Sunday, August 4, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is a well written edgy novel by bestselling author Gillian Flynn. Flynn is known for writing books with dark and edgy characters. Gone Girl carries on that tradition. The background seems simple enough at first. Nick and Amy Dunne are about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Amy is from the northeast, the daughter of two famous psychologists and authors. Her parents created the popular Amazing Amy series of books. Nick is the son of a working class divorced couple from North Carthage, MIssouri. He moved to New York to work as a writer for a magazine. Both lost their jobs in the publishing industry and eventually moved to North Carthage to care for Nick’s sick mother.

Then the unthinkable happens. Amy disappears. The door of the house is open and there is blood on the floor. The place has been turned upside down. What has happened to Amy? Is Nick responsible? As the story unfolds people begin to take sides and as secrets come out no one seems to know how to distinguish truth from fiction.

The story is told in first person by Nick and through Amy’s diary. This makes for interesting pacing. Everything in the story is narrated as something that has already happened. At the same time it becomes clear that our narrators are not altogether honest with themselves, or with us. Gone Girl is one of those books that is difficult to review because there are so many plot twists and turns and a good review should never spoil the story.

Gillian Flynn has crafted a taut, edgy, thriller that will keep even seasoned readers guessing what is going to happen next. I am usually one step ahead in most mystery novels, I was in the dark through much of this book. That is not normal, but was quite enjoyable. I won’t say that the characters are likable, they are not. They are not meant to be likable. Flynn examines the dark side of life and shows that what you see on the surface may not be what you find when you dig a little deeper. This is a riveting story and is highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Target Lancer by Max Allan Collins

Thirty years ago Max Allan Collins introduced his private investigator Nathan Heller in the novel True Detective. In the course of that novel Heller witnesses the slaying of Mayor Cermak of Chicago who was shot down by a killer who claimed he was trying to kill President Roosevelt. Thus started the story of Nathan Heller. Over the last thirty years he has appeared in fourteen novels and over a dozen short stories. Now thirty years later in the character’s timeline he is wrapped up in another assassination plot. The plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in Chicago.

This time Heller is contacted by his old friend Bobby Kennedy. It is October 1963, and there is a strong likelihood that an attempt will be made on the president when he visits Chicago. Heller is wrapped up in this plot in more ways than one. Years earlier he had been the intermediary who hooked up the CIA with organized crime. The CIA wanted to kill Castro, but they needed deniability. The Mob wanted Castro dead as well, so Operation: Mongoose was launched. Unfortunately these attempts were laughably inept and everyone is getting worried.

On a bodyguard job Heller witnesses his client pass a payoff from Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa to an old childhood buddy of Heller’s, a man named Jake Rubenstein. Rubenstein had changed his name by that time to Jack Ruby. After his client is murdered Heller promises the widow that he will help track down the killer. So, while his agents try to locate a murderer, Heller is temporarily assigned to the Secret Service to prevent the assassination of the President.

Of course we all know that President Kennedy did not die in Chicago in November 1963. He died in Dallas. We also know that mobster Jack Ruby, with a sudden rush of patriotism shot down the man who killed Kennedy. While the story and some of the characters are fiction, Collins puts a lot of work into his novels. This research gives the stories an air of believability.  I was unaware of the story of the Chicago plot. Who was involved? We may never know, but Collins gives us a tight, tense narrative. If you enjoy fast paced, hardboiled detective writing then you should be reading the Nathan Heller novels. If you have not read any of these books then do what I did, take a chance. You won’t regret it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Nathan Heller books by Max Allan Collins

I just wanted to do a quick post about the Nathan Heller books by Max Allan Collins. I discovered these books last year. Amazon had a sale on one of the books. At $1.99 for the Kindle book I took a chance. I fell in love with Nathan Heller right away. When I saw more books on sale I snapped those up as well. I have now read through the entire series. I read several of the books last year, but gladly re-read them this year. They very enjoyable. Heller is a classic hardboiled detective. He has the mouth, the rules don't always matter to him. Despite what he claims though Heller is a very moral figure. His armor may be blemished, but he is still a knight who fights to right wrongs. Heller lives in a corrupt world. While he realizes it he manages to avoid getting himself dirtier than he has to. He always manages to interact with organized crime without becoming part of it.

All of the Heller cases involve famous crime stories. The characters that Heller encounters are quite a gallery. Elliot Ness, Al Capone, Mayor Cermak, Frank Nitti, Charles Lindbergh, Bobby Kennedy, and so many more. He also has a tendency to get involved with a lot of famous women. He may be the person other than Jack Kennedy who bedded both Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. Of course he outdid even JFK in t hat regard. After all, Kennedy never bedded Amelia Earhart.

As a kid I discovered classic Hollywood films like The Maltese Falcon. These films grabbed the imagination of a 13 year old boy. I have never lost that fascination. At times my interest waned. After all, good hardboiled fiction is very hard to write and not always easy to find. Discovering the Heller novels last year rekindled my interest in the genre. I recently celebrated my 39th birthday and love reading as much as I did as a kid. Authors like Max Allan Collins routinely remind me of why I love to read so much. If I have a choice between watching a movie or reading a good book, the movie will just have to wait. So thanks Max for all of the great books. Now it's time to check out your other series. Keep up the great work.

To read my reviews of the Heller books check out these links:

1. True Detective (Assassination attempt on Frank Nitti, the killing of Mayor Cermak)
2. True Crime (Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Barker Gang)
3. Million Dollar Wound (Guadalcanal, the Mob tries to take over Hollywood)
4. Neon Mirage (Bugsy Siegel)
5. Stolen Away (Lindbergh kidnapping)
6. Carnal Hours (Oakes murder)
7. Blood and Thunder (Huey Long)
8. Damned in Paradise (Clarence Darrow)
9. Flying Blind (Amelia Earhart)
10. Majic Man (Roswell)
11. Angel in Black (Black Dahlia case)
12. Chicago Confidential (Crime commission, Frank Sinatra, Joe McCarthy)
13. Bye Bye Baby (Marilyn Monroe)
14 Target Lancer (JFK Assassination)

Short Stories Collections:

Chicago Lightning by Max Allan Collins

Chicago Lightning is the second collection of Nathan Heller short stories that Max Allan Collins has released through Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. The first volume, Triple Play featured novellas and longer short stories. This volume covers the more standard sized short stories. This collection of thirteen stories fill in some gaps in the Heller cases. A few are cases that are referred to in the Heller novels.

