Category Archives: Reviews

The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly

The Brass Verdict is Michael Connelly’s second novel about his new character, lawyer Mickey Haller. I wasn’t too sure whether I liked Mickey much when I read the first one, The Lincoln Lawyer, but this book definitely warmed me to him.

Mickey Haller is a defense attorney. He’s just coming off a one-year hiatus when he gets the news that an old friend, another defense lawyer named Jerry Vincent, has been murdered, and has left his stable of clients to him. One of them is a “franchise case,” a big-paycheck, high-profile case involving Walter Elliott, a Hollywood movie mogul.

There are problems with defense lawyers as heroes of stories. We all know that in the real world they’re not Perry Mason. They defend the worst people in the world, and if they’re good they get very rich off it. What makes Mickey Haller sympathetic is that he feels that moral tension, on a deep level. It probably had a lot to do with the cocaine-and-alcohol habit that destroyed his marriage, alienated his daughter, and nearly cost him his life.

On moving into Jerry’s office, Mickey finds two policeman going through the case files—illegally. He kicks them out, but oddly finds himself drawn to one of them, who turns out to be Harry Bosch, the hero of the majority of Michael Connelly’s novels. This is an excellent strategy on the author’s part, and helped me settle into the story.

Harry asks questions—who had Jerry Vincent bribed? How was the FBI involved? Mickey doesn’t know the answers. Harry doesn’t believe him. But they will still be drawn together into the double mystery of Jerry’s murder and the Elliott trial, which turn out to be linked. And the killing isn’t over.

A good story by a master storyteller. Connelly did telegraph one surprise though, at least in my case. He generally keeps politics out of his books (for which I’m eternally grateful), but here he did mention one character’s conservative affiliations. I immediately thought, “I’ll bet this character turns out to be a villain.” And behold, it was so.

Maybe Connelly’s done the same thing with liberal characters in the past, but I never noticed it. (Then again, I probably wouldn’t.)

But storytellers, be warned—we know your poker tells.

Frankenstein: Dead and Alive, by Dean Koontz

If I were actually the kind of industry insider I pretend to be as an author/blogger, I would have been aware that Dean Koontz’ long-awaited final volume in his Frankenstein trilogy was coming out at last. (He delayed it, he has reported, because New Orleans, the setting of the books, had suffered enough after Hurricane Katrina, and deserved a break. I’d been very worried the story would go forever unfinished.)

Koontz dedicates Frankenstein: Dead and Alive to “the late Mr. Lewis, who long ago realized that science was being politicized….” It would appear that C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength was an inspiration for this book and for the whole trilogy. That gives me particular satisfaction, as I did an homage of my own in Wolf Time.

Although it’s not necessary to read the first two books before reading Dead and Alive, I would recommend it. It’s a pity there was such a long lag between books, because, in my opinion, this book works best as the capstone to the trilogy experience. Continue reading Frankenstein: Dead and Alive, by Dean Koontz

Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. Wilson

Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. WilsonThe title of Jared’s first book, Your Jesus Is Too Safe: Outgrowing a Drive-Thru, Feel-Good Savior, brings to mind J.B. Phillips’ classic book, Your God Is Too Small: Miracle Grow for Your Puny Religious Imagination (OK, I made up that subtitle, and Phillips would not have thought it funny). What I remember most of Phillips’ book is the first part, the destructive part, in which he tears down inadequate views of the Almighty. I expected to find Jared’s book similarly organized, but it isn’t. He doesn’t spend much time describing poor views of Jesus, like Hippie Jesus or the inhuman Flannel-graph Jesus. He touches on them in the context of healthy views on Jesus’ role as a shepherd, a judge, a prophet, a king, and many others.

Something Jared says while discussing one role puts a finger on his approach to the whole book. “In contemplating Jesus as Shepherd, I’m most tempted to make a short list of things shepherds do—the shepherd’s responsibilities chart—and cram Jesus into and see how he fits. Some books actually take this tack. I believe this is a backward way to go about things—sort of getting the cart before the horse . . . or sheep, I guess.” Jesus—the real, historic, biblical Jesus—is the focus on the book. If a reader finds it unfamiliar or oddly lacking in application, then I suggest they question whether they may be influenced by preaching and reading that presents the Christian life as a pattern of moral behaviors, who Jesus is not being nearly as important as what he supposedly wants us to do. Your Jesus Is Too Safe is a Christian Living book, but not a book with 40 ways to have a victorious Christian life. Just to iron out any possible subtly here, the latter book is the safe one; this book isn’t safe.

It isn’t too dangerous either. Even though Jared jokes about making readers angry when talking about Jesus’ humanity, (he says people in some circles get riled at the suggestion that Jesus may have relieved his bowels at some point during his life) he does not draw excessive lines in the sand and call out the heretics lurking in every church. He is very charitable, while presenting sound, biblical portraits of Jesus. I appreciate how he reasons deeply from the Scripture and does not fill each chapter with personal stories or extra-biblical illustrations. It’s a darn good book, in other words.

One outstanding point of interest for readers of Brandywine Books Continue reading Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. Wilson

Catalina’s Riddle, by Steven Saylor

I picked up a couple of Steven Saylor’s Rome Sub Rosa novels because James Lileks praises them highly, and I have a high opinion of James’ taste. Unfortunately, I find I can’t share his enthusiasm.

