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Bookends: Murder Returns to Algonquin Bay December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Murder Returns to Algonquin Bay

By Dan Davidson

October 30, 2013

– 831 words –

 

Crime MachineCrime Machine

By Giles Blunt

Vintage Canada

294 pages

$19.95

 

 

There were four years and two unrelated novels between the death of Detective John Cardinal’s troubled wife in By the Time You Read This and Crime Machine. It’s not certain how long that time has been for Cardinal. In chapter 3 we learn that sometime after a six month stretch he decided to put the little house they had lived in together up for sale and moved into an apartment. He doesn’t like the apartment, but it was enough un-Catherine to help him move on a bit. It was also rather un-Cardinal.

“At one time he might have thought himself an urban type, back when he was living in Toronto, but not anymore. Now he was just a man whose wife had died and who had trouble seeing much value in his leftover life.”

If Cardinal seems a bit flat of affect in this story, I put it down to that. He and his usual partner, Lise Delorme, have fallen into a pattern of platonic movie nights. Lise is perennially unlucky in love. I keep expecting something to develop here, but it’s still too soon. Cardinal had twinges of temptation back when Catherine was institutionalized, but when she recovered from her chronic depression, and before she was murdered, straying never seemed to enter his mind.

We don’t start with Cardinal though. We start with Sam Doucette and Randall Wishart. Sam would rather have the life of Loreena Moon, her comic book superhero creation. It would be better than attending art college and working at the diner on some evenings. Randall has a beautiful wife and promising real estate practice, but he also has a thing for gorgeous young Native girls, and lots of empty houses to meet them in.

If he and Sam hadn’t met in the one on Island Road, and if he hadn’t left before she did once they had completed their tryst, Sam would not have been there when the three other people arrived, would not have been in the house when the younger man shot the older couple and cut off their heads.

Sam managed to escape with just minor injuries. Her story is just one of the threads in this tale, but we do come back to her and her story has its own points of interest.

Our two detectives have each been handed cold case files to try and clear during a lull in more pressing criminal activity, but the discovery of two headless bodies in a vacant home proves to be a relief from what seems to be a fruitless task. One of Cardinal’s files dated back to the 1970s and had been dredged through several times by other officers, but it finally turns out to have some bearing on a sudden spate of killings that seem to be tied together by the sameness of their means and methodology.

What the police don’t know is that a man who calls himself Papa, along with three young people he calls his family, has arrived in Algonquin Bay, and is using it as a base of operations. Papa styles himself a survivalist, a libertarian freedom fighter against the corruption of the modern world, but what he does is take impressionable, troubled young people and turn them into extensions of his own twisted world view. They are his family, and he is training them. Part of the training involves throwing gravel into the gears of the society he hates by stealing and by mysterious, motiveless killings.

It’s not a happy family. Papa holds them together by the sheer force of his charisma, which seems to be able to control all their impulses. His training is presented as a series of loyalty tests, moving from petty thefts to ATM robberies, and always culminating in a ritualistic murder.

Cardinal eventually learns something of Papa’s modus operandi from a freelance journalist named Donna Vaughan, who has been tracking a series of seemingly unrelated, but very similar, killings for quite some time, and who turns up in the city once the news of the Island Road murders gets out. The pair end up having a brief fling, but the things get complicated and don’t end well.

What seems like a rather slow investigation heats up rapidly during the last 60 or so pages of the book. Cardinal had a flash of inspiration that made me very glad I was reading an actual paperback book, because that made it so much easier to flip back through the pages and find out if I had it right at that point. Even then, I did not expect the twists that the last couple of chapters held.

I’m glad that Blunt has reopened this series, and I hope to see another installment sooner than this one appeared. According to his Wikipedia entry, I will soon get my wish.

 

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Bookends: Multiple Murders Pose a Difficult Puzzle for the London Police December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Multiple Murders Pose a Difficult Puzzle for the London Police

By Dan Davidson

October 23, 2013

– 890 words –

 

With No One As WitnessWith No One

By Elizabeth George

Harper Perennial

640 pages

$14.99

I admit to picking up this book because the actor who played the part of Inspector Lynley in the successful BBC series had been selected to play the part of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache in a CBC adaptation of Louise Penny’s mystery, Still Life. It seemed an odd choice, even though the French Canadian police detective is described in the series as having something of a British accent when he speaks in English.

I was simply wondering if the two characters had anything in common. It turns out that they do. Both of them are fairly patient in dealing with the less experienced and more volatile members of their homicide squads. Both of them have enemies gunning for them from within their organizations.

With No One As Witness is a novel from later in Lynley’s career, the thirteenth in the series, and there’s a lot of back-story that is only hinted at in this hunt for a serial killer.

Lynley’s career choice is an odd one for an Earl of the realm. Acting Superintendent Thomas Lynley is also Lord Asherton, and it appears that his inherited peerage is part of the problem he has in dealing with his immediate superior, the recently elevated Asst. Commissioner David Hillier.

