Thursday, February 27, 2014

A tale of abduction and hope


By Isla Morley

Rating: 3 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars

16 years old Blythe Hallowell is abducted and imprisoned in a abandoned Kansas missile silo. Her captor is a survivalist who tells her that the world as we know it is ending and they will be the only survivors. Through first person narration. Blythe tells of her years of imprisonment which include the birth of her son and his upbringing in this hell of an existence. She tells her child her own fabricated story of why they are kept underground which, along with her captor's seemingly crazy raves, she is hopeful will satisfy her son and lessen his own misery. Eventually they escape and...

It is hard to evaluate Above by Isla Morley without bringing up the recent bestseller Room. Anyone who read Emma Donaghue's book will see the similarities in my short synopsis. Yet for the first half of Above, it is clear Isla Morley brings alive the drama and the terror of abduction in a much more empathic way than Donoghue. One of the reasons is that Morley writes of the experience in the first person narrative of Blythe rather than Donoghue's very difficult and ultimately unsuccessful first person narration by a 6 year old child. But Morley also does a nice turn in being able to start the narration in the eyes of a teenager yet lets the narration become more mature yet still a little mentally stunted in the teens as one would expect with such a long imprisonment and the lack of social interaction and normal development. It's a very nice trick and keep the reader interested in her plight. Her captor remains an enigma and, purposely I think, wanders precariously between caring and uncaring. He is clearly deranged and cruel but how and why remains to be seen...or in this case, read.

It's a harrowing read. Isla Morley catches the loneliness and hopelessness quite well. It can be a little shocking and is definitely uncomfortable as we read about the young Blythe giving birth and attempting to care for her child with virtually no help from anyone else and no medical aid. One of the most poignant parts of the novel involve her interaction with a child who is not her son. The book becomes a all-in-one sitting affair as it moves from her capture through her years of imprisonment to her escape.

And then...

Something happens. Without giving any spoilers, Blythe's escape changes the plot, the themes and pretty much everything including, unfortunately, the tense pace of the telling. Even with a few hints in the first half, the second half feels disjointed like it is a different book. The author stills write well and moves the plot along. But there is no longer the taut suspense or the single-minded intensity of Blythe's Plight. (Sorry. Couldn't resist the word play.) It is hard to say anything else without giving the surprise away but it was a little of a letdown. That is something both Capture and Room have in common; a second half that pales compared to the first half. Morley ends the book with a poignant wrap-up eliciting the heroine's views on the meaning of freedom. It beautifully ends the novel and brings both halves together but it took a long time for that to happen.

Nonetheless it is easy to recommend this book on the first half alone. I reread the ending to the first part and couldn't help thinking what a brilliant ending it would have been if Blythe simply stepped out into the unknown. One of my favorite cult films is John Sayles' Limbo in which a family stranded in the Alaskan wilderness wait for a plane to land knowing it will bring either the means to their escape or certain death. Then it ends abruptly. Sometimes uncertainty is beautiful. Yet even with a not so brilliant second half, Above remains a riveting read favored with a strong female protagonist and plenty of drama.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A modern masterpiece of psychological suspense.


By Roger Smith

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Capture, along with Dust Devils, have been released on February 20th, 2014 by the exceptional publishing company New Pulp Press. As both books will attest, South African author Roger Smith is an exciting writer of literary suspense and one that is well deserving of a larger audience. Dust Devils in a action-packed thriller with strong socio-political overtones while Capture is a slower paced but equally riveting descent into psychopathology and dysfunctional relationships. Both are highly recommended yet I found Capture to be slightly better due to its tight grasp of human nature and the high quality of psychological suspense.

Vernon Saul is a ex-police officer now rent-a-cop who sees a small child drowning on a private beach. For reasons that will slowly unravel, he does nothing until he knows it is too late then acts like a rescuing hero. While the child was drowning, the child's father, Nick Exley was smoking a joint with a friend while her mother Caroline Exley was having an

I love the way the novel develops. Vernon is the most interesting if also most revolting character in the book. We know little about him at first but, between his "friendship" with Nick and his more direct control of a young mother and her child, we are both fascinated and repulsed by him. Vernon carried an unhealthy need for power and control with more than a tinge of sadism involved. Nick and the young mother Dawn easily fall into his web and the results are harrowing in the edge-of-your-seat way a suspense novel should be.

