Category Archives: Reviews

Book review: Web of Evil, by J. A. Jance

I’d read one J. A. Jance novel before, I think, and hadn’t been terribly impressed (I thought I’d reviewed it, but can’t find it in the archives, so I guess I didn’t). If I remember correctly, it had a male protagonist and, like so many female authors (in my opinion) she didn’t write a guy very well. No doubt we male writers have the same trouble with female characters.

But Web of Evil is one of Jance’s Ali Reynolds books, stories about a woman amateur detective, and I found it a lot of fun.

Ali Reynolds is a former Los Angeles news anchor. Today she lives in a double-wide mobile home (though a nice one) in Sedona, Arizona, where her parents run a diner. She’s in the midst of a bitter divorce from her husband, Paul, a network executive, and also an unfair dismissal suit against her old TV station (the two facts are not unrelated).

One day she gets in her car to drive to L.A., where she’s going to sign her final divorce papers. But there will be no signing. Her husband turns up dead, locked in the trunk of a car which was then left on the railroad tracks to wait for the next train.

As it happened, the murder occurred near the highway Ali was driving, just about the time that, by her own account, she was passing through the area. Suddenly the police are looking very closely at her movements and personal affairs.

This mystery was one of the most tech-savvy I’ve read. Ali is a blogger, and her blog, as well as her cell phone, are important parts of the plot.

I especially liked Ali’s parents, who bear the fine Scandinavian name of Larson. They are decent, caring people and unabashedly conservative (how often do you see that in a novel these days?).

Ali herself is a classic female detective. She’s smart, beautiful and spunky. Like all amateur detectives, she goes where the police say she shouldn’t go, and does what the police say she shouldn’t do, and yet doesn’t get locked up long enough to keep her out of the action. When you sit down to analyze the plot, the whole thing is a little far-fetched, and Ali’s close involvement with the investigation improbable, but Jance keeps the story moving so skillfully that you don’t notice. She kept me turning the pages, and I found it a very entertaining read.

Not great literature, but a lot of fun. Worth the price.

Short movie review: No Country For Old Men

Thanksgiving went just fine. My turkey was once again a success, and nobody got food poisoning (or if they did, they’re thoughtfully keeping the fact from me).

At the end of the day my brother Baal and I found ourselves alone here, and we decided to see a movie. So we went to see “No Country For Old Men.”

Brilliant writing, brilliant dialog, brilliant acting. And an ending designed to make ordinary people want their money back, while critics at Cannes applaud their manicures loose.

My one-line review goes like this: “No Country For Old Men” is an elegant, three-hour shaggy dog story.

And do you think Tommy Lee Jones will ever get tired of being the Texan Steppin Fetchitt? I’m sure there’s a lot of money in being the go-to guy whenever Hollywood wants to show how bigoted, hateful or irrelevant (irrelevant in this case) white Texan males are (Billy Green Bush made a good living in the same gig back in the 70s. Maybe you’re required to have three names to get the job), but do you think he ever feels a little embarrassed about it?

Review: Viking Warrior, by Judson Roberts

If you want to read a good Viking novel, your choices are pretty few. There’s me, of course, but I’m out of print. Bernard Cornwell is doing a series about Vikings and Saxons in Alfred’s England (I’m avoiding them, though, because, from what I read, he’s trashing Christianity again. I wish he wouldn’t do that. I really like Cornwell otherwise). There’s Tim Severin’s new series, which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, mea culpa. You can sometimes find a copy of the English translation of Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships here or there.

But the field is pretty sparse. Which is why I’m delighted to welcome Judson Roberts to our small but elite club.

Viking Warrior
is a Young Adult novel which will be enjoyed by older readers as well. It begins the story of Halfdan, who, as the story opens, is a young slave on a large farm in Denmark. He is actually the natural son of the chieftain who owns the farm, but his mother is a slave from Ireland. So all his life he has known only hard work and bitterness.

Everything changes when his master and the master’s son return from an abortive raid in England. His master is dying. On his deathbed, he makes a bargain with Halfdan’s mother—he will acknowledge Halfdan, free him, and make him an heir. But in return Halfdan’s mother must make a terrible sacrifice. She does this willingly, in a deeply moving but troubling segment of the story.

Suddenly Halfdan’s life is changed out of recognition. Harald, his master’s freeborn son and chief heir, befriends him and begins to teach Halfdan the skills of a warrior. Harald is extremely likeable, and Halfdan grows in character as he learns to set aside old angers, even as he is learning a whole new way of living.

One thing Harald does not need to teach Halfdan is the use of the bow. Halfdan has been learning the arts of the bowyer and the fletcher for years, and has been hunting in secret. His skill with a bow is already formidable, and it’s a skill he’ll come to need very much, very soon.

