Category Archives: reviews

Review: ‘The Bishop’s Pawn’ by Steve Berry

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The Bishop's Pawn (Cotton Malone, #13)The Bishop’s Pawn by Steve Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those who enjoy FBI and police procedurals, black ops, off-the-grid agencies, and loose-cannon agents will find a lot to like in this story from the long-running Cotton Malone series. Berry focuses on the FBI’s vendetta against the Martin Luther King, Jr. and his death on April 4, 1968. Malone is contacted because some old documents about King’s assassination are about to come to light. The old guard wants them destroyed (if they exist), while current investigators want the truth to come out.

Malone is thrust right into the middle of a playing field of rogue agents and underworld characters that are nothing like the day-to-day life of a JAG lawyer. He has skills, but he’s new at fighting bad guys on the street who are well-practiced at being bad guys. This is the genius of the book: a novice thrust into a volatile mix because those who ask him to go there appreciate the fact he’s a loose cannon.

The story holds together even though the characters Malone confronts have hidden and dangerous agendas or otherwise aren’t who they seem to be.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s the fact that it requires a lot of backstory to make sense to readers who weren’t around during the King era. This is the same issue people had with “The Da Vinci Code.” Without Dan Brown’s constant teaching, the story wouldn’t make sense even though that teaching bogged down the book. The teaching in this book bogs it down because quite a few words are devoted to it.

Nonetheless, I found the book compelling. It’s certainly a must read for those interested in the 1960s civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Malcolm

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Briefly Noted: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

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“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of crazy courage–the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.” – Susan Orlean

Publisher’s Description

“On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, ‘Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.’ The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?”

Assessment

If you Google this fire, you will find many pictures that are sad to see because they show the mess fire, smoke, and water make of books. The images I saw are copyrighted, so I can’t show them here. Frankly, in reading Orlean’s book, I was surprised at the number of damaged books that were saved, many by a long process of removing the moisture from the sodden pages. In many of the older books that escaped the fire and water, the smell of smoke still lingers.

Main Los Angeles Library – Wikipedia Photo

You can also learn on the Internet that even though there was an arson suspect who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) keep his own alibi straight, there was never enough evidence for an indictment. While the book delves into the stories of that suspect, it’s difficult to read The Library Book with this lingering lack of closure about an unsolved crime. If this book were fiction, let’s say a whodunnit, the author would be criticized for the failure of the characters to solve the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice. The lack of closure creates within this book a lack of focus. That is, the book wanders a bit.

Nonetheless, the book is well written and demonstrates Orlean’s long-time and well-known talents for interviewing people and finding out what makes them tick. I worked in the college libraries at the universities I attended, so I share Orlean’s love of the library and, as such, see this book as not only the history of an important U.S. library but as a love letter to libraries and those who manage them.

Oddly, the fire–and the public’s support of the library after the fire, and seven years later when the main library reopened–might have saved the historic building. The building had for years been discussed as out of date and too small, along with having inadequate fire repression methods. So, a new wing was built and the old building remains, more vibrant and busy than before. If you love libraries, and especially if you have worked in libraries, you will probably enjoy this book. I did.

A Personal Note

I cannot bring myself to feel that, as an author, I am brave in any way for writing novels I hope people will read. More likely, I am foolish, for such a small percentage of books, including those from major publishers ever succeed in finding enough readers to support the publisher’s and author’s investment. Nonetheless, writing is typical of me, just one more example of my impractical life’s focus.

I never expect Hollywood or the New York Times to call and request either a film option or an interview. I have always expected more of my personal friends and online friends to read the books, but to the extent, they read novels at all, they choose the bestsellers from major publishers as a sure thing. Novels are different than other businesses in which community support often favors the local store rather than the chain. Buy local! But that seldom applies to books. The nursery, pharmacy, tire store, restaurant, and the grocery store expect my support, but they don’t buy my books. That’s a sad thing, I think, but when I read a book like this one, I have faith and hope that somebody, somewhere will ultimately find the stories I have to tell.

Susan Orlean has given us all a very memorable story and I appreciate it.

