The Jane Hawk novels by Dean Koontz

Koontz is a careful and literate writer who knows how to create complex plots, maintain suspense, and decorate his scenes with weather and landscape imagery that synchronizes with the moods and plights of his characters.

The five-book series about a rogue FBI agent concluded with The Night Window, a book I’ve been looking forward to while patiently waiting for it to come out in paperback.

Hawk, who left the FBI after her husband’s death was ruled a suicide that she believed was murder, began a long trek to clear his name. Law enforcement is after her because they believe she’s operating off a “frontier justice model” and the people who killed her husband–a huge and secret group that’s slowly taking over the country–are after her. Everyone who’s after her is also after her child whom she has to keep hiding. By the time one gets to The Forbidden Door, it’s apparent that Hawk has nine lives and/or the skills of James Bond.

According to the Booklist starred review, “The spectacular finale to Jane’s story…will hit series fans with all the impact of a carefully calibrated hammer blow.”

Yes and no.

Had there not been so many co-opted law enforcement agencies, leaving nobody trustworthy to whom Hawk could turn over her evidence of the conspiracy, the book might have ended with a satisfying black-ops style gun battle after which the authorities take over and put the conspirators in jail. Hawk would then be interviewed on The View and other programs.

However, lacking that, the book–which still includes the nastiness of the bad guys in a tangled plot which look like lose-lose for Hawk–seems less explosive and interesting than the earlier books because there are few (if any) bad guy/Hawk confrontations. Hawk’s time is spent trying to ferret out who the conspirators are and how to expose them in a believable way.

The ending works because the how to tell the world about the conspiracy problem is aptly solved. Nonetheless, I felt a little let down because the focus became more about hacking into databases and less about kicking the shit out of the bad guys. And then, too, I kind of like Hawk and now she’s ridden off into the sunset forever.

Malcolm

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.

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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

 

 

Review: ‘The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl’ by Theodora Goss

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first whisperings of the three novels in “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club” series can be found in Theodora Goss’ doctoral dissertation “The monster in the mirror: late Victorian Gothic and anthropology.” In fact, the members of the club–Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, Lucinda Van Helsing, and Lydia Raymond–often call themselves monsters because they were created by amoral mad scientists.

Athena club members and other primary characters in the series are drawn from (or inspired by) the works of H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Arthur Machen, and Oscar Wilde. The genius behind these multi-layered novels comes not only from their accuracy of the Victorian era and its literature but from the fact that Goss has taken characters from multiple books and fit them hand-in-glove into a delightfully inventive and readable series.

Several years ago, Goss told an interviewer, “What really inspired me was reading the original texts for my Ph.D. in English literature. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on late-19th-century gothic fiction and started noticing that there were a lot of mad scientists running around in the 19th century — and that a lot of those mad scientists either thought of creating or actually created female monsters.”

The monsters of the Athena Club–who often quibble with each other in specially formatted bits of conversation–about the progress of “The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl” solve mysteries using (somewhat) the approach of Mary Jekyll’s friend and mentor Sherlock Holmes. While their powers of deduction aren’t as pure as Holmes’, their special powers provide them with talents Holmes doesn’t have. (Inspector Lestrade doesn’t like them and they don’t like him.)

They react to bad things that happen; this time it’s the simultaneous disappearance of their household maid Alice, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and, as it turns out, a threat against the British empire. Near the end of the book, when the women in the club are admonished to stay out of of mischief, Mary Jekyll says, “We don’t get into mischief. It sort of happens to us, or around us, or in our general vicinity.”

Most readers will see that comment as an understatement and as part of the charm of the books. The Athena Club is not a covert black ops group but a family of good monsters who often finds itself trying to thwart the plans of evil monsters. In this series, the women prevail as those who are setting things to rights. On the way to saving the day, the Athena Club’s debates tend to keep everyone grounded, such as when Catherine Moreau, who’s ostensibly recording the group’s adventures, says, “You realize that to a puma, you’re all just meat?”

Sure, they can all kill each other, but going after the bad guys is more fulfilling.

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‘The Founding Fortunes: How The Wealthy Paid For and Profited From America’s Revolution’

In times of war, the rich usually do get richer and the poor are still poor, yet free. Somewhat.  This well-researched telling of the well known and not so well known who put their money into biting the very hand that was feeding them. In order to have control over what they grew and who they sold to this young country and its leaders were far from perfect and often put their own interests above the country.