Because there is an enemy out there—a vicious and ruthless enemy who wants the whole family dead; one who cares nothing for honor or fair dealing, nor for how many murders it takes to achieve his goal.

I can hardly think of a way this book could have been better. If I’d written it, I’d have taken pains to anglicize the speech a little more—to avoid words with Latin roots, but that’s my own bugbear, and probably means little to the average reader. The prose was tight, the characters well-rounded, the emotions rang true, and the plot was compelling. I wished it were longer—but fortunately there’s a sequel for me to order.

References to Christianity were generally negative, but that was appropriate to the story. Although Halfdan’s mother is a Christian, she doesn’t seem to have conveyed much of it to her son, so Halfdan’s opinions are those of the average Scandinavian heathen of the time. There is a ceremonial matter toward the beginning of the story that was extremely conflicting for me to read, but it was in no way unreasonable in the time and place.

The only false note (in my opinion) was a scene later in the book, where Halfdan, having killed his first man, is troubled not to feel any guilt about it. I think that’s a projection of modern and Christian values. I don’t believe a Norse pagan in the 9th Century would have been bothered by that at all. I think he would have been pleased.

But that’s the sort of thing it’s almost impossible to avoid, when moderns write about the past. I’m sure I’ve done the same in my own books.

I strongly recommend Viking Warrior. Cautions for violence and sexual references (but no explicit sex scenes). It would make a much-valued Christmas gift for that Viking aficionado on your gift list (and who doesn’t have one of those?).

Book Review: Proof Positive, by Phillip Margolin

Another negative review for you today. I’ve found a reason in my old age to finish books I dislike. The pain of reading them is balanced (at least somewhat) by the pleasure of insulting the authors, at a safe distance. The petty vengeance of the failed novelist.

Proof Positive is a legal thriller written from viewpoint of the defense side.

It led this reader to root for prosecutors even more than a Robert K. Tanenbaum novel could.

It’s one in a series of novels starring a young female defense attorney in Portland, Oregon named Amanda Jaffe. She’s the daughter of a prominent criminal lawyer.

The story starts with the execution of a convicted murderer by lethal injection. His lawyer, Doug Weaver, observes the death of his gentle, not-too-bright client, consoling himself that the man must have been guilty, because a forensic expert found his fingerprint on the murder weapon.

Later, mobster Art Prochaska is arrested for the murder of a drug dealer. Amanda, whose father has often represented Prochaska’s boss, is retained to represent him.

There’s damning forensic evidence against Prochaska, but by now the author has revealed to us that the forensic investigator who documented the evidence is in fact in the practice of planting manufactured clues.

At the same time, Doug Weaver is retained to defend a psychotic young man accused of murder, also the victim of falsified forensics.

As the attorneys seek the truth, the crooked CSI begins to commit murders of his own, in order to protect himself.

If this synopsis seems a little dry, it’s because I DIDN’T CARE FOR ANY OF THESE CHARACTERS FOR ONE SINGLE MOMENT!

That’s an exaggeration. I found two human scenes in the book. One was where the young psychotic meets with his parents in the jail, and they finally make a connection after many years. The other involved a moment of sexual banter between two lovers.

Other than that, author Margolin took apparent pains to keep us eternally at an emotional distance from his characters. One of his irritating techniques was to always convey his characters’ thoughts at a remove, saying (for example), “He thought that he made a mistake…” rather than, “He thought, ‘I made a mistake.’”

And all the characters do this tedious thinking in the same way. Men and women. Cops and civilians. Professional criminals and solid citizens. There was nothing to distinguish them in their characterizations. They all thought and reacted (at least to my perception) in precisely identical ways.

This was especially annoying in regard to the gangsters in the book. Margolin didn’t seem to care at all that these were very bad guys who make their livelihoods off human suffering. They were targets of the rogue CSI, so they were treated as charming and slightly amusing tough guys.

Margolin obviously wants us to realize that police power can be abused, and that even forensic evidence isn’t always solid. True enough. There have been cases like this, where the system has been abused.

But he undercuts his argument by whitewashing the crooks and (especially) by BORING ME WITH A DULL NARRATIVE.

Margolin is apparently a very successful novelist. I have no idea why, on the basis of this book.

Movie Review: Beowulf

One line review: I didn’t hate it.

Long, long ago, when I was a small, unpromising child, my brother Moloch and I were given the gift of a ViewMaster for Christmas. If you’re one of our younger readers, you may never have seen a ViewMaster. It was a device for viewing stereoscopic images; pictures in 3-D. The pictures came on cardboard disks, and my favorite set of disks was the one portraying the story of Snow White.

