Category Archives: Reviews

Grave Goods, by Ariana Franklin

It should be clear by now that I’m an appalling sexist, most especially in regard to novels written by women. There are certainly female authors I like (Sigrid Undset, Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James come to mind), but I approach novels written by women with almost (not quite; that would be impossible) the same level of trepidation I experience when approaching an actual woman in real life. Female novelists, in my experience, tend to a) write their male characters badly, and b) view the world through a Gender Studies lens.

I quickly decided that Ariana Franklin was an author in that mold as I read the historical mystery, Grave Goods. But persevering to the end, I decided I had been unjust (to a degree). Continue reading Grave Goods, by Ariana Franklin

A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr

Raymond Chandler, creator of the archetypal fictional detective Philip Marlowe, famously wrote of the hard-boiled hero in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,”

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid….

The question posed by author Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther novels would seem to be, “What if the streets were even meaner than those of Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles? What if a man very like Marlowe had been a detective in Berlin in the 1930s?”

I had never heard of Philip Kerr before I got the offer of some free review proofs from G. P. Putnam’s (I love being a book blogger). But I’ll have to find the earlier books in this series now. A Quiet Flame is pure, classic hard-boiled, worthy of Chandler and Hammet, with an original twist. Continue reading A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr

Last Act in Palmyra, by Lindsey Davis

The historical mystery is a challenging genre, calling for a lot of research, as well as a judicious balance between authenticity and audience sympathy (which can be difficult to sustain due to differences in societal attitudes).

Male heroes written by female authors are another kind of challenge. Lindsey Davis takes on both in her Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, set in the 1st Century Roman Empire.

My opinion, based on reading Last Act in Palmyra, is that she succeeds pretty well in the first challenge, not so well in the second. Continue reading Last Act in Palmyra, by Lindsey Davis

Chasing Darkness, by Robert Crais

Robert Crais, in my opinion, is getting to be a better and deeper novelist with each book.



Chasing Darkness
is a departure from his recent novels in that he tones down the violence a bit. He’s been prone lately to having his main characters (private eye Elvis Cole and his associate Joe Pike) end up seriously wounded and hospitalized after a harrowing life-or-death battle, but this time it’s all about the mystery and the characters, with the final bloodletting somewhat less comprehensive. And I don’t think he loses anything by that.

The story begins in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles, during a wildfire evacuation. Policemen sent in to evacuate residents discover a dead man, an apparent suicide, sitting over a photo album containing photographs of female murder victims—photographs that could only have been taken before the police got to the scenes.

Suddenly Elvis Cole is the target of investigation by the police, and threats from one of the victims’ families. Because he worked for the dead man’s lawyer and helped get him acquitted on one of these murders.

Elvis doesn’t like being pushed, and he knows for a fact that the guy couldn’t have committed the murder. So he reopens his investigation. In this he is assisted (off the record) by his police detective friend Carol Starkey, and of course Joe Pike, the best guy in the world to have watching your back.

What he discovers is corruption, depravity and cover-up at the highest levels of city government. And then he gets a surprise, and the whole game changes.

I liked Chasing Darkness a lot. It’s a cerebral, tragic, character-driven story, concentrating on the costs of crime to those who care about the victims.

Recommended for grownups.

P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters

Bertie Wooster has had more than his share of trouble from well-meaning and ill-meaning aunts over the years, and while that sort of trouble disturbs him some in this novel, he must deal more with the sort of trouble that comes from beautiful young women wanting to marry his friends.

For example, Madeline Bassett, who is “undeniably of attractive exterior—slim, svelte, if that’s the word, and bountifully equipped with golden hair and all the fixings.” This beautiful thing plans to marry Bertie’s friend, Augustus Fink-Nottle or Gussie, which is not a settled matter owing to her father’s disapproval of him. If she cannot marry Gussie, however, she is resigned to marrying Bertie. Not that he wants to marry her, but somehow Madeline’s got it locked between the ears that Bertie wants to marry her and is only deferring to Gussie, who got to her first. If there’s one thing at which Bertie is extremely bad, it’s convincing women he does not want to marry them once they’ve decided he does.

And then there’s Stiffy, or Stephanie Byng, who wants to marry Bertie’s old college buddy, Harold “Old Stinker” Pinker. That arrangement isn’t looking good either, because her uncle, Madeline’s father, isn’t going to allow to two undesirable men marrying the girls of his charge in one weekend, if ever. So Stiffy asks Bertie to stage a situation for Harold to impress himself on her uncle, and those types of things never work out as planned. This one actually calls for blood, so Bertie isn’t eager to give it his all.

