Brief Review: ‘The Girl on the Train’

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This mystery, narrated by three London-area women, is tightly written with multiple who-dunnit style twists and turns. Rachael takes the train into London every day and has gotten into the habit of fantasizing about the lives of two people she’s never met in a house near the tracks several doors down from the house where she used to live. She builds a perfect life for the unknown couple in the house and almost comes to believe she knows them–until the woman who lives there ends up missing.

The interesting plot is dulled to some extent due to the fact that Rachael, Anna and Megan seem some hopelessly inept in maintaining any order and purpose in their lives other than, perhaps, a focus on their relationships with men.

The author brings a nice touch to Rachael’s chapters because her excessive drinking makes her an unreliable narrator. The police–and the readers, as well–won’t be sure until near the end of the book what she saw and what she did during a black-period on the night “it happened.”

The train imagery is pitch perfect and the ending is satisfying.

View all my reviews



Review: ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, (Philomel Books: February 2016), 400pp, young adult

Between January and May, 1945, Germany evacuated two million people from the advancing Soviet army in the Polish and East Prussian corridors via Operation Hannibal, the largest sea evacuation in modern history. Over 25,000 of them died in the Baltic Sea when 158 of the estimated one thousand merchant vessels were lost, many to enemy fire.

Among the lost were 9,400 of the German, East Prussian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish refugees on board the Wilhelm Gustloff that was sunk at 9:15 p.m. January 30th by three torpedoes from Soviet Submarine S-13 at 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, nineteen miles off the Polish shore.

salttoseaRuta Sepetys’ superb young adult novel traces the flight of Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (Prussian), Emilia (Polish) and Alfred (German) from the advancing Soviet army. Alfred is a sailor sent to the port of Gotenhafen for duty on board the Wilhelm Gustloff to help evacuate those escaping from the Soviet advance. Joana, Florian, and Emilia have a more difficult trek to Gotenhafen because they are also running from the German army.

The story is told in one-to-three-page chapters from the viewpoints of the four major characters. By the end of the novel, readers know each of these characters like family for they will have heard an unforgettable story of brutality, death, guilt, fate, shame and fear from every angle that matters.

Joana is a compassionate nurse, Emilia is a pregnant teenager, Florian is a young man with secrets, and Alfred wants to receive a medal for small, self-important deeds. And then there are Eva, who is tall and gruff; Heinz, a cobbler who knows people by their shoes; Ingrid, a blind girl who sees better than many, and the other seemingly doomed but hopeful souls along the way.

As they walk through the snow, Joana thinks: We trudged farther down the narrow road. Fifteen refugees. The sun had finally surrendered, and the temperature followed. A blind girl ahead of me, Ingrid, held a rope tethered to a horse-drawn cart. I had my sight, but we shared a handicap: we both walked into a dark corridor of combat, with no view of what lay ahead. Perhaps her lost vision was a gift. The blind girl could hear and smell things the rest of us couldn’t.

Sepetys’ great success with this novel comes from many factors over and above her research. The story, including the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, is told in pointed, straightforward, often graphic language with well-chosen details and no authorial editorializing or sentimentality. If the refugees reach the ships in Gotenhafen, they may not be given a boarding pass: the Germans can easily find reasons for and against each of the characters. And, the subplot of secrets ultimately linking Joana, Florian and Alfred adds tension.

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect story about the tragedy of civilians in wartime or a better historical introduction to the plight of the Lithuanian, Prussian, Polish and German refugees caught between the opposing, but equally brutal World War II regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

Salt to the Sea is the novel no reader will forget.


Review: ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ by Harper Lee

“One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.” ― Robertson Davies

The mockingbird dies again in Go Set a Watchman.

watchmanIn To Kill a Mocking Bird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch and Charles Baker “Dill” Harris are among the innocent mockingbirds who suffer when the cruel realities of life intrude into their childhoods after Atticus is appointed by the court to defend a Black man accused of raping a white woman.