Malcolm

 

 

‘Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder’

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“Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.” 
― Raymond Chandler

I just finished a novel (see picture) that was 99% technique and 1% nonsense. The author used a technique that’s so ubiquitous these days, it’s got to be more than a fad. It’s an epidemic.

It works like this. You’re reading a high-stakes chapter, probably a thriller, and at the end of the chapter something untoward happens such as, “Bob kicked open the door and noticed 25 men pointing their guns at him.”

You turn the page wondering, more than idly, how the hero’s going to get out of this mess. Do you find out? No. What you see is the beginning of a new section of the book called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and most of that section seems completely irrelevant or, in writer talk: a very intrusive backstory.

There’s no passion in this, and I’m not talking about the kind of passion Raymond Chandler was referring to when he wrote, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” The story would have been more interesting if it had been a house of cards rather than a house of gimmicks.

The story lacked passion because when it came down to it the story and the characters didn’t really matter. Instead, they were cheap tricks strung together like the kind of necklace you can buy at a pawn shop for a couple of bucks. Unfortunately, the book cost more than that and didn’t have the gumption to acknowledge that, when compared to cheap hookers, it was more false.

The novel, written by an author whom the blurbs said was the next Stephen King or the next Michael Crichton, had an inventive beginning in which a passenger jet arrives at a small airport where the flight pilot and copilot discover that everyone on the ground is apparently dead. Unfortunately, the main characters immediately out themselves as dysfunctional. Suddenly, the novel reminds me of Chandler’s line, “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

At a distance, the story has possibilities worthy of King and Chrichton. Up close, it’s dysfunctional characters and a lot of technique. The author has chosen a distasteful stew of technique, characters who are too broken to even speak to each other, and techno-speak with which to engineer this costume jewelry of a story.

Here’s a spoiler: Google, we learn, might be developing products that aren’t good for us even though they have plenty of technique in them and look like they are good for us. Well, that’s hardly a new idea. Nonetheless, it’s the driving force behind why the ground crew at the airport seem to be dead.

In the final analysis, there’s nothing to see here or, as Chandler says, “The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”

It takes guts, I think, to tell a story straight rather than relying on stale smoke and cloudy mirrors. Dead on Arrival is dead on arrival.

Malcolm

 

Review: ‘Border Pieces’ by Pam Robertson

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Border Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld NovellaBorder Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld Novella by Pam Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This exceptionally well-written book is several books in one. It’s a covert ops book and it’s a heroine’s journey book. Some readers will be disappointed when the covert ops plot and page-turning action in the first section of the book don’t continue into the next section. However, readers who appreciate characters with depth and multiple dimensions will keep reading even though (initially) the sudden change of pace is somewhat disconcerting.

I won’t include spoilers here. Suffice it to say, being a spy exposes one to injuries and other losses. Morgan and her partner Jake need time to heal and find themselves. Morgan learns that it’s one thing to heal from physical injuries and a very different matter to get her mind right and connect to skills she does not, as yet, understand or fully use in support of the missions. Understanding this is her journey, a journey made more difficult by the loss of a colleague during an otherwise successful mission.

Here readers will see a very talented, almost natural covert operative who lives and breathes the work she does, yet considers leaving the service because tragedies and other losses cannot be undone. It would be easy for her to retire and write a book about her exploits. Morgan’s grappling with her underdeveloped intuition and how to apply it in a business that’s more and more technology-based is an important part of the book’s theme. If she can figure all that out, she’ll probably become even more successful as a covert operative.

If I were an editor, I would ask for somewhat smoother transitions between the sections, especially one that shifts from an in-progress, real-time operation to a time many months later then we learn how that mission ended. I think it would have been stronger if it had been shown in real-time. However, that is my somewhat subjective feeling.

I liked the major focus of the plot on Morgan Windfeld’s personal and professional development, including her doubts and fears. This is a strong novel that appears to be the first in a series we can all look forward to following.