Collins says that he prefers to write novels more than short stories, but you wouldn’t know that from the stories in this collection. Heller is at some of his finest. In “The Perfect Crime” he is bodyguard, and avenger of Thelma Todd. In
“The Strawberry Teardrop” he helps Elliot Ness track down, and then cover up the identity of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. The novel Angel in Black is a sequel to this story. In “Scrap” Heller does a job for an old neighborhood friend named Jake Rubenstein. Rubenstein is a minor racketeer mixed up in a crooked union. We meet Rubenstein again in Collins’ novel Target Lancer. Of course most of us know Rubenstein by the name that he used when he moved to Dallas: Jack Ruby.

These are good stories and it is enjoyable to occasionally see Heller work on a case that doesn’t involve a famous character. The more I read the Heller novels I don’t know why someone hasn’t jumped on the chance to make these into a series. These short stories prove that Heller isn’t just a vehicle that Collins uses to talk about famous cases. Of course those of us who have read the books could readily attest to Heller’s likability. I for one would love to see Heller developed by a station like HBO or Showtime. Of course I would only like to see it if Collins were part of the project. Nothing would be worse than seeing these fun, well written stories messed up. Don’t wait for a TV deal. Get the Nathan Heller novels and story collections by Max Allan Collins and enjoy some really great hardboiled, noir fiction.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

The Heist is the first book in a new series by authors Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. Evanovich is best known for her Stephanie Plum novels and Goldberg is a well established television writer and novelist, best known for his work on shows like Monk and Diagnosis Murder.  Kate O’Hare is a no nonsense FBI agent on the trail of master thief Nick Fox. Kate is a former Navy SEAL whose closest friend is her father, another former special ops warrior. Fox is an amusing, charming man who seems impossible to catch. Even when caught Fox is able to escape.

Kate tracks him down to a small Mediterranean island. Not one to be deterred by the niceties of international law she goes after him. She finds not only Fox, but also her boss at the FBI. It turns out that the FBI has allowed Fox to escape in exchange for his help in tracking down other elusive criminals. Much to her chagrin, Kate O’Hare is now partnered with the very man she spent years trying to catch.

This novel is a lot of fun. O’Hare and Fox assemble a motley crew to go after an embezzler who has disappeared with a fortune. The book reminds me a lot of a television series. No surprise considering Goldberg’s background. I could easily see this as part of the primetime lineup on USA Network. The characters are fun and quirky, the story is far fetched, but good enough to just be believable. If you are looking for a novel to deal with the larger questions of man’s place in the world or the horrors of modern society you won’t find that that here. If you want to sit back with a good book and enjoy yourself then pick up The Heist. I look forward to the next three books that are scheduled in the series.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The New Value of the Critic

The critic is a creature that has probably existed since man first learned to tell stories. In the glory days of journalism critical response could make or break authors, artists, playwrights, films, and any other form of art or entertainment. This had an ugly side of course. Critics too often viewed themselves a defenders of the culture and far too often they tried to determine the course of the arts. In doing this they stopped being individuals who shared opinions and became dictators of taste culture. As they did this they lost a lot of credibility. Books, films, and music often flourish in the wake of critical approbation while those lucky enough to be lauded by the critics were avoided. In fact an overwhelming favor with the critic could be seen as a reason to be cautious. Films and books loved by critics could often be pedantic, tedious, and dull. At the same time the films and books that people enjoyed might be mocked and derided.

Then print journalism began to suffer in the digital age. The professional critic was often a casualty of budget cuts. At the same time retail websites began to allow consumers to post opinions the product’s page. This diminished the critics influence further because now everyone was playing the game.

The new digital age gives us a world of new opportunities. First with the rise of the internet and now with social networking authors, musicians, artists, and others have the ability to create and distribute their material in new and exciting ways. Once it would have been nearly impossible for me discover some indie musician in another part of the country, or the world. Now someone recommends them, I can go online, check out some samples, download a track or a whole album.

While musicians were some of the first to take advantage of the internet’s potential authors were not far behind. The rise of self publishing platforms and ebooks has opened up venues that would have been hard to imagine twenty years ago. Prior to this new technology a person had to either get a publishing deal, or self print through a “vanity press.” Of course publishers could only afford to support so many new books and authors, and books, unless very popular, would often go out of print. It might be possible for a self published author to place books in a local bookstore, but there was little or no chance of taking a book like that into a national marketplace. Of course it was also a financial risk because an author would have to print thousands of copies with no guarantee of ever selling them,

With ebooks and with print-on-demand options from CreateSpace, Lulu, and many others it has become possible for anyone to be published and distributed worldwide with little or no expense up front. This is a wonderful boon for those who might be good writers, but will never end up on the bestseller list. Now they have an international audience.

Unfortunately with the good comes the bad as well. Some authors are not published by major publishing houses because they simply haven’t been discovered or because their book isn’t quite commercial enough. Others are not published because they really aren’t that good. In fact amateur is quite often a better word than indie for many of these writers. Some of them have good ideas, they simply do not currently have the skills necessary to write a really good book.  Most of the time the writing comes across a bit juvenile. It feels more like a high school writing project than a book. I always hate it when I come across this, because I often like the plot ideas, the execution is simply lacking.

So what does this mean for the critic? I believe that the critic is once again a necessary part of the arts and entertainment. After all, someone needs to wade through the jungle of material that is out there. While I believe the critic to be necessary I also believe that the critic needs to be aware of the limitations of the job. First and foremost the critic should be a reporter, and not try to be a shaper of culture. After all, a critic is simply a person willing to share an opinion. Critical opinion has been as wrong as it has been right over the years.

