Category: Recommended by Other People

“Blood Memory” by Greg Iles Review

blood memory

Blood Memory

Author:  Greg Iles

Released:  2005

Blood Memory tells the story of a Forensic Dentist named Cat Ferry. What does that mean? Cat is called into murder scenes to analyze bite marks and other dental related evidence. It sounds like a very specialized field, and it must be because every other character in the book tends to enable Cat to run around like she is the most important person in the universe. While the New Orleans Police Department and FBI are working together to solve a serial killer’s string of crimes leaving bite marks on nude men, Cat goes rogue throughout the novel confronting witnesses, discovering clues and eventually solving every mystery in this story packed full of them.

I can’t discuss much further in the plot without revealing a big component of the story, so if you want to go in blind skip past this paragraph. **Spoilers follow** The bulk of this story deals with child molesters, and links the killer, victims and protagonist together at various points. Cat must figure out how her own history relates to this subject as she does not remember, as well as solving the murder of her father when she was eight years old. **End of mild spoilers** Cat’s own history ends up serving as a crutch and an excuse for her to put herself in dangerous situations, disregard law enforcement and even get involved in fatal situations herself because she MUST solve the mystery of her childhood. Therein lies my biggest problems with this book.

Despite trying to assist the FBI and New Orleans police department, Cat will put herself in situations when she must escape from police custody, confront known murderers on her own, and jeopardize the evidence in a serial killer case with regularity. Her boyfriend, a married detective enables her because she is attractive and awesome at sex. The FBI agent enables her because… I don’t know, he knows the rest of the characters in this book got ZERO DRIVE and won’t be solving any crimes on their own.

The dangerous situations she puts herself in end up getting multiple people shot and killed, for no apparent reason other than to hype up the drama in villain monologues and a rape sequence. If you have problems reading about sexual abuse, incest, or rape this is not a book for you. I don’t fault Iles for using those devices, as the entire plot of the book depends on several characters having depraved sexual appetites. However at 800 pages, the repeated revelations on who was molesting who got tedious.

That’s not to say the book was all bad. Iles did a nice job of pacing in this book, making it feel like we lived with the protagonist over a series of several days and didn’t miss anything in her life. The whole thing felt like 24 at times. He also sets out plenty of mysteries, and ties them together in a satisfying fashion. The entitlement of the main character as well as the plethora of wooden supporting characters however really dimmed my enjoyment of the book overall.

2-star

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“The Fever” by Megan Abbott Review

The Fever

The Fever

Author:  Megan Abbott

Released:  2014

This was the second book I’ve read by Megan Abbott, following the entertaining Dare Me. Based just on these two books, I would describe her genre as adult fiction focusing on teenage girls involved in murder plots. Nick Hornby turned me on to Ms. Abbott, and I’m glad he did. Abbott has a habit of making the locations and setting of the books feel like they could take place anywhere, and any time (after the invention of cell phones). I’m surprised more of them haven’t been turned into movies yet.

The Fever is follows around several characters with very connected lives. The main character is Deenie, a teenage girl whose best friends (Lise, Gabby), occasional rival (Skye) and family (dad Tom and brother Eli) comprise the rest of the perspective characters. When Lise has a medical emergency in school, everybody is shocked and worried as she ends up in a coma with life threatening symptoms. However, when Gabby also has a medical episode at school the worry spreads to panic. When a third girl begins to get sick, the titular fever has become a craze among the students, parents and faculty of the school.

My biggest complaint with this book was that despite the seriousness of the situation for all the girls involved, they preferred to keep everything so secret that it really hamstrung everybody from finding out what was wrong. In particular, there is a huge reluctance to discuss having swam in a possibly contaminated lake. I understand the characters were not supposed to swim in the lake but when it looks like people could be dying it seems like the type of detail you’d want to mention to a medical professional. (I won’t spoil whether that ends up being pertinent or not.)

Abbott delayed providing answers for so long that I started to get antsy about whether the payoff would be worth it. Surprisingly it was, and I didn’t find it as predictable as the ending of Dare Me; here I guessed what was wrong with most of the girls but did not figure the initiating event ahead of time. The character that really stood out to me was Skye, particularly with how Deenie was instantly jealous of/threatened by her. It was the sort of thing that felt much more authentic that what I find in books with teenage characters. There was also a very sexual component to the book that was handled much better than I usually find in writing. The characters are all aware of/interested in sex, but Abbott doesn’t spend time detailing the exploits beyond telling the reader what’s happening.

