Category Archives: Fiction

My top 5: Mysteries and thrillers

Late posting tonight. I had to usher for Advent services.

Dale requested in Comments my list of the best mysteries/thrillers written in the past twenty years.

I’m reluctant to produce such a list, for a couple reasons.

One, my knowledge of the field is highly limited. I read authors I like and trust, and there are dozens (at least) I’ve never even tried. The mystery field in particular is dominated by female writers, many of whom have feminist agendas, and I just don’t cruise that side of the street. And there are a number of very popular writers whom I avoid either because I simply haven’t tried them yet, or I’ve tried one book and didn’t care to read any more. There’s a good chance there are several out there whom, once I discover them, I’ll be tugging at your (metaphorical) sleeve and boring you about. It’s also possible that an author I’ve weighed and found wanting in the past may surprise me with his/her growth and win me over (this has already happened with Dean Koontz).

But having said that, I’ll list my favorite books of the last twenty years. They’re all from two authors whom I consider preeminent in the field. They are books that not only entertain, but educate the heart, making the reader want to live more generously and courageously. Continue reading My top 5: Mysteries and thrillers

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

The Day the Silent Planet Stood Still

Back in college, I took an interterm course that appeared to be an easy grade. It simply required the students to read a certain number of books chosen from a list of famous novels, and to participate in one discussion on each of them.

I found it more difficult than I expected, mainly because it required me to read rather faster than I generally do (though I’m a fairly fast reader), and because some of the books I chose (like The Brothers Karamazov) were pretty long.

But I recall in particular one book I read that summer. It was Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. I remember it in part because I found it unusually repellent. It’s a book (in case you haven’t read it, which a lot of people haven’t nowadays, and I’m OK with that) by an intellectual who had the misfortune to grow up in a small Minnesota town (Sauk Centre), and who just had to write this book in order to tell the world how soul-destroying life in such a town was (though why we should be interested in the opinion of an author whose soul has been destroyed is not explained). The book itself centers on a young woman from Minneapolis who marries a man from the town of “Gopher Prairie,” and how she struggles to maintain her intellectual and artistic life in its barren environment. I learned after I’d read the book that it’s supposed to be humorous, and I’m glad someone told me, because I’d have never guessed it.

The one thing I recall most clearly about Main Street was a realization I came to while reading it. I couldn’t understand why this book was supposed to be so important, until I realized that it was a pioneering work. Up until then, American literature had generally celebrated the small town as the source of American strength, goodness and wisdom. Lewis was the first writer to convince Americans that small towns were places where they actually didn’t want to live, spiritual swamps inhabited almost exclusively by rubes, yokels and bigots. It’s hard to get the original impact of Main Street today, because Lewis’ revolutionary manifesto has become our popular prejudice. Continue reading The Day the Silent Planet Stood Still

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

Exposition lesson, Part 2

Last night I set up a scene from an imaginary novel, in which a police detective says too much to his superior officer (a guy he doesn’t get along with). The imaginary author (who would appear to be me. I’m not sure how that works) is trying to give us some background on the tragic roots of our hero’s (his name is Slade) obsession with an unsolved child murder. But the method he chooses—having Slade unburden his heart to a guy he doesn’t even like (and certainly doesn’t trust), rings false for any reader with a minimal amount of human experience.

So how could the author convey this information to the reader more naturally? Continue reading Exposition lesson, Part 2

Exposition lesson, Part 1

I filled up my car today for less than twenty bucks. (It should be noted that my car has a pretty small gas tank.) What a good feeling that was! That’s a genuine economic stimulus payment. I can’t help thinking that people all over this country are enjoying the feeling of extra weight left in their wallets, and are getting ready to do some spending they’ve been putting off.

I’m probably wrong, but it feels that way to me.

I’m reading another Dean Koontz novel
(I’ve pretty much read all his books now). It’s one of his re-issued early works and, typically, shows numerous marks of artistic immaturity. Particularly notable are the lame jokes (his jokes tend to be a little lame even nowadays, but he’s made great progress).

