Review: ‘Iron House’ by John Hart

Iron HouseIron House by John Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Hart’s books are among the darkest I’ve read, and “Iron House” is no exception. The story begins with an orphanage where the amenities are few, care and supervision is lapse, and groups of bullies rule the corridors and terrorize the weaker children. The darkness doesn’t begin or end here. The story features an assortment of characters nobody will like, the cruel upbringings where they were reared, and the violent lives many of them wore like armor in order to survive.

Michael has lived on the streets of New York as part of an organized crime organization that is feared above all others. When he falls in love with Elena, he wants a fresh start. However, his “colleagues” don’t want him to have any rest other than a grave. Michael is efficient, practical, and savvy, but as the plot turns in on itself with dark secrets falling like dominoes, he may not be strong enough to solve the mysteries that stand between him and saving those he loves–including Elena.

I’ve given the book four stars because I think some of the descriptions of violence and torture are excessive. However, those scenes do show the total inhumanity and animal nature of the bad guys, so they’re not totally out of place in the novel. The novel has two strong points in addition to the strong characters. First, it keeps the reader guessing because the mysteries and secrets get deeper and darker as the complex plot unfolds; second, the main characters, Michael, Elena, and Michael’s long-lost brother Julien are always at risk–and with each breath of air, the risk becomes greater as the story proceeds.

The novel shows the worst of human nature on many fronts–and perhaps the often misguided best.

View all my reviews

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Lena,” “Special Investigative Reporter,” and “Sarabande,” all of which you can find on Bookshop.org.

Thinking about Steve Berry’s ‘The Malta Exchange’

Dan Brown’s novel the Da Vinci Code (2003) comes to mind when we discuss mystery/thrillers that simultaneously explore old secrets with the overlay of a present-day fight between good guys and bad guys.

This approach is often said to have originated with Katherine Neville’s The Eight (1988) which was influenced by Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980). The feature films Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and National Treasure (2004) and the Raymond Khoury novel The Last Templar (2005) are part of the same heady mix of present and past intrigues blended together in fiction.

Dan Brown probably trumped everyone else because his subject matter–the possibility of Christ’s marriage and subsequent birth line–mattered a great deal to Catholic and Protestant members of the Christian faith.

So now we come to The Malta Exchange, the 14th instalment of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone novels that began with The Bishop’s Pawn. The novel focuses on the Catholic Knights Hospitaller, their influence in Malta, their overthrow by Napoleon, and the location of ancient documents that might influence the selection of a new Pope. I’ve found the Cotton Malone novels to be well written and absorbing thrillers.

I had more trouble with The Malta Exchange simply because Malta and the Knights Hospitaller are not (for me) as exciting as other historical intrigues in which the novels of this genre are based. It also seemed to be that Cotton, along with U.S. agent Luke, were not in control of their investigation. They were like corks being tossed around on an angry sea, discovering new information mostly when others deigned to tell them rather than from their own investigative skills.

Fortunately, the author’s note at the end of the book helps sort out the truth from the fiction.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s latest novel is the satire Special Investigative Reporter

 

 

‘Write every day, or else’

Gurus tell us to write every day because that’s what professionals do. They point out that newspaper reporters and magazine feature writers have to write every day because that’s their job. The same is true if you write news releases, computer documentation, or advertising copy.

Since people working for hire have to write 9-5, those of us who are not working for hire are told we should also write every day, or else. That’s not a bad idea if you’re on deadline. But if you’re not, you have a choice.

I no longer feel guilty when I don’t write every day. At some point, I rebelled against the idea because I have a history of rebelling against almost everything. So, I write when I feel like it.

When I was in high school I read a lot of psychic how-to books. Some of these discussed automatic writing, wherein you go into a trance while holding a pen in your hand (or sitting at your keyboard) and when you wake up there’s an entire page of quality stuff. Jane Roberts (The Seth Material) did well at this.