The trial and its aftermath represent a defining moment for the fictional Maycomb, Alabama; establish Atticus as the watchman who sees the truth and crusades for justice; and solidifies for young Scout, her faith in a wise and loving father who can do no wrong.

In Go Set a Watchman, the twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise who lives and works New York returns to Maycomb to visit her ailing father at a time when there are increasing tensions in the South after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Lee paints a clear picture of the concerns many small town residents had about the ramifications of desegregation. Some reviewers have skewed the point of the book by looking at these not-unusual 1950s beliefs through a 2015 microscope.

While this makes for sensationalistic headlines, it inaccurately clouds the realities of the time period for prospective readers.

Scout, who is basically color blind, believes what she grew up thinking Atticus believed: “Equal Rights for all, special privileges for none.” When it comes to matters of law, he has not wavered. Daily life, though, isn’t the law to his way of thinking. When Scout discovers Atticus thinks Blacks are not yet ready for the full rights of a desegregated society, her world is shattered. The man who wants to marry her has similar views and, along with her father, is attending political meetings aimed at finding ways to fight the Supreme Court’s ruling, The mysterious wonders of her childhood under the patient guidance of her father are suddenly at risk as everything she thought was true is potentially false.

Lost innocence and fallen gods are central themes in this book.

Like many debut novels, Go Set a Watchman contains a fair amount of back-story of “remember-when” discussions and reminiscences. While these passages inform the reader about what was, they also slow the pace of a novel. However, readers of To Kill a Mockingbird will probably also find these passages nostalgic as they shed more light on Mockingbird’s beloved cast.

After Scout learns what she learns about her father and his colleagues, she has a decision to make. She can run back to New York filled with hatred for the family and friends who have destroyed the remains of her innocence and her childhood memories with views she abhors. Or, she can stay in Maycomb, fight for what she believes, and as a watchman tell others the truths she sees among them.

Harper Lee deftly handles Scout’s dilemma in a wonderful novel that will, I hope, survive the perils of the misguided critics who have been shouting that the sky is falling.

–Malcolm KIndle cover 200x300(1)

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a novella set in the Jim Crow 1950s of the Florida Panhandle in which granny and her cat fight racial injustice with folk magic.

Review: ‘Speaking in Forked Tongues’ by Brad Gallaway

Speaking in Forked Tongues, by Brad Gallaway, Signal 8 Press (April 22, 2014), 306 pages

Forked TonguesBrad Gallaway’s dark fantasy/horror novel Speaking in Forked Tongues is inventive, delightfully written tale about a young man who calls demons for a living. When folks can’t solve their earthly problems, they contact Helping Hands agency who sends out a caller with an underworld solution. Callers who have been to hell and back multiple times are the best in the business.

While the publisher’s description claims that protagonist “Bren Barran is a normal guy in most ways,” one might ask whether a young man who was adopted by demons, who grew up in hell, and who brings clients and demons together to fix what nobody else can fix can possibly be normal in most ways. Yet, Gallaway makes Barran seem normal, in spite of a predilection for dark, self-deprecating humor.

Unlike poor Faust who sold all of his soul for help from hell, Barran’s clients usually part with a mere sliver, insuring that the demon on call gets what he wants, Barran’s boss Nareth gets what she wants (a cut of the action), the callers get paid and that the happy clients have enough soul left to bring in repeat business.

What could possibly go wrong?

Even though hell is a well-run, ably governed and a relatively safe place quite unlike what we’ve all heard, there’s room there for jealousy and discord. Truth be told, Barran doesn’t think demonkind is any worse than humankind when it comes to bad traits except for the fact demons are physically larger, have claws, and know dangerous (and harmful) spells. So, when Helping Hand’s callers start disappearing and when Barran starts getting attacked on the street, it isn’t long before (seemingly) all hell breaks lose.

There’s a bit of expected gore in this book and a wonderfully tangled plot for Barran to navigate as he tries to solve his agency’s demon problem while staying alive. Naturally, Mom and Dad want to help, but according to the rules, they also have to be paid.  The bad guys in this story are really bad and Gallaway makes them seem uncomfortably plausible while leading readers to an ending they won’t see coming.

