Category Archives: Reviews

Decider, by Dick Francis

Several of you encouraged me to try Dick Francis’ mysteries when I posted following his recent death. I took your advice. Thank you. Decider was my first Francis, but it won’t be my last.

The hero of this novel is Lee Morris, an architect and builder who specializes in converting ruined historic buildings into habitable homes and usable places of business (which serves very well as a metaphor for his activities in the story).

He’s a strong, independent, honest man, but no plaster saint. He lusts (passively) over younger women, and his marriage, to a beautiful woman he once loved passionately, has now gone cold. He’s terrified his wife will leave him, though, because he loves the life he’s made, and the six (!) sons she’s given him.

When he’s approached by the managers of the Stratton Park racecourse, asking him to try to influence the board of directors, he’s not much inclined to help. He’s owned shares in the racecourse since his mother’s death, as she was once married to a member of the aristocratic Stratton family. He has little interest in horse racing, and none at all in a closer association with the Strattons, of whom his mother had traumatic memories. Still, for reasons of his own, he gets involved with the family dispute—some Strattons want to tear the course down and sell it, some want to rebuild and modernize the grandstand, and others want to change nothing. A few of them are rather nice, more of them are passive and ineffectual, and a couple are dangerous loons. Before long a spectator has been killed in a steeplechasing accident, and the grandstand has been blown up, nearly killing Lee and one of his sons. The Stratton family, like all aristocratic families in fiction, has dangerous secrets, and there are those who will go to any lengths to keep them covered up. In the end, Lee’s life and those of his sons depend on his ability to solve the mystery.

In the same way that Jane Austen’s novels are comedies of manners, this book is a mystery of character. Not merely the well-drawn, vivid characters author Francis sketches, but the idea of personal character and integrity. Lee Morris among the Strattons stands out by virtue of his decency, his sanity, and his human caring. A passage from a friend’s old diary, which he reads (with permission), gives a hint at the theme:

More rumors about Wilson Yarrow. He’s being allowed to complete his diploma! They’re saying someone else’s design was entered in his name for the Epsilon prize by mistake! Then old Hammond says a brilliant talent like that shouldn’t be extinguished for one little lapse! How’s that for giving the game away? Discussed it with Lee. He says choice comes from inside. If someone chooses to cheat once, they’ll do it again. What about consequences, I asked? He said Wilson Yarrow hadn’t considered consequences because he’d acted on a belief that he would get away with it….

I found Decider a most satisfying book, on several levels. Highly recommended.

The Long Way Home, by Andrew Klavan

At one point in The Long Way Home, the second volume (just released) of Andrew Klavan’s Young Adult series, The Homelanders, Charlie West, the hero, reminisces about talking with his school buddies about various geeky subjects, such as why the second part of any trilogy is never as good as Parts One and Three. I can’t say how The Long Way Home stacks up against the third book, coming this fall, but I’d say that it definitely lives up to the promise of Volume One, The Last Thing I Remember.

Nobody does literary chases better than Klavan, and fully the first quarter of this book is a hot chase, with Charlie fleeing both terrorists and the police on a motorcycle and on foot. Like the masterful chase that played such a major role in the author’s book True Crime (which became a Clint Eastwood movie), this one would strain credibility pretty tight, if the author gave you time to think about it. Fortunately, he doesn’t, and the young males who are its chief intended audience will eat it up like nachos. I can’t guarantee your nephew will like it, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell you it was boring. Continue reading The Long Way Home, by Andrew Klavan

The Devil’s Workshop, by Stephen J. Cannell

I’ve been enjoying television writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell’s novels recently, as you may have noticed. The Devil’s Workshop did not disappoint me in terms of story or character (I found the ending especially moving), but I’m glad I didn’t read it first, because it might have turned me off his work from the outset. Continue reading The Devil’s Workshop, by Stephen J. Cannell

The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly

For a few years, mystery novelist Michael Connelly’s books bounced back and forth between two recurring main characters—Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch, and Terry McCaleb, retired FBI profiler. Sometimes both at once. But Connelly killed McCaleb off a few books back, and since then he seems to be casting about for a new regular series, mixing and matching characters in various combinations.