This wasn’t the Disney version. Somebody had gone to great pains to carve and paint a number of posed character figures, and then to place them in dioramas and photograph them. Whoever did the job had a tremendous sense of composition and color, and I found the scenes fascinating and beautiful.

In a way, Beowulf is a lot like those ViewMaster scenes, with the added element of motion. I’ll confess right off the bat that I have a “gee-whiz,” little kid’s response to the novelty of watching a 3-D movie. Even when the effects take you out of the story (which, I must confess, they often do), I enjoy the ride.

The capture motion animation, in my opinion, is less successful. I think the response you’ll get from most people who come out of the film will be, “It was kind of weird.” I liked that the digital painting of the characters made them resemble the figures in my ViewMaster Snow White. And sometimes, particularly in the action scenes, I thought the animation was very effective.

But in the quieter scenes, especially, the ones that involved people interacting with each other, things were strangely off. Hands, facial expressions and body movements often seemed stilted, deformed or awkward, which is odd. If Disney was able to create elegant, naturalistic motions using drawings alone, how is it possible to make figures look less natural when you’re drawing right on top of actual filmed images?

I predict that this kind of animation will continue to be done, and will rapidly improve. Which means that Beowulf will not age well.

How did they treat the story? That’s also kind of weird, though it was far from reaching the low-end benchmark of the recent Canadian/Icelandic Beowulf and Grendel, which I reviewed here a while ago. That movie made the story a parable of European racism and imperialism, painting Grendel as the spotless hero and Beowulf as a Nazi, redeemed only by his profound self-doubts.

Beowulf treats the story with much more respect than that. The script, by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, follows the original poem in its general plot points, with the added bonus of including Beowulf’s last battle with the dragon, which most moviemakers would have omitted. In order to unify the theme, they make some major changes in the plot, though, mostly involving the character of Grendel’s mother, played (you must be aware by now) by Angelina Jolie without no clothes on. (I didn’t find this, actually, more pornographic, done in this kind of animation, than the skin-tight female uniforms so popular on recent versions of Star Trek. On top of that, Angelina J. has never been my idea of an appealing female. Unlike a dragon, she has not the least spot of vulnerability about her. Which, in a way, makes her perfect for the role. The stiletto heels, however, were a little too much; even if they were presumed to grow out of her feet.)

What intrigues me about the changes made in the story is that the authors have taken a Germanic heroic saga (in which the hero is bigger than life and essentially without fault, dying in the end merely because his fate-allotted time has run out) and changed it into a tragedy on the Greek model. The Greek tragedy centered on a hero with a fatal flaw—some weakness or appetite that compelled him to bring his own doom down upon himself. This plot pattern was eagerly taken up by Christian poets and playwrights, who recognized it as an ideal vehicle for expressing the Christian view of original sin.

This means that, in spite of the fact that most of the references to Christianity in the movie (anachronistic, by the way, as Christianity was hardly heard of in Denmark until at least a couple centuries later) are dismissive, and although the primary Christian spokesman in the movie is pictured as extremely brutal to his slaves, the writers have (probably without meaning to) essentially forced a Christian form and sensibility onto the pre-Christian story.

From a historical point of view, the costumes and sets were better than those in The Thirteenth Warrior (also based on “Beowulf,” and all in all a better film, but much debased by ridiculous, anachronistic armor), but not as good as those in Beowulf and Grendel (which tried to redeem its ruthless trashing of the whole saga by punctilious authenticity in its look). I saw some details, in helmets and swords and such things, that pleased me. But the designers, apparently, felt some compulsion to make a lot of the armor look sort of Greek or Roman (perhaps a subliminal nod to the Greek tragedy drift of the script).

I’ve never cared for bare-legged warriors. Real Vikings wear trousers (which leaves completely to one side Beowulf’s totally naked fight with Grendel).

Well, I could go on, but it all works out to the same thing. Beowulf is a bold and ambitious treatment of a classic epic. It’s entertaining and worth seeing (Leave the kids at home, though. It should have gotten a more restricted rating than PG-13).

If you’re not interested in this sort of thing, don’t bother. If you are, see it now before it becomes something we all look back at and laugh.

The C.M.E.P.

I enjoyed trashing Steve Thayer’s novel, The Wheat Field, so much last night that I thought I’d kick it a little more tonight.

One thing I started wondering as I re-read my review was, “How come Thayer didn’t finish the job?” There was one obvious conservative stereotype he could have included, but for some reason he left it out. Hard to understand, when he used all the others.

I can imagine him having lunch with his publisher. In between the salad and the entrée, the publisher says, “Look, Steve. We need to talk about the obvious omission in this manuscript.”

“Omission? What did I leave out?”

“The C.M.E.P., of course.”


