peterson. His novels about reporter John Wells were exciting and smart, but the thing I really loved about them was that Peterson created characters I could really care about. I think I’ve said this before (and I’m sure I’ll say it again) but sympathetic characters are the thing I most require in a book.

Then Peterson just disappeared. (Actually there were a couple more Peterson books, but I missed them). I looked wistfully now and then at my John Wells novels, which I’d hung on to.

Recently I did a web search on Keith Peterson and made a wonderful discovery. Keith Peterson was a nom de plume for Andrew Klavan, the big thriller writer.

That took me to the used bookstore, and… wow. I mean, wow. Continue reading Repost: Grand Klavan

Dean Koontz’ full range

Tonight, another episode in my ongoing engagement with the works of Dean Koontz. Not a review, exactly, but an appreciation and evaluation.

I’m going through Koontz alphabetically, picking up his books left to right across the bookstore shelf. This results in some odd juxtapositions, such as when I read Night Chills (published 1976) immediately followed by One Door Away From Heaven (published 2001). Having made it more than half way through the corpus, I think I can say that those two books represent something like the full range of Koontz’ work—from the creppiest early stuff to the most sublime of the recent.

Night Chills is barely recognizable as a Koontz book, in the sense I’ve come to know them. It’s a pretty standard thriller with a cutting-edge (for the time) scientific premise. But the way Koontz handles the material seems to reveal an immature artist, unsure of himself and trying to emulate established writers.

Which is probably why there’s so much sex in the book, and why it’s so (relatively) explicit, and… frankly, creepy. Continue reading Dean Koontz’ full range

Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson

I approached the late Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings with some trepidation. I wanted to read it because a) it’s a Viking historical fantasy, and b) I’m thinking out a book of my own in which one of the main characters in this one plays a part. But in a book about Gunnhild, wife of Norway’s King Eirik Bloodax and mother of King Harald Greyfell (and his brothers—they ruled jointly) I imagined I’d be dealing with a Marion Zimmer Bradley-esque feminist fantasy, all about what oppressors men are, how smothering Christianity is, and how real freedom is found in the worship of some Mother-goddess or other. I expected visceral, existential feminine rage.

Having read the book, I almost wish it had been like that. It would at least have had some fire to it.

Gunnhild is a character of mystery in Viking history and lore. Historians believe she was probably a Danish princess, conventionally married to Eirik Bloodax, son and heir of Harald Fairhair, who is remembered as the uniter of Norway. (Anderson seems unaware—or doesn’t care—that historians today doubt that Harald was really more than a regional overlord in the west, who may have begun the process of unification. For the purposes of this story he treats the account found in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, as literally true. I’ll admit I do the same thing in The Year Of the Warrior, but I claim in my own defense that the theory was new back then, and I hadn’t heard of it).

In the sagas and legends, though, Gunnhild is a very different character—the daughter of a Finnish (“Lapp” or Sami) wizard, a witch of fearsome power, terrible in her hatreds, lascivious in her morals, and bloody in her vengeances.

Anderson splits the difference. He imagines her as the daughter of a Norse chieftain, a girl who chooses to learn magic at the feet of two Finn wizards, whom she manages to kill off at the same time that she magically summons Eirik to sail in and sweep her off her feet. This is a promising beginning from the dramatic point of view, but sadly Anderson doesn’t sustain it. Once married to her prince, Gunnhild becomes a fairly conventional wife and queen, devoted to her husband and children. She assists them all through their lives by the use of her magical powers, but is thwarted more often than not. Her successes, when they happen, aren’t terribly impressive or lasting.

The result is that it’s hard to root for Gunnhild. She’s not good enough to sympathize with much, and not powerful or evil enough to be very entertaining. She becomes an almost passive center around which the drama of 10th Century Norwegian politics plays itself out. This is a great drama, but in this work it lacks (it seems to me) the rich hues and symphonic music of real epic. Anderson does some moments of pathos well, particularly concerning the deaths of Kings Haakon the Good and Harald Greyfell, but overall I found it pretty dry.

This is a problem I’ve always had with Anderson, and with Science Fiction writers as a group (no doubt there are exceptions). Science Fiction writers by and large (and that’s what Anderson primarily was), it seems to me, have a hard time handling human emotions, dreams and aspirations. They’re more oriented toward machines and machine-like people.

I always comment on books’ theological implications and treatments of Christianity in these reviews. Mother Of Kings provides unusual problems. Anderson is neither friendly nor hostile to Christianity, so it could be worse. Historically Eirik Bloodax ruled Norway as a heathen, but converted, along with his family, to Christianity when he fled to England and became King of York. Some of his sons seem to have been genuinely zealous in their missionary work (a point that’s largely ignored in Heimskringla). Gunnhild is portrayed here (quite reasonably) as a nominal Christian, uncertain as to what religion (Norse heathendom, Christianity or Finnish pantheism) offers the most useful magic for her exploitation. Clearly she’s a heathen at heart, but her deepest inclinations seem to be pantheistic. This can’t exactly be viewed as an argument for pantheism, though, because Gunnhild isn’t admirable enough to provide one.

Perhaps I’d have found the whole thing more exciting if I hadn’t already known the basic story. But I doubt it. I can’t really recommend Mother Of Kings very highly.

Honor’s Kingdom, by Owen Parry

Honor’s Kingdom opens in the summer of 1862 in a London morgue, where a diverse group including Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams and ambassador to the Court of St. James), his son Henry, an English Foreign Office official, a London policeman and a surgeon are gathered, along with the hero and narrator of the book, Abel Jones. Jones is a native of Wales and a veteran of the East India Company’s wars, but he’s now a major in the U.S. army and a secret agent of the American government.

He and the Adamses are there because the deceased, a Rev. Campbell (whose body was discovered in a basket of live eels), was an American. He was also (though they’re not mentioning this) another secret agent, and he had been investigating rumors that some British ship builder is building a warship for the Confederacy, in spite of the official neutrality of the government.

Ambassador Adams assigns Major Jones to find out who killed Campbell, and what it was he’d learned that got him (and two previous agents) killed.

Jones, in his methodical way, sets about an investigation which takes him from the halls of Parliament and the finest homes of West End London to the most miserable, soul-grinding slums of the city. He meets the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, as well as a colorful variety of thieves, pimps, con men, music hall entertainers and prostitutes. Eventually his investigation extends to Glasgow, which is (amazing to tell) an even more miserable place to be poor in than London. His life is threatened by (among others) footpads, East Indian assassins and a mysterious man in a red silk mask. He chances to encounter Anthony Trollope, James McNeil Whistler, Karl Marx and William Booth along the way.

It’s jolly fun—exciting, engaging and sometimes moving. Educational, too. Continue reading Honor’s Kingdom, by Owen Parry