I tried automatic writing. Didn’t work. First, I asked for news about the universe. Then I gave the spirits an idea for a novel and hoped they’d write it for me–moving my fingers on the keyboard at 120 words per minute. I never got that to work either.

The main reason I don’t write every day is because I don’t have anything to say. I’d rather read somebody else’s book than sit and stare at a blank screen all day hoping the next scene in my novel will mysteriously come to mind.

I have better luck writing when I feel like it. There’s no pressure then, no guru saying, “Malcolm, you need to turn out 500 fresh words per day (or else).” I’m sure my approach is wrong. If it is, you already know I don’t care.

Why can’t writers be left alone to do their own thing? Even if it isn’t efficient? Even if it looks unprofessional? That seems better to me than feeling guilty about not writing every day, or else.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

This and that on a cold, rainy day

  • Blood test this morning. The tech couldn’t find a vein. Ended up sticking both arms looking for blood. Might have been less painful if she’d bit my neck.
  • Congratulations to my Thomas-Jacob Publishing colleague Sharon Heath (The Fleur Trilogy) on the release of her new novel Chasing Eve, “a funny, sad, hair-raising adventure into the underbelly of the City of Angels, where society’s invisible people make a difference to themselves and to others, and where love sometimes actually saves the day.”
  • Bodkin Point Arrow – Wikipedia photo

    I usually write fiction in third person restricted. Among other things, that means that basically the entire novel is shown via the point of view of the protagonist. If you use that POV, you know there are dozens of ways of showing the protagonist’s attitude without saying “he thought” or “she thought.” Now that I’ve chosen to write the work in progress with an omniscient narrator POV without showing what anyone (mostly) is thinking, I keep having to delete things I’d normally write. Even something so mundane as Luckily the barking dog finally shut up is out of bounds because somebody has to be thinking that; I’m not going to be an old-fashioned author who intrudes into his stories by commenting on things as they happen. Tentatively, the book is called Dark Arrows.

  • Yes, we will be watching Star Trek: Picard starting tonight on CBS All Access. The next-generation series with Patrick Stewart was, I think, the best of the Star Trek programs, so it will be nice to see him again in this ten-episode series. I read that CBS has already ordered more episodes, so perhaps we’ll have at least two seasons to look forward to.
  • My blood test results show that the forty days of radiation therapy probably got rid of the prostate cancer. Even though the radiation oncology department thinks “that’s that,” the urology department thinks it’s safe for me to continue the hormone therapy for two years as long as I can dolerate the shots. I said, “Tolerate the shots? Does that mean they don’t kill me.” The answer was, “If you get bad hot flashes, we’ll stop them.” Oh.

Malcolm

Writers who stop writing have moved on to what?

Writers who step away from writing often tell me they’ve “moved on.” I want to ask (but I don’t) “moved on to what?”

If one’s chosen career is to be a writer, I’m not sure where a writer goes when s/he moves on. Not that being a writer is sacred. Not that writers don’t get to retire at some point or even try something else.

Writers often say that doing the writing itself is their primary joy. Of course, if writing is a business for them, they can’t pretend that running at a loss every year will pay the rent or buy the groceries. A lot of writers get around his problem by earning an income doing something else, but continuing to write in their spare time.

Most of my writing life I earned a living by writing for computer companies. That’s what paid the rent. I’ve been officially unemployable ever since I was laid off after 9/11 even though the large tech company I worked for said they weren’t going to do that. Unless you’re famous or have a rare skill, it’s hard to find jobs when you’re over 50, which I was. So, I turned my parttime writing into fulltime writing.

Until I’d sold a few books, I told people I was retired. At my age, that was believable. I had no desire whatsoever to buy a motor home and spend my life driving around the country, or fishing, or stamp collecting, or whatever else retired people are supposed to do. Luckily, I found a few nonprofits who needed somebody to write grants, and I did turn out some successful proposals. But fiction was what I wanted to write, so that’s what I’m doing.