Lynley has comparatively little trouble dealing with his chief aide, Det. Constable Barbara Havers (recently demoted from Det. Sergeant for reasons not explained in this book), except that he has to keep reminding his working class colleague not to keep putting her foot in it. Havers is not a physically attractive person, has an abrasive manner, and an independent streak that keeps getting her in trouble, though she is, in fact, very good at her work.  We spend as much time with her point of view as we do with Lynley’s.

Class struggles and personality conflicts are not the only sources of tension in this story. There’s racism as well. Imagine the plight of poor Winston Nkata, who is promoted to Det. Sgt. and made to be the black poster boy for Hillier’s crazy scheme of embedding a tabloid reporter with the homicide squad while they try to track down the killer.

This decision leads directly to the secondary crime in the book, for a detailed profile on the Toff in Scotland Yard is certainly responsible for the murder that takes place in the latter portion of the book.

Hillier is trying to gloss over the fact that various divisions around the city failed to notice the similarities in the deaths of three black youths prior to the discovery of the posed body of the white teenager that hits the headlines. Hillier fears the press, though there is really no need, since they hadn’t reported the other killings at any length either.

These are particularly nasty murders. The killer is taking trophies and it appears that his mania is accelerating as the list grows longer. He’s clever though, leaving almost no clues, avoiding all the CCTV cameras and somehow managing to leave carefully arranged bodies in plain sight without being seen by anyone.

He’s also quite clearly bonkers, as we can tell from the portions of the novel that are narrated from his point of view.

The story begins with the most recent victim, a cross-dressing youth named Kimmo Throne, who is combining a career as a prostitute with a penchant for breaking and entering. It’s the night of his last heist when he is almost caught by his victims and then becomes a victim himself during his getaway.  This is the first of a number of killings, leading to the uncovering of some that have already happened and more to come. The only constant clue is that most of the victims seem to come from the clientele of an agency that has been established to help troubled youth. Beyond that slender lead, the case is a total mystery, and it’s a mystery made worse by Hillier’s mismanagement of the situation.

For a first time reader in the Lynley-verse there are some complications to overcome. There are clearly relationship threads that have been intertwining for some time now and the background isn’t always provided. For instance, I was a good distance into the book before I realized that Tommy was an Earl, and I never did find out why Havers was demoted, although I suspect some form of insubordination.

There are lots of references to past cases, and one of those would undoubtedly explain some of Nkata’s hang-ups with Yasmin and her son, Daniel. Earlier books would also have introduced us to Havers’ Muslim neighbour and his daughter and prepared us for some of that dynamic. These little mysteries were not enough to spoil the book for me. Indeed, puzzling over them was a bit of the fun.

I’ve had a number of authors tell me that they are the worst enemies any of their protagonists could ever have. After all, they make these people up and then put them through the wringer in the name of entertainment. What George does to Lynley in this book shouldn’t happen to anyone, and I expect subsequent volumes will deal with the consequences.

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Bookends: The Tale of the Lost Legion is Concluded December 29, 2013

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Bookends: The Tale of the Lost Legion is Concluded

By Dan Davidson

October 16, 2013

– 875 words –

Princeps’ FuryPrincep's Fury

By Jim Butcher

Ace

640 pages

$1.50

First Lord’s Fury

By Jim Butcher

Ace

First Lord's Fury

784 pages

$12.50

At some point, close to 2000 years ago, a Roman legion and its camp followers fell through one of those cracks in the world that fantasy writers love and ended up in a strange place where elemental forces embodying aspects of water, earth, wood, fire, air and metal were real psychic forces. Over time the descendants of the original Romans developed the ability to control these furies, as they called them, and that became the basis of their ability to establish themselves as the primary military and political force on the continent that they came to call Alera.

There are other races on this world, and it is suggested that none of them are actually native to it. The Alerans hold off the mysterious Icemen in the North and the more humanoid Marat, who occasionally invade from a nearby land mass connected by a land bridge. From across the water come the Canim, anthropomorphic wolf-like creatures who mostly keep to themselves until they are threatened in their homeland by what seem to be the latest arrivals from elsewhere, the shapeshifting, hive-minded Vord.

During the first four books in this limited series, we have been following the life of Tavi, a country shepherd boy who, in the best traditions of classical myth, really has no idea who he really is or what he is capable of. It seems the only special thing about him is that he has never shown signs of having furycraft. This has meant that he has grown up thinking outside the box that most Alerans consider to be normal. He has become clever, shrewd and capable of great things.

By the time we get to the fifth book, Tavi has discovered that he is really Gaius Octavian, son of the murdered heir to First Lord Gaius Sextus. He has discovered that his aunt is really his mother, and that she has been using her watercrafting abilities to retard his own physical and psychic development in order to keep him safe from people who might want to kill him if they knew who he really was.