As critics we need to enjoy what we do and we need to view our jobs as sharing that love. Sometimes negative criticism is necessary, but it should be viewed in a helpful, not a harmful manner. An acerbic wit might be fun to read at times, but in the end it does not help the reader. After all, works that are now considered by many to be great literature suffered scathing reviews from the critics. We should remember that the primary responsibility of the book critic is to help the reader to find a book that is enjoyable to the reader. The secondary responsibility is to help authors to improve in their craft. A gentle nudge will often gain more in that area than a biting attack.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of the most interesting storytellers of our time. From his award winning Sandman comic book series to his award winning novels like American Gods he has shown an amazing ability to look beneath the surface and give us a dream like experience of reality. His newest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. It is often hard to tell what is real and what is a dream. Or is it all a dream?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at one level, the story of the narrator as a seven year old boy. The novel begins as the narrator is taking a drive down memory lane after a funeral. He drives past his childhood home and then finds himself going to the home of a childhood friend. He goes around to the back and sits down. As he sits he begins to remember the events that took place when he was seven. The seven year old boy is very familiar to me. At one level he is a reconstruction of Neil Gaiman as a child. I see myself in the boy as well. I too found my friends in books and preferred their company to that of other children. Like the narrator and the author some of the first books I remember are the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis.

The world of this seven year old is turned upside down when the man who is renting a room in their house commits suicide. This suicide wakes up something primordial. At the scene of the suicide the narrator meets Lettie Hempstock. At first Lettie seems to be nothing more than an eleven year old girl living with her mother and grandmother. These three women are far from normal. They are something larger and more powerful. By accident the narrator lets a great evil through into our world. Now, with the help of the Hempstock women he has to try and contain this evil and send it back where it came from. 

This is more than just a story of childhood fantasy. It is the story of good against evil. Of powers beyond our control invading our world and trying to turn it upside down. It is the outside world trying to rob the innocence of children. It is the story of losing something, of something being taken as we grow older. Actually it is a story of childhood fantasy. It’s not the awakening to evil, it is the realization of good. Gaiman lists G. K. Chesterton as one of his childhood influences. Perhaps this quote from Chesterton’s essay “Red Angel” would help illuminate this book:

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

This is an amazing book. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for small children. I say I am not sure, not because it is frightening. I think that this book is more than that. I think that this book is for those who need to find the belief in something bigger than themselves.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen

Andrew Yancey is having a rough time. He is about to lose his job. It turns out that cavorting about with the wife of a rich and politically well doctor, then publicly assaulting the doctor in a fight is not the best way to keep your job in the Sheriff’s office. Even though he is about to by cashiered the Sheriff asks Yancey to do him a little favor. It seems that a human arm has turned up on the fishing line of a tourist. The Sheriff would like to pass the problem off to Miami. So he asks Yancey to take the arm up from the Keys to the city in the hopes that this case will go away. Miami doesn’t want the arm, the Sheriff doesn’t want the arm. Yancey thinks that there may be foul play. In the meantime Yancey is given a new job as a Health Inspector. Counting roaches and rat droppings is not why he went into law enforcement. So he keeps the arm in his freezer hoping to solve the crime and get reinstated.

This fun novel has a cast of zany characters and hilarious scenes. As Yancey tries to solve a crime that no one even thinks happened he is also waging a private war against a developer who is building a huge mansion next door to his home. He is getting to know a new girlfriend, a coroner, who has some interesting ideas about how to have a good time. He has an Oklahoma lawman asking questions about the married woman he was having an affair with. As if that wasn’t enough he also has to deal with a voodoo queen in the Bahamas who has a voracious appetite for men, a shady real estate deal, and a fisherman who just wants his land and his obnoxious pet monkey back.

While the characters are quite funny and even enjoyable at times they aren’t always very likable. After all the “hero” of our story is a cop who likes to get high and fool around with married women. The dialogue is fun and well written for the most part. The only real problem with the novel in the Bahamian patois. Writing in patois is difficult and reading it is even more difficult. I found it very hard to “hear” the dialect as I was reading. Perhaps that is just my own problem and others will find those passages easy to read. Don’t let this one quibble get in the way of reading the novel. I had a good time reading it and more than once attracted attention to myself by laughing out loud while I was reading it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Triple Play by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has given us a number of Nathan Heller novels. In this book he collects three novellas from the world of Nathan Heller. There is a grand tradition of these stories that are longer than short stories and shorter than novels. Once it was common to feature these in short story magazines. Authors (or publishers) would often collect three of these novellas and publish them in a single volume. Collins points out that this was a standard practice for Rex Stout. As short story periodicals have disappeared so have the novellas.

Collins says that he prefers writing novels to short stories. You wouldn’t know that from reading these stores. Of course they are not as in depth as a full novel, that would not be possible given the size of the story. For these stories Collins choose cases that were not as large in scope and so they allow for a shorter story. “Dying in the Post War World” covers the Lipstick Killer case. In this story Heller helps to track down a serial killer whose brutality leaves him ready to take matters into his own hands. In “Kisses of Death” Heller gets his first opportunity to work for Marilyn Monroe. While working for Ms. Monroe he is reacquainted with some members of the Chicago literary scene, mainly the obnoxious poet and author Maxwell Bodenheim. His look at this leading jazz age figure is less than flattering, but oh so wonderfully written. Finally in “Strike Zone” Heller goes to work for Bill Veek. Veeck was a well known character in the world of baseball. He loved to pull stunts to entertain the crowd. One of his best known stunts was to draft a midget as a pinch hitter. Eddie Gaedel will always be remembered as the shortest man who ever played professional baseball, even though he was later disqualified. Heller investigates the death of Gaedel after the man’s mother claims that he was murdered. There was a line in this story that had me laughing until I hurt.