“Yes. The Child-Molesting Evangelical Pastor. Every other novel set in the Midwest that we’ve published this year has included a C.M.E.P. Our readers expect a C.M.E.P. They’re going to be pretty disappointed if you don’t give them a C.M.E.P.”

“Well, gee. I’m not sure how I could make it germane to the plot…”

“Germane, shmermane. You threw in that subplot about the recluse couple. That didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story.”

“Well, I felt like I needed to include at least two characters with a drop of recognizable humanity in them.”

“Recognizable humanity? What are you talking about? You’re writing about the Midwest. There’s no recognizable humanity in the Midwest. All those two-parent homes, people going to church. Gives me the willies. You’ve got to put something in there to show how oppressive traditional families are.”

“On top of the C.M.E.P.?”

“Put ‘em together. Make the abusive father a preacher. Our readers’ll eat it up.”

“You want a second irrelevant subplot? Isn’t the plot enough of a mess already?”

“OK. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll let it go for this book, but in the next one you’ve got to give us at least two C.M.E.P.s. Think you can do that?”

“Yeah, I’m sure I can do that.”

“Put Bush in too. Figure out a way to blame it all on Bush.”

(Thayer mutters to himself)
“Maybe I can blame Bush for my whole writing career.”

The Wheat Field, by Stephen Thayer

I require a rare, peculiar combination of factors in order to be able write a negative review. The book can’t be just bad. If it’s just bad, I’ll dump it in the re-sell bag or return it to the library. It’s got to be good enough to keep me wanting to read it, with the same sort of fascination that prevents a person from turning his eyes away from a train wreck.

The Wheat Field finds that sweet spot. It was fairly well written (though not as well, I think, as the review blurbs suggested). I opted not to give up on it even when it offended me, not because I was compelled by the narrative, but because I wanted to see whether the author was actually going to take the story where I figured it was going, and actually say what I figured he would say.

Well, it did and he said it.

The narrator and main character is Deputy Pennington (I don’t think we’re ever told his first name), a law officer in Kickapoo Falls, Wisconsin, in the beautiful Dells country, a location the author uses effectively in some action scenes. Pennington, speaking in the present as an old man reminiscing on his law enforcement career back in 1960, tells how he was called one beautiful summer’s day to a farmer’s wheat field, where two naked people, murdered with a shotgun, had been found in a flattened crop circle

I think Thayer means us to like Detective Pennington. I think we’re supposed to like him because he’s so honest (he admits to being a voyeur, and murdering more than one criminal he couldn’t touch through legal means. In his first scene he takes pleasure in threatening the farmer who discovered the bodies because a) he’s short, b) he didn’t serve in the war, and c) he’s a Republican).

Oh yes, Pennington is a Democrat in a Republican county, as well as a Catholic in a Protestant community. I think we’re supposed to like him for that too. Especially when he reminds us how really evil the Republicans are.

There’s nothing so horrendous, you see, that the Republicans won’t do it. While hypocritically talking about morality, the Republicans practice group sex, make pornographic films (even a snuff film), and they’re planning to assassinate presidential candidate John Kennedy. (It’s never entirely clear why they want to kill Kennedy. Maybe it’s that he wants to lower taxes. Or beef up the military. Or get rid of Castro. Or “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend democracy.)

One of the murder victims is identified as Maggie Butler, a woman Pennington grew up with and has been in love with all his life. Her husband, the other victim, was a leader in the local Republican power structure, centered at “The Kickapoo Gunn [sic] Club,” and as Pennington pokes into that den of vipers he faces not only the locked-arm opposition of the party structure, but the suspicion of his own fellow officers. Eventually he is framed for the murder, but gets freed by another policeman (I’m still not sure why), after which he sets off on a trip to Nantucket, Massachusetts, to find the real murderer. At this point the plot rapidly sheds all pretense of plausibility and descends into pure Gothic melodrama.

I saw the big surprise ending a mile away, too.

The writing was good in places, but I thought the dialogue wooden. In one place a young boy, describing a local recluse, calls him “a hideous monster.” Has any American kid used the adjective “hideous” spontaneously since 1919?

Thayer’s earlier books earned glowing reviews from the New York Times (which put him on the bestseller list) and Stephen King, so I think of this book much the same as I think of the recent spate of lame anti-war movies, which anti-war news outlets feel compelled to praise to the skies, just because they push the right lessons. This wasn’t really a very good novel.

No doubt the movie is already in the works.

Everglades, by Randy Wayne White

I’m going to write a piece one of these days about The Static Problem of the Series Hero. The problem is this—the heart of any story is to produce some change in the main character. In its classic form, a story is a drama in which a character employs a series of strategems to overcome a problem, failing time after time until he succeeds at last. The reason he has to go through so many failures and disappointments is because a good story needs to tell how that character learns something and grows. And the solution that involves learning and growing is usually the solution each of us leaves for last.