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘Plain Truth’ by Jodi Picoult

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Plain TruthPlain Truth by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I enjoyed the book’s themes, especially the placement of a big city lawyer into an Amish household to supervise the bail agreement of a teenage girl charged with murdering her own baby, the ending did not wash with me.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The book begins with Katie, who has hidden her pregnancy from her family and everyone else, giving birth in the middle of the night in the dairy barn on the farm where she lives. After giving birth, she falls asleep. When she wakes up, the baby is gone. She says “thank you,” as though God turned the events in the barn into a dream by whisking the baby away.

When the baby is found hidden beneath some hay, the paramedics are called, and soon after them the police. Katie denies that she was pregnant, but is tripped up by the fact that she is hemorrhaging badly and is rushed to the hospital where it’s discovered that her condition is one that can occur after giving birth.

She is a likely suspect because she hid the pregnancy, either because she never believed it to be real and/or because having a baby out of wedlock is a much more serious religious issue within the Amish community than elsewhere.

Ellie, the attorney manages to arrange bail, but the stipulation is that Katie must be supervised. So Ellie moves into the family farm where she learns what an Amish household is all about. The family is wary, of course, but friendships develop, especially when Ellie pitches in with cooking, cleaning, gardening, and other chores.

It was noted in the comments after the book’s conclusion that no Amish person is likely to read the book, much less use the Internet to post a review. However, the family’s farm life appears to be to have been realistically covered by the author. So, too, the conversations with Katie as both the lawyer and a psychiatrist talk to her in the weeks prior to the trial about the pregnancy and the fact that she has no memory of what happened in the barn.

As sketchy memories begin to appear, her attorney wants to use an insanity defense and argue that Katie was in a dissociative state, the supposition being that she had completely blocked out any memory of what happened after the baby was born. Katie refuses. Needless to say, this presents substantial problems for defending her at the trial.

The outcome of the trial seems a bit unrealistic but within the reality of the book, it’s believable enough to be satisfying to readers. What does not wash with me is that after the trial is over, in fact, while Ellie is packing her suitcase to leave Katie’s home, Katies’s mother comes into the room and shows Ellie the shears used to cut the baby’s cord. The ending is foreshadowed by the slick use of the word “she” at the beginning of the novel rather than a character’s name as the baby’s cord is cut and then tied off with twine in the barn. We learn that Katie’s mother Sarah cut the cord and hid the baby and the shears.

She has reasons for doing it, tied in part of undergoing miscarriages herself and losing another daughter in an ice skating accident. What seems out of character is that any mother, especially an Amish mother, would remain silent and allow her daughter to go through the stress and agony of a murder charge and the emotional trial. Of course, had Sarah confessed at the outset, we would either have no story to tell–or, perhaps a very different story with less drama to it.

I have given the book three stars even though I feel the ending is a disaster for the plot’s resolution and for readers because up until Sarah comes into the room and tells Ellie what happened, the story is compelling, the characters are well developed, and the writing is sound.

–Malcolm

The Kindle edition of my novel “Lena” is on sale on Amazon for 99 cents throughout the weekend.

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Review: ‘Hope in the Shadows of War’ by Thomas Paul Reilly

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When injured Vietnam War veteran Timothy O’Rourke returns home in 1973, an open wound accompanies him. Today, we might call it PTSD or survivor’s guilt. When his helicopter was shot down and then attacked by the Viet Cong on the ground, he was able to save one of the men with him–but not both. The prospective roles of fate, destiny, fairness, and second-guessing oneself plague him as surely as a virus

Vietnam War veteran Thomas Paul Reilly saw the war for himself and subsequently applied that knowledge and his degrees in psychology as an author (Value-Added Selling) and public speaker focusing on the importance of hope, attitude, and value. He effectively uses this background to create a realistic, yet troubled protagonist in this novel which will be released on Veterans Day.

In the chronicles of war and returning veterans, Timothy’s issues aren’t unique, but in an era where veterans’ issues were not well understood, he believes he is alone in trying to heal his psychological wounds. He’s attending college, works multiple jobs, drives a falling-apart old car, has a steady girlfriend named Cheryl, and remains one step ahead of bankruptcy. Friends and family either can’t or won’t help him when he’s confronted with unexpected expenses such as replacing the ancient furnace in his mother’s house where he is staying. Cheryl has money to lend, but he refuses to accept it.