He has been to school in the capital and has become a capable leader in the legions. Away from his mother’s crafting he has grown like a weed and begun to develop the skills he had never had as a boy. By the fourth book he has saved the realm from an insurrection and arranged a truce with the Canim invaders, whom he has realized are fleeing the scourge of the Vord in their own lands. And he has learned who he really is.

The Vord it seems, were dormant until Tavi and the Marat girl Kitai accidentally triggered the awakening of their Queen years before. She seems to have been tainted by her contact with them and is unable to produce daughter queens. They sense her diference and try to kill her as soon as they mature. Oddly, she thinks of Tavi and Kitai as her parents in a very twisted way.

The narrative in the last two books of the Codex Alera series becomes more complicated as Butcher has to juggle an increasingly complex mixture of characters. As Tavi grows in power and abilities it becomes necessary for us to see him as others see him rather than simply following his point of view. Then too, there are complex plots unfolding on both continents, and while Tavi is across the sea assisting the Canim in their losing struggle with the Vord, his Uncle Bernard and Aunt Amara are involved in a secret mission behind enemy (Vord) lines and his mother, Isana, is engaging in some complicated diplomacy in the north.

In the final book of the series we even spend some time with the Vord Queen, seeing her through the eyes of some of the people she has captured. The Vord are like a virus, living only to reproduce. They have the ability to take over the bodies of their enemies and can breed warriors that mimic the abilities of those against whom they are fighting.  Their consciousness and strategy are controlled through the agency of the Queen. When first encountered they are merely a physical threat, but they learn furycrafting as the years pass and become an implacable foe.

Much of the last book is taken up with battles and combat of a mass and individual nature, but there is still space for a great deal more personal development of the major characters.

The style and pacing here is much different from the first person noir presentation that Butcher has used for his urban fantasy Dresden Files series. What the two series have in common is a lot of action leavened by a dry humour. Tavi’s has been a coming of age story with a lot of connections to classical mythology, cleverly altered to an otherworldly setting.

Unlike some series that seem to go one forever (as you listening, George Martin?) this one did manage to wrap up an extended story in just over 2800 pages.

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Bookends: Plumbing the Depths of the Inferno December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Plumbing the Depths of the Inferno

By Dan Davidson

October 9, 2013

– 855 words –

 

Inferno: A NovelInferno

By Dan Brown

Doubleday

480 pages

$30.00

 

Inferno: A Novel

By Dan Brown

Narrated by Paul Michael

Random House Audio

Unabridged

17 hrs and 12 mins

$42.00

 

It should come as no surprise that Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon thriller would already have a Wikipedia entry. Handy for a reviewer, I must say, since it lists the dozen or so major characters and spells their names for me. We listened to this book a few weeks ago while driving across British Columbia on Highway 16 and returning north on the Yellowhead out of Edmonton. It was a good travel companion and an apt one, seeing as so much of it was about travel.

Brown wisely returned to Europe for the setting of this novel. The Washington based setting of The Lost Symbol really didn’t have as much sparkle as the first two Langdon books. It was also wise of him to chuck the plot pattern that had plagued all of his early books, that of having the villain of the piece suddenly emerge from the hiding place of having been one of the protagonist’s trusted advisors or mentors.

In addition, while it helps to have read Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (especially The Inferno) and to have studied enough art history to be familiar with the work of Botticelli, it’s not essential. All will be explained, sometimes a little too frequently, as the book’s plot unravels.

Brown also dispensed with the standard Langdon opening, in which the professor is called upon to solve a puzzle, and we meet his hero lying in a hospital in Florence with a chunk of his memory missing and no idea how he got there. It appears that he has been shot, and it further appears that the extremely dangerous woman who shot him has tracked him down and has arrived at the hospital to finish the job.

Those things established, Langdon and Dr. Sienna Brooks begin what will become a roller coaster ride that rolls out in something close to real time. It seems like it ought to take more than just a bit more than a day for all the events in this novel to take place, but it also seems that, except for some flashbacks, that is exactly the case.

We are quickly launched on a guided tour of Florence, Vienna and Istanbul, as Langdon seeks to uncover the meaning behind the image of the painting he has been given and its connection with the hallucinatory dream that is all he can recall of the previous day.

In the meantime, we get to know something of the workings of the Consortium, the powerful international organization which has been helping Bertrand Zobrist stay in hiding for much of the last year. As the book progresses the Provost, who heads this company, come to realize that he has made a mistake.

Zobrist was obsessed with the problem of human population control, and had decided that, since the old Malthusian methods of hunger, war, and disease were not doing the job, something new, something with the impact of the Black Death, was needed to defuse the population bomb before it got completely out of hand. He had presented this thesis to Elizabeth Sinskey, the head of the World Health Organization, before he vanished, and she has been trying to find and stop him ever since.