But Bertie could give them all up and leave the country or at least Totleigh Towers, if only his favorite aunt hadn’t forced him into a difficult task—he must pinch a silver cow creamer. If he fails to abscond with the ghastly antique, his aunt will bar him from her house and her famous chef’s delicious meals; but if he does steal the cow-shaped server, no lack of evidence to the deed will prevent him from being pounded by Roderick Spode, a close friend to the owner of the desired silver creamer.

“Don’t you ever read the papers?” Gussie asks. “Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea, if her doesn’t get knocked on the head with a bottle in one of the frequent brawls in which he and his followers indulge, is to make himself a Dictator. . . . He and his adherents wear black shorts.”

“Footer bags, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“How perfectly foul.” Of course, such a man is more than able to deliver a good pounding to creamer stealers.

Through it all, Bertram Wooster lives up to his family code to never leave a friend in the lurch, even at personal cost. As with almost everything I’ve read by Wodehouse, this book doesn’t not take all the predictable turns, and even when you know what’s going to happen, it’s hilarious to follow it through. Though Lars has said this was the first Bertie and Jeeves book he read, I enjoyed remembering the references to earlier stories. More than once, Bertie says that we may remember the time when … and I enjoy remembering it too.

The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is a superior mystery writer. He writes in the tradition of high craftsmanship and sensitivity that characterizes the best Southern literature. I found The Tin Roof Blowdown brilliant and moving.

And I probably won’t read any more by him.

But first, a synopsis.

The setting for The Tin Roof Blowdown is New Orleans and its environs, during and immediately following Hurricane Katrina. The conflict is set off by a group of young black men who steal a motorboat (thus dooming a number of trapped people to drowning), break into a rich man’s house, and discover a treasure trove of drugs, cash and diamonds. That same night one of them is killed and another paralyzed by a bullet fired by someone in the neighborhood. Suspicion falls on a neighbor, whose daughter (by a strange coincidence) was recently gang-raped by some of these same young men.

Although investigation of his death is technically a federal matter (under 1960s laws dealing with deprivation of civil rights by murder), the bulk of the investigation is elbowed off (due to heavy case loads) to Dave Robicheaux, a sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia Parish and hero of a number of mysteries by Burke. He is unofficially assisted in his investigation by his friend Clete Purcel, a former cop and present skip tracer. Continue reading The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke

The Cure by Athol Dickson

Athol Dickson’s 2007 novel, The Cure, captures the atmosphere of a Maine small town in an exciting tale of man-made redemption.

Riley Keep has been burying the shame of his past for years in alcohol, but now that his friend is drinking himself to death, he remembers a rumor that a cure can be found in their hometown. They drag themselves to Dublin, Maine, and find a place in the homeless shelter.

When Riley stumbles across a white powder with a note claiming it will cure alcoholism, he tries it, shares it, and becomes a hunted man for it. Some won’t believe he ever had a miracle drug for alcoholics, and those who do won’t believe he can’t make it for them. On the one hand, he wants people to believe he just found the formula, and on the other hand, he doesn’t correct their assumption that he discovered it himself. Every attempt he makes to repent or make up for his years of failure turns against him. When hundreds of homeless alcoholics arrive in Dublin, looking for a miracle, has the cure Riley hoped to find become a curse?

This is Athol Dickson’s fifth novel and the one that follows his popular story based in Louisiana, River Rising. He beautifully brings out the nature and people of a small, fishing town in Maine, much like he does in Winter Haven. For instance, the man Riley hires for legal council is a full-time lobsterman who had trained in the law several years ago but would rather live off the ocean. The dark story of Riley Keep, the alcoholic, failed professor and failed missionary, is as much a part of The Cure as the miracle formula is. The history of the intertwined characters is revealed piece by piece as memories and conversations arise, building to a great climax at the end.

This novel spoke to me, perhaps because of my familiarity with some counseling techniques. Dickson says he was a drug and alcohol abuser early in life, so it may be out of personal experience he draws the metaphor of the homeless feeling like ghosts. That’s hasn’t been my experience, but I feel I’ve rubbed up against it. That nagging perception of failure, that desire to apologize for something undefined—I know those feelings. It’s akin to hoping for a cure apart from the work of Christ Jesus. But there is none.

The Man Who Invented Florida, by Randy Wayne White

I like Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford books, but I don’t love them. I think The Man Who Invented Florida is my favorite.

Marion “Doc” Ford is the hero of the series—a big, bespectacled marine biologist with a shadowy background in covert operations for the government. Periodically he finds himself investigating a mystery or carrying on his own private operation to rescue somebody. The Man Who Invented Florida, however, is barely a mystery at all. There is the puzzle of two government surveyors and a fishing show host who disappear in the Everglades, but it turns out (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler) to be less than meets the eye.