Co-workers at a Christmas tree lot where he’s working to earn extra money tell him that college and dreams aren’t for “guys like us” and that he needs to quit college and get a real job. In almost every area of his life, he is without hope. Among other things, he’s driving away Cheryl, who unconditionally loves him, by constantly telling her he’s not good enough for her.

Reilly has created a character who epitomizes veterans who have reason to believe fate and their country are conspiring against them. Broke and in ill health (emotional or physical), they end up living on the streets as one of society’s festering wounds that seems impossible to heal. A co-worker, Hoffen, at the Christmas tree lot casually talks to Tim about hope, perseverance, and attitude. The man speaks like a sage down from the mountaintop, but will his advice be enough to convince Tim that the open wound he brought home from Vietnam will never heal until he lets it heal?

If Tim were in therapy, his analyst might ask him if he wants the wound to heal. His memory of the helicopter crash–which is well written and rings true–replays over and over as though he either wanted to be rescued from the wounds it caused or return to the scene and die along with the buddy he couldn’t save. Tim is a character who is easy to admire for his dilligent attempt to save his dream against great odds. He is less easy to like because his overly hopeless attitude, as demonstrated in his thoughts and his conversations with Cheryl and others, comes close to whining, justified though it may be.

The book would be stronger if the plot focussed on the major highs and lows of the story and left out the step-by-step “transcripts” of minor–or recurring–thoughts and actions. The inspiring ending would be stronger if readers felt that, other than his stubbornness, Tim had played a more active role in making it happen.

Reading Hope in the Shadows of War should be a cathartic experience for struggling veterans and those who want to understand veterans’ issues and motivations. This is the story’s strength. So is the message of hope from Hoffen and others. Readers will probably take that message with them after they finish the novel.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Into the Water’ by Paula Hawkins

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Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a deep place in the river that runs through Beckford where people swim, fish, dive from the high cliff, and lie on the beach and listen to the ubiquitous voice of the water. For many, this place is simply a good swimming hole. For others, especially the women, it’s the “Drowning Pool.” There should be a warning sign at the water’s edge: “Never send to know for whom the water calls; it calls for thee.”

Paula Hawkins’ words are like those massive spiderwebs we run into when we hurry out the front door or run between dead trees in a graveyard, on a foggy night. The spiderwebs startle us, but after looking around nervously, we pull them off our faces and out of our hair and move on.

When the first Beckford woman to drown in the river was found dead in the town’s swimming hole, the news was shocking. As always, when such things (suicides or possible murders) happen, people asked: “why?” The answers were never quite certain or satisfying, so people pulled the spiderweb of shock and sadness out of their hair and moved on.

Then there were more drownings, that place in the drive acquired a whispered name, and in time it became impossible to move on because the voice of the river became harder to ignore and even those who had reason to know “the why” of each death weren’t sure whether they really knew “the why” or were caught in a web of lies, nightmares, premonitions, or the cries of the women’s’ spirits. The strands of the web now had the strength of heavy ropes, perhaps chains, and nobody could move on.

The reader, like any other newcomer to Beckford, is thrown into this twisted dream, and nothing is quite clear because there are so many points of view (a superb idea on Hawkins’ part) and those points of view align with less clarity than the yarn about the blind men trying to describe an elephant based on their impressions of a single leg, tail, or tusk. It’s hard not to ask, “Is everyone in town guilty or are they all simply crazy?”

Hawkins is content to step back from, say, a Stephen King “in your face approach,” and allow the readers and the saner characters time to push through the web of stories that ties the townspeople together. The ending–which some reviewers think was pasted onto the story for want of anything better–was, in fact, pitch perfect. Given what we knew, or thought we knew, it was the only ending that made sense. In fact, it was an epiphany we should have seen coming–but didn’t.

This is a superb thriller, almost an immersion in a drowning pool of dark waters and hidden currents. When we finish the book, we’ll plan to get the story out of our hair in a few days and move on. That probably won’t happen.

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–Malcolm