Not to say the two I’ve read have been bad books. Catilina’s Riddle, which I just finished, and The Venus Throw, which I reviewed a while ago, are well-researched and well-written mysteries centered on the political conflicts that convulsed the Roman republic during the ascendancy of Cicero and the rise of Julius Caesar.

This story starts in 63 B.C. Gordianus the Finder, the detective hero of the series, has settled down on a farm in Etruria, some distance north of Rome, which he inherited from a friend. His new farm is entirely surrounded by the properties of his late friend’s siblings, and they (with one exception) do not welcome him. But Gordianus has had his belly full of Rome and its intrigues. The simple life of a gentleman farmer looks very good to him.

Neverthless, his past—in the person of an agent of his old patron, Cicero—intrudes. Cicero has an odd request. He wants Gordianus to play host to (and to spy on) Cicero’s own greatest political enemy, the charismatic young politician Catilina. Gordianus is sick of Cicero, and initially refuses. But he changes his mind after a headless body shows up in one of his barns. He interprets this as a threat, and begins to realize that you can flee Rome, but Rome will always follow you. Thus he gets more and more enmeshed in the plots and counter-plots of Cicero and Catilina. As in The Venus Throw, the actual murder mystery—the question of the headless body, along with two more that follow—turns out to be a footnote to the great events that overtake them all by the end of the story. Continue reading Catalina’s Riddle, by Steven Saylor

West Oversea, by Lars Walker

I’m hesitating a bit on how to review Lars’ latest adventure. You’ve seen several other reviews both light and heavy on details, so a straight-forward review like the last one I wrote isn’t appropriate. It would not advance the storyline, as it were. I’m also tempted to write something very silly such as a long-winded ramble about my daily life, barely touching on the book itself, or a review promising full spoilers and offering none. I don’t care to write either of those.

West Oversea by Lars Walker If you are not already convinced by reading it yourself, Lars has written a darn good story in “Westward Ho” (see, I can barely stop myself). It begins strong; the conflict which prompts Erling Skjalgsson to sail west comes upfront. New problems emerge along the way, both small and large, and just when you start to wonder if the heroes will ever return home, the battle flames hot again. But this is what you already know. Let me write about other things, making this a review supplemental (though you already got some of that in the Q&A we posted before).

West Oversea is written within a beautifully rich framework. It is like an actor who does not break his character, even when everyone else goes off-script. Several decisions the characters make are not fully explained to the modern reader, making the story more believable and less of a teaching tool. So many Christian works of fiction seem to want to teach more than tell stories, but if they were to follow Shakespeare’s example, much as West Oversea does, their stories would be better and their readers may have more to talk about. I’m thinking of how Hamlet dies at the end of his play, not because it’s more dramatic for him to bite it along with the others, but for the sake of justice. He had murdered Polonius, therefore his life was justly forfeit—a life for a life unjustly taken, the essence of capital punishment. Does Shakespeare ever spell that out to us? No. Continue reading West Oversea, by Lars Walker

Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

Crossing the Line by Richard DosterSports reporter Jack Hall didn’t see any problem with black athletes, especially if they were good, but he didn’t want his friends to think he was chummy with them or any Negro person. That would be crossing the line. His friends felt the same way. Playing baseball was fine. It’s not like those people were sitting in the same classroom or dancing with our children.

And Jack and Rose Marie Hall had a personal interest in avoiding desegregation issues. In the previous year, 1954, their home had been bombed by someone who didn’t like Jack’s public stand in favor of the Negro player on the local team. Now, the Halls have moved to Atlanta, and Jack’s new boss, Ralph McGill, wants to look into the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. Jack is the only reporter at a meeting of community leaders who choose then-unknown-preacher Martin L. King to lead the boycott. That frontline position gets King’s house bombed within a few months, and the Halls feel a new link to a family they would rather not befriend.

Crossing the Lines is loaded with historical detail, even some casual references from the characters which are not explained to the reader. It lead me to wonder if certain characters I took as wholly fictional creations were actually based on living people. Continue reading Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

Tell No One, by Harlan Coben

Notice of personal appearance: I’ll be at the Norway Day celebration in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, with the Vikings on Sunday, from about 11:00 to 4:00 or so. They say the weather will be nice.

I appreciated Gone for Good so much
that I immediately launched into reading Tell No One, which Harlan Coben wrote just before it. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be a little let down. There’s nothing at all wrong with Tell No One. It’s a gripping, fast-paced thriller with engaging characters and plenty of surprises. But for some reason (perhaps just a subjective identification with one main character over another), I didn’t like it quite as much.

There are actually a lot of similarities in the set-ups of both stories. Gone for Good’s hero was a gentle do-gooder, a volunteer who works with the homeless, whose girlfriend disappears and who soon comes under the suspicion of federal investigators. In Tell No One, the hero is Dr. David Beck, a young physician who has voluntarily chosen to work with charity cases in Manhattan. Three years ago, he was gravely injured when his wife, Elizabeth, was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. But now he starts getting e-mail messages that seem to be coming from Elizabeth herself. Meanwhile, the FBI has suddenly decided that he must have murdered Elizabeth, and they’ve got a warrant for his arrest. But David has an appointment to meet with Elizabeth—or whoever’s pretending to be her—this afternoon, and there’s no way he’s going to be sitting in a cell when that happens. So he runs.

Very good story. I’ve got no complaints. The language is not bad for the genre; the violence (some of it quite horrifying) is mostly off camera. There is a lesbian couple with a child who are highly sympathetic characters, so you might (or might not) want to be warned of that.

I liked it, and I’ve got no legitimate complaint.

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.