Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Review of Leah Devlin’s Ægir’s Curse….

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

(Leah Devlin, Ægir’s Curse, Penmore Press, 2013, 978-1-942756-44-6)

This archaeological thriller was a special treat.  First, there is an interesting cast of characters, many flawed, and relationships among them representing a microcosm of the diversity in American society.  The author uses internal dialogue to allow the reader to get inside the characters’ minds; we understand why they’re flawed.  The real villain here is Ægir’s curse, where Ægir is the Vikings’s sea god—if you discount the personal demons bedeviling the main protagonist.  The nominal villain and a few other characters I liked are dispatched with early as the body number increases.  There’s no mystery here, only anticipation as this thriller moves inexorably to its end.

Lindsey, that main protagonist, is a bit too flawed, fighting her self-destructive quirks while trying to hold together a blended family.  As a Nobel Prize winner, I suppose she’s an example of the fine line between genius and insanity.  She’s interesting, but I found her collaborator Sara more interesting and normal within today’s wide social spectrum.  In all of this, the author never forgets the children, who often don’t understand and are innocent victims of adults’ personal turmoil.

Some character flaws lead to or are caused by lots of philandering going on in a tightly knit research environment.  Lindsey and her adopted daughter’s history of substance abuse aside, it’s mostly men doing the philandering in this tale.  I guess times have changed.  I never saw this much action in a research environment before!  I said it’s a microcosm, but it’s like condensed soup—some water must be added, and that’s where Ægir steps in.  The curse of that Norse god of the sea—at least the sea around our national treasure, Cape Cod—isn’t only the true villain, he’s essential to this tale.  Or, maybe it’s his daughters stirring up all the trouble?


Review of Rebecca Marks’s On the Rocks…

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

(Rebecca Marks, On the Rocks, Black Opal Books, ISBN 987-1-626943-79-7)

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new and interesting author.  I’m not sure it’s wise to announce a series with the first book in the series—it’s a wee bit like signing a contract with the readers, after all—but I have to say most readers will probably want to read more about ex-NYPD homicide detective Dana Cohen.  She’s Jewish and a redhead, but, like the ubiquitous Irish cops (not so ubiquitous anymore), crime fighting is a family tradition—she even fits that Irish stereotype of drinking too much.  Pop is an ex-LI police chief and estranged hubby Pete is still on the NYPD force, as near as I can tell.  Dana has retired from the daily grind of trying to police the Big Apple’s underbelly.

Dana is that quintessential flawed main character.  She has major problems with Pete—even wants to divorce him (he’s resisting)—but she’s addicted to sex with him. She has that drinking problem but owns a winery, so that’s more irony in her life.  And she foregoes the Irish cop’s usual confession sessions with the parish priest by using bartender “Mac” McCormack as a surrogate, who just happens to hate Jews and Blacks (the manager of her winery is a Black woman).  In an area as densely populated as the tri-state area, you can have all kinds of human behavior, of course—the tails of the statistical distribution in any behavioral direction are well populated.  If LI seems idyllic to you as you think of the rich and famous and their summer houses in the Hamptons, you’re in for a surprise.  But I see news about crime activity there every morning on the news.

In that setting, Dana has to solve a mystery to save her husband who is framed for murder.  Although she has problems with the guy, she doesn’t believe he’s a killer.  But the circumstantial evidence becomes overwhelming, and Pete spends a lot of the story in jail.  In the process of solving this mystery, I think Dana is diminished as a main character.  She can’t seem to get beyond her liquor problem.  Pete’s lawyer Jed and his detective Itzy, contemporary versions of the Perry Mason duo, take on the MC roles.  The lawyer is just a good lawyer, but the gay PI is the real gumshoes in this story.  This bifurcation of the book into two parts—the first with MC Dana and the second with MC Itzy—is a bit weird, but it works.

Another unusual stylistic choice that works is that the whole story is told in first person present by Dana.  First person isn’t that uncommon in mysteries—it allows readers to discover clues and experience twists and misdirects along with the protagonist.  But those things are recounted secondhand by Dana in the second half as Itzy does the real sleuthing—Dana and Itzy providing a Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes déjà vu.  The choice of present tense was much more unusual, but that worked too.  It gave an immediacy to the story as it unfolded.