The Scarecrow appears to be an attempt to re-launch the adventures of crime reporter Jack McEvoy and FBI profiler Rachel Walling. They teamed up (as investigators and lovers) in a much earlier novel, The Poet, and Rachel also featured in a recent Harry Bosch book. But Connelly here drops big hints that he’s carving out a future for them as a team.

I applaud this, but wish they could have been re-launched in a slightly better book. Not that The Scarecrow is bad. It moves right along, and builds tension nicely, but I wouldn’t list it among Connelly’s best works. Of course, that’s a pretty high bar. Continue reading The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

It would be pointless and overweening for me to “review” Sense and Sensibility, a book many of you probably read long ago, and one which has been well appreciated by far more discerning readers than me. So let’s just call this a reader’s report.

I read Pride and Prejudice quite a few years back, and promised myself I’d return to Jane Austen again. The delay of more than a decade is probably best explained by the fact that Austen is a fair amount of work. To take one example of words that have changed in meaning since the early 1800s, in Austen the word “address” means the way you present yourself when conversing with other people. The notation on the outside of a letter, telling the postman where to deliver it, is called the “direction.” I have a pretty good vocabulary and can work my way through, but I’ll admit I had to go over a few of the sentences more than once, not only because of word choice, but because the diction could get pretty convoluted.

But the book rewarded the work. There were a number of very funny lines, delivered in a charming dry manner, scattered among the verbiage. I’d share one or two, but I returned the book to the library this afternoon when I’d finished it.

What particularly delighted me in Sense and Sensibility was the sweet reason of the whole thing. In utter contradiction to what a guy expects in a love story written by a woman, the most sympathetic character is the most circumspect one; a woman whose feelings are so well concealed that I wasn’t sure until the end which male character to root for her to marry. The author, apparently, approves of this. Marriages should be well thought out, and entered into with a due consideration of prudential matters like social class, education, good taste and income. And love, of course, but don’t get carried away.

I totally approve.

Gorgeous Life, Hope in Cyndere’s Midnight

Cyndere's Midnight by Jeffrey OverstreetIf a reader wonders why the second in the Auralia’s Colors series is titled “Cyndere’s Midnight,” Overstreet wastes no time answering him. Heiress to the Bel Amican throne, Cyndere, is grieving the loss of her father and brother, thinking she would not throw herself into the sea that day, when she hears of the death of her husband, Deuneroi. In time, she goes to an outpost named Tilianpurth to mourn, but many around her don’t know how to help, and being royalty, she will not take difficult counsel easily.

Elsewhere, a band of four beastmen roam the wilderness, killing children and traders. The beastmen are monsters, men mixed with many other animal forms. They were cursed long ago by wicked strangers with unknown motives. One them, Jordam, has stumbled onto a supernatural, dragon-like monster called The Keeper, and in a way it has shocked him into new life. Jordam was physically and emotionally broken when he ran from The Keeper. Those wounds and Auralia’s artwork began to heal him.

The hope of redemption is a major theme in this adventure. Cyndere and Deuneroi hope to overcome the curse of the beastmen. The ale boy has earned the name Rescue by the people he has given his life to save. Auralia, though only a background character in this story, continues her influence on many people with her infectious love of life and endurance of her artwork.

But it isn’t as if Auralia is the one light of goodness in a dark world. Overstreet’s fantastic setting teems with life as if created by a wild and loving god. Colors found everywhere and the pure water of the deep well depicted on the cover give an enchanted life to those who absorb them. It’s part of the magical fiber threaded throughout. It’s one of many things I love about this series, which I believe deserves a place on your bookself.

Klavan on “Inglorious”

Today Andrew Klavan reports his response to the movie Inglorious Basterds. It would be a misstatement to say he wasn’t impressed. He was impressed, in the sense that repulsion is an impression.

But for Tarantino, no matter how talented, to address the issues inherent in the event as pure fodder for storytelling, to think his squirrelly man-on-man torture fantasies or his video geek understanding of life provide an adequate moral response to that level of history – I don’t know, man – it just felt to me like he was molding toy soldiers out of the ashes of the dead.  Even real Jews torturing real German soldiers would not provide a profound or even interesting resolution, but this stuff?