All three of these novellas are well written and wonderful to read. I enjoyed each of them and can recommend this to any lover of great hardboiled detective stories.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

One of the most enjoyable aspects to the study of history is always finding new stories. Even when you think you know a lot about a field you find something new and enjoyable. That one of the many reasons that I enjoyed Monuments Men so much. Robert Edsel has provided us with a look at an area of World War II studies that has gone virtually unnoticed for nearly 70 years. The men and women of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) Division served an almost unknown, but incredibly valuable part in the war against the destructive evil of Nazism.

When Hitler's forces overran Europe they set about looting the national artistic treasures in a methodical manner. Priceless treasures were pillaged from the museums and galleries of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and other European nations. All property belonging to Jews were taken. Hitler's dream was to create an enormous museum that would be the envy of the entire world. Instead he launched the most destructive war in history.

The allies were aware of the cultural heritage in the areas that they would be fighting. This is why the MFAA was created. The original MFAA officers were tasked with traveling into the war zones and identifying historic sites that needed to be preserved. The stories of what these men accomplished is truly amazing. Time after time they were able to save important buildings from being destroyed.

As the book progresses we see another dimension of their work. They began to investigate the Nazi looting. Their job shifted from simply protecting buildings from destruction to locating stolen works of art. At times the book resembles an action thriller story. The theft of priceless works of art. The heroic civilians who work undercover to spy on the Nazis. The small band of men rushing from place to place to save these priceless objects.

I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the subject, I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed everything about it. Robert Edsel has done an excellent job of sharing this important story with us. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of the statement that those who do not study history are bound to repeat it. We never studied the important work of the Monuments Men. As a result the allies were not prepared when Iraq was invaded in 2003. The looting of those priceless antiquities could have been avoided by simply employing a group like the MFAA. Perhaps this book will help to raise awareness so that tragedies like the Iraq museum will not happen again. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Telegraph Hill by John Nardizzi

Telegraph Hill is the first novel by John Nardizzi. In this volume we are introduced to Mr. Nardizzi’s private eye Ray Infantino who runs a successful office in Boston. The novel opens with a murder. A chinese mobster is gunned down by rivals on a hotel rooftop in San Francisco. In the next scene we meet Infantino. Nardizzi is obviously a fan of the great hardboiled detective novels. Infantino is Nardizzi’s addition to the genre. Infantino is hired to find a missing chinese girl. Seems like a simple case. Rich girl runs off, rich parents want to find her, they want it kept low key. Sounds simple. That is until Infantino leaves the lawyers office. The lawyer then makes a mysterious phone call and it looks like he is signing Infantino’s death warrant as soon as the girl is found.

The girl in question Tania Kong. In her time in America she has become a high priced escort in San Francisco. She was unlucky enough to have been on the site when the Chinese mobster was gunned down on page 1. She is on the run. The triad has dozens of killers on the lookout for her. Will Infantino be able to find her before the triads do? Will they both be able to escape whatever the client is planning?

In addition to the main story line Infantino is also working on a private matter. A few years earlier his girlfriend was killed in a bomb blast meant for him. The case has never been solved and he wants answers. He believes that the bomber is from a white supremacist group that he was investigating. Now he is back in San Francisco and he intends to finish this case.

This is a good first novel. The plot moves quickly and the dialogue is very good. Nardizzi tends to overdo the narration at times, the desire to get that classic noir feel sometimes feels a little wooden. The well written dialogue shows that the author definitely has skill and I have no doubt that over the course of future books this quality will only continue to grow and shine. Hardboiled fiction is difficult to write well. By its nature it can lead to excess or cardboard cutout characters and events. This is avoided with great skill. While a 250 page novel doesn’t give a lot of room to go into great character depth you do get a feel that these characters are real and you want to get to know them better.

Infantino is a likable character and he seems to have a good supporting cast. I definitely look forward to reading more novels about Ray Infantino. If you love hardboiled detective novels then this is a fun way to spend some reading time. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher was an amazing political leader. In her own lifetime she was both admired and reviled by many. Even on the occasion of her death the responses could be quite loud. Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands is the first volume in a two volume biography of the Iron Lady by author Charles Moore. Moore spent many years working on this project. Lady Thatcher gave him access to her own material and encouraged others to talk to him. The only stipulation was that the book be published after her death. Moore is quite thorough in his work. He covers Thatcher’s life in great detail. He also covers her personality. This is not an attempt to canonize the subject. Thatcher is shown to be stubborn, difficult, and at times even a bit abusive of her colleagues. Moore points out her many weaknesses as well as her strengths. The overall image is not flattering, but it does show a very human Thatcher, something that we do not see very often when she is portrayed.

Thatcher’s father made a great impression on her early life. He was a storekeeper and a lay Methodist minister. Many of her strongest beliefs were instilled by her father at a early age. This included a strong work ethic and a strong desire to help those in need. For all of her critics claim to the contrary her greatest desire was always to look after the working men and women in England. Whenever she looked at a bill she tended to look at it like a housewife examining an item on the family budget. She disliked inflation because she felt that it wiped out the hard earned savings of industrious workers. She fought hard to sell off government owned housing to the people who lived in the housing. 

Moore tells us a lot about her early life. Thatcher was always very closed about her personal life, always referring to discuss policy more than her own past. Moore shows that Denis was not the first man that she dated, something that she always claimed. We see that she was often so focused on her own life and career that she at times neglected other members of her family like her sister and her parents. We also see Margaret the snappy dresser. It is sometimes hard to remember that great people that we see in middle age were once teenagers. Thatcher loved to shop for clothes and had a particular passion for hats. From the time she was young she seemed to be destined to break down barrier. In the “old boy” world of education and politics she took second place to no one. Moore recounts the story of a headmaster congratulating the young Margaret on her luck at winning a prize in school. She responded that it wasn’t luck, she had worked hard for the award.

Early on in politics she was added to the Shadow Cabinet in a traditional “woman’s position.” She worked through that and soon showed the boys how to run a government. Neither the Labour leadership nor the Conservative leadership ever knew what to do with this upstart middle class woman who didn’t seem to know her place in the system.