Direct dialogue was a bit unwieldy at times.  Not only did that present tense affect things, but a lot of backstory and material that would have been better as internal dialogue or flashbacks made Dana seem a bit preachy.  Jed’s bringing Dana up to date at the end, necessarily done in dialogue, could have been all replaced by following the action in standard third-person fare, but Dana could have been there participating even in first person, making the ending more show and less tell.  The ending, as it stands, seems to be a bit rushed too.  I didn’t buy that Pete was framed to get at Dana either—the villain had better reasons for doing that.

This is not minimalist writing by any means.  Often called hard-boiled in the mystery genre, you’re more likely to think of Christie than Chandler, especially during Jed’s wrap-up at the end that recalls Poirot’s embellished explanations of who did the dirty deed and why.  Never fear, the deeds here go far beyond Christie, though, and touch upon general problems in U.S. society.  On first reading, I found myself skipping overly verbose sections, but I paid more attention the second time through.  It seemed that a lot of that could be left to the reader’s imagination to make her or him more of a participant in the creative process—that’s minimalist writing, my preference but not the author’s.

This might seem like a lot of negatives, so let me downplay them.  Overall this was an entertaining and well-written book.  With her stylistic choices, the author has created a sense of urgency that keeps you turning the pages.  The author has a story to tell and tells it well.  Dana is a flawed but interesting character.  I’m sure she will grow in upcoming books in this series as she lets Ms. Marks see more into her psyche.  I’m looking forward to it.


This is a reposting of my review made for Bookpleasures.  The author provided a free copy in return for an honest review.

In libris libertas….

An incorrect view of creativity…

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

In his op-ed article on creativity in the NY Times, Prof. Adam Grant, management and psych professor at the Wharton School of UPenn, says step one to creativity is to procrastinate.  “Creativity takes time.  So I’m trying not to make progress toward my goal.”  I think that’s BS, and I’m hoping I’m not alone.  The first part depends on your definition of creativity, of course.  Presumably, this prof, who’s trying to sell his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, is using a business definition.  I don’t see much creativity in the business world.  I see it in the author/composer of Hamilton; I’ve seen it in the works of Alejandro Obregon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and I’ve seen it in scientists and engineers, from researchers to smart phone and car designers.  Grant confuses creativity with business acumen.  Trump has the latter, but he isn’t creative (come to think of it, Trump and his progeny went to Wharton).

So, let’s get past that first statement in the quote and move on to the second.  Procrastination is the opposite of creativity!  If one procrastinates, s/he’s doing absolutely nothing.  Now Alan Watts might say doing nothing is accomplishing something—that’s part of Buddhist teaching (make your mind blank to achieve enlightenment)—but it sure as hell isn’t being creative.  I’d generally call it wasting time!  At a conference once some Austrian physicists told me that they were in the process of thinking about getting some dinner.  Maybe that’s typically Austrian—I seem to remember Vienna as pretty laid back (but probably not during WWII)—but dinner just isn’t that complicated, and time spent in the process of thinking about it would be better spent doing physics in this case, where a physicist can and should be creative.  Leave the dinner creativity to chefs—culinary art is creative, but only when you do it, not in the process of thinking about it.


Review of Linda Hall’s The Bitter End…

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

(Linda Hall, The Bitter End, 2015, ASIN B017RM1R9G)

Emmeline (Em) Ridge is a female boat delivery captain.  In other words, she’ll follow rich people around the oceans and deliver their sailing yachts to them because they want to get from point A to B faster.  In the first book in this series, she had just lost her husband but still managed to solve a mystery.  Fate gives her another blow by involving her in a new mystery related to an uncle’s disappearance.  Here we go again.  Ready for a fun ride?  Sailing we will go.

Sequels are always suspect.  First, there’s the question of whether the book can stand alone.  This one does, and it does it very well.  There’s enough back story to bring the reader quickly up-to-date.  A few characters are the same—Em, of course, her cop friend, her old neighbors, and so forth, persons who are almost part of that Maine landscape, and the author does a good job of describing them anew without belaboring the point.  A new protagonist, Em’s uncle Ferd (short for Ferdinand), is mostly absent except for back story, but he plays the important role of a potential victim.  He’s also accused of murder, but maybe he’s really dead, and Em stubbornly pursues the case, even over the protests of her sage but conflicted cop friend.


News and Notices from the Writing Trenches # 108…

Friday, November 13th, 2015

[Note from Steve: I’m not superstitious, but, for those who are, have a safe day today.  Did you hear about the guy who went looking for the 13th floor in a hotel and fell into an open elevator shaft, all on Friday the 13th?  There: who said I can’t write a horror story!]