The other characters are no less full dimensional. Nick seems to be a good person but weak and dependent. Caroline has a history of mental illness and a strong selfish streak. Dawn is an ex-junkie who works in a strip joint while trying to care for her child that she just received by from Child Welfare. In some ways, she seems to be the most understandable; a woman who childhood and mistakes have dug her deep in a hole yet having a love for her child that makes her want to redeem herself even if she is not sure how. None of the characters are truly likable but their weaknesses and problems are the kind that keeps a story believable and alive. There is a great supporting cast of corrupt cops, low-lifes and good intentioned acquaintances. The author knows how to bring alive even the most minor characters.

Roger Smith reminds me a lot of Patricia Highsmith. He can take not-so-likable people and place them in situations that causes them to struggle with the part of them that isn't too nice to look at. But unlike Highsmith, I think Roger Smith has a better grasp on the more noble corners of the mind that helps a person fight through their fears and temptations. Yes, Smith is cynical and dark but his novels are not hopeless. He has a good sense of the human dilemma that we all struggle through in more mundane ways. Even though we may not be dealing with infidelity, corruption and murder, Smith's themes will still feel uncomfortably familiar. This book gets my highest recommendation.
affair with her lover in the house. Vernon becomes friends with Nick and reveals a talent for manipulating the father's grief and guilt over the death. As Vernon's hold on Nick grows, the consequences become more severe and deadly.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A tale of revenge from South Africa.

 Dust Devils

By Roger Smith

Rating: 4 and 1/2 out of five stars

The violence piles up quickly in Roger Smith's action packed yet depressingly realistic thriller Dust Devils. Set in South Africa, it tells a story full of deception, corruption, murder, revenge and pretty much everything else you might find in a thriller. The author's strength is not just that he can handle all of this and keep you on the edge of your seat but that he can also transport you into the South African culture in a way that makes you feel you are there. At the end you may be glad you are not there.

South African journalist and pacifist Robert Dell is framed for the murder of his wife and son. At the same time, a powerful ex-warlord who is entrenched in the upper echelons of the Zulu nation is preparing for his marriage to his fourth wife, a young girl whose mother he killed. Dell is broken out of jail by his ex-CIA father who is the total opposite of everything Roger stands for. All of this comes together in a tale of revenge but one that is also a story of political corruption and cultural conflict.

Roger Smith has a talent for creating real life characters. They are not good or bad but just real. The Zulu villain is the only one that comes out as basically evil. The rest seems more like people caught up in a complex and corrupt environment. They have done terrible things but are trying to atone fr them in their very imperfect way. The story barrels through on all six cylinders and even when you think you know what is to happen, the author throws a little reality your way. Due to its foreign setting, it is hard for me to compare it to any other novel. Yet I feel there is some similarity to fellow thriller writer Jim Thompson's ability make the lurid and unthinkable believable. They also are similar in having a taut, frankly brutal style that manages to have its own poetic and literary charm. This is one of the most powerful thrillers I have read in a long time. Roger Smith is a writer who is deserving of a wider audience.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A tepid tale of New Orleans

Madam: A Novel of New Orleans

By Kari Lynn & Kellie Martin

Rating: 2 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars

In the 1890s and 1900s the city of New Orleans instituted boundaries for a place where there would be legalized prostitution and all the vices that go with it. Nicknamed Storyville, a reference to the man who proposed the idea, it became a notorious few blocks serving both Blacks and Whites as a prurient playground for lust. Its most remembered contribution to history was as a musical incubator where ragtime pianists and early jazz innovators like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong set the beginnings of Jazz. Contrary to the popular myth that Jazz began in Storyville, its real importance was how the musicians of Storyville spread the music throughout the country due to the large amount of sailors and other travelers who heard it in the whorehouses.

Madam is a fictional account loosely based on Mary Deubler who later became one of the leading madams under the name of Josie Arlington. It starts with Mary's low stature as a prostitute in a "crib", one of the lower settings of her trade, to the emergence of Storyville and her rapid ride to the role of Madam. In between we are given a few feuds and murders, a look at New Orleans style voodoo and other corrupt and decadent events. Authors Kari Lynn and Kellie Martin employ a number of historical characters in this novel including pianist Morton, photographer E. J. Bellocq and others. The authors attempt to evoke a feel for the era while telling a personal story of a woman at the bottom working her way up in the only way she was allowed.

But does it work? This is where I had some problems. The style of writing seems rather light and melodramatic for such a often bleak historical tale. I never really got a good grasp on who Mary was except that we should have sympathy for her plight and admire her gumption. None of the other characters really stood out and the historical "cameos" didn't really add much. Storyville never came alive for me partly because the novel ended at the first days of the district. The first task of a historical novel is make the era sound authentic and this never happened. Instead we get a soap operatic telling of a often told story that felt like the treatment for a TV mini-series.