Readers not familiar with the British system of government (where the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are all elected members of Parliament) it will seem amazing that from the beginning Thatcher had to fight not only with the opposing Labour party, but with members of her own cabinet. Many in her cabinet considered her as nothing more than a fluke and wanted to remove her from power so that they would be able to resume the game of politics as normal. That was not to happen. At least not for a long time.

This book is very detailed and has extensive notes and sources. In fact if there is any criticism it would be that it is too detailed. For a person who loves the minutiae of policy making this book would be wonderful. For those looking for a general biography they may find it to be a little cumbersome in the shear amount of detail given. One other observation. Most Americans know very little about the English education system or the English system of government. This book is written by an English author who assumes that everyone understands these topics. Perhaps a glossary or an appendix explaining these systems would have been useful in the American edition.

These slight criticisms aside the book is well written and fascinating. If you want to learn about one of the most important and fascinating political figures of the twentieth century then pick up this book.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Octopussy and The Living Daylights by Ian Fleming

Octopussy and The Living Daylights is a short story collection by Ian Fleming. It was collected and published after Fleming’s death. The book is very short and only contains four stories. “Octopussy” Is a story about a former British officer who is now in retirement. All seems to be well until a man named Bond shows up and exposes an old crime. “The Living Daylights” has Bond using his skills as a sniper to protect a spy who is trying to escape from East Berlin. In “Property of a Lady” Bond has to trap a mole inside the office. Finally in “007 in New York” Bond spends an evening in the Big Apple.

The stories are short and are not exactly his best work. Fleming was a great writer of novels. His novels were never long, almost all coming in at under 200 pages. Somehow that format better fits his style. “Octopussy” is an interesting morality tale of murder and greed. “The Living Daylights” is an interesting story because it shows Bond at odds with his duties as a 00 agent. The other two stories are below par for Fleming’s work. Overall the two title stories are alright. If you want to own all of Fleming’s Bond Books then you will need to get this book. Don’t make it your first Bond book though.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

This is the first Philip Marlowe book. Marlowe would go on to become one of the great icons among hardboiled detectives. Marlowe is a private investigator. He will tell you that he has a problem with authority. At the beginning of the novel he is hired by General Sternwood, a very wealthy, very elderly client with two wild and reckless daughters. Marlowe thinks that he is handling a simple case. On the surface a man is just asking for a gambling debt owed by the youngest daughter be paid. Marlowe thinks that blackmail may be involved. Before the novel is over he will have dealt with the blackmail. Of course the case turns out to be bigger than he thought. Before all is over he will have to deal with blackmailers, gamblers, pornographers, and murderers. That is the simple part. The hard part is keeping his client’s daughters out of the trouble that they seemed determined to end up in.

The Big Sleep is a great hardboiled detective novel. Chandler’s prose is masterful in the way he brings out the story. Written, like many hardboiled detective stories, in the first person the character of Marlowe is a fascinating blend of pragmatic man of the world and the idealist trying to do the right thing. The book is very much a product of it’s time and some of the language and attitudes might offend some readers today, but don’t let it bother you as you experience this wonderful piece of American literature. Get The Big Sleep today and enjoy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Drizzt Novels by R. A. Salvatore

I have now read through the entire series of Drizzt novels by R. A. Salvatore. This has been a wonderful journey. I am looking forward with great anticipation to the next novel. Next in the Fantasy genre I will look at the Erevis Cale novels by Paul S. Kemp. Stay tuned for some more reviews of great fantasy novels.

Streams of Silver by R. A. Salvatore

In the aftermath of the battle against the wizard Akar Kessel and the Crystal Shard Drizzt, Bruenor, and Wulfgar decide to go on a search for the great dwarven realm of Mithral Hall. Bruenor is the rightful king, but his people had been driven from the Hall and the path has been forgotten. They are joined by Regis who seems to be in a strange hurry to join in an adventure. In the meantime Cattie-Brie is kidnapped by a new nemesis, Artemis Entreri. Entreri is hunting Regis and intends to have him. The travelers face many adventures. Catti-Brie finally escapes and warns them about Entreri. Together they continue the search for the famed dwarven halls. The search takes them through a number of adventures and they meet new friends along the way.
An important theme running through this story is the treatment of Drizzt. As a Drow (dark elf) he is feared and hated. He understands this because of the well known viciousness of his people, but it still hurts him at times. More than that his friends truly experience this hatred and have little patience for it. This helps to cement their bond as a group.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Last Threshold by R. A. Salvatore

The Last Threshold is the newest novel in R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series. So much has happened in these novels since Salvatore first introduced Drizzt and his companions. In The Ghost King and Gauntlgrym Drizzt lost his companions of many years. Over the last two novels he has built up a new group of friends. At the end of Charon’s Claw Dahlia had her revenge against Herzgo Alegni. She was struck by an even more profound discovery. The misshapen tiefling wizard Effron is the son that she thought she killed by throwing him off a cliff as a baby. Artemis Entreri thought that the destruction of Charon’s Claw would end in his death. It did not. Now these two join Drizzt on a new journey. Neither have any real place to go. Joining them is Ambergris, the dwarven cleric who had embedded herself as a spy in the Shadovar mercenary team Cavus Dun. She has brought with her another refugee from the mercenary band, a young monk named Afafrenfere.

Drizzt decides to give the group a purpose, so he travels to the city of Port Llast which is under attack from evil sea creatures. Will Drizzt be able to reform this ragtag group? Most of these companions have only lived for themselves and have been killers and thieves. To secure the safety of Port Llast Drizzt will have to work with the Ship Lords of Luskan. There are many more wheels turning in this story. Tiago Baenre seeks to kill Drizzt to cement his own fame. Drayo Quick has taken Guenhwyvar prisoner and is now able to spy on Drizzt and his companions through her eyes. Effron wants to track down Dahlia and make her pay for what she did to him. Wound up in all of this is the drow mercenary band Bregan D’aerthe.

