Category Archives: Reviews

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

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?”


“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.