On a minor note, a warning to parents: The novel’s listing on Amazon claiming that the book is suitable for ages 1 to 17 is either an error or a devilish promotional trick. Teens and adults of all ages can probably stand the heat, while enjoying the trip.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal short stories and contemporary fantasy novels.


Review: ‘Long Man’ by Amy Greene

from Literary Aficionado

longmanAmy Greene (“Bloodroot”) lives in the foothills of eastern Tennessee where she was born and raised and, as the lyrical prose in Long Man testifies, fell in love with the land and the blue-collar Appalachian people who cling to their world through floods and droughts with great determination.

Annie Clyde Dodson is one of the valley’s last holdouts against eviction as the TVA completes a dam that will soon contain the waters of the river her Cherokee ancestors named Long Man. The river is rising and the TVA is dispersing Yuneetah’s residents before the lake claims their land forever. While Annie’s husband is ready to move on, Annie is too much a part of the valley to leave without a fight. Keeping the farm whole and safe for her three-year-old daughter Grace is more important than electricity.

The roads connecting Yuneetah to the world will be under water shortly after the moving-out deadline imposed by the TVA. Amos, a drifter who was born in the valley, comes back for one last look and his own hidden motives. Grace goes missing on a day Annie saw Amos in her cornfield. A desperate search begins. Some think Amos took her. Others think she ran off and drowned in the lake. The TVA refuses to draw down the water to give the searchers more time.

Long Man is at once a well-plotted, deliberately paced adventure and a dark love song to the mountain people who–like the Cherokee before them–are being displaced in the name of “progress.” The story is told from multiple points of view including Annie, her husband James, the bootlegger Silver who watches the world from her mountaintop, the sheriff who must do his duty, and Amos who moves through the woods and fields like a phantom. Each person has a story to tell as the drama unfolds and Long Man begins to take away the town.

bloodrootWhile the pacing of this highly descriptive and atmospheric narrative may frustrate readers who seldom read literary fiction, Greene’s novel is nonetheless an impeccable portrait of a doomed town and a resolute people. Annie, Silver and Amos are characters not easily forgotten–nor should they be.

Note: when I posted this review on March 13 on Literary Aficionado, I hadn’t read Greene’s earlier novel Bloodroot. How I missed it when it first came out in 2011, I don’t know. Long Man is the kind of novel that leaves me wanting more words by the author. I’m reading and enjoying Bloodroot now and feel rather sad that when I’m done, I may have to wait for a couple years before seeing another Amy Greene book.

Update: The Washington Post included Long Man in its list of the top fiction books of 2014. (November 20, 2014)

–Review by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of Emily’s Stories.

Book Review: ‘A Certain Kind of Freedom,’ edited by Beryl Belsky

A Certain Kind of Freedom: Stories and Poems from the Writer's DrawerA Certain Kind of Freedom: Stories and Poems from the Writer’s Drawer by Beryl Belsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My objective when choosing the pieces for the anthology was to ensure that they reflected not only literary merit but also the multicultural nature of the website [Writer’s Drawer], as well as universal themes with which we can all identify.” – Beryl Belsky, from the Preface

A Certain Kind of Freedom presents ten stories in Short Fiction, ten first-person essays in Stories from Life, eleven poems in Poetry, and three poems in East Asian Style Poetry. While the short stories comprise the most dynamic section of the book, the anthology as a whole successfully fulfills Belsky’s objectives in the preface.

The title story about two young people who go kayaking in a cove that may or may not be dangerous or cursed, superbly introduces feelings of dread and a finely wrought narrative tension that characterizes most of the stories in Short Fiction. Susan Rogers’ “A Certain Kind of Freedom” employs a technique favored by director Alfred Hitchcock: placing everyday people into an unusual and chilling situation.