As it turns out, she did approach Langdon for help, and then he was injured. As the story progresses, we and Langdon realize that he had already solved some of the mystery before he was attacked and that he is solving it all over again, only this time while suffering from limited amnesia and a concussion.

Given that this is a Robert Langdon thriller, it is not a spoiler to reveal that there are several points in the novel where nearly everything that you thought you had figured out in terms of character motivations and the actual shape of the problem is stood on its head, reversed, and sent off in a completely different direction.  That is one Brown pattern that has remained a constant through all of his books so far.

Lots of reviewers complain about Brown’s awkward style. It’s not so obvious when the book is read by as good a narrator as Paul Michael. My main complaints would be the seemingly endless repetitions of Langdon’s dream and the frame-by-frame revelation of the video that Zobrist left for the Consortium to release to the public. It’s that video that makes the Provost decide he has made a serious mistake in honouring his contact with his client.

Unlike Brown’s three previous novels, the antagonist in this story is not driven by a religious mania. Quite the opposite, in fact. His solution to the problem that terrifies him is cold bloodedly rational, and he does what he does with the very best of intentions, no matter how extreme his solution might be.

The ending will leave you wondering if he might not have been right.

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Bookends: Troubled Teens Seek Answers at a Strange School December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Troubled Teens Seek Answers at a Strange School

By Dan Davidson

October 2, 2013

– 740 words –

 

The SummoningThe Summoning

By Kelley Armstrong

Doubleday

400 pages

$16.95

Kindle edition,

$9.99

 

It’s a fair jump from majoring in psychology and computer programming to becoming a major genre name on the occult/supernatural shelf, but with nearly 20 novels to her credit since the first one (Bitten) came out in 2001, Sudbury born Kelly Armstrong has made that jump quite handily.

Bitten launched her ‘Women of the Otherworld” series of 13 books, stories featuring strong female leads in stories about witches, werewolves, and a variety of other creatures.

Most of these have been what is called urban fantasies, stories set in the now, but nevertheless full of magic and strange beings with powers. Most have been aimed at adult audiences.

The Darkest Powers trilogy, begun in 2008, was written for the Young Adult (YA) market and borrows, to a certain extent, themes and situations which are common to the Harry Potter novels and the original X-Men comic books.

The narrator of The Summoning is Chloe Saunders, who is just entering a somewhat delayed puberty. This is about the same age when Harry gets told he is a special boy and gets sent off to Hogwarts. It’s the age when kids get sent to study with Professor Xavier because they’ve begun to manifest strange abilities.

As her mother is dead and her father is often absent, Chloe has been living with her devoted Aunt Lauren. We learn that she’s often had a bit of trouble settling into school and getting along with others, but her recent entry into a school that emphasizes the arts fits in well with her dream of becoming a film director (there are a lot of film references in this book), and she’s been settling in nicely.

Then she gets her first period and with it the unexpected gift, or curse, as she sees it, of second sight. In her case, it’s the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. It’s not just that she sees and hears some dead people, it’s that the ability is totally outside her experience, totally distracting, and terrifying. She thinks she is going crazy, and the professionals her aunt calls upon to deal with her don’t disagree after she completely flips out one day at school.

She is packed off to a special school called Lyle House that deals with troubled teens. There she meets half a dozen other youngsters who have a variety of “gifts”, none of which any of the instructors at the school will admit are anything but delusions to be treated with therapy and drugs.

There’s brainy, charming Simon and his ominous, unsmiling hulking brother Derek, obnoxious Tori, and Rae, who has a “thing” for fire. There’s also Liz, and something weird happens to her. She is taken away after an incident with Tori, and Chloe starts to see her in the form of a ghost that doesn’t seem to know its not really there.

Each of the teens is, it develops, blessed or cursed with a specific power. Tori’s is called necromancy. Eventually all of them but Tori stage a breakout to get away from their keepers, people who they come to believe do not actually mean them well.

The latter part of the story is about their escape and the consequences that flow from it. I can’t really say more other than to indicate that Chloe’s entire life to date has been something of a lie and that she’s in way more distress as the book ends than she has ever been.

Yes – it ends on a cliffhanger; one that picks up and carries plot threads through the next two volumes of what I would really have to call one large book. I haven’t read those yet, but I can tell you that I’m going to have to, just to find out how this all works out.

While Armstrong’s work is often compared to that of Laurel Hamilton and Charlaine Harris, I found this reminded me more of the voice that Kathy Reichs (of Bones fame) has been using in her YA oriented Virals series, the main difference being that the kids in those books are powered by a “scientific” altering of their genome by a genetic virus. That’s another series where I’ve only read the first book, and another one I mean to visit again.