But series characters make that method difficult or impossible. How many life-changing, existential choices can one character believably make, in one book after another?

The mystery format helps solve (or at least cover over) that problem. Mysteries are generally not stories about transformation through personal change. They’re stories about solving puzzles external to the main character’s personal life. So Sherlock Holmes, for instance, can go on for story after story (long after his author is tired of him), changing little if at all. The faithful reader looks on the detective as a dear old friend. He doesn’t even want him to change. If someone needs to learn something in the story, let it be a secondary character. (Conan Doyle had Dr. Watson fall in love and marry in “The Sign of the Four.” But Watson’s marriage became such a nuisance from a storytelling point of view that Doyle killed her off, in so negligent and confusing a manner that fans argue to this day about how many wives the doctor actually had.)

But there are authors who resist this time-honored mystery formula. One of them (as I’ve said before) is Robert Crais, whose adult adolescent detective Elvis Cole has been growing up before our eyes.

Another is Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford series. As I’ve said before, White manages better than anyone else (anyone I’ve read, at least) to revive the spirit of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee.

But Doc Ford is not McGee. Ford has a darker history, a past career as a top-secret commando and assassin. In the early books, this past served to give the character a textured, somewhat guilty background, and to add credibility to his fighting ability when violence became necessary.

But Everglades appears to have been a pivotal entry in the series (I haven’t read them all). White made the decision in this book to force Ford to change his entire attitude to himself and his past, and to handle his present challenges in a different way.

The story begins when Ford comes home to his stilt house at Dinkin’s Bay Marina, Florida, to find Sally Carmel, a former lover, waiting for him outside. She’s worried and scared. She’s been married to a real estate developer, and he’s disappeared. Supposedly he fell off a boat in the night and was lost at sea, but she suspects it was stage-managed. And she believes someone has been breaking into her house, going through her things. She’s certain someone is following her.

Before his death, her husband had gotten involved with a New Age/Hindu cult leader called Bhagwan Shiva. Shiva’s religion has become extremely successful and profitable, and he’s been investing heavily in Florida real estate, with an eye to partnering with a Seminole tribe to build a casino. Shiva’s religion is extremely “advanced” in its sexual practices, and Sally found that part of it highly traumatic. She separated from her husband, and is now active in a Pentecostal church.

She doesn’t know it, but she’s become a pawn in a very big power game, a game planned by a brilliant man with grandiose plans and no conscience.

The issue of religion looms large in Everglades. As always, Doc’s friend Tomlinson is on hand, often high on pot or booze, spouting New Age “wisdom.” Doc, the narrator, is clear in telling us that he believes in none of it, and yet manages to convey the suggestion that Tomlinson and his psychic friends are actually in touch with legitimate spiritual forces.

This is troubling for the Christian reader.

On the other hand, Sally’s Christianity is treated with respect (although her theology appears a little weak). And a Christian character treated respectfully is something to be thankful for in any popular novel nowadays.

The center of the book, though, is Doc’s personal decision about his life. He starts the story in a bad condition. He’s sleeping badly. He’s drinking too much. He forgets appointments. He’s gotten fat.

His problem, he discovers, is that he’s been fighting his essential nature. Trying to live a quiet life as a marine biologist, working and partying and staying out of trouble, he has been denying his true gifts. If it’s not blasphemous to speak of it in Gene Edward Veith’s terms, he’s been neglecting his Vocation.

But a terrible turn of events shows him that he has a job to do in this world, and that he’ll never be satisfied—and others will suffer—if he neglects it.

The book was published in 2003. Which suggests it was written in 2002.

I wonder if the events of September 11, 2001 didn’t have something to do with Doc Ford’s epiphany.

I found the book very satisfying (with reservations for theological issues and some uncomfortable sexual scenes).

Recommended, as long as you heed the warnings.

The Forgotten Man, by Robert Crais

Today I voted. In my little corner of the republic, we were faced with only two decisions, both of them education related. One was the election of school board members. I voted for none of them, since their bios in the local giveaway newspaper made them all look indistinguishable to me. Margaret Sanger crossed with John Dewey.

The big question was whether we wanted to approve a property tax increase for education. According to our lords and masters, our school district will soon be reduced to teaching the kids in one-room schoolhouses with dirt floors and wooden benches.

Come to think of it, that might not be bad. The kids who went to those one-room schools generally learned to read and do their sums. Our present system can’t make the same boast.