Kate and Ryan, who are visiting the Mediterranean coast, are experienced kayakers. The day is beautiful and the seas are calm. Yet Kate is preoccupied with “pink sky in the morning, sailor’s forewarning,” World War II dogfights that occurred in the area, and the unknowns of deep water once they paddle outside the sheltering cove. Rogers builds the tension well, foreshadowing a harrowing conclusion that, while not unexpected, is both surprising and sad.

In “Abigail,” Elizabeth L. Abrey also places an everyday person in an usual situation. While exploring her new house, Ruby Jordan gets locked in the basement. Once she extricates herself, everything seems fine. But then it isn’t–just possibly, getting locked in the basement wasn’t an accident.

Especially poignant is Leandré Grobler’s “Cry of the Fish Eagle”about an elderly aboriginal couple living in a secluded valley far from civilization who discover they are being watched by outsiders whom they do not understand. The watchers are well-intended researchers. As the tension builds, the reader can only wait helplessly for the inevitable clash of cultures that will destroy everyone.

Fans of Beethoven will love Tyger Schonholzer’s “Immortal Beloved,” an exquisite fantasy that re-imagines the circumstances behind the master’s famous “Immortal Beloved” letter to an unknown woman. The letter was never mailed. The intended recipient was never identified by historians. Could Schonholzer’s version be true? The romantic amongst us will want to think so.

All of the stories succeed, though some better than others, because they are tightly written and build toward well-plotted and appropriately foreshadowed conclusions. The essays in Stories From Life are generally informal and, while they introduce interesting characters, themes and settings, have a slice of life quality about them that often lacks unity and direction.

Bryan Clark’s “The Smoke Bird,” about an aboriginal mystic, Carrie King’s “The Ticket,” about an expectant mother barred from boarding a ship, and D. K. Srivastava’s “The Decision That Changed Her Life” about a Hindu bride waiting for her arranged marriage to begin are standouts in this section.

The offerings in Poetry are generally free verse with several of the poems falling into the prose-formatted-into-broken lines category. However, the poets’ passions shine through in such words as these in Syed Asad Ali’s “I Have Been in Love Twice”: …with you and with the idea of you; and maybe the reality of love lingers in between both of these.

Paige Lederman’s, memorable poem called “Fear” shows how a ten year old felt when hurricane Sandy hit New York’s Rockaway Beach in 2012, Dev Pillai’s tautly written “Paradox” looks at a moment in the past that was “incomplete yet content,” and Jane Tarlo’s bittersweet “It” bring strength to this section.

The three poems by Leon Zeldis, Jane Tarlo and Yael Shalev in East Asian Style Poetry comprise the strong final section of A Certain Kind of Freedom. These works clearly demonstrate the style and tone expected in the form, perhaps most effectively in Zeldis’ “Seven Chinese Poems” that begin:

Before the leaves went wild wind lofted,
The sky darkened
And I sat down crying.

Belsky concludes the book’s preface with the hope that A Certain Kind of Freedom will become the first of a Writer’s Drawer Book Series. Belsky and her contributors have made a strong start with this collection. For authors of future books in the series, this volume sets the bar high; for readers, it offers enjoyable prose and poetry that deserve multiple readings to fully explore.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the contemporary fantasy “The Seeker,” a story about a mountain vision quest, a flood, a girl, a swamp, and a summer romance on the rocks.


Review: ‘The Best of Glacier National Park,’ by Alan Leftridge

The Best of Glacier National Park, by Alan Leftridge, Farcountry Press (April 30, 2013), 136 pages, photographs, maps, resources

BoGlacier cover flat r1.indd“We’re here! What should we do, what is there to see?” In the preface to his practical and well-illustrated Glacier National Park guidebook, Alan Leftridge writes that as a park ranger, he often heard those questions from excited visitors who “wanted to start making memories.”

Many of Glacier’s two million annual visitors travel a long way to reach northwestern Montana, and when they arrive, they are not only in awe of the scenery but of the scope of the prospective activities that await them in a 1,012,837-acre preserve with 762 lakes and 745.6 miles of trails. While Glacier is best experienced without hurry or stress, the economics of vacation travel make it necessary for visitors to maximize their time in the park.

