Category Archives: Reviews

Winter Haven, by Athol Dickson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cure, by Athol Dickson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phantom Prey, by John Sandford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Woods, by Harlan Coben

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

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

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

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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

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

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

Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Porkchoppers, by Ross Thomas

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

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

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

He’s largely a sympathetic character.

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

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

But it’s not as simple as that.

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

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

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

Hold Tight, by Harlan Coben

Hold Tight is a mystery. It’s also a thriller and a family drama. It’s not at all like the kind of mystery/thriller I usually read, but it grabbed me almost painfully.

I read and reviewed one Coben novel a while back, and felt ambivalent about it. I decided to try another because I’d read an interesting thing about Coben. He’s made it a point to write his most recent books without using major obscenities. No “f” words. No “sh” words. I can’t find anything that says he has any particular religious devotion; he just seems to be concerned about raising the level of discourse. Which earned my respect, and prompted me to give him another try.



Hold Tight
is about families in a suburban community—how they love each other and irritate each other, and (most importantly) mistrust each other and keep secrets. Continue reading Hold Tight, by Harlan Coben

Berlin Noir, by Philip Kerr

I said a while back that Andrew Klavan had brought the hard-boiled detective novel to a new level in his Bishop/Weiss trilogy, by turning the mystery story into an epic of redemption (or words to that effect).

I have similar praise for Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther mysteries. But Kerr transposes the melody to a minor key. His sad, gritty stories achieve the level of cosmic tragedy.

As you may remember from my review of A Quiet Flame, Bernie Gunther is a private investigator (who could have been separated at birth from Philip Marlowe) in Berlin during the 1930s. He constantly attempts to do the same sort of things Marlowe does, but history keeps interfering. Berlin Noir is a one-volume compilation of the first three stories about him. Continue reading Berlin Noir, by Philip Kerr

My Life Without God, by William J. Murray

I picked up William J. Murray’s autobiography, My Life Without God, largely because I figured he’d be a kindred soul. Both of us were raised in dysfunctional families dominated by abusive mothers. I did find much to identify with, but all in all I don’t think I’d have traded places with him.

Bill Murray holds a permanent place in American history as the boy whose mother, Madalyn Murray (later O’Hair), sued the city of Baltimore on his behalf, to spare him the emotional suffering of being forced to pray in school. The case ended up in the Supreme Court, and a novel and paradigm-shifting precedent resulted.

She was, apparently, less concerned about his emotional suffering in other areas of life. Continue reading My Life Without God, by William J. Murray

The Outside Man, by Richard North Patterson

What is it with Southern writers? I’m certain there must be a lot of inkslingers living in trailer parks south of Mason Dixon, banging out slop on second-hand PCs (as I myself did at one time), but again and again you come on these southern authors who display the same kind of technical brilliance combined with lyrical grace, like one antebellum mansion after another along a road in an exclusive neighborhood. Maybe the very experience of speaking with a drawl gives a person time to strategize word choice, while we northerners with our nasal, jackhammer diction just stutter our prose out like salt from a highway department ice control truck.

In any case, Richard North Patterson, whose novels I’ve never tried before, is a darn good wordsmith. The Outside Man is an older novel of his (1981), so I wouldn’t be surprised if the liberal ideas this book suggests have metastasized into something that would give me a stroke if I read a more recent example, but for now I’m highly inclined to try him again.

The Outside Man is narrated by the main character, Adam Shaw, a northerner and a lapsed Catholic who married a rich southern girl and moved to Birmingham, Alabama to join her father’s law firm. He and his father-in-law don’t get along, and he generally feels like an outsider in Birmingham society.

As the book begins he is running an errand for the firm, delivering a document to Lydia Cantwell, the wife of one of their most important clients. Finding the door unlocked, he goes inside and finds her strangled to death. Police suspicion immediately falls on Henry, her husband. Adam is determined to prove him innocent—not only because he’s a client, but because he’s one of the few local people Adam has found to be a true friend.

You’ll have already guessed the general tone of what follows. The veneer of southern aristocratic respectability is found to conceal volcanic passions, poisonous hatreds and hypocrisy. In fact it’s largely a question of discovering which passions, hatreds and hypocrisies are actually relevant, and which don’t apply to the case.

But it’s very well done. Recommended, with the usual cautions for language and adult subject matter.

Devil’s Garden, by Ace Atkins

As many of you may know, pioneering hardboiled detective writer Dashiell Hammet, creator of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, paid his dues as a real-life detective, an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Ace Atkins, author of Devil’s Garden, discovered a fascinating fact about Hammet’s detective career—that he actually worked for the defense in one of the big court cases of the 1920s—the trial of movie comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for manslaughter.

(Even though not well known today, Arbuckle was a superstar in his time. He rivaled Chaplin and Keaton as the most popular silent comedian. That all ended when a young actress died during a party he hosted in San Francisco in 1921. Lurid rumors about her death spread [and were printed in newspapers], with the result that, though he was eventually acquitted, Arbuckle’s movie career died.)

This novel employs multiple viewpoints, but we see the action mainly through Hammet’s and Arbuckle’s eyes. Their vantage points are very different. Hammet is a poor man, suffering with tuberculosis and alcoholism, barely managing to support a wife and baby. Yet he has a future. Arbuckle lives like a king, eating at the best restaurants and riding around in a car with a built-in commode. But his good times are nearly done. Continue reading Devil’s Garden, by Ace Atkins

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