I can’t think offhand of any Tarantino movie I’ve watched, so I’m speculating when I wonder if the director would even be able to comprehend the words Klavan is using. As I understand it, Tarantino makes meta-movies, movies about movies, movies that mirror not the real world, but the kind of world you’d have come to know if you’d spent your life tied to a seat in a movie theater. I suppose that makes him kin to all the contemporary fantasy writers whose inspiration comes, not from myth or history, but from reading a lot of Tolkien and Rowling. The work may be brilliant in its way. It may be scintillating in its dialogue and groundbreaking in its technique, but it’s also hollow and weightless. It’s pure refined sugar—food without nutritional content.

I’m not saying there’s no place for such work. But it’s a different thing; a new thing in the world. It should be kept on a separate shelf from material that rises out of human experience and the wisdom our fathers.

Dull, Uninteresting, Disappointing, But I Won’t Say It’s Boring

The editor, writer, and I’m sure very delightful Jennifer Schuessler writes how book reviewers don’t label books boring very often.

Boring people can, paradoxically, prove interesting. As they prattle on, you step back mentally and start to catalog the irritating timbre of the offending voice, the reliance on cliché, the almost comic repetitiousness — in short, you begin constructing a story. But a boring book, especially a boring novel, is just boring. A library is an enormous repository of information, entertainment, the best that has been thought and said. It is also probably the densest concentration of potential boredom on earth.

The Culture Alliance

The Culture Alliance can be found here.

The Culture Alliance is based on the awareness that social reform and cultural renewal cannot be achieved through politics alone. Politics rules, but culture shapes politics. People’s basic assumptions come from cultural institutions—the education system, entertainment outlets, the art world, and media—currently dominated by those on the ideological Left. People who embrace classical liberal ideas have largely abdicated these institutions, thus those ideas cannot penetrate the public’s basic assumptions.

TCA has been founded to address this crucial need. Certainly, there are numerous fine organizations attempting to influence culture, but they are a separate and dispersed lot. Our objective is bring people who understand and appreciate the nation’s founding values into the cultural influence professions and create a grand narrative of cultural renewal, to make a case for the development of a Culture of Liberty in the United States today. The Culture Alliance is designed to build synergy and connection among groups and individuals, resulting in an impact, through cooperation and outreach, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

You can sign up for their Weekly Update, which includes what they call Fiction Friday. Rumor has it that a certain good-looking author of Viking fantasies will be featured this week.

Mini-review: Final Victim, Stephen J. Cannell

This will be a mini-review. I’ve reviewed one of Stephen J. Cannell’s novels already, and will doubtless review more (I’ve become a fan). Final Victim isn’t a world-changing novel, but I thought it very well crafted, and I just wanted to meditate on its virtues.

Cannell, as you likely know, is one of the most successful television producers in the industry. He’s also a prolific script writer (though, interestingly, he’s dyslexic). As a professional, he knows how to tell a story, seizing the viewer’s (or reader’s) attention with a wrestler’s grip, and never letting go. Continue reading Mini-review: Final Victim, Stephen J. Cannell

Flying Dutch, by Tom Holt

A couple of my friends are Tom Holt fiends, and they’ve contrived to place in my hands three of his best novels (I reviewed the other two here). Flying Dutch is another offering in his original idiom (to quote, appropriately, Sir Lancelot in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”), the legend-based farce. (He’s moved into actual historical fiction with his more recent novel Meadowlands, a story of Vikings in America which I haven’t read yet.)

As you may have guessed, this is the story of the Flying Dutchman. In legend, the Flying Dutchman is a sea captain who cursed God, and so was condemned to sail the seas forever, allowed to visit shore only once every seven years, until some condition (true love, in Wagner’s opera) is fulfilled.

Holt’s version is slightly different. The Dutchman, Cornelius Vanderdecker, is indeed immortal, along with his crew, and only gets shore leave once in seven years, but the reason is somewhat more prosaic (I won’t spoil it for you). His story gets entwined with that of Jane Doland, an English accountant who stumbles onto the financial complications that naturally result from owning a still-in-force, three century old insurance policy.