I’ve read some other reviews where people have problems with the character Tom, particularly how he leers at some of Deenie’s teenage friends. While each of Abbott’s characters was flawed in certain ways in this book (jealousy, selfishness, dishonesty being the most common), Tom’s flaws seemed to revolve around his relationships with women. The leering behavior amounted to three or four sentences throughout the book (much more, if you count an adult french teacher) and contributed to his feeling like a fully formed character instead of just the great dad that stuck around when mom didn’t. All of the characters felt like real people, likable at times but not all the time.

4-star

“Rogue Lawyer” by John Grisham Review

Rogue Lawyer

Rogue Lawyer

Author:  John Grisham

Released:  2015

I was loaned this book by another attorney, and I’ve already given him a hard time for overlooking some of the problems I had with this book. Rogue Lawyer is about a defense attorney named Sebastian Rudd who works out of a van because his office has been firebombed. Who firebombed his office? Who knows. Rudd has so many enemies it could have been an angry client, and the cops don’t seem too interested in solving it because maybe they did it themselves? Why is Rudd so hated?

Well, he’s a defense attorney, and that’s enough reason for some of us. (I kid.) In particular though, he’s a defense attorney that specializes in getting his guilty guys off by any means necessary, and exposing the corrupt practices of police officers. Over the course of this book, he’ll represent individuals in several high profile cases. Included among those is an obviously innocent goth druggie accused of murdering two children, an obviously innocent man whose wife was killed when Swat officers raid the wrong house (he is charged for firing a gun back in self defense), and an obviously guilty guy who snaps after losing a cage fight and who beats the referee to death.

In addition to the legal cases, there is also extensive drama in the form of Rudd’s ex-wife who is now a lesbian with a beautiful girlfriend intent on terminating Rudd’s parental rights, a mob boss on the run after escaping death row, and a mystery surrounding a high ranking officer’s pregnant daughter who was abducted from a parking garage. Grisham keeps multiple plot threads going throughout the book, giving a payoff for each one though not necessarily tying them all together. My favorite of the storylines was the case involving the wrongdoing by the SWAT team as it was the sort of event that dealt accurately with the law and was definitely cribbed from real life tragedies. It also lacked most of the problems that I had with the other stories, in that Rudd could actually do something good as a character and help his client out. The attorney on the other side was also handled somewhat sympathetically. (I didn’t think it was realistic that the man would be brought to trial in this case, but if it were brought to trial I thought it was handled realistically.)

By contrast, the criminal case that opened the book had me ready to chuck this in the garbage and I never totally recovered based on that. In a small county, two children die and law enforcement picks up the first creepy guy they can and coerce lies and false evidence to rig a confession. Rudd is forced to smuggle DNA from who the real (obvious) killer is to get his guy off, because law enforcement and the judge had all been unwilling to run any DNA test due to expenses and time. Ok, so I’ve worked in small counties (and in a large one), and one thing I can say definitely is that when a huge case comes through in a small county it is handled extremely cautiously. Small counties don’t deal with a lot of murders, so when they get one they make sure every base is covered so the case doesn’t blow up in their face in the media. The judges are even more likely to be cautious, granting continuances for defense attorneys seeking evidence, as they don’t want to bungle a major case and have it come back on appeal. The only realistic aspect of this part of the book was the fact that the jurors all knew about the case and probably had their mind made up.

So needless to say I had a lot of problem with how Grisham treated the honorable profession of prosecutors in this book. Even Rudd though can’t escape Grisham’s antics of being a dishonorable, despicable character. **Spoilers follow** Late in the book, there’s a confluence of events where a terrible human being gives Rudd information that could save dozens of girls lives. Rudd makes it clear that there it no attorney client privilege in this situation. What does he do? He conditions revealing this information to law enforcement on them giving a deal to his client that is 100% guilty of murder that would basically be a slap on the wrist. I guess the readers are not supposed to care about the good person that was murdered by Rudd’s client or about the many women whose lives are being ruined in captivity, because hey, look at Rudd work his magic. Things don’t work out the way he thinks however, so maybe that’s Grisham’s way of not rewarding all of Rudd’s bad behavior. **End of spoilers**

I tend not to watch legal shows or read legal fiction because the inaccuracies end up driving me up the wall. Odds are a different reader will enjoy this book much more than I did. This was a very fast paced book with plenty of snappy dialogue and slimy characters that will fascinate readers. Just not this one.