 

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Bookends: The Mystery of the Falling Supermodel December 29, 2013

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Bookends: The Mystery of the Falling Supermodel

By Dan Davidson

September 25, 2013

– 845 words –

 

Cuckoo's Calling

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling

(J.K Rowling)By Robert Galbraith

Mulholland Books;

464 pages

$29.00

At this point everyone knows that Robert Galbraith is the pen name of J.K. Rowling, and that the book wasn’t selling all that well before someone tweeted the whistle on the real name of the author. Prior to that revelation not many people had bought it or reviewed it, but all the published reviews rated it highly. At Amazon it was ranked 4,709 on the bestseller lists, but it jumped to number 1 once the word was out.

I freely admit that this is when I acquired my e-book copy from the KOBO folks and sat down to check it out. I was expecting that it would be a passable read. I was one of those people who enjoyed A Casual Vacancy when it came out last year and I know that my review here caused a few other people, who also weren’t disappointed, to give it a try.

I’ll have to admit that one of the advantages of the e-book format was that I was able to look up all the British slang that she used without having to carry a dictionary around.

Like Rob Sawyer, whose Red Plant Blues I reviewed here a while back, Rowling has studied the form of the private eye novel and uses it well.

Cormoron Strike is an interesting character, a down-at-the-heels former British soldier  (apparently an MP) who lost a leg in the Afghan conflict. He is the illegitimate son of a famous 60s rock star named Jonny Rokeby. He has recently broken up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend. He is badly in debt and is not doing well, so when John Bristow knocks on his door and offers him a major retainer to investigate the apparent suicide of his sister, Lula Landry, a famous fashion model, Strike accepts.

The book actually begins with Landry’s death scene, some three months earlier, and then moves on to introduce us to the recently engaged Robin Ellacott, who has come to Strike from a temp agency. Robin has romantic notions about what it will be like to work with a private eye, even if it’s just for a short time. She is very intelligent and competent, and brings a new level of efficiency to Strike’s business.

Rowling’s approach to the detective story owes a lot to the American hardboiled style. Strike’s personal life is a mess. There are a lot of distractions for him. He’s still moving out of his ex’s apartment. He has a sister who oozes disapproval. He would like to have a better relationship with her but really can’t seem to do anything right. He is depressed and still recovering from a degree of posttraumatic stress disorder.

He’s actually living in his office, sleeping on a folding cot. He’s trying to cope with his artificial leg and not having a very good time of it. He’s well into the story before he really begins to focus and apply what turns out to be a considerable degree of intelligence to the case.

While the narrative is mostly from Strike’s point of view, a fair amount of space is given to Robin as well It is through her eyes that we first see Strike, who bumps into her on the stairwell outside his office, almost knocking her down and only rescuing her by grabbing an unfortunate part of her anatomy.

“Her accidental assailant was massive; his height, his general hairiness, coupled with a gently expanding belly, suggested a grizzly bear. One of his eyes was puffy and bruised, the skin just below the eyebrow cut. Congealing blood sat in the white-edged nail tracks on his left cheek and the right side of his thick neck, revealed by the crumpled open collar of his shirt.”

It was hardly an auspicious first meeting, but she finds that he grows on her as time passes. Her fiancée, Matthew, is less than pleased with her decision to stick out the week of her initial employment and even more unhappy when she decides to continue with Strike as the plot in the investigation thickens.

And thicken it does. There are a lot of red herrings and plot twists in this story and something like two dozen characters to keep track of. The book now has its own Wikipedia page, with a complete list of characters and 27 notes and references links.

Rowling has written that she would have liked to have kept the penname a secret for a couple more books. She has already written the next book in what she intends to be a series and appears to have been doing more or less what Eric Clapton did when he hid out in Derek and the Dominoes – finding out whether she could still be appreciated without the cachet that went with her own name.

Personally, I don’t think she needs to worry about that. Two books away from Harry and his buddies and she seems to be doing just fine.

 

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Bookends: Too Much Remembrance of Things Past can be a Dangerous Thing December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Too Much Remembrance of Things Past can be a Dangerous Thing

By Dan Davidson

September 18, 2013

– 775 words –

 

FlashbackFlashback

By Dan Simmons

Little Brown & Co.

692 pages

$11.00

 

Approximately two decades from now the world is in a hell of a mess. The United States of America has fractured into a number of loosely affiliated ethnic states dominated by a variety of Anglo, Latino and Black power groups. The economic collapse created by the increase in entitlement funding was accelerated by the social and cultural collapse as white America reacted to the complete loss of international status that attended the national bankruptcy.

Enter the new drug, Flash, which allows a person to select and wallow in memories of more pleasant times and relive them over and over. The majority of the nation has become at least occasional users, and many are addicts.

Nick Bottom (and yes, the Midsummer Night’s Dream references are relevant to his story) has been a steady flash user ever since his wife was killed in a car accident. He’s abandoned his job as a police officer, the raising of his son (sent to his father-in-law) and just about any interest in anything other than finding his next flash fix so he can “be with” Dara again. He barely gets by doing a little private eye work.