The Last Threshold nicely wraps up the Neverwinter Saga with a lot of surprises and some beautiful story telling. The end of the novel was very unexpected. There is a major new event coming to the Forgotten Realms starting this summer. The first novel is a Drizzt novel. I have no idea what Salvatore is planning, but I can’t wait to read it. It is amazing to me that after twenty-three novels Salvatore still manages to keep the Drizzt stories exciting, entertaining, and thoughtful. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Charon's Claw by R. A. Salvatore

Charon’s Claw takes Drizzt to new challenges as he tries to deal with all of the events that have been swirling through the Neverwinter Saga. The Thayan forces have been pushed back by the death of Sylora Salm. At the end of Neverwinter Dahlia learned that Herzgo Alegni was alive and in control of Neverwinter. She sets out for the city to claim her revenge on the warlord who murdered her family and raped her. Drizzt does not know the reason for Dahlia’s hatred, but he follows along reluctantly. Barrabus the Grey was revealed to be Drizzt’s old nemesis Artemis Entreri. Entreri joins them in their move against Alegni even though he knows that it could spell his own long overdue death.

In another thread of the story the drow of Menzoberranzan are on the move. House Xorlarrin sends out an expedition to locate the Dwarven city of Gauntlgrym. Their goal is to create a new drow city from the ruins of the ancient homeland of the dwarves. As always with the drow there is much intrigue.

Drizzt, Dahlia, and Entreri must defeat Alegni, take Charon’s Claw, the sentient sword that allows him to enslave Entreri, and destroy the blade. Entreri believes that the destruction of the blade will end his own life, but he is willing to pay that price to be free of Alegni. Drizzt knows that the only fire that will be able to destroy such an artifact as Charon’s Claw is the primordial flame in Gauntlgrym. 

Drizzt goes through a lot of emotional growth in this story. He is troubled by the bond he sees developing between Dahlia and Entreri. Their common hatred for Alegni binds them together in a way that Drizzt does not understand. Before all is over the companions will have learned things about their foes and themselves that will leave them shaken. I wish I could share with you the interesting thrill that occurs on the last page of the book.

Salvatore has, for over twenty years, proven himself to be a master of sword and sorcery style fantasy books. You should always expect to see fights that leave you on the edge of your seat. What I love about Salvatore is how he has grown as an author over time. Charon’s Claw is another great book from a master writer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Training Ground by Martin Dugard

Grant, Sherman, Lee, Longstreet. These are all names familiar to people who have studied the CIvil War. These were the men who fought each other in the most devastating war in United States History. In Training Ground Martin Dugard reminds us that these men were not always enemies. In the war with Mexico these men and many others fought side by side. Training Ground is not a full history of the Mexican War, it is more of a history of the men who fought the war together as young officers and would later command opposing armies. Dugard traces the early biographies of US Grant, James Longstreet, William Sherman, and Robert E. Lee. We see how these men went to West Point and entered into an army that promised very little in the way of a career and promotion.

The primary character in the story is a young US Grant. Each chapter is introduced with a quotation from Grant’s Memoirs. In his later life Grant was highly critical of the actions of the US Government in both provoking a war and then in the way that the Democratic leadership sought to run the war in a highly politicized manner. Of course the young Grant that we meet in these pages is less concerned with the political implication of the war. He is far more interested in getting back home to his love Julia. 

The Mexican War was indeed the Training Ground for the Civil War. If you are familiar with the history of the Civil War you can’t help but feel a little sad as you read this book. You know the history of these young, anxious, promising young officers. You know how they will end up opposing each other. Reading this book I couldn’t help but wonder what the US Army would have looked like had the Civil War not occurred. What would have happened if an army commanded by Lee with Grant, Longstreet, Jackson, Sherman, and the others have been able to do. With that much brilliance they could have stood against any army in the world. Instead they were forced by political forces to fight each other.

Training Ground gives a good overview of the Mexican War. It also gives an insight to men who would shape history only thirteen years later. This is something that a lover of American History or the Civil War should enjoy.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bye Bye Baby by Max Allan Collins

Bye Bye Baby is another great novel in the Nathan Heller series by Max Allan Collins. When we first met Nathan Heller in True Detective it was the early 1930s. Through the years he has worked a lot of famous cases. Now he is on the scene with the lovely, vivacious Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn is an old friend and calls Nathan to help her with a little job. She wants her phone bugged. She is having a lot of trouble with her studio, Fox, and she wants to protect herself. Heller’s favor for a friend turns into much more. This book reads like a Who’s Who from the period. Heller deals with Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Hugh Hefner, John and Robert Kennedy, and many others.

One of Collins’ strengths is his ability to throw lots of celebrities into a book without stretching too much credulity. Of course Heller has to bed Marilyn and at least two other women. This should surprise no one who has read the Heller novels. Heller falls into the category of men who have slept with both Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. If the book is to be believed then he shares that honor with the Kennedy boys.

Bye Bye Baby is a sympathetic look at Monroe. She is truly a tragic figure and her treatment at the hands of the movie studios and the Kennedy brothers was shameful. Collins tries, and succeeds, to navigate his way in this book between the pro and anti Kennedy camps. Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is the real humanity of the characters. That is one of the trademarks of the Heller novels. The celebrities are not just here to catch our interest, they have a realness about them. So who killed Marilyn Monroe? Was it suicide, an accidental overdose, the Kennedys, or someone else. You will just have to get the book and find out.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Some Great Deals on Books

There are some great deals on books out there today. Check out these offers:

$2.99 today in the Kindle store. Flannery O'Connor is an amazing writer and her short stories are some of the best American literature out there.

$2.99 today in the Kindle store. Flannery O'Connor's first novel.

$2.99 today in the Kindle store.

A classic Newbery Winner from 1959. Only $1.99 in the Kindle Store today.

$1.99 today from Kindle. Johnny Tremain is a great 1943 winner of the Newbery.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin

Old Man River. The Father of Waters. The Big Muddy. These are all names that are used for the great river of North America: The Mississippi. The Mississippi River has been an important part of the history, literature, commerce, and myth of the United States for generations. At the end of the War of Independence it became the western boundary of the United States. The navigation of the river was vital to the settlers who moved west of the Allegheny Mountains after the war. After the Louisiana Purchase the Mississippi became the most important waterway in the United States. It was used to move manufactured goods and produce. To move these goods a hardy breed of person was needed. The men and women who worked, travelled, and lived on and along the river river a hardy and wild lot.