Of course my true reason for voting “No” is my selfishness and bigotry. As a bloated member of the plutocracy, my true fear is that the brilliant plans of the National Educational Association will be brought to fruition. If that should happen, all our children will become geniuses and paragons of postmodern virtue. In short order they will end poverty, cure all diseases, stop global warming, abolish war, and prove scientifically that there is no God. This threatens my vested interests and entrenched power, so I’m fighting a vicious, yet futile, rear guard action against the tide of history.

The Forgotten Man is another Robert Crais novel. It really isn’t my intention to review a string of Crais novels all in a row. If I were following my inclinations alone, I’d be reviewing a string of Stephen Hunter novels all in a row, but just at this point in my life I’m cutting back on book buying. So I’m only reading stuff I can check out of the library or find at Half Price Books. My library carries no Hunter, and I’ve bought everything HPB has by him at this point. So I picked up some Crais, and that’s no form of suffering at all. The more Crais I read, the better I like him.

Once again in this book, detective Elvis Cole is forced to deal with the shadows of his dysfunctional childhood. His mother, who was loving but psychotically delusional, always told him that his father (whose name he’s never known) was a human cannonball in a circus. In flashbacks we see how the young Cole ran away from home time after time, searching carnivals for the right daredevil, without any success.

But now, a possible father has come to him (sort of). An unidentified older man, bizarrely tattooed all over his body with religious pictures, has been murdered in an alley. The policewoman who heard his last words says he told her that he was Elvis Cole’s father, come to Los Angeles to find his son.

Cole has been elevated to public hero status by his last case, in which he rescued the kidnapped son of the woman he loves. But in the aftermath she moved away, deciding (and Cole knows she’s right) that being with him is too dangerous a life for a mother who has a child to protect. Since then Cole has been in a funk. He hasn’t even visited his office.

The one thing that could draw him out, though, is the chance to at last learn the identity of his father. He gets permission from the police to assist in the case. But the man is a ghost. He seems to have no name, no past. All Cole learns at first is that the man made several outcalls to prostitutes.

Not to sleep with them. To pray with them. To pray for forgiveness for sins he wouldn’t name.

The story also offers healthy helpings of familiar supporting characters like Joe Pike, Cole’s Psycho Killer Friend™, and Detective Carol Stark, the heroine of Demolition Angel (Crais fixed her up with an FBI agent at the end of that book, but apparently decided he could make better use of her if he had her shamelessly throwing herself at Cole, so he unattached her again).

I’ve been impressed, as I’ve read the Elvis Cole books, by the way in which Crais has deepened and enriched what started out as a fairly shallow, perpetually adolescent character, the kind of detective who wears Hawaiian shirts and decorates his office with Disney collectibles. But maybe I failed to recognize that this was Crais’ intention from the start. The clock on Cole’s wall is a Pinocchio clock, and the figurine on his desk is Jiminy Cricket. And what is Pinocchio but the puppet who needs to learn moral lessons in order to become a real boy?

The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks (JXIIH)

I agreed to review The Dark River, second in the Fourth Realm trilogy, in part because I had not read the first book. I thought I could give a unique perspective. Most reviewers would have read the first book, wouldn’t they? After I agreed, I thought I may have made a mistake. I read somewhere that the plot was so complex a reader should start with book one, and if I had picked up The Two Towers without any knowledge of the rest of The Lord of the Rings story, I’d be lost at the start. But I didn’t have any trouble following the story. There are many times the narrative recalls past events, all of which could be part of book one, but I don’t know and not knowing didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the story here.

The story begins exploring the black hats’ attempts to eliminate the white hats. The black hats in this story are The Brethren, a high-tech, international organization that wants to virtually imprison all free people through data networks, security checks, and surveillance cameras. They believe that once everyone in the world agrees to being watched or recorded for security reasons then everyone will become fairly controllable. The Brethren believe people are fundamentally products of their environment, so if the environment can be completely controlled, then everyone in it can be controlled. This belief earned the black hats the label Tabula by the white hats, who are Travelers and Harlequins. Continue reading The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks (JXIIH)

The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais

First of all, I have to thank our reader and occasional commenter Aitchmark. I chat with him on AIM now and then, and the other night he tentatively diagnosed (sight unseen) the malady that’s been bugging me for weeks. I’d been fading in the afternoons, just feeling leaden. He asked me if I’d been breathing anything that might be bad, and it suddenly occurred to me that the moldy old books I’ve been cataloging for the archive might not be the best thing for me. I took an antihistamine, bought some paper breathing masks, and I feel better already.

The title of Robert Crais’ The Two Minute Rule refers to a guideline well known to both policemen and bank robbers—if you want to knock off a bank, you need to be in and out in two minutes, or you’re likely to be caught.

Which was what happened to Max Holman ten years ago. Back then he was an alcoholic and a drug addict, addicted to the thrill of danger. In his time in prison he’s dried out, and he intends to make a genuine effort to live a straight life now that he’s being released. He also wants to make amends to his former girlfriend, and to the son they had together, whom he neglected even before his arrest.