Accordingly he is happy to take on a very rich commission from Hiroshi Nakamura, one of a number of highly placed Japanese envoys (or federal advisors) living in the US. In fact, the Japanese are propping up what is left of America by paying to hire mercenary soldiers to carry on a war they are fighting in China. There are, effectively, two power blocks in the world at this time. Japan is one of them. The other is the Islamic Global Caliphate, a mixture of states governed according to the worst that jihad has to offer. One of its first global actions was to set off enough nuclear explosions to destroy the nation of Israel.

Nakumura wants Nick, who was one of the original lead investigators on this case, to find out who killed his son, Keigo. Part of Nick’s qualification for this job is the fact that he once read all the files related to the case, files which no longer exist, and he can review them all again with perfect clarity thanks to the existence of flash.

Aside from Nick’s story we also follow the fortunes of his son, Val, and his father-in-law, Leonard. Val has gotten mixed up with some very bad young people. They undertake dreadful activities so as to have the pleasure of flashing on them later. Leonard is a retired octogenarian English professor who has simply been trying to do the best for his grandson, without a great deal of success. When Val becomes involved in a plot to assassinate another Japanese envoy (just for kicks, you understand) he and Leonard find themselves fleeing across country as part of a truckers’ convoy, leaving a Los Angeles in the midst of a multi-racial upheaval and heading for Nick in Denver.

Leonard is seeking sanctuary for himself and his grandson. Val would just like to have the opportunity to kill his father, who he believes was responsible for his mother’s death one way or another. He’s wrong about that, of course, but it does emerge that her death was not the simple highway accident that Nick had always believed it to be. When they are finally all together in Denver a lot of personal issues get sorted out.

There are plots within plots in this novel. Science fiction has always had something of an affinity for the mystery genre, and Simmons has written in both areas in the past. Here he combines the noir style of the detective novel with a bit of futuristic speculation. It’s obvious from the outset that Nick is being manipulated, but just how much doesn’t become clear until very near the end of the story, which takes place for the most part over a very intense 15 day timeline in September. As the story develops we learn that Nick is not the only person being manipulated and that everything is not quite as black as we see it through the eyes of our protagonists.

I always enjoy Simmons’ books, but I was troubled as I read this one to feel that parts of it read like a Tea Party manifesto. Some of the cultural notions expressed by various people in the book are more than slightly disturbing, but I take these to be necessary parts of the plot rather than a statement of the author’s philosophy.

 

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Bookends: The Secret Life of Helen Pendergast December 29, 2013

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Bookends: The Secret Life of Helen Pendergast

By Dan Davidson

September 8, 2013

– 875 words –

FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast began as a mysterious problem solver in books that were mostly about other people. As time went on, however, they moved to the rear and Pendergast to the fore. The character even developed story arcs that took two of three books to clear up. This trilogy marks the 10th, 11th and 12th appearance of the character and is best read one right after the other, especially after the middle book concludes on an atrocious cliffhanger.

There are simply bound to be spoilers in this review, so don’t read any further if this might bother you.

 

Fever DreamFever Dream

By Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston

Orion

576 pages

$10.99

 

We began to learn about the rather odd Pendergast family in the trilogy during which Aloysius had to track down and deal with his mad brother, Diogenes, but this trilogy digs us deeper into this history. We learn that several other members of the family were troubled souls.

Pendergast was once married, we learn, and his wife, Helen, was killed during a hunting accident in Africa some dozen years earlier. Early in this book Pendergast chances to examine the rifle she had been using at the time to hunt down a rogue lion, and discovers that it had been tampered with. On that crucial day it had been loaded with blanks and was never properly cleaned afterwards. That meant that Helen had been murdered. The remainder of the trilogy is full of one revelation after another regarding the secret life of Helen Pendergast.

Who was she really? Why was she fascinated with the life and work of James Audoban? How did she really meet Pendergast all those years ago? What does all this have to do with a parrot and the mysterious death of a remarkable family seized with both brilliance and homicidal mania?

Pendergast is not the only actor in this story. His friend, NYPD detective Vinnie Decosta is enlisted as an aid. As they uncover clues, they are stalked by an implacable marksman, who turns out to be Helen’s brother. Why he would be covering up all traces that might lead to the solution of her murder by killing all the possible witnesses is a complete mystery at this point in the story.

Meanwhile, Pendergast’s ward, Constance Green (the subject of a mad 19th century doctor’s experiments in extended life which have left her a young woman at the age of about 140) has been arrested for seeming to have killed her baby, which she apparently threw overboard during an ocean crossing. Her case becomes the obsession of a well-meaning therapist, who endangers himself while trying to verify her life’s story. There’s a whole subplot involving his quest, which leads me to believe that the authors have more to tell us about Constance later on.