Source: THE FOUNDING FORTUNES: How The Wealthy Paid For and Profited From America’s Revolution by Tom Shachtman ‹ Pirate Patty Reviews ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

I love reading history, especially carefully written books that are intended for a general audience and don’t sound like PhD dissertations. So, I’m pleased to find one of my favorite book bloggers writing about a history book–and tempting me to take a look at it.

While this blogger’s reviews are usually short and sweet (or, as needed, caustic) I wish this review had had a little more depth, possibly showing a list of chapter titles and/or an example a founding father or two who got rich.

We can often give readers an idea of a novel with a review that sounds like a positive or negative elevator pitch. But I think nonfiction requires a bit more, in part because if your blog isn’t dedicated to history, most readers won’t be familiar with the authors and may need a little more pizazz to grok both the review and the book under consideration.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morganstern

This novel is a breathtaking display of exuberant lyrical prose, wondrously detailed imagery, and elaborate plotting. Interlocking tales and snippets of tales comprise this brilliant celebration of storytellers and how the times and places and characters of their art become woven, often covertly, into readers’ lives.

The purported protagonist, Vermont college student Zachary Ezra Rawlins, checks out a book called Sweet Sorrows from the library and finds within it a story from his childhood. At first, he can’t believe it, but then as he tries to find out where the book originated and how it was catalogued by the library, he discovers over time that he can’t truly believe anything.

Rawlins initially discovers that simply having the book has placed his life in danger. He’s not sure why. In fact, he may never be sure. As it turns out, there are doors everywhere that lead to an immense and seemingly infinite realm of books stored in ever-shifting below-ground castles and caverns.

One is reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere tale about a hidden-away realm beneath the streets of London where the culture is quite different from everything at street level. In Morganstern’s unique world, which comes with its own mythologies and origin stories, the culture is not only different from the “real life” we know, but changes constantly like the play of moonlight on the surface of the sea.

Stories are not content to confine themselves to their original plots. Instead, they update and morph themselves not only into other stories but into the reality of the inhabitants and structures of the underground world itself. In one respect it’s chaos, but everything is tied together as though the stories themselves got together and made sure their changes meshed perfectly with the changes in other stories like the gears in a perfectly designed machine.

The stories, in fact, are all there is. They are not only the motive power and intelligence behind the underground library on the shore of the Starless Sea but impact the direction of the science and technology world that innocently exists outside the doors leading into the depths.

In defense of readers who enjoyed The Night Circus and were disappointed with The Starless Sea, Morgenstern’s new novel strays dangerously close to being a work of experimental fiction rather than a true fantasy. The plot isn’t linear and may not even exist cohesively from one chapter to the next. The ending–which works perfectly within the confines of the novel–will anger those who read through some 500 pages hoping for a resolution.

I’m content simply to experience the world Morgenstern has created in The Starless Sea and the immeasurable beauty of her storytelling.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Ten Thousand Doors of January,” by Alix E. Harrow

On July 26, 2018, Alix E. Harrow–an award-winning author of short fiction, posted a blog entry called “Holy Cats, I sold my book” in which she called the pending publication: “Big, life-altering, universe-skewing, time-space-continuum-wrecking news.”

Her reaction also describes the book, a mix of magical realism and fantasy, with a delightful plot that bends time and space in upon themselves as–quite possibly–an illustration of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics. Fortunately, you don’t need to know anything about quantum theory to follow the story.

What you do need is a wide-open, non-judgemental imagination because this story is quite a unique trip. No doubt, Harrow used that kind of imagination to write the book, to follow the world-leaping exploits of her main character January Scaller who learns–while looking for her parents and running from the bad guys–how to travel between worlds as easily as walking from here to there and (with luck) back again.

Her plotting, language, and tone are among the best I’ve seen through ten thousand hours of reading every book I could get my hands on. Each of those books was a door into a new world, a fact you’ll believe more firmly than ever by the time you finish “The Ten Thousand Doors of January.” In fact, you’re more likely than ever to discover new worlds after reading this beautiful (and beautifully written) debut novel.

It’s a big, life-altering, universe-skewing, time-space-continuum-wrecking novel.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels and stories.