Item. Celebrity books.  Or, should I say, public confessions of the rich and (in)famous?  Do you read them?  The bookstores are full of them, if that’s any gauge of popularity.  There’s Trump’s new propaganda piece containing no more meat than his campaign speeches, just another spiel saying, “I’m great, I’m handsome, I’m rich, I’m smart, and I can save America!”  Some are informative: George H. W. Bush’s (the father of Dubya and Jeb), says a few things about Trump, but mostly looks back, verifying what I always knew: Cheney and Rumsfeld had their own hawkish and nefarious agendas and tried to impose their will and further their on agenda in Dubya’s administration.  And others are just ploys to make some money: Leah Remini’s exposé of Scientological shenanigans has become a book tour through talk shows—she needs the money, I guess, but I wonder why people care about her making more money.  Or, worry about a cult.

When people ask me if I’ve read celebrity so-and-so’s book, I usually look at them like they were idiots.  I’m very selective in my reading, and I generally find the practice of a celebrity cashing in on their ready-made brand name a despicable practice.  One of Obama’s books was the last celebrity book I finished (one written even before he became president).  I started one of O’Reilly’s Killing X books (I guess he’s not very inventive about titles), didn’t like it, and stopped (I guess that’s a mini-mini-review—I started because I read some history now and then).  But O’Reilly is just another celebrity author cashing in on his brand name.


Review of Alexander McNabb’s A Decent Bomber…

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

(Alexander McNabb, A Decent Bomber, Amazon Digital Services, 2015, ASIN B01632FH7E)

Ireland is a country steeped in significant history, from the medieval monks who saved the classics of Western Civilization from pillaging Vikings, to its long-suffering population whose courage and positive outlook on life have endured despite centuries of problems and provided the world with many immigrants who contributed greatly wherever they settled.  It’s a country of beautiful, eerie, and primitive landscapes, and those adjectives often well describe its literature and music too.  But one of the bloodiest periods in Irish history is simply called The Troubles.  This book is set in the aftermath of that period where emotions still run high, the old guard remembers the atrocities, and their sons and daughters still have eyes toward retribution.

O’Carolan was the surname of the troubadour-harpist Turlough O’Carolan, who wrote some of the most beautiful Irish music, played and often set to different lyrics by Irish balladeers from the 1700s to Phil Coulter and other Irish performers today.  When O’Carolan wrote, Ireland was primarily agrarian, more so than today.  Entering on today’s stage in this novel is Pat O’Carolan, dairy farmer, a gentle giant who leads a quiet existence on his small farm.  That bucolic peace is interrupted on the day he picks up niece Orla at the train station.  She wants to spend some time with her uncle and his cows and count it toward her degree at the university.  Unfortunately, al Shabab terrorists have other plans.  They’ve learned through torture and murder that Pat has some special skills they don’t have—he was an IRA master bomb maker.  Moreover, the IRA still has old arms caches sprinkled around the area and in England. Thus begins an intense thriller that will keep you turning the pages.

This O’Carolan turns out to be an elderly Rambo on steroids who can take it from the bad guys and give it back to them  many times over (no spoilers there—this is a thriller, folks).  But it isn’t just the bad guys.  There’s an election coming, and old pals in the IRA are trying to play nice for the voters and the media, which leads to a cover-up of their activities from twenty years ago.  Moreover, North Ireland police and the Irish Gardia are on O’Carolan’s tail, along with the terrorists.  He had to make bombs for them because they’d kidnapped his niece.  Gradually the reader learns the terrorists’ agenda—it mixes greed with terror.


Review of Katherine Hayton’s Breathe and Release…

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

(Katherine Hayton, Breathe and Release, Hayton, 2015, ISBN 978-0473330545)

I don’t know whether to call this mystery or horror or psychological thriller.  It has elements of all three, a deliciously evil blend that might remind some of The Silence of the Lambs (a book actually mentioned in this novel).  Be prepared.  Harris’ novel was simple in comparison to this one!

Elisabet was in a terrible accident; she’s now an amnesiac.  Lillian is a prisoner, locked in a basement cell without food and water.  Graeme is Elisabet’s ex; their divorce hasn’t been finalized, so he takes his amnesiac wife “home” to abuse her.  Kristen is Elisabet’s step-daughter; she hates her second mum and loves Daddy.  These interesting characters drive this story of violence, jealousy, and revenge.

The author cleverly takes her readers and these characters along a road of discovery, a road filled with twists and turns, multiple detours in space and time, and shifting points of view.  I can’t say much more in order to avoid spoilers, but I will state that things aren’t what they seem.  I began to figure out what’s really happening about halfway through in one of the flashbacks, but even then there were many surprises left.