Overall, despite my enthusiasm for that period of history and the important role it played in American music, the novel fell flat. It is a mildly entertaining novel that fails to give us anything new and inspiring. This book will appeal to those who like hard luck tales and "poor girl fight to the top" stories. But as an historical novel that gives you insight on the times and human nature, I just can't recommend it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A watered-down defense of Noah and the Great Flood

Noah: The Real Story

By Larry Stone

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Before I start this review, Let's put out my opinion out for all to see. Then you can decide if you want to read this review. I view the story of Noah's Ark as a myth and an analogy meant to help us understand the nature of man. The Bible is not a science book. The first part of the Old Testament, especially Genesis, isn't even good history. The first person in the bible that has any historical collaboration at all is King David. It is a collection of myths and wonderful stories that established the basis for three religions. But it is not a book of science. Frankly I'm not even sure if the original authors meant for these origin stories to be taken literally.

Are you still with me? Good.

Larry Stone's purpose in Noah: The Real Story is to explain how the story of Noah could have happened. He believes in a literal interpretation of the bible story. The author discusses most of the questions that skeptics have asked about the ark story. How did Noah get all the animals on the ark, how did he feed them, was the flood local or global, where did it land and how did the animals get to the ark or spread out, etc. Pretty much all the corners are covered. He focuses on Noah's tale specifically with only a fleeting look at the geological and geographical problems the flood presents. For a skeptic like me, I found it an interesting read if only because it presents most of the talking points that Creationists and literal interpreters of the bible will set forward. My guess is that for most readers, it will be preaching to the choir.

Yet there were very troubling issues for me, like "Why now?" This brief book (under 200 pages) feels like a cut and paste job. It feels loosely structured and a bit sloppy, like when it throws in an interview by a Great Flood expert. There is quite a bit of talk about a developing Noah's Ark amusement ark that sounds like a commercial. The overall feel is a quick, not well thought out book that is hastily done. The fact that it was published when the commercial film Noah is about to be in the theaters pretty much confirms my position. My suspicion is it was hurried for publication specifically to ride on the film's coattail.

That is uncomfortable enough, but Stones' explanation for many things just aren't very good. Many are the usual creationist explanations. For instance he explains the number of animals referred to as "kind" in the Bible as being genus rather then species. That, according to the author, would bring the amount of animals from millions to a conservative 16,000. He seems to think the ark could have been able to hold that many animals. I doubt most others would agree with him. Then there is the questions about feeding, waste disposal, and keeping the predator from eating all those cute little vegetarians for over one year. Almost all of Stone's answer are pure speculation derived from the sparseness of details found in the Bible. Any explanation, scientific or historical, that contradicts the Bible is simply ignored.

One interesting aspect is that the author will actually say to questions, like the waste disposal problem, "We don't know". I find that a bit refreshing. Yet it is a totally different type of "I don't know" from the one that scientists will say. When a scientist says I don't know he means "I don't know but some day with the right discoveries and evidence we might." Stone's I don know is "I don't know but it means God took care of it". I'm not implying this. the author actually states "It means God took care of it."

It very important that I state that I am not reviewing this poorly because I disagree with it. I enjoy reading topics I have different views of, especially religious explanations of events, when they are well done. I even find Ken Ham's website Answers in Genesis quite entertaining and once in a while, like what Bill Nye said to Ham in their debate, "I learned something". I gave this book a poor review because I did not learn anything. It does not do a good job in expressing its viewpoint and it is hastily, even sloppily, written. As a book of Christian Apologetics or a Creationist perspective. you can do a whole lot better.

There were two areas I found informative. Stone gives a nice rundown of the attempts to find Noah's Ark which, according to legend, landed on Mount Arafat...but maybe not. He is also quick to note those claims that have been correctly deemed hoaxes. I also enjoyed his brief history of how Hollywood has treated the story of Noah although he left out my two favorites: John Huston's performance as Noah in The Bible and Disney's delightful excerpt from Fantasia 2000 about Noah's Ark as seen through the eyes of Donald Duck and set to Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance".

But that is not enough to save this book. This book easily gets my one star rating which can be translated to "Run Away! Run away!".

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Action packed, logically thin.


By Patrick Lee

 Rating: 2 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars

Runner is a high voltage thriller with a dash of science fiction. If you like your suspense thrillers exploding with action from the first page then you will really love this novel. Runner starts in a full-out gallop when ex-special forces Sam Dryden is interrupted on a night jog by a desperate girl who claims someone is trying to kill her. It is quickly confirmed that people are trying to kill her..and now Sam...and the action continues.

