Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Waking Lazarus, by T. L. Hines

First of all, thanks to Phil for sending me this book.

Waking Lazarus is the story of a man who calls himself Ron Gress, a school janitor in the town of Red Lodge, Montana. He lives alone, and is socially isolated, partly by his own choice (although, as we learn later, he has a young son in town, living with his mother, with whom Ron had a one-night stand a few years ago) and partly by plain fear.

His isolation is mostly a result of the fact that he is not, in fact, Ron Gress. His real name is Jude Allman, and he used to be famous. He used to be known as The Boy Who Died Three Times. Three times he fell victim to fatal accidents, and three times he came back to life, to the confusion of doctors. He was on television and radio, and he wrote a book. The trouble was, everything he told the world about what he’d learned “on the other side” was a lie. He got sick of the lying, and so disappeared and took on a new identity.

But he can’t hide forever. There’s a mysterious woman in town who recognizes him and knows too much about his past. And there’s a serial killer loose, a predator of children. Jude will soon find himself forced to choose between his anonymity and his son’s life. In order to unmask the murderer Jude will have to face up to his own past, and his own grudge against God.

As someone who suffers from a shyness disorder myself, I was extremely impressed by the author’s portrayal of what it’s like to live with that kind of social phobia. As a matter of fact, I found the book somewhat uncomfortable at times and had to put it down for a while. I don’t think normal people will have the same difficulty.

I believe that any reader familiar with Dean Koontz will realize almost immediately that author T. L. Hines is plowing much the same ground here. I think he does it creditably. His characters and dialogue are very good. The plotting could be stronger, and there are some holes. But if you like the sort of thing Dean Koontz does, but would prefer something without obscene language, something with less violence on stage, T. L. Hines will probably please you very much. He pleased me, and I’m glad I have a second book of his to read, thanks again to Phil.

Died He For Me, by Mark A. Marinella, MD, FACP

Full disclosure: This book is published by my own new publisher, Nordskog Publishing, Incorporated. I am prejudiced in favor of Nordskog’s success.

The experience of reading Died He For Me, by Mark A. Marinella, MD, FACP, is not unlike that of watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and it covers much of the same material.

For Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the central matters of the Faith. We’ve all seen images of the event, portrayed in various degrees of historical authenticity. For the Christian who wants to understand more clearly what the process of crucifixion entailed, Died He For Me is an excellent guide.

It’s a harrowing book. I’ve done some reading on the subject, and had a fair grasp of the essentials. Even so, the sheer brutality overwhelmed me. Simply on the basis of Dr. Marinella’s explanation of the process of preliminary scourging, along with its probable physical consequences, it’s hard to imagine how anybody managed to survive more than a few hours afterwards. Yet, he informs us, many victims lasted three or four days on crosses.

Marinella blends historical research on Roman crucifixion practices, along with contemporary reports, with his own physician’s knowledge of trauma and the body’s responses to it. This necessarily involves some speculation, but Marinella clearly labels his personal judgments as such.

My mental picture of the crucifixion needs revision. The picture is not only one of pain at its extreme, but of severe physical trauma and shock. Crucified people should be imagined as sweating, shivering, convulsing and vomiting blood as they died by inches.

Marinella does not subscribe to the theory, often referenced by preachers, that Christ “died of a broken heart” (myocardial rupture). That kind of death is possible, he admits, but generally takes a longer period of time than the six hours that Jesus suffered. He thinks Jesus probably died of multiple causes.

For the Christian, it must be said (though it’s one of the divine mysteries) that the physical horrors of crucifixion were the least of Christ’s sufferings. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of people (it’s impossible to comprehend) died on crosses, most of them suffering longer in temporal terms than He did. We believe that Christ bore the blast of God’s anger itself, setting His body like a shield between us and the fire of Hell. Such suffering cannot be analyzed or described, and so the full story of Christ’s Passion must remain forever incomplete.

But what we can know is enough to sober our minds and turn us to humility and repentance.

I recommend Died He For Me for pastors, and for adults who are looking for a serious, scientific, non-sensationalist examination of the crucifixion of Christ.

Update: I should have made a connection to the recent (and generally ignored) development of Hamas bringing back the penalty of crucifixion in its enlightened, peace-loving domain.

Tip: The Thinklings.

A couple reviews

I read a couple books over the holiday, but I don’t think they’re really worth separate reviews. I’ll take a few superficial swipes and move along.

Strangers by Dean Koontz appears to me to be a transitional work for the author. First published in 1986, it shows considerable improvement in character development and dialogue from much of his other early work.

It follows the adventures of a group of people, scattered all over the country, who begin to have similar anxiety symptoms (but not identical symptoms—there are interesting variations and contradictions). Most of them are suffering nightmares. Some of them develop obsessions. The moon, in particular, becomes the focus of more than one. Continue reading A couple reviews

Frankenstein: Prodigal Son and City of Night, by Dean Koontz, Kevin J. Anderson and Ed Gorman

A few years back, as Dean Koontz explains in an introduction to the first book of this series, Frankenstein: Prodigal Son, he made a deal with the USA Network to write a contemporary television series based on the characters of the old Frankenstein book. One assumes that the network execs either misunderstood his script, or understood it all too well, since both parties agreed to go their own ways in the end, each party producing a Frankenstein after their own heart.

The conceit in this series of books is that, although Mary Shelley’s famous novel is based on fact, she got the ending wrong. The monster did not kill Dr. Frankenstein, nor did he die himself. Instead, endowed with extremely long life through being struck by lightning during his creation, he has lived on, mostly in hiding because of a facial injury, gradually learning to control his rage. At the start of Prodigal Son he is residing in a Tibetan monastery. He does not yet know that Dr. Frankenstein has survived the last two centuries as well, his life extended through a series of self-designed surgeries. When he does learn this, the monster leaves the monastery and travels to New Orleans, where Dr. Frankenstein now lives the life of a biotech millionaire and VIP, under a new name. Continue reading Frankenstein: Prodigal Son and City of Night, by Dean Koontz, Kevin J. Anderson and Ed Gorman