This book is, in fact, a farce. The real center of the narrative is Ford’s uncle Tucker Gatrell, the kind of man for whom the word “colorful” was coined. A former cowboy, fishing guide, gun runner and moonshiner, he’s devoted to his nephew, but his nephew hates his guts (for reasons that become dimly apparent toward the end). Tucker’s best friend is the Indian (don’t get riled; that’s what he calls himself) Joseph Egret. Joseph is the last of the Calusa, the original Florida Indians, to whom the Seminoles and Creeks are newcomers. As such he’s an outsider both among the Indians and the Whites. But he likes Tucker, because Tucker despises everybody all the same. Continue reading The Man Who Invented Florida, by Randy Wayne White

Northfield, by Johnny D. Boggs

We’re experiencing a warm and rainy interval here right now, which is a blessed change.

Not changed is the climate in the library, where everybody wears a sweater or a jacket all the time (myself included, though my office is generally a little better than the circulation room).

So I called the maintenance guy and told him, “The thermostat says 70°, but no way this is 70°.”

He comes in with a fancy electronic thermometer, and gets 70° for a read-out. Everywhere he checked.

I don’t comprehend this. I keep my house at 68° when I’m in residence, and my house is far, far more comfortable than the library.

I blame trolls.

I’ve never been a big reader of western novels. I went through a very pleasant Louis L’Amour stage, in which I read pretty much his entire canon (and learned a lot of geography), but no other western writer ever earned my amour.

One kind of western that does tend to raise my interest, though, is the well-researched novel based on actual historical events. Loren Estleman’s Bloody Season is a good example, but I believe that Johnny D. Boggs’ Northfield is even better. Continue reading Northfield, by Johnny D. Boggs

Review: “Taken”

I went to see the movie “Taken” on Sunday, and I was very, very pleased.

You know that scene in “Sleepless in Seattle,” where the women are talking about the movies that make them cry, and one of the guys says, “I always cry at the end of ‘The Dirty Dozen”?

I think a lot of guys are sitting in theaters, grateful for the darkness, watching this one, because there’s a little tear in their eyes at the end of “Taken.” They’re not blubbering like girls, mind you. Just a little liquid atop the lid, a little flutter in the stomach.

Because “Taken” is about a guy who does what a guy has to do, and gets his due. A father who—for the first time in a long time, in any movie that I know of—actually knows what he’s talking about, and should have been listened to in the first place. Continue reading Review: “Taken”

The Road to Vengeance, by Judson Roberts

The Road To Vengeance is Book Three of Judson Roberts’ Young Adult Strongbow Saga, whose previous volumes I’ve reviewed already. The series continues strong; indeed, I think this is the best so far.

The hero of the books is Halfdan, a young Dane living in the 9th Century. Born a thrall (slave), the illegitimate son of a chieftain, he was freed after the deaths of both his parents, and trained as a warrior by his half-brother in Book One, Viking Warrior. But his entire new family was massacred by a greedy stepbrother and his Viking crew. Halfdan escaped and swore vengeance; but in order to achieve that he needs to acquire wealth and powerful friends.

This he has done by joining an invasion of France (based on an actual historical expedition in 845). Book Two, Dragons From the Sea, told how Halfdan went on a scouting expedition, which ended with his near escape from the Franks, bringing back with him a hostage, a young Frankish noblewoman who is a novitiate nun. Continue reading The Road to Vengeance, by Judson Roberts

(Long review) Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis

I’ve told you already that I found this book utterly gripping and compelling. I might add that it also made me feel as if I were being beaten repeatedly with a rubber hose.

I shall explain in due course.

Warning: I will say some hard things about Charles Schulz in the course of this review. Please understand that this doesn’t spring from malice. In fact, it rises from a scary level of personal identification. As I shall explain, etc.

Back in those days I’ve been reminiscing about in my last couple posts (the early ’70s), when I was working with a Christian musical group and we were in the midst of the “Jesus Movement,” there was no celebrity Christian about whom we were more smug than Charles M. Schulz. Everybody loved “Sparky” Schulz. He was the most successful cartoonist, not only in the world, but in history. Art galleries displayed his original panels. He said things in his wonderful little strip that made us feel as if this guy really understood us, shared our fears and insecurities, and sympathized. Continue reading (Long review) Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis

Scarlet, by Stephen Lawhead

Stephen Lawhead’s Scarlet, a sequel to his novel, Hood, begins with Will Scatlock (otherwise known as Will Scarlet), the narrator of much of the book, lying wounded on a pallet in a prison cell, awaiting a date with the hangman. A Norman priest has been assigned to write down his “confession,” and Will tells his story.