Wicked River tells the story of these rowdy people. Perhaps I should say that it tells the stories of the the river people. The book is not really arranged as a continuous narrative, but rather tells a number of different stories about people and events along the river.  The Mississippi River is known to many as the setting of classic Mark Twain stories like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Sandlin starts off with a disadvantage. In the opening of the book he relates his own ignorance of Twain and seems to be almost proud of the fact. This seems odd in a writer who has chosen the Mississippi as his subject. Even more strange is that he didn’t re-read Twain for this project. It is a pity because many of the stories that he relates and many of the character types that he discusses can be seen throughout Twain’s books. In fact if you first read Twain this book will be a little more fun.

Sandlin is a good writer and he does seem to enjoy his subject. He relates stories of river pirates, bandits, rogues, and murderers. The river was a deadly place. He also shares stories about those who settled along the river. The Mississippi seemed to have a very violent culture. I learned some interesting things about the river I did not know. I have lived near the Mississippi for much of my life, yet I did not know that the temperature of the river in the current never gets much above 40 degrees. Anyone falling into the river will not last long before hypothermia kicks in. I was also fascinated by the stories of some of the river pirates. I was reminded of an old Davy Crockett video my grandmother bought me when I was a kid. I was also intrigued by the stories of frontier justice. The lynching courts, the swift and brutal justice, these were aspects of river life I had not read about before.

Wicked RIver is not a great book. It is a good book and it covers a fascinating period in American history. Even a history lover like myself can find new and wonderful stories.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Man With The Golden Gun by Ian Fleming (A James Bond Novel)

At the end of You Only Live Twice James Bond had killed his nemesis Blofeld. In the process he also received a head injury that left him with amnesia. He stayed for some time with the young diver who saved him. On the last page of the book he is headed to Russia because he believes that there is something there that will remind him of who he is. The Man With The Golden Gun picks up a few months later. It seems that Bond made his way to the Soviet Union and was captured, interrogated, brain washed, and sent back to kill M.

M doesn’t trust the situation and is able to thwart the attack. Bond is fixed up and now M has to decide what to do with him. He decides to send him after a hired killer known as Saramanga. This assassin has come across M’s desk It is believed that it will be nearly impossible to succeed with this task. In his rather callous manner M decides that Bond will either succeed and redeem himself, or die in the attempt and redeem himself. Bond is anxious to strike back at the machine that turned him against M. He tracks his prey to Jamaica and sets about his task.

This is the last of the James Bond novels. It was still in manuscript form when Ian Fleming died. It is not the best of the Bond books. Scaramanga is not the twisted fiend or evil genius that we usually see Bond going after. He is simply a thug who is good with a gun. While the villain may be a bit flat at times there are some interesting scenes with Bond as he tries to get over what happened to him. While the James Bond novels might not be high literature they are great spy stories from the Cold War and they can still entertain 50 years after their initial publication.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson

It seems that we will never run out of new books about World War II. That is not a bad thing. World War II saw more combatants than any other war in history. It affected a large percentage of the world’s population. Much of the war was fought between literate soldiers, officers, and civilians on both sides. This has left us with a mountain of material. Every author has his own reading and prejudices that he brings to the study. This means that we will receive many different views of the same subject. Rick Atkinson’s The Guns At Last Light: The War In Western Europe, 1944-1945, brings us his view of the war. The book starts with the invasion plans for Normandy. Atkinson goes in to a lot of detail about the logistical troubles that the allies had to prepare for what would be the largest amphibious assault in history. The information on D-Day itself and the Normandy campaign is very comprehensive, but not overwhelming with minutiae. The author points out the successes and failures of the campaign. One of the great failures was the lack of preparation by the commanders for dealing with the hedgerow country.

Many books on the campaign in France tend to focus on the Normandy campaign and the subsequent breakout. There was a subsequent invasion of the south of France known as Operation Dragoon. Atkinson spends a good deal of time talking about Dragoon. He also spends a lot of time discussing Operation Market Garden. Market Garden was one of the more controversial campaigns of the war and it is covered quite well here. One of the reasons Eisenhower was willing to try Market Garden was the need to stop the new rockets that Germany had developed. First the V1 then the V2 rockets were causing a lot of havoc in London. The other reason was the need to gain Antwerp. Logistics was a nightmare for the Allied force. The port in Antwerp would significantly increase the supply capacity.

The Battle of the Bulge is portrayed in the book as the greatest failure of Allied intelligence during the war. The Battle is portrayed in very vivid scenes. This section contains some of Atkinson’s best prose. One can almost feel the cold when reading the book.

Atkinson spends a lot of time discussing generals who are not as well known to the general reader. Almost everyone has heard of Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery. Here we also get to see generals like Roosevelt, Truscott, Hodges, Devers, and others. Atkinson is obviously not a fan of Omar Bradley and never passes up a chance to criticize him. He tries to be fair to Montgomery, but it is hard. I’m not sure that it is possible to portray Montgomery accurately and in a positive light. There are a lot of stories about the British intrigues against Eisenhower. The British never approved and never understood Ike’s large front strategy. They always favored a narrow front with a heavy strike force. Of course they also wanted Monty in charge of it. Eisenhower knew better. Ike favored the same kind of battle order that Grant used in the Civil War. He knew that the Germans simply didn’t have the manpower to hold the entire front.

The Malta and Yalta conferences are the subject of a chapter and they help to set the stage for the end of the war. It is interesting to see the interaction of the three leaders (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) as the decide the fate of Europe in the post-war. The section on the liberation of the concentration camps is also very well done and very interesting. I was intrigued to lean that at Buchenwald American troops and officers took it on themselves to kill a number of SS troops who surrendered. The only really weak point in the book occurs here. Atkinson seems outraged by the actions of the American troops and seems them as simply murderers. His language gives the impression that it makes them no better than the SS thugs that they killed. I think that the context certainly gives the lie to any such moral equivalency. The GIs were well aware that the SS had massacred American POWs during the Battle of the Bulge. Now they see this fresh hell and in front of them are the men who committed the atrocities. I doubt that any of the soldiers who took part in the executions slept poorly over what they did.