The Best of Glacier National Park highlights, as Leftridge puts it, the park’s “iconic features.” The book begins with an overview of park facts, geology, and cultural history. This is followed by twenty-six “best of” chapters describing everything from scenic drives, picnic areas and nature trails to wild flowers, birds and photography opportunities.

Each chapter includes a map, color photographs and clearly marked headings and subheadings that make the information easy to find. This book is meant to be used as a quick and easy reference whether you are stopped at an overlook on the Going-to-the-Sun Road or standing in a subalpine fir forest on the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. The hiking sections, which are broken down into nature trails, day hikes and backpack trips, include directions and special features you’ll want to see and photograph.

Glacier’s rangers, naturalists, boat crews and saddle tour operators are probably asked more questions about the park’s flora and fauna than anything else. The “Best Wildlife” chapter includes a mammal checklist and tells you where to find marmots, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and bears. The book includes appropriate warnings about Grizzly bears, suggesting that they be observed at a distance. “Best Birds” highlights ospreys, eagles and ptarmigans, among others.

Naturally, “Best Wildflowers” begins with beargrass. Leftridge notes that “It is a myth that bears rely on this lily to satisfy their diet. If you see beargrass’ tall stalks with missing flower heads, know that other animals, including rodents, elk and bighorn sheep, nibbled here.”

According to the National Park Service, there are 1,400 plant species in Glacier. While “best” is a subjective term, this guidebook focuses on such popular and showy wildflowers as the Glacier Lily, Indian Paintbrush, Lupine and other visitor favorites.

Naturalist John Muir said Glacier National Park includes the “the best care-killing scenery on the continent” and suggested that visitors  “Give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead…it will make you truly immortal.”

Whether you have a month, a week or a only few days for the high country known as the Crown of the Continent, The Best of Glacier National Park is an excellent all-purpose, general guidebook for discovering everything to do and see when faced with thirty-seven named glaciers, 175 mountains, and 151 maintained trails of waiting memories.


TSScover2014A former Many Glacier Hotel summer employee, Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of nonfiction and fiction with a Glacier Park focus, including Bears; Where They Fought: Life in Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley and three contemporary fantasy novels set in the park, “Sarabande,” “The Seeker” and “The Sun Singer.”

Review: ‘The Divine Comics’ by Philip Lee Williams

“In a great comedy, we are always made aware of the darkness in life, but the ending must be happy or it’s not a comedy. A man’s journey to wholeness is therefore most rightly named ‘The Comedy,’ for the end is the final awareness of that love which is the joy of the universe.” – Helen M. Luke in “Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’”

Philip Lee Williams’ magnificent “The Divine Comics: a Vaudeville Show in Three Acts” begins and ends with Whitman Bentley, a young man with gangly legs who’s been dreaming again, perhaps to escape the fact that among the eccentrics at The School of Music, he “may be the weakest, torn with every phobia in the catalogue.”

Since the novel’s back-cover informs readers that Williams’ novel reimagines and updates Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” we know going in that Whitman Bentley will, to put it crudely, go to hell and back, after—as Dante might put it—the eccentric second-string symphony conductor awakes to find himself in a dark wood where the right road is wholly lost and gone.

En route to the ending of “The Divine Comics,” (which is pure poetry and white rose wonderment) the reader—as well as Williams’ huge cast of dysfunctional characters—may sense that that there is no right road and that the trickster gods (known as the Divine Comics, aka “The Lords of the Inner Kingdom”) are plagued with every manner of dark joke in the catalogue. Ah, but the chapters in “The Divine Comics” are called skits for a reason.

The novel’s three sections, “Fire,” “Earth” and “Air,” match Dante’s “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” “Fire” focuses on a school of music, “Earth” on the followers of a lady who takes her friends on a cruise to France where they will be well paid to treat her as their queen, and “Air” on a mixed group of artists, politicians and scientists who have been assembled as honored fellows at a rich man’s Rocky Mountain retreat.