The action takes place in “The March,” a border region between England and Wales, and the time is the reign of King William Rufus, successor to William the Conqueror. As we learned in the previous volume, King Bran, the rightful king of Elfael, has been displaced by the Normans and has taken refuge in the forest with other victims of their tyranny. The Welsh call him Rhi Bran y Hud (King Bran [or Raven] the Enchanter), but the Normans tend to call him Riban Hood. Will is a displaced Englishman who has traveled west to join King Bran.

The outlaws he finds are not quite the “merry men” of legend. They are a pretty desperate and miserable bunch, living a life of subsistence in a forest hideaway where food is always scarce. A number of women and children are also with them, and among them Will finds a woman he wants to marry. But their wedding is delayed repeatedly, because King Bran has discovered a conspiracy that reaches to the very top of the Norman English government, and his attempts to turn what he learns to his advantage lead to desperate risks and Will’s capture and imprisonment. Continue reading Scarlet, by Stephen Lawhead

The 47th Samurai, by Stephen Hunter

“It’s a war thing. I’m a war guy, he’s a war guy. His dad, my dad, war guys. Us war guys, we’re all connected. So I picked up an obligation. It’s something ancient and forgotten and not in existence no more. Lost and gone, a joke, something from those silly sword-fight movies. Something samurai.”

The 47th Samurai, Stephen Hunter’s latest Bob Lee Swagger novel, centers on probably the most ridiculous premise I’ve ever encountered in a thriller.

I loved it.

I think this may be my favorite Bob Lee Swagger book in the whole series. Which is saying a lot.

What do you do if you’re out working in your meadow, and a car approaches, and out comes a Japanese gentleman, a military veteran, who informs you that, judging from the records, your father probably killed his father at Iwo Jima? And he asks your help in locating his father’s military sword, which disappeared at the same time?

Well, if you’re Bob Lee Swagger, you start rooting through your father’s effects, and then make a series of phone calls and visits, until you’ve located the thing. And you carry it back to Japan personally, as a surprise for your new friend.

And what do you do if your new friend and his family are then brutally murdered?

You go to the crime scene, make a spectacle of yourself trying to give information to the police, and get yourself expelled from the country.

Then you hole up for a while, watching old samurai movies and reading everything you can find about Japanese tradition. You go back again with a false passport. And you learn to use a sword. Continue reading The 47th Samurai, by Stephen Hunter

The Dead Whisper On, by T. L. Hines

This is the second published novel by T. L. Hines. It’s a stand-alone, not a sequel to his previous book, Waking Lazarus, which I reviewed a few days ago.

The hero of The Dead Whisper On is Candace “Canada” MacHugh, of Butte, Montana. The product of a broken home, embittered by the early death of her beloved father, estranged from her mother, she worked first (like her father) in Butte’s mines, before they shut down. Now she’s a garbage collector. She lives a packrat life in her late father’s trailer, and drives his old car. She’s aimless and depressed.

And then, one day, from out of the shadows, she hears her father’s voice speaking to her. He wants her to make contact with certain people, who will recruit her into a secret organization. That organization, he says, is devoted to fighting evil and to saving humanity from a terrible threat.

She does what he asks. Why wouldn’t she do what her father wants? But as she learns her new duties, she has trouble making sense of her assignments. And she learns that she’s being pursued, hunted—by a strange, man-like thing that cannot be killed, a monster of Jewish folklore called a golem. In confronting that supernatural antagonist, she will learn secrets that may save—or destroy—her home city.

I was, frankly, a little disappointed with this book. I had hoped to see more growth in Hines’ technique. All in all I rate this book slightly lower than Waking Lazarus. There’s only one fully developed character in The Dead Whisper On—Canada herself. Everybody else seemed pretty sketchy to me. In the later part of the novel Hines brings on a collection of Butte miners who are intended to be colorful. But colorful in itself isn’t enough. You need to establish the characters in the readers’ minds. They all kind of coalesced in my memory, and Hines didn’t help me by offering a lot of differentiation.

The final action centers on a plan by Canada to save the city through a fairly elaborate operation involving explosives and mining technology. For all I know, the plan may be realistic and based on solid engineering principles, but it seemed kind of out there to me, reading as a layman. Maybe other, more knowledgeable, readers had less trouble with that.

My guess (and such guesses are frequently wrong) is that Hines wrote this novel under a fair amount of time pressure from his publisher, and wasn’t able to develop his concept as well as he’d have liked. (Been in those parts myself.)

I still recommend it, especially for those looking for a G-Rated alternative to Dean Koontz. But I hope Hines develops the promise of the first novel a little more in the next one.