 

Cold VengeanceCold Vengeance

By Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston

Grand Central Publishing

480 pages

$10.99

 

Book two sees Pendergast squaring off against his brother in law, Judson Esterhazy, on the Scottish moors, in what is nearly a fight to death. During the course of the duel, which takes up a good portion of the book, and takes place on land and sea, Pendergast learns that his wife is not, in fact, dead, but has been in hiding for all these years.

Kidnappings abound in this volume. Constance is captured in what seems to be an attempt to divert Pendergast and this leads to a shipboard battle of Bond-like proportions during which we learn that everthing Esterhazy has done has been to protect Helen, who is kidnapped herself at the end of this volume just as she and Pendergast are about to be reunited.

 

Two GravesTwo Graves

By Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston

Grand Central Publishing

624 pages

$11.00

 

The final book is even more about vengeance than the one that had that word in its title. Pendergast penetrates to the heart of a mysterious proto-Nazi organization called the Conclave, which has been experimenting with with twins in an attempt to create perfect Aryan specimens. One twin will be the superman and a weaker version will be available for spare parts.

Pendergast discovers that one set of these twins is, in fact, his sons, children that he never knew he had with Helen. One of them, Alban, is a Nazi trained, genetially engineered killer, quite likely his father’s superior in strength and intellect. The other, who finds his way to Pendergast’s home in New York, has no name until Pendergast christens him Tristan. Tracking down Helen and ending the conspiracy which has created these anomalies becomes Pendergast’s sole focus in this book, and the climax is even more Bond-like that I can remember this character being in the past.

I enjoyed these books, but I do think there was a bit too much going on, too many subplots that probably won’t be played out until some other book down the line. Child and Preston weave their various characters through many of thier thrillers and often leave plotlines dangling to be picked up later.

On the other hand, the books are fast paced and interesting, and I keep coming back to them.

 

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Bookends: Mixing Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction and the Occult December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Mixing Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction and the Occult

By Dan Davidson

September 3, 2013

– 936 words –

I’m not sure who started this penchant for mixing romance with some other genre. Nora Roberts (as J.D. Robb) does it with her three dozen or so “In Death” science fiction/mystery series novels. Charlaine Harris has done it with her 13 Sookie Stackhouse novels, adding the supernatural to the mix. The TV series, True Blood, is loosely based on these books. There’s something of the same blending of romance and the supernatural in the Twilight books, but besides being boring, these are almost devoid of actual sex, and you certainly can’t say that of the others I’ve mentioned.

This week I’m looking at two early entries in a couple of other series that do this same sort of blending.

 Touched By An AlienTouched by an Alien

By Gini Koch

DAW Books

400 pages

$9.99

Gini Koch has decided to add humour into the mix with this thriller/romance/SF blend. This is the first in her “Kitty” Katt series, narrated in the first person by Katherine herself. Kitty gets involved is what amounts to an invasion of the Earth quite by accident when she interferes in an apparent domestic dispute only to have the male half of the fight transmogrify into a winged monster before her eyes. When she manages to kill it with a ballpoint pen, the good guys, who turn out to be an organization of transplanted humanoid aliens, decide she would make a great recruit for their organization.

It’s not entirely that simple. In an almost Dan Brownish series of revelations and counter revelations we learn the history (in several different versions) of our alien protectors; we learn stuff about Kitty’s Mom and Dad that she never knew and we learn the details of an intergalactic struggle against evil that has more to do with religion than with the usual motives.

Then there’s the romance. Agent Jeffry Martini falls for Kitty right away and does not delay in making his intentions known. Kitty finds him incredibly attractive, but that seems to be the case with all the aliens, male or female and she’s very puzzled by all this. In spite of some initial reluctance it’s not long before they are succumbing to passion in beds, showers and elevators, ably assisted by the aliens having porn star style stamina. It got to be a bit much after a while and I found myself flipping pages on my iPod to get back to the actual story.

It does turn out that their overactive libidos are actually an important part of the solution to some of the problems they have to face, but still…

I mentioned humour. This is a funny book, in spite of being part of the war against evil and full of some very nasty super beings – humans transformed and empowered by alien parasites, the worst of which has adopted the telltale moniker of Mephistopheles. There’s lots of banter and bit of slapstick, and even the fights have their moments.

There are several more books in this series since this 2010 debut novel. Not bad for light reading after some heavier material.

 

Out of Time: A Time Travel MysteryOut of time

By Monique Martin

Createspace

294 pages

$11.19

Monique Martin’s first Out of Time novel was published under the Amazon Create Space program and offered as a freebee to attract readers to the series, which now has several other titles.

The novel follows the fortunes of Professor Simon Cross, a somewhat introverted university specialist in the occult. He has an assistant (a former student) named Elizabeth West, who is somewhat younger than he is. It is obvious from the opening pages that the pair are nuts about each other but each one considers the relationship improper, so they haven’t done anything about it.

