Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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!


Giacometti and Revene’s Shadow Ritual…

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

(Eric Giacometti and Jacques Revene, trans. Anne Trager, Shadow Ritual, Le French Book, 2015, 978-1-939474-29-2 (ebook)/ 978-1-939474-30-8 (trade paperback) /978-1-939474-31-5 (hardback))

Mysteries and thrillers set in historical contexts represent one of my weak points.  I’ve written a few that come close in their dependence on historical backstory (my character Castilblanco is a history dilettante) and have read many more.  The startling success of Brown’s The DaVinci Code caused a resurgence in the sub-genre, but you can also compare this novel to older books like Deaver’s Garden of Beasts, Follett’s The Eye of the Needle, and Forsyth’s The Odessa File.  That theme of old Nazis causing mayhem is one of the themes in this book.

The other is religion, Catholicism specifically (hence the reference to The DaVinci Code), and secret societies, in particular the Free Masons.  I have some family connections to Masonry and have even reviewed a non-fiction book on the subject for Bookpleasures (Jay Kinney, The Masonic Myth).  Like the books mentioned above, where the truth about Masonry ends and the fiction begins is part of the fun in these novels.  The same can be said about the Nazi history (what the Nazis did was hardly fun, of course).

This novel combines mystery and thriller aspects.  We know the dirty deeds and who’s doing them to whom (the “doing” is the thrill ride), but we don’t know why (the mystery).  Inspector Antoine Marcas, a Paris cop who’s also a Free Mason, has been invited to the French embassy in Rome where another guest, a Free Mason woman who researches historical documents, is ritually murdered, but the papers she’s carrying are saved.  The archeologist she’s supposed to meet in Jerusalem when she continues her journey is also ritually murdered and an ancient stone is stolen.  Marek meets the embassy’s security chief, Special Agent Jade Zewinski, close friend of the murder victim and ex-Special Ops, but Jade has no love for Masons and their secret ways.  The cop, reacting badly to the banshee, washes his hands of the case.


Review of A. J. Hartley’s Tears of the Jaguar…

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

(A. J. Hartley, Tears of the Jaguar, Thomas and Mercer – Amazon Digital Services, 2012, ASIN B007CJUA84)

My readers probably know I do my “official reviewing” of books with, but that’s often limited to new releases.  I’m an avid reader, so I do a lot of casual reading too, some not so new, and I often write reviews for those books.  Many of the latter are Amazon reviews (readers can look me up there and find almost all of my reviews, because the Bookpleasures reviews are often reposted to Amazon, at the author’s or publishing company’s discretion).  I believe this is the first case where I’ve perused an ebook in my casual reading that deserves to be included in the Stealth Reads section of my webpage “Steve’s Bookshelf,” though.

This book has everything.  The plot is reminiscent of Preston and Child’s best,  The Relic, only better.  The characters are very interesting and well-drawn.  The two main settings—the author’s native Lancashire, England, and the Mayan ruins of Mexico—are both steeped in history and exotic mystery.  There is action galore; witchcraft and magic; the following of clues, many of them historical; and many misdirects.  Some have called this a thriller.  I call it a mystery/thriller/suspense tour de force combined with historical fiction that has so much research behind it that I wonder how long it took the author to put it all together.


Review of Carolyn J. Rose’s The Devil’s Tombstone…

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

(Carolyn J. Rose, The Devil’s Tombstone, Amazon Digital, 2014, B00RC4X0XQ)

This mystery novel makes the series set in the Catskills around Hemlock Lake a trilogy.  75% is excellent mystery and suspense, but not as tightly focused as #2 (Through a Yellow Wood) or as fresh as #1 (Hemlock Lake).  It is another narrative jewel, though.  I love the setting and characters and Ms. Rose’s probing of good, evil, and all the gray area in between.  She does this as well as or better than, say, David Baldacci in One Summer or Wish You Well, two other books that show valid mystery and suspense stories can occur in rural America.

The mystery surrounds several cold cases that Dan Stone’s old boss, Sheriff North, assigns to him.  Although Dan and wife Camille are busy with a new baby, riding herd on teenager Julie, and counseling her brother Justin, the wife knows Dan needs a distraction and is happy when the sheriff deputizes him.  Although Dan keeps his investigations under wraps for the most part, two cases he solves early on add to his notoriety in the rural community, but the feud between the judgmental head of a traveling revival show and that community’s preacher presents a major problem.  The author ties all these threads together in a suspenseful climax.


Review of Linda Hall’s Night Watch…

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

(Linda Hall, Night Watch, 2014, ebook ISBN 978-0-9877613-6-1, pbook ISBN 978-0-9877613-7-8, ASIN B00NKPI2WK)

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again.  One of the great pleasures I derive from reviewing books is discovering new authors I mightn’t notice otherwise.  Here we have an example.  Ms. Hall is a gifted writer and this novel is well written, entertaining, and different.  It’s a mystery with a different wrinkle.

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.  En route to Bermuda, she is captaining a new fifty-two-foot luxury sailboat when she’s awaken below deck to learn that a crew member, Kricket Patterson, is overboard. It’s Em’s first sail after acquiring her captain’s license and not an auspicious start for the new captain.  Kricket’s the daughter of the owner of the yacht, but when the parents arrive to identify the recovered body, it turns out that she’s someone else who has Kricket’s passport.