I on the other hand want more than chases, gun battles and far-fetched conspiracy plots. I like heroes who have some dimension and plot twists that do not hang on a thread of spider silk. I found Runner a little flimsy in those categories. I did find Patrick Lee to be a very good writer of this type of thriller even if the plot was a bit too familiar to anyone who have read Stephen King's Firestarter. I also liked how the author kept us guessing about the true nature of the girl's powers and about her own agenda. However, the plot seems a bit too formulaic and predictable in where the twists and turns were going.

So I enjoyed this book marginally as long as I could tolerate a little eye-rolling at some the more unbelievable turns. My best claim for this novel is that it would make a great action movie of the Die Hard variety. Let's get Renny Harlin or Michael Bay to direct it. They're pretty good with overblown scenes and under-whelming logic as long as you don't have to think too much.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A great installment to a long running mystery series.


By Jonathan Kellerman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A few words about book series. I'm skeptical about them. It's not that there's anything wrong with them. It's just that I prefer to visit new worlds and experiences when I read. But I understand the attraction to series. Some readers like to enter an escape world that they are familiar with. They like to see their constant hero/companion struggle and win over and over again. There's a certain amount of pleasure and security in that. I totally understand. I remember how I became obsessed with the James Bond books when I was in Junior High, hiding Goldfinger under my mattress less my conservative parents spotted the nude gold girl on the cover. My mother did find it and showed my father. I thought I was in trouble but the father read it and became a James Bond fan too. But unfortunately many series become a bit redundant like the reader is writing only to keep the audience and only to cash the checks. In my humble opinion, few book series heroes continue to grab me over and over again. I hate to say it but it's easy to get lazy...


Excuse me. I fell asleep. Where was I? oh yes...

Which brings us to Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware series. Killer is the 29th book of the series. That bodes well for his pension. Book series writers do get a pension, don't they?. But it is the first Delaware novel I've read. I now plan to go to book one and start from scratch because this novel really grabbed me in the same way James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Hap and Leonard, and Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt and Hank Thompson did. It's probably not all surprising since the main character is a psychologist who works cases from the court and I am a retired clinical social worker who did my share of court cases. But Killer felt fresh. I didn't feel like I was reading a retread or missing a lot like I did with the currently released White Fire of Preston & Child's Pendergrast series. Delaware felt like the kind of constantly returning hero I could hitch a ride with.

So here's the scoop. Alex Delaware occasionally does evaluations for child custody cases. He kind of hates them but sees the need for it. At this point, I want to step into my day job for a minute and say I don't blame him. His remarks about child custody cases are brutally honest and dead on. His current case looks to be fairly cut and dry until the losing side places a hit on him. Then a body shows up. It's not his but if you read plenty of mysteries. I'm sure you can guess whose it is.

The body count piles up while Delaware and his homicide detective friend attempts to uncover the killer. There's an obvious choice and some not so obvious choices. All of this unfolds in a very entertaining style with loads of realistic grit. What I really like is the character of Delaware. He is sharp and observant to the psychological makeup of the people he deals with. This novel feels more like a psychological thriller than most mystery novels with continuing characters. His therapy session scenes, which are my favorite parts of the novel, are real and appropriate to the profession.That may be a small thing to you but I cannot tell you how often writers get it wrong. If I read one more novel about a therapist who falls in love with his client I am going to use that book for kitty litter. Suffice to say that doesn't happen here. The author is too smart and too good to do that. Kellerman writes dynamite dialog and knows how to tease the reader. That's pretty much essential in mystery series. Over all Killer is what the mystery reader wants in a novel.

So to rehash. I am skeptical about mystery series. Series can disappoint and drag. Kellerman's 29th installment about Alex Delaware doesn't disappoint or drag. Good sign. Fresh. Exciting. It has a beat and I can dance to it. I'm going to get the rest starting with number one and will hide them under my mattress for old times' sake.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A horror novel that hits close to home

Dream of the Serpent

By Alan Ryker

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Quite a few years ago, My wife and I were in a major car accident. My car was totaled but miraculously everyone in the accident had no more than a few minor cuts and bruises. I remember having to squeeze myself out of the car wondering how so much twisted metal managed to miss hitting both of us. But since then I have been very alert to the fact that our lives can change instantly in a few seconds or be forever altered by a split second decision. It is something I knew intellectually before. But now it has a deeper more intuitive meaning and the knowledge has forever heighten my appreciation of what I have and for the fragility of life.