I can’t imagine moving on. My father was a successful book reviewer, article writer, and textbook author long after he was forced to retire from university teaching. He was happy doing it and so am I. Maybe psychologists will claim I’m taking after my father. I don’t think so, but is I were, I’d be okay with that.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

‘Catch Me if You Can’

I don’t think I lead a sheltered life, but every once in awhile I seem to “wake up” and hear about something that’s been in the news for years. I wonder, have I had amnesia, been in a coma, or simply had too much Scotch.

So last night we watched the movie “Catch Me if You Can” about a check forger (Leonardo DiCaprio) being chased (sort of like the movie “The Fugitive”) by an FBI agent (Tom Hanks) that came out in 2002. It’s based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. who wrote a book about his experiences in 1980 after having appeared on the quiz show “To Tell the Truth” three years earlier.

According to the movie, Abagnale was so good at forgery, he ultimately worked for the FBI in a check fraud unit and designed anti-fraud procedures used in today’s banking system. The movie kept our attention even though I was a little preoccupied about how this story could have been in the national consciousness for some 43 years without my being aware of it.

Sometimes I feel like one of those people in a TV movie who’s been in a coma for 25 years and wakes up to find the world has completely changed. Yet, I have supposedly been awake between 1977 and 2002 and logic tells me I should have been aware of at some bits and pieces of this story.

Either that or the movie studio spent a lot of money just to play a practical joke on me.

Malcolm

 

Does your best paragraph belong in your book?

Consider this paragraph from a well-known novel:

“It rained for eight days without taking a breath. No dank December drizzle this, but rain with attitude. The rogue progeny of some sweet-named Caribbean hurricane had come north, liked it and stayed. Rivers in the Midwest burst their banks and the TV news was awash with images of people crouched on rooftops and the bloated bodies of cattle twirling like abandoned airbeds in swimming-pool fields. In Missouri a family of five drowned in their car while waiting in line at McDonald’s and the President flew in and declared it a disaster, as some on the rooftops had already guessed.”

Do you recognize the passage? If so, you have a good memory. If not, it’s because it’s not usually one of those excerpts that reviewers and sites like GoodReads quote from the novel.

I noticed this paragraph recently because I’m re-reading the book. I smiled as I read it because it’s the kind of thing I would write for a satirical novel or blog post. Bits and pieces of it could even fit in a comedian’s stand-up comedy routine. For satire and/or dark humor, the paragraph is slick, well-written, and filled with sadistic puns and groaner double entendres.

However, the paragraph appears in a book listed as a psychological thriller that focuses on love, loss, family, and coming to grips with massive change. That being the case, I think the author should have cut this graph from the novel and saved it for another book because outside of comedy or satire, this is over the top:

  • taking a breath
  • rain with attitude
  • liked it and stayed
  • news was awash with images
  • abandoned airbeds
  • And then we end with the family drowning in a line at McDonald’s followed by the President declaring it (the flood or the McDonalds?) a disaster area

The passage gets “worse and worse” the farther it goes and becomes really dark with the Missouri family/disaster area juxtapositioning.

I believe most critics and writing professors would classify all this as “too much” in a mainstream novel. In context, the passage seems out of place at the beginning of a subsection in which a young girl is in a coma while her parents wonder if she’ll survive. Perhaps the novelist saw this as a transitional, “adding insult-to-injury” kind of paragraph. Or maybe he liked the contrast between the slick weather description and the horror of the girl supported by machines, tubes, and sensors.

In general, what do you think?

Does your opinion change one way or the other when I tell you this excerpt came from The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans?

Writers are advised to kill their darlings. I wish Evans had pulled the trigger or put these words into a drawer for later use.

Malcolm

My eight novels and numerous short stories fit into the genres of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, paranormal, and satire. Other than the Special Investigative Reporter, my storytelling focuses on magic.