Review of Bun Yom’s Tomorrow I’m Dead…

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

(Bun Yom, Tomorrow I’m Dead, iUniverse, 2015, ISBNs 978-1-4917-5850-2 sc, 978-1-4917-5851-9 e)

Even with its simplicity of language and expression of personal innocence, this is still a powerful story that is more than a memoir.  It is a historical treasure because the author was a survivor of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

The history of the twentieth century was filled with the good, bad, and ugly.  Good can be found in the advances in science and technology that have made life better in general and have specifically reduced hunger and suffering worldwide.  Communications and transportation advances have connected all human beings who now can potentially see we’re all in this together—Earth is one planet for all to enjoy and protect.

The bad appears in a century of fighting, its very deadliness added to by science and technology too.  We’ve suffered through two major wars, Korea, Viet Nam, and other skirmishes that illustrate human beings’ seemingly infinite capacity of doing harm to other human beings.  More bad and certainly the ugly can be found in the various genocides that occurred along with some of these wars.  The Armenian Genocide is associated with World War One and the Ottoman Empire; the Jewish Holocaust—definitely the worst in sheer numbers and suffering–is associated with World War Two and the Nazis; and genocides in the old Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and elsewhere have shocked us through the years.


Is a new book review paradigm needed?

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

If you read Joe Konrath (I still lurk there, even though I’m against his exclusive by-invitation-only policy for his book borrowing effort), or you’ve just experienced it en carne propia (Spanish for “in your own flesh,” meaning personally), you’ll have heard that Amazon’s bots search for links between reviewer and author and erase the review if they find them.  What?  Authors can’t be reviewers?  I read a lot, and I review a lot of books.  My reviews tend to be longer than most Amazon reviews—even on Amazon—but maybe Amazon only cares about those star assignments and is perfectly content with one- or two-liner reviews?  Are they just trying to stop review exchanges?  I don’t support those either, but how do they know?  At any rate, I won’t be posting reviews on Amazon anymore, except for Bookpleasures reviews I repost there because the author requests it (we do that, but I won’t do that anymore either if Amazon forces me to pare down the review to 500 words, something they often also do).

All that said, these are Amazon’s problems, not mine, so let me just say they need a new book review paradigm that makes book reviews something more than voting on American Idol.  But I think I can generalize that comment to book reviews in general.  A new paradigm is needed to add some seriousness into the reviewing process again.  Book reviews nowadays follow Sturgeon’s Law.  I realize that there are many authors, publicists, and publishers seeking reviews.  Publishers often pay for them, so indie writers and their publicists are also asked to pay (Kirkus is the most common pay-for-review source, but many online review sites also ask for payment).  Like gushing blurbs from famous authors (yesterday I reviewed an ebook praised by James Rollins, for example—the book didn’t satisfy, to say the least), paid reviews are useless to readers (probably the gushing blurbs are about all Big Five authors are willing to write—they’re usually not reviewers).


Review of Thomas Waite’s Trident Code…

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

(Thomas Waite, Trident Code, 47North (Amazon), 2015, ISBN 978-1477828403)

This novel is either a good thriller or so-so sci-fi.  Some might call it a techno-thriller.  I’m ambivalent.  Generally speaking, it’s the kind of book I like to read and write.  First, the positives: Waite follows Clancy’s advice and just tells the damn story, so fasten your seatbelt and hold on to your whiskey glass.  With only a few exceptions noted below, it’s an entertaining and breathless ride.  The negatives: My perception about who’s the protagonist doesn’t match Waite’s.  And his theme of cyber warfare doesn’t work well here either because it’s a major distraction and not the real issue.  But read on.

Meet the antagonist: Oleg Dernov is a brilliant psychotic sociopath, meaning he’s crazy smart and full of himself.  He has Daddy problems.  He’s a narcissistic SOB who manipulates people, especially women.  But he believes he’s a Russian patriot who can ensure his country will dominate the world by controlling all the Arctic’s oil and natural gas reserves.  Historical spoiler alert: that kind of thinking brought Hitler to power.

Meet the protagonist: Gloria Bortnik, Russian ex-Greenpeace leader seduced by Oleg, unwittingly helps him pave the road to world domination.  She learns that her infatuation with the idea of Ambient Air Capture (AAC, or the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, the Golden Fleece of environmental science) has implicated her in the murder of a Harvard prof and his wife, the former’s research having led to a practical implementation of AAC.  And that’s just the Preface!