But what really caught my attention was his problem with exposition, a problem I’ve discussed before in reference to other early efforts. I’m not going to excerpt any of his scenes here, but I’ll compose a Koontz-like chunk of dialogue. Continue reading Exposition lesson, Part 1

The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter

It’s late in the day, but to all you veterans, thank you for your service. Slackers like me owe you big.

The Second Saladin, it appears to me, marks a milepost on author Stephen Hunter’s journey toward finding his niche as a novelist. Some of the elements that will make his Bob/Earl Swagger books so compelling are already there, but he hasn’t yet shaken off a tendency to demonstrate his realism through grim pessimism.

Nevertheless, I found it a compelling book. Though published in 1982 and set in that same time period, the centrality of Kurdistan to the plot makes the whole business remarkably relevant more than two decades later. Continue reading The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter


Tonight, a snippet from a scene I’ve had in my mind for a long time. It’s basically my memory of a conversation I listened to while working in a shipping and mailing room, years ago. Someday I may work it into a book, if I find a place where it will be of some use.

“People think I don’t know nothin’, but I know a few things,” said Ray as he used the slide to cut a length of corrugated cardboard from a roll at the left of his workbench. He quickly cut the length into short sections, then piled them on top of one another to fill space at the top of the box he was packing. His motions were sure and practiced, though his hands trembled a little.

“They didn’t believe you?” asked Bill, a thinner, younger man. Bill was working at the bench behind Ray, unfolding a fresh carton as he reached for the sealing tape.

“They said it was nothin’. They wouldn’t listen to me. These young snots, they think I’m all old war stories, don’t know what’s goin’ on around me. So what if I like to have a few drinks now and then, fall down sometimes? It don’t mean I’m ignorant.”

“That’s sure enough,” said Bill.

“The apartment was right next to mine. I noticed it before anybody else, but pretty soon everybody could smell it. I went to the manager and told him. He said, no, you’re wrong. He said the guy’d gone on vacation, left some garbage in there.”

“Huh,” said Bill.

Their workbenches were gray. The box conveyer to the left of the benches was gray, too. So were the steel supply shelves, and some genius from the Facilities Office had recently brought in painters to give the walls two tones of fresh gray.

“I told him, I said, ‘I was in the war. I’ve smelled dead bodies before. You listen to me. There’s a dead body in there.’”

The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

I feel the need to say something political on this last evening before the election.

But I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been said. And since I know for a fact that our readers are a smart, erudite segment of the population, I’m pretty sure you’ve already made up your own minds.

So I’ll do a book review. It must be days since I’ve reviewed a Dean Koontz novel.

Koontz’ latest in paperback is The Darkest Evening of the Year. On a purely technical level I can make a lot of criticisms.

Since the death of his beloved Golden Retriever, Trixie, Koontz seems to be writing out his grief, with occasionally uneven results. The dogs in his books have gotten wiser and more mystical. In this book he cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of transcendence completely, coming close to caninolatry (if there is such a word. Of course there is! I just made it up!). That “Dog is God spelled backwards” palindrome that so impressed Annie Hall is almost (almost) at work here. Continue reading The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

A.M.Smith Novel Online in Twenty Weeks

Alexander McCall Smith is delivering a novel through The Telegraph Online, day by day in twenty weeks. Corduroy Mansions is on chapter 33 today, and you can read it at The Telegraph site or get them in your email or rss feed. It begins “in the bathroom.

Passing off, thought William. Spanish sparkling wine – filthy stuff, he thought, filthy – passed itself off as champagne. Japanese whisky – Glen Yakomoto! – was served as Scotch. Inferior hard cheese – from Mafia-run factories in Catania – was sold to the unsuspecting as Parmesan. Lots of things were passed off in one way or another, and now, as he stood before the bathroom mirror, he wondered if he could be passed off too.