Each troop of trekkers has its own farcical road of trials, puns, groaners, riffs, improvisations on every imaginable subject under heaven, and assorted terrors to follow, complete with a guide, until all the skits merge into one with the novel’s almost-overpowering crescendo of an ending. Like “The Divine Comedy,” Williams’ “The Divine Comics” has four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral and mystical. While the novel has great depth and a near-infinite number of overt and covert references to music, popular culture, history and religion, it is a very readable and entertaining story.

At this point in the review, Dante purists may be wondering if any of the groups in the story is guided by Virgil. No, but there’s a good reason for that. Former used car salesman Al Carswell, who hosts Whitman Bentley’s group in the vestibule of hell, says that “the Big V” isn’t around much. “Last people he brought through was a bunch of Jaycees who died of ptomaine in Butte, Montana. After that, he turned sort of sour on things, don’t you know?”

Williams has done one hell of a job updating hell, purgatory and paradise for today’s savvy seekers of a great story and/or the white rose. Observers—such as the readers of this novel—left standing  in the dark wood for eternity will sooner or later shout, as James Joyce might put it, “Here Comes Everybody,” for Dante’s epic poem and Williams’ update some 690 years later are both masterpieces describing the human condition. This is not to say everybody must use “The Divine Comics” as a personal heaven and hell travel guide. After all, how will we know at any moment whether we’re in or out of Whitman Bentley’s dream? As Williams says many times in the novel as an author commenting on the story he’s telling, “It’s a question well worth our attention.”

“The Divine Comics” is, indeed a comedy. But rest assured that before you reach that happy ending, The Lords of the Inner Kingdom, will capture your attention and then leave you breathlessly rolling in the aisles at a Vaudeville show filled with enough black humor to last a lifetime, and then some.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the satire “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire”

Review: ‘The Other Life’ by Ellen Meister

The Other LifeThe Other Life by Ellen Meister
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quinn Braverman gave up her life in the big city with her high-energy, neurotic boyfiend Eugene for life in the suburbs with a loving son, Isaac, a stable but undemonstrative husband Lewis and a Volvo. The Volvo is a nice touch, for it symbolizes what Quinn believes she has—a rock solid middle class life with no spark in it. Quinn has “issues.” In fact, all of the characters in Ellen Meister’s poignant, yet somewhat flat, “The Other Life” have issues.

Quinn’s artistic mother, who suffered from depression, escaped her lot in life through suicide. As Quinn tries to come to grips with a difficult pregnancy, the loss of her mother and whether or not her own life is worth living in its present form, she has an escape hatch that’s better than death but ultimately just as absolute.

Quinn has always known that another Quinn lives another life in an alternative universe. She is aware of portals between the here and now and that look-alike place. In the other life, she’s still with Eugene, isn’t carrying a daughter who might never have a life at all, and isn’t driving a Volvo with all that entails. Seeking answers, if not escape, she finally steps through the portal in her basement. She likes what she sees. She feels guilty for liking it. It pulls at her like a dark undertow on a sunny beach. Yet, if she likes it too much and chooses to stay there, then Isaac and Lewis will be lost to her. Early on, she understands that she will not be able to step back and forth between these lives forever.

“The Other Life,” isn’t science fiction; yet some readers might appreciate additional clarity about Quinn’s universe next door. While Quinn acknowledges that the other life contains another version of herself, she never meets this self, nor does she become that other self and suddenly have all of the continuity and knowledge that would bring her. One gets the impression that the universe next door exists in stasis until Quinn appears.

More importantly within the scope of the novel, however, is the reality with which Meister presents the typical, and often difficult, challenges a woman faces in marriage, balancing the needs of a husband and a child with her own creaturehood, the losses of parents, and the prospects of a heartbreaking future with a daughter who may be born retarded. There’s an honesty here that we don’t often see in fiction, the concept that a woman can be happily married while wondering if that marriage is really the choice she should have made.