Simon has some demons in his past and suffers from bad dreams, some of which involve the mysterious death of his grandfather. Grandfather left Simon a pocket watch with some odd markings and dials on it. When Elizabeth drops by his house one night with some graded papers, he shows her this watch. It happens to be the night of a lunar eclipse and when Simon accidentally moves one of the dials, the universe turns inside out and the pair finds themselves in Prohibition Era New York, not long before the great Stock Market Crash of 1929.

They have with them only what they were wearing. Their money is useless and Elizabeth’s clothes, in particular, are entirely unsuited to the time period. When they manage to scrape together enough to rent a room it has, of course, only one double bed. That, and their castaway circumstances, eventually dissolves the barrier of propriety that has kept them from admitting their attraction to each other.

They manage to find employment in a speakeasy bar, Elizabeth as a waitress and Simon, after a time, as a piano player. They figure out that the watch will probably return them to their time at the next lunar eclipse but they have to survive that long and it seems that Elizabeth has attracted the attention of a local mob boss – a man named King who is, as it turns out, a vampire.

Things don’t turn out quite as predictably as none might expect at this point and the climax held a few surprises, including Simon’s meeting with his grandfather.

This gimmick of a time travelling timepiece, mixed with bits of the occult, could provide fodder for quite a few stories. After all, Dr. Who has been doing wonders with that blue Police Box for decades now.

 

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Bookends: A Double Murder Sparks Fears of Racial Violence December 29, 2013

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Bookends: A Double Murder Sparks Fears of Racial Violence

By Dan Davidson

August 26, 2013

– 782 words –

 

Faceless KillersFaceless Killers

By Henning Mankell

Translation by Steven T. Murray

The New Press

Norton & Co.

400 Pages

$8.99

 

For Kurt Wallander the Lovgrens’ double murder came at exactly the wrong time in his life. It was worse for their next-door neighbours, the Nystroms, who discovered both the break in and the murders at the farmhouse on that January night. The old man, Johannes, had been so brutally assaulted that the medical examiner could not say with any confidence just what violent act had actually ended his life. His wife, Maria, had also been badly beaten and left tied to a chair with a peculiar strangling knot about her throat. She would die in the hospital, days later, her enigmatic hoarse whisper of “foreign” triggering a possible epidemic of xenophobic killings that simply muddied the waters of an already murky investigation.

 

Wallander was already distracted. His wife had left him just three months earlier and he had still not come to terms with that. She was pretty clear that it wasn’t exactly his fault, and that there wasn’t another man at the time that she left (though there was now) but that their marriage had gone toxic and she simply had to start finding her own life. She wanted to keep in contact, but the marriage was over.

 

Wallander is not coping with this blow by eating too much of the wrong food, gaining weight, drinking too much and getting far too little sleep.

 

On top of that, his relationship with his late teenage daughter, Linda, seemed to have gone to pieces since she was about 15. This is distressing because they had once been so very close.

 

Finally, his father, who had somehow managed to support the family with a commercial art career that involved endless iterations (with minor differences) of exactly the same painting, appears to be on a downhill slide into senility.

 

This novel, the first in the Wallander series, spends about an equal amount of space on the detective’s personal issues and the quest for a solution to the double murder and the racially themed fire bombing, random slaughter and terrorist threats that follow.

 

The murder investigation is further complicated by the discovery the Nystrom was secretly a wealthy man, with resources he and his father had amassed by war profiteering during WWII. His wife didn’t know about this, nor had she ever known that Johannes had sired a son during an affair 30 years earlier.

 

The several investigations that flow from the events of that January night take some eight months to reach their conclusions, and they don’t all come in sequence, nor are they all connected, save that some disparate groups of people have used the original murder as their excuse for mayhem.

 

Red herring investigations are a typical thread in all detective stories, and there are plenty in this, all fostered by the necessary need to create some sort of narrative that will link the essential elements of means, motive and opportunity. Without some kind of story it is difficult to assemble a chain of events and a time line that will account for the scanty clues. How did Johannes get to the bank to take out the cash that seems to have been the reason he and his wife were killed? How did anyone manage to find out that he had it when he had kept his wealth secret for decades? What was the significance of Maria’s last words? Perhaps most puzzling of all: why did the killers take time to feed the old horse in the barn?

 

Some of the confusion comes from the Ystad detachment’s desire to minimize the possibility of the original killing having been racially motivated. It isn’t until they learn about Johannes’ hidden money and the regular payments he’s been making to the mother of his bastard son that they begin to make any progress on the original murder. The subsequent murder of the Somali refugee turns out to be easier to solve, but is not without its moments of difficulty.

 

I’ve been watching the most recent TV movie adaptations of these books, starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander and David Warner as his dad. While this is the first of the books, they didn’t film it first. Given the amount of physical damage that Wallander sustains in this book, I am curious to see how they handled the facial make-up.

 

The novel was excellent, and once I had begun reading it, it moved right to the top of my list, pushing several others to a lower spot in the queue.

 

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