As she investigates, and eventually gets to know the Dutchman herself, the true story is gradually revealed. We encounter among other elements alchemy, an immortal cat, and the meddling of a television producer who has figured in other Holt novels.

Once again, I felt that Holt’s writing resembled nothing so much as P.G. Wodehouse’s. Holt isn’t as great a genius as The Master, but he can be very funny, and the plots are similar—a colorful cast of characters, many of them none too bright, meaning well and crossing one another in multiple boneheaded ways. There’s a hint of politics, with some mild criticism of the United States, and the conventional assumption that nuclear power is purely evil, but you’re not intended to take any of it seriously. The ending is satisfying, if off-center.

No offensive elements that I recall. Recommended, if you can find a copy (it’s out of print, sadly).

Rachel Motte reviews Introverts in the Church

Over at Evangelical Outpost, Rachel Motte reviews a book called Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. Looks fascinating, and (in my humble opinion) it’s long overdue.

I probably don’t need to mention that this is an issue of considerable interest to me (though to call myself an introvert is a gross understatement). I’ve heard of churches where every single member is required, as a condition of membership, to do house-to-house visitation. It seems to me that that kind of one-size-fits-all Christianity is entirely false to the true nature of the church. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:14-20, “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body…. But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.”

A church, as I understand it, isn’t meant to look at its membership and say, “Where can we find people to do this and this and this?” It shouldn’t try to shoehorn members into pre-defined roles. Instead, the leadership ought to understand that God has already given them the parts He intends, for the sort of ministry He has in mind. They should get to know their fellow members, and prayerfully try to set each one to work doing what God has gifted him (or her) to do.

That’s not to say that a certain amount of personal growth isn’t necessary, or that people can’t learn to do things they’ve never thought of before. But I think many churches are in the position of the man who looks at himself in a mirror, decides he’s too short, and resolutely sets about finding a way to be taller. God (one assumes) made him the height he is for a reason.

As I mention in my comment to Rachel’s review, I attended a church years back (in Florida) whose pastor was also an introvert. He preached extremely well, and many people came to listen to him. But he himself admitted that he was poor at the one-on-one aspects of the ministry. He was blessed with an understanding board of elders, who were willing to back him up by finding others, both assistant pastors and laity, to take much of that burden off him. That church was dynamic and growing, one of the most exciting churches I’ve ever been involved in.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is a brilliant writer, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a masterful, scintillating book. It’s lyrical as a poem, funny as a Shecky Greene monologue, and engaging as a crossword puzzle. It’s the kind of book that makes lesser authors (like me) want to throw their laptops through the window and take up careers in online marketing.

And yet I don’t recommend it.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a hard-boiled police novel, set in an alternate universe in which the state of Israel failed in 1948. The homeless Jews were (grudgingly) offered a home in the Alaska panhandle, around Sitka. There they have lived for almost 60 years (the book is set in 2007), but next year the mandate runs out, and the land is scheduled to be returned to the Tlinkit Indians (that’s pronounced “Clinkit,” by the way. You probably didn’t know that. I know it because I spent a summer in the Shumagin Islands, long ago).

It’s in this climate of insecurity and futility that police detective Meyer Landsman is taken to view the body of a gunshot victim in the seedy hotel where he’s lived since his divorce. The body turns out to be that of a once-famous young man, a chess prodigy, rabbi’s son and miracle worker who many thought would be the Messiah. Depressed, self-destructive, alcoholic, Det. Landsman sets about solving the mystery, sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by his half-Tlinkit partner and his ex-wife, who is now his boss.

Be warned—the rest of this review includes spoilers. Not spoilers about the plot, but about the meaning of the book. Of course, I may have misunderstood the meaning altogether, as ordinary chess players in this novel are baffled by the moves of the great masters. But I’ll tell you what I got out of it, for whatever that’s worth.