That one criticism aside this is an excellent book. Atkinson’s style is easy to read and the information is presented in such a way that the average reader will not be overwhelmed. He tries on the whole to give a thorough look at the campaign and the players. This should not be the only book that you read on this subject, but it is a book that you should read. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

All the Great Prizes by John Taliaferro

John Hay is one of the most important individual to ever hold the office of Secretary of State. He spent a lifetime serving his nation. In All The Great Prizes John Taliaferro traces the life of this fascinating man. After finishing at Brown Hay went to work for his uncle’s law office in Springfield, Illinois. The office next door was occupied by Abraham Lincoln. Hay was hired as one of Lincoln’s secretary during the campaign. The other secretary, John Nicolay, was a friend from Hay’s teenage years.

After Lincoln’s election Hay and Nicolay accompanied Lincoln to Washington. They lived in the White House and served Lincoln until his death. Taliaferro gives a lot of time to this parr of Hay’s life. The stories about Lincoln are really great. Hay saw him as a person and so the intimate look at Lincoln was very moving. Taliaferro also mentions the troubles that the secretaries had with Mary Lincoln, who hated them both. Hay become friends with Robert Lincoln, the President’s oldest son, and they two of them were together when they were summoned to the dying president’s bedside.

Hay’s story continues after Lincoln’s He served as secretary to the legation in Paris for a year, then he was sent as a temporary head of the legation to Austria. While in Austria he saw the dangers inherent of crumbling empires bolstering themselves up with large armies.“The great calamity and danger of Europe today are those enormous armaments,” he observed. “No honest statesman can say that he sees in the present attitude of politics the necessity of war. No great Power is threatened.  .  .  . Why then is the awful waste of youth and treasure continued? I believe from no other motive than to sustain the waning prestige of Kings.” This would continue until it resulted in the First World War.

Taliaferro gives us a wonderful insight into the man. Hay was a gregarious person with an elitist personality. Among his friends were men such as Henry Adams and Henry James. Hay was an author of some note. He wrote a few novels and poems, not all good, but some were considered classics. Along with John Nicolay he published a ten volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. Hay’s personal life is quite interesting. He seemed to have several affairs of the heart, though they were unlikely consummated, with some intriguing women.

When it comes to the last decade of his life Taliaferro shows how Hay worked ceaselessly to avoid war. Hay’s nature was not aggressive but congenial. He preferred to work out deals that helped to keep the peace. Hay had spent the early days of his political career watching the Civil War and never wanted to see war on that scale again. We see the amazing work that Hay did for William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.

All the Great Prizes is a well written book. I was amazed at how much information is contained in these pages, yet the writing is never dry. Hay was truly one of the greatest statesmen ever to serve the United States of America. Taliaferro has given us an excellent book on a fascinating subject. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Neverwinter by R. A. Salvatore (Neverwinter Book II)

Neverwinter, the second book in R. A. Salvatore’s Neverwinter series, picks up where Gauntlgrym left off. The last of Drizzt’s old companions are gone. King Bruenor fell in battle as he worked to stave off another great cataclysm. Now for the first time in a century Drizzt is free. He is no longer tied down by anyone. Now he is traveling with the deadly female elf warrior Dahlia. First they travel to Waterdeep to try and find some trace of Jarlaxle. While they are unable to locate the mercenary Drow they are able to run into a great deal of trouble. Old enemies of Dahlia attack them and they are forced from the city. Next they travel to the woods outside Neverwinter. Here they have come to do battle against the evil Sylora Salm. Before the novel is over Drizzt and Dahlia will be forced to deal with Sylora, the lich Valindra Shadowmantle, who is slowly regaining her sanity, and they will have to deal with the killer known as Barrabus. Meanwhile Barrabus is operating in Neverwinter. A great secret will be revealed concerning this mysterious killer.

Neverwinter is a good book. It is a major step for Drizzt. Now that he is free of his friends, and dealing in a world that is descending deeper in to chaos Drizzt needs more than ever to find something good to cling to. He will be hard pressed to find the goodness in Dahlia. She is constantly pushing him to let loose. The battle of ideas is Drizzt’s idealism against Dahlia’s pragmatic view. There is a lot of new thematic material appearing here. Drizzt is growing and being challenged. How will he cope with this new world and will he stand strong or give in to the ways of the world. All of that and so much more in this amazing fantasy novel. As always, lot of action and adventure in the Forgotten Realms.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chicago Confidential by Max Allan Collins (Nathan Heller)

Nathan Heller is out in Hollywood putting in some time at the LA office. He is also spending some with his son. Recently divorced from his cheating wife he is also trying to avoid talking to a new crime commission that is looking for information on organized crime. Over the years Heller has had more dealings with the mob than he would like. Now people want to know what he knows. While in LA he takes on a client. A young college student claims that an old boyfriend won’t leave her alone. Heller helps her out. The young college student turns out to be none other than the the young busty (and with Heller lusty) Jayne Mansfield. Problems arise in the business and he returns to Chicago.

It seems that an old police colleague that he hired is using Heller’s equipment to spy on some of the big names in organized crime for the commission. Heller has to deal with this problem. He also has to deal with some of the mobsters to make sure that they know that he is not going to talk about anything that he knows. As if that wasn’t enough his old buddy Frank Sinatra asks him to call another old acquaintance, Senator Joe McCarthy, and tell the Senator that Sinatra is not a Communist. With all of this it is not going to be easy for Heller to get out of all of this in one piece.

More classic hard boiled noir from the wonderful Max Allan Collins. After a couple of week novels the series has really bounced back. Lots of mystery, smart aleck remarks, danger, gangsters, and gorgeous women who can’t wait to have sex with the main character. Great fun.