But on the day of his release, he gets bad news. His son (who had become a policeman) has been murdered, along with three other officers.

Even the cops treat him with consideration at first, in spite of his ex-con status. But Holman is puzzled by the official story of the ambush that killed his son. The attack happened in the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River. How did anyone sneak up on them in such an open location? And why, when he visits his son’s widow, does he find a police file on a desk, concerning a recent series of robberies by two now-dead felons? What business was that case of a uniformed policeman’s? Was his son a corrupt cop? If so, was that Holman’s own fault?

When he asks more questions, the police become hostile, and finally they threaten him. That’s when Holman turns for help to the only law enforcement figure he knows he can trust.

Katherine Pollard, the FBI agent who put him away ten years ago.

Pollard is out of the agency now, trying to make it as a single mother. She joins Holman in investigating the matter mostly because she’s bored and misses police work. But as the questions get harder, and the violence escalates, she begins to alternate between frustration with the police, anger at Holman, and… other feelings for Holman. She begins to fear that she’s “going Indian”—getting too closely involved with a criminal and his world.

The Two Minute Rule
is notable for a remarkable risk (for popular fiction) taken by the author. He doesn’t make his main characters look like movie stars. Holman, we’re told, has put on weight in prison. He’s flabby and pale. Katherine too has put on weight since she left the FBI. She’s always worrying about the size of her bottom. This is a nice touch of realism that (for me) made the whole thing ring much truer.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it involves a genuine concern for maturity and responsibility that’s been sadly lacking, I believe, in books and movies for a long time. I was very pleased with the ending, and recommend The Two Minute Rule to most readers. The usual cautions about language and violence that generally go with mainstream novels nowadays apply here, it goes without saying.

I like the direction Robert Crais (author of the Elvis Cole books, in which the main character is also maturing) is taking in his novels. Kudos to him.

Pale Horse Coming, by Stephen Hunter

Perfect fall day today. The rains finally ceased, and Saturday was pretty nice, giving me the chance to do some maintenance jobs outside. Today was crisp and bright, with gumdrop colors in the foliage.

Which makes it all the sadder to hear about the fires in southern California. Our prayers go out to you folks in that area.

Stephen Hunter’s Pale Horse Coming is another thriller so good, so deeply satisfying on so many levels, that it makes me want to just hang up my laptop and give up telling stories. I’ll never be this good.

Pale Horse Coming
is set in 1951 and is a story about Earl Swagger, the father of Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of Point of Impact and other novels. Hunter is as canny at triangulating his market as he is at plotting and characterization. For the liberal reader he offers two of their favorite villains, southern racists and McCarthyites. But that’s not what the heart of the book is. The heart of the book is heroism, and endurance, and keeping promises, and knowing how to defend yourself, and the conviction that sometimes you just have to employ violence to deliver the oppressed.

The story begins with Sam Vincent of Blue Eye, Arksansas, Earl’s lawyer friend who will someday be Bob Lee’s mentor, getting an offer from a Chicago law firm to run what seems to be an unusual but innocuous errand. A black man who once worked for one of their clients has been mentioned in a will, but can’t be contacted. Would Sam go to his last known address, Thebes, Mississippi, to see if he can get legal verification of the man’s death? They prefer a southerner to make the trip, they say, because he’ll understand the local culture better.

The money’s good and Sam needs the work, so he makes the trip. What he finds is an insane and frightening situation. A tiny town stuck in the 1850s, almost cut off from the outside world, where the only local industry is a “colored”-only prison, and where the black residents, even outside the prison walls, are entirely dominated by the white guards.

When Sam’s conscience forces him to protest what he sees, he finds himself in big trouble. Without spoiling the rest of it for you, I’ll say that Sam’s big trouble becomes Earl’s big trouble. Then follows a tale of unspeakable cruelty and incredible endurance, capped by Earl’s retribution, which is epic in scope.

A delightful element toward the end is Earl’s assembly of a commando force made up almost entirely of “old-timers”—famous shooters of the 1920s, all of them based on real characters who will be familiar to any gun enthusiast, and some of whom even I could identify behind their fictionalized names. The name “Seven Against Thebes” is employed a couple times.

Could not put the book down. It grabbed me from the beginning, and Hunter timed his plot twists and setbacks expertly to keep me on the hook all the way.

And behind it all, I was never allowed to forget that Earl will not live long. All his resolve to care for his family and raise his boy will come to an untimely end, an end Hunter has already chronicled. So there’s irony and tragedy too as seasoning in the stew.

Hunter lifts the thriller form above the level of popular fiction. I suspect he’ll be read and loved for a long, long time.