2-star

“The Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy Review

Lords of Discipline

The Lords of Discipline

Author:  Pat Conroy

Released:  1980

I was loaned The Lords of Discipline by a friend that attended the Citadel about 40+ years after this book take place. He told me that the book was written by an author that went to the Citadel, and the book (which takes place at a Carolina Military Institute) was somewhat based on the author’s time at the school and revealed all sorts of hidden details that the school and alumni were upset about afterwards. In addition to that, the author was essentially banned from the university for decades. As I learned all this, I thought “I’m probably not going to care much about this book because I didn’t go to the Citadel and didn’t even know it was South Carolina until that same conversation.” Still, never one to turn away from a book recommendation, I went ahead and read the damn thing.

I’m glad I did, because this ended up being one of the best books I’ve read this year. The story is told through first person narrative by Will McLean, an Irish American cadet at the Carolina Military Institute in the 1960’s. He is roommates with Tradd St. Croix, an effeminate aristocrat from Charleston and two Italian Americans named Dante “Pig” Pignetti and Mark Santoro. I included their ethnicities, because a big part of this book is the language that these young men all use with each other, which reminded me of the barbershop scene in “Gran Torino” when every comment made was an insult about somebody’s heritage.  If the language in that scene bothered you, you will probably hate this book.  In the book, the language is often meant to be endearing, but other times it is certainly meant to hurt the recipient.

Will is a senior when the book begins, and most of the book takes place chronologically in that year except for a section that flashes back to his Plebe (freshman) year at school. The school is famous for being hard on the incoming cadets, to the point that out of 700 incoming students only 400 will stay with it through their first year. Conroy details the types of hazing done in that first Hell Night, the rest of Hell Week and the treatment somebody who had been separated from the rest of the class would endure. Unlike seemingly the rest of the upperclassmen, Will is against the hazing rituals and prefers to offer solace for cadets in need. Because of this characteristic, he is asked by Colonel “Bear” Berrineau (an analog for real life figure Colonel Thomas “The Boo” Courvoisie) to make sure that the first ever black cadet is not run out of the school due to extreme targeting.

Although that is the central plot of the book and where much of the conflict comes from, it is also absent from much of the book as Conroy fills in McLean’s world with other coming of age events. Much of that is time spent among the four roommates bonding in the room or taking part in shenanigans. There is also a significant through plot about Will’s courting of a Charleston girl named Annie Kate who has been hidden from the world by her parents for what is certainly the most predictable reason a woman in the 1960’s would be hid from her social circle. Will also plays on his college basketball team, and there is an extended chapter about a game that also was drawn directly from true events in Conroy’s life. Finally, it seems throughout much of the book the individual Will is closest to is Abigail, Tradd’s mother. The two of them have a surrogate mother/confidant relationship.

Despite reading as autobiographical and often humorous, I found much of this book to be very suspenseful. The stress that the cadets go through is palpable, and that even extends to characters that are not part of the core cast. The consequences for making a mistake ranged from physical violence or psychological damage to an excommunication ritual that seemed like the end of the world for those it was imposed on. The antagonists in this book were often mysterious unknown figures. The possibility of a secret group pulling the strings made it difficult for the reader to trust anybody Will confided to.

Oddly, despite the book being suspenseful it was also somewhat predictable. **Vague spoilers follow** From the moment a phone call alerts several dangerous individuals to Will’s nearby presence, it is clear that not only is there a traitor but who in particular it is. Likewise, out of the three main army officers at the school, one of them is never in doubt as not being on Will’s side and it’s hard to believe Will would fall for a trick that makes him discredit another. Finally, Will’s ace in the hole at the end is easy to spot coming based on a character that served no other purpose in the book aside from providing a lot of information about a peculiar hobby. **End of vague spoilers**

However, the predictability did not bother me as it also made sense within the world that was established. Rather than create a twist ending that makes you question everything that took place before, Will experiences a shocking twist that we have predicted based on what information he has shared through that point. The additional twist involving Will’s girlfriend earlier in the book felt like an unnecessary one, however by that point the book had built up enough goodwill that I was willing to overlook it. The end result was a book that was humorous, suspenseful and touching throughout with very memorable characters.

5-star

“Spandau Phoenix” by Greg Iles Review

Spandau Phoenix

Spandau Phoenix

Author:  Greg Iles

Released:  1991

In 1941, Hitler’s top officer Rudolph Hess flew in a secret mission to Britain. What the purpose of that mission was has always been a great mystery. Some even believe that the man who landed in Britain was not the real Rudolph Hess, but was instead a double, and the man who has been sitting in Spandau prison for four decades is Hess’s double, and the American, English, German and Russian governments all may know the truth and have reasons to want it suppressed. Spandau Phoenix tells the story of the chain of events that occurs when the prisoner in Spandau Prison dies, and a German police officer discovers a diary written by him revealing part of the mystery.