Quinn, as all real and fictional characters, must make painful decisions. Meister’s inventive next-door universe gives Quinn a unique option even though more magic, spark and facts about how that other life works would have strengthened the novel. While Quinn herself comes across as self-centered and a bit hard for anyone, including a mother, to love, her choice is no less difficult. Her thought processes as she makes her choices about the road not yet taken are the story’s greatest strength.

View all my reviews

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” a mountain adventure about a young man who steps through a portal into an alternative universe.

Book Review: ‘The Last Templar’

The Last TemplarThe Last Templar by Raymond Khoury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Raymond Khoury’s “The Last Templar” (2006) is part of a deluge of novels and nonfiction to step outside mainstream history to explore the real, prospective and imagined secrets about alchemy, the Knights Templar, and the origins of Christianity.

One cannot help but think of Katherine Neville’s “The Eight” (1997) which focused on present-day people fighting over and/or guarding the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (2003) which speculated about the true meaning of the Holy Grail and the bloodline of Christ. Many of Neville’s, Brown’s and Khoury’s fans were also attracted to such nonfiction as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, 1982) and Lynn Picknett’s “The Templar Revelation” (1997).

It is difficult to read, much less discuss, Neville, Brown and Khoury without acknowledging the fact that fact that they are part of a rather unique genre of spiritual conspiracy fiction that seemed to fill a need in the public psyche for truths thought to be missing from the tenets of Catholic and Protestant theology.

Neville’s “The Eight” was, perhaps, the first to popularize this “genre’s” style and focus: hidden wisdom, long-time conspiracies, compelling present-day mystery/thriller action, and numerous (and lengthy) history lessons. Since her focus was alchemy, Neville’s “The Eight” didn’t ignite the kind of controversy generated by Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” which, some might say, hit us where we lived if not where we worshipped.

Like Neville, Khoury tells his story with a modern-day and a historical timeline. “The Last Templar” begins with what Booklist called “one of the most gripping opening scenes among recent thrillers.” Four horsemen dressed in Knights Templar regalia steal artifacts from a Metropolitan Museum of Art show of Vatican treasures, including a “decoder.” The other story line focuses on the last days of the Knights Templar as the Holy Land is “lost” with the fall of Acre in 1291 and the subsequent pilgrimage of a few surviving knights to safeguard the Templars’ treasure.

Publisher’s Weekly was less kind than Booklist, saying that the “war between the Catholic Church and the Gnostic insurgency drags on in this ponderous ‘Da Vinci Code’ knockoff.” Many readers criticized Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code” for constantly stopping the otherwise full-speed action of the book while one character filled in another character about the secrets of Mary Magdalene, the Grail, the actions of the Catholic Church, and Jesus’ bloodline.

In my view, “The Last Templar” carries such backstory diversions to an extreme. Picture, if you will, whether it’s plausible that FBI operatives investigating the raid on the museum, the stolen treasurers, and the continuing deaths would spend hours discussing Templar history in great detail.

The greatest fault with “The Eight,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “The Last Templar,” is the fact that some characters must provide other characters with long-winded and unrealistic diversions into history, philosophy and theology because general readers are not likely to know the facts and the latest theories involved. The authors have felt that without these history lessons, the plots wouldn’t make sense.

I liked “The Last Templar” better than Publisher’s Weekly, but not as much as Booklist. The history was interesting, though I’d seen it all before. The plot was imaginative and included some page-turner action scenes involving the church, the thieves, the FBI and protagonist Tess Chaykin, an archeologist who witnesses the raid. The ending, while not wholly unreasonable was, I think, unsatisfactory, especially for those readers who not only want to know what the Templars’ secret but are angry that a real or a fictionalized church would deem it necessary to suppress the truth at all costs.

The romantic feelings between Tess and the head FBI agent add a variety of complications to the story, some of which lead into exciting action scenes even though the relationship within the book is rather forced and tedious.

For readers who have enjoyed the fiction and nonfiction in this wave of spiritual conspiracy books, “The Last Templar” is interesting escapist reading even though those who have seen it all before may speed-read through some of the Templar history.

View all my reviews