Cornish’s Foundling

A while back I meant to link to a review Mr. Holtsberry did on his jolly good blog, which could only be improved by short, coffee-related posts, IMESHO. Since I’ve been making good on my thoughts lately (note the radio interview Dr. Bertrand landed after I thought about suggesting it. (I didn’t know he was a doctor. Did you know he had a doctorate?)) Anyway, I saw this review of Foundling, by D. M. Cornish, and having seen the book before, I have faith it’s a good one.

Kevin says the book is both Dickensesque and Tolkienesque. “The Dickens reference obviously comes from the orphan plot line and the semi-Victorian feel. But also from the strong characters,” he writes. “The Tolkienesque aspect comes from the complexity and detailed nature of Cornish’s creation. The world of the Half-Continent has a depth and level of detail that is rare in YA fantasy.” Very interesting, though the hardback has a scary cover. The website is Monster Blood Tattoo, which has a short excerpt from the book.

Review: Sissel concert, Oct. 13, 2007, Minot, ND

I had a wonderful time at the Sissel concert, and was completely satisfied personally, but it must have been a tough experience for her and her entourage. I also thought some improvements could have been made in view of the venue.

From what I hear, she and her crew only arrived at the hall an hour or two before the show was scheduled. Passport problems had delayed them. The festival canceled the usual noontime color ceremonies in order to allow them to set up and do sound tests.

Høstfest had decided to book Sissel for two concerts this year (I went to the early one at 1:00 p.m.). I applaud the sentiment of giving her two shows, but it was probably a mistake. Sissel deserves two concerts and more, but she’s just not a big name in America, and it’s the big names that the Høstfest attendees come to see. The first night was Ann-Margret and Tony Orlando. Also scheduled were Charlie Pride, Ronnie Milsap and Bill Cosby, among others. None of these are as talented as Sissel, in my opinion (except perhaps for Cosby, in his own way), but they are famous to the ordinary Midwesterners who come to the festival. Sissel they don’t know. As it turned out, the festival wasn’t able to move all the tickets, and ended up giving a lot of them away to servicepeople at the nearby Air Force base.

Whoever planned Sissel’s concert could have tailored it better to the crowd. The program began with three extremely sophisticated pieces in the classical vein (including a vocal arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At an Exhibition”). This would have been great in Chicago, or in Minneapolis. But in Minot, they would have done better to start with something like “Marry Me.” If they’d done that at the start, the crowd would have been eating out of her hand, and she could have done anything she liked afterward.

As it was, a few people walked out at the beginning (Philistines!).

Which was too bad, because the music got more popular as she went on. I can’t recall all the numbers, but I remember that she did her lullaby, “Sarah’s Song,” which I consider pretty saccharine, but which the crowd liked. She also sang “Bruremarsj” (Wedding March), which always goes over well in any language, since it has no actual words. She got a standing ovation in the end, and came back with “Koppången” (oddly enough in an English translation) and “Going Home,” which I’d never heard her do before. Lovely.

She was accompanied by a six-person ensemble of Norwegian musicians, all top-notch and worthy of their material.

Great concert, and I clapped my hands raw. But it was a rocky production.

Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Walker’s going to roll on his back and wriggle like a happy dachshund in delight over another Andrew Klavan masterpiece.

Well, you’re right.

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

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

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

Because Amanda carries a secret, a secret that a powerful corporation will do anything to possess. And Amanda’s mother, Carol, has committed her life to one simple goal—protecting her from the men who are hunting her. To accomplish that, Carol will do anything, pay any price.

Her life gets entangled with that of Lonnie Blake, a jazz musician. Blake is a major talent who has gone downhill ever since the murder of his beloved wife. He becomes fixated on Carol, and through her gets involved in something more dangerous than he ever dreamed. But it’s also his chance for a kind of salvation.

And there’s Howard Roth, an old college professor who has terminal lung cancer. He’s more concerned about changes in the western civilization curriculum than in his own demise. But when he meets a little girl who wants to hear his stories of ancient myths, he finds a new reason for living.

But the hunters are closing in. And they are absolutely ruthless. For the little girl, they plan a short life of suffering. For her protectors, they plan no life at all.

The good guys aren’t helpless, though.

In fact, they have resources the hunters can’t imagine.

I loved this book. It wasn’t only that it was smartly plotted and fast-paced, and that the characters were textured and sympathetic. There were also biblical and theological allusions everywhere, and layers of mythological symbolism like deep soil in which a fruitful story can flourish.

I should warn you about strong language, and sexual references and violence. There are no Christian characters in this book, and none of them act like Christians.

But there is Christianity here, and it’s everywhere.

Hunting Down Amanda gets my highest recommendation.