The lesson of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is that the real danger in the world comes from the devout, whatever their religion. Chabon has cleverly, in his alternate universe, created a world without Islamic terrorism (because we all know there’d be no Islamic terrorism if there were no Israel). But there is terrorism nevertheless, coming out of those famously vicious groups, orthodox Jews and Christian evangelicals.

This book, it appears to me, is the heart-cry of the assimilated, secular, self-hating Jew. When the Muslim terrorist says it’s all the Jews’ fault, Chabon (it would appear) hangs his head and says, “It’s true. But it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of those black hats. They’re just crazy.”

So the book saddened me. I should also mention that I read it to the end, though—something which I rarely do with books that offend me deeply. This one was just too good to put down, even when I thought it morally perverse and dangerous.

Cautions for language apply—not only obscenity and cursing, but actual blasphemy. Also a lot of jokes about Jews that no Gentile could get away with.

Read at your own risk.

The Tin Collectors, by Stephen J. Cannell

I picked up my first novel by Stephen J. Cannell with some misgivings. Cannell is, of course, one of television’s biggest producers and writers, responsible for some great shows (like The Rockford Files and The Commish) and some I consider less noteworthy (like The A Team, which strained credibility farther than I was willing to tolerate).

But being able to put together a successful TV show doesn’t necessarily qualify someone to craft a decent novel. There’s overlap in the two occupations, but big differences as well. And, like any literary snob, I suppose I looked down my nose at the TV connection.

But now I’m convinced. The Tin Collectors was a very good mystery—well written, hard to put down and graced with vivid, sympathetic characters.

Shane Scully is a Los Angeles police detective. As the story opens, he’s awakened from sleep by a call from Barbara Molar, a former girlfriend who is now married to his ex-partner, Ray. Ray has come home mad, she tells him, and he’s trying to kill her. Continue reading The Tin Collectors, by Stephen J. Cannell

Tuck, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Among evangelical Christian fantasy writers today, I consider Stephen Lawhead perhaps the best. When he hit his stride, with the Song of Albion trilogy and his Arthur books, I thought he might be poised to produce genuine classics.

And yet, like a swimmer poised on the edge of a pond, hesitating, afraid that the water’s too cold or too shallow, he never seems to make that perfect dive.

Tuck is another very good book from his pen, head and shoulders above the rank and file of CBA fiction.

But I can’t help feeling it could—and should—have been better.

Tuck finishes off Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy, his version of the Robin Hood story. In Lawhead’s imagining, Robin Hood was not a Yorkshireman, but a Welsh petty king, in the days of King William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror. When his father was murdered and their kingdom taken by Normans, young prince Bran fled and became Rhi Bran y Hud, King Raven, the fearful and magical forest outlaw.

In this book, Bran has once again been cheated by the Normans. He has saved the king from a conspiracy, but once again all he’s gotten in return is a slap in the face. He makes the decision then to drive the Normans out of his lands by main force, calling on his kinsman kings for help. But although victorious in the field, he is frustrated at every turn. His heroics go for naught, and those he looks to for help give him none, even after (in one case) he rescues a king from captivity.

And yet, where he looks for it least, forces are moving to help him.

The story is told from the point of view of Friar Tuck, a decent, brave and unassuming monk (if you like my Father Ailill, you’ll very probably like Tuck). Tuck serves as a check on Bran’s rashness, and a spiritual guide (though the spiritual leader of Robin’s band is actually Angharad, a Celtic wise woman, an element that doesn’t please me particularly). Tuck is an engaging narrator and an attractive character.

It should be noted that, in spite of Lawhead’s reputation as a fantasist, the King Raven books are essentially historical fiction. There’s a minor mystical element, but not enough for these books to be classified as fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I won’t say the ending is a disappointment. It’s satisfying and in keeping with story, and harmonious with Christian morality. It surprised me personally, because the true story of King William Rufus offers an obvious climax that, I would have thought, would be too good to resist. But resist it Lawhead did, which shows (I guess) a certain narrative self-control.

But the book didn’t soar. I was looking for a climax that carried me away, that sent a Tolkienesque shiver up my spine, and that wasn’t on offer here.

I can recommend the book without reservation, for teens and up.

But I can’t deny a small degree of disappointment.