Dream of the Serpent by Alan Ryker is about that. Cody Miller is a successful young man who is in a horrible fire brought on by a second of forgetfulness as he texts his girl friend. For the next third of the novel and in first person narrative, we are witnesses to the devastating experiences of a burn victim. Each moment and action is described in torturous detail. It is not something that everyone will be able to read. Just as devastating are the descriptions of Cody's thoughts and emotions as he endlessly relive that one moment and thinks about what could have been "if". He is immersed in his own pain but also privy to the emotional pain of others around him. Cody's girlfriend lives with the thought that she may have been at least partly responsible and those feelings reignite her past drug addiction.

As you can see, this is pretty heavy stuff. If this was all, Dream of the Serpent would still be a very powerful book especially with Ryker's ability to bring alive the emotions and feelings of the characters. Yet this is a novel of the supernatural even though the story proceeds halfway through without any trace of the other-worldly. Cory is having dreams of what his life would be like if the accident did not happen. Soon he gets a phone call from his girl friend. "I think I found a way to fix everything."

At this point, things change. I won't say how but I sure it is the sort of the thing accident of us at some point in life have dreamed about. The author examines, in the unpredictable style of horror fantasy, the consequences of altering our life and the devastation our actions have on others. While the first half of the novel is steeped in the physical horrors of the natural world, the second half explores, in a just as horrific but more psychological way, the horror of our actions and the effect of them on the ones we love.

This is a superior horror novel; one that should be remembered for its power and relevance. I found myself looking back on my own experience while reading it and thinking about how different things could have been if I reacted a second later or that chunk of metal moved only one foot closer to me. I also wondered that if we could change something terrible in the past, would the sacrifice be worth it. There is always a sacrifice, in real life as well as fiction. It's that type of novel. The kind that makes you a little uncomfortable. The kind that makes you look at your own choices. And the kind that makes you glad you read it despite the horrific descriptions and uncomfortable feelings it evokes.

My highest recommendation.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

YA for the real world

The Tyrant's Daughter

By J. C. Carleson

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When The Tyrant's Daughter was offered to me for review, I was not aware that it was from Random House's Children's Books division, aka a Young Adult novel. If I have known this, I probably wouldn't have accepted it as I rarely review YA books. I glad I did read it because, YA or not, it may be a contender for best fiction in 2014.

Laila is a fifteen year old girl and the daughter of a controversial ruler of a foreign country. Her father is killed in a coup by her more traditional and military-minded uncle leaving Laila, her mother, and her six year old brother, who she describes in the first sentence of the book as "The king of nowhere" in peril. Having escaped with her family and now living in America, she not only has to adjust to a very different lifestyle but is confused by her mother's seemingly indifference to their decline from opulence and importance to rather sparse surroundings as exiles. She is suspicious of the gatherings of expatriates, who her mother would have not associated with in the past, and particularly of a lone American man who she suspects is with the CIA. She is also discovering through her new friends and the much more open media, that her father may have not been who she thought he was.

In telling Laila's story, and in immersing the reader into the thoughts of this smart but sometimes innocent girl, J. C. Carleson makes some wise moves. While there is enough information to clearly place Laila's country in the Mid-East and presumably a Muslim nation, the author never makes it specific. This allows the reader to be less judgmental and accept Laila as she is; a young girl caught in a myriad of cultural and political conflicts. Yet the events that take place in the novel seem all too real to anyone with even a slight knowledge of world events. Carleson has managed to latch on to just the right amount of empathy without the baggage that often accompanies this type of cross-cultural tale. Laila is just a young teenager trying to grow up, but also a victim in a nasty power game and maybe even a unwilling player of the same repressive regime. Her conflicts and dilemmas seem real especially since she essentially comes across as a typical teenager despite how others see her. She is also smart and appropriately cynical, especially when she asks herself things like, "Why am I the only one seems to feel luck like a sunburn?" How she survives her plight is what makes this story mesmerizing. I won't give away anything about the end except to say that it is as emotionally perfect and powerful as endings can be.

While The Tyrant's Daughter is classified as YA, it should be noted that the author does not water down anything. While respecting her audience, she does present some events that can be disturbing to the very young. For the teenage audience that I feel this book is aimed at, it is exactly the right amount of reality that they would respect. But I do not see this as purely a YA novel. I think adults will love and admire it too. Beside, in a YA world where fantasy and science fiction dominates the charts, it is nice to see a quality work that deals with the real world.