This is a book with a ton of characters with different motivations who all get sucked into the intrigue. Just off the top of my head, there are:
– Hans – a German officer who discovers the book.
– Ilse – his wife who is aware of the mystery and later used as a bargaining chip.
– Professor Natterman – the couple’s grandparent who believes in the important of revealing the contents of the papers.
– Hauer – Hans’s father, a senior officer and former military sniper
– Jonas Stern – An Israeli intelligence officer who is the closest thing this book has to Liam Neeson
– 4 other Israeli soldiers who are assisting Stern
– Alfred Horn – The mysterious South African man with unlimited resources and henchmen
– Pieter Smuts – Horn’s South African head of security
– Luhr – The evil German police officer who loves torturing people
– Schneider – The German detective who gets roped into working with the Americans and reminded me of The Rock.
– Colonel Rose – The American officer who manipulates the situation to use Germans to pursue his goals.
– Neville Shaw – England’s head intelligence officer
– The Sparrow – A middle aged woman who is an assassin with a vendetta against Stern
– Colonel Karami – A Libyan with unlimited henchman doing business with Horn
– Richardson – An American who is kidnapped and taken to East Berlin by the Russians
– Several Russians who kidnap Richardson and are attempting to retrieve the Spandau papers
– Boromir – A Russian intelligence officer willing to cross any line
– Benton – An expatriated soldier doing wetworks for England
– Diaz – A Cuban mercenary and airplane pilot
– General Steyn – The South African in charge of relations at the Embassy, who has history with Stern
– Steyn’s top two officers, one whom is loyal to him and another who definitely is not

There’s probably three times as many characters throughout the book, but those are the main ones I can think of. Besides the individual character motivations, almost all of them are are also motivated by the impact of their country by the release of the Spandau secrets. England, Germany, Russia, America, Israel, Libya and South Africa are the main countries here, and a decent knowledge of global politics and World War II history will add to your enjoyment of this book.

This is the second book chronologically (first in publication order) by Greg Iles dealing with World War II. Spandau Phoenix is much more ambitious that Black Cross but less enjoyable overall. While Black Cross primarily stayed confined to three characters (Jonas Stern, an American aiding him on a mission and a woman in a concentration camp), the stakes felt higher for all of them than for anybody in this book. In fact, if I hadn’t read Black Cross previously I don’t know that I would have cared about Jonas Stern as much as I did, and he is certainly one of the book’s main characters.

The only characters whose arcs were compelling to me throughout where Ilse and Hauer. Ilse started off making a really foolish decision, but did a nice job thinking on her feet afterward. Hauer was the most convincing of the eight action movie style characters (Hauer, Stern, Schneider, Smuts, Richardson, Sparrow, Benton, Boromir), and blended a nice pragmatist philosophy with some Schwarzenegger in Commando parenting skills. Conversely, his son Hans was the worst character in the book, present to create bad situations for Hauer to get him out of.

The rest of the characters certainly made sense in this global historical fiction tale, however as a reader all of the jumping around made it so I didn’t feel invested in 80% of the cast. The larger problem was that the central conceit of why all of these countries were willing to kill and cover up everything in pursuit of the Spandau papers was pretty much dismissed by Hauer toward the end of the book in terms of how much the general population would care about their contents. I definitely feel like a learned about Cold War era Berlin, the abdication of Prince Edward VIII and the relationship of Israel to other world powers, and the mystery of Rudolph Hess’s flight kept me more involved than if I had just perused his Wikipedia entry (which I just did). However, the overall story was stretched out and inflated more than I would have liked and I suspect others may feel the same way.

3 star

“Black Cross” by Greg Iles Review

Black Cross

Black Cross

Author:  Greg Iles

Published:  1995

This was another book I was loaned by a fellow reader I work with. I’ve only read a few war books in the last few years, but it’s a genre I tend to enjoy (one of my favorite books in particular is The Hunters by James Salter). The story is set in 1944, and the Germans are at war with the English and Russians. With an allied invasion seemingly imminent, Nazi scientists have put more focus on developing chemical weapons as a means to devastate the opposing forces. Because they are Nazis and this is during the holocaust, much of the chemical weapon testing is being done at concentration camps. After the allies become aware of the newest poison gases, they develop a plan to prevent the Nazis from using them. Two non-British subjects will sneak into the concentration camp producing the deadly gas, and complete a mission that wipes out everybody in the camp. The two men include an American pacifist chemist, and a German Jewish Israeli resistance fighter.

I enjoyed this book, but the further into it I got the more it reminded me of the 1996 film “The Rock.” In that film, a non-threat scientist and a total badass have to go rescue hostages from armed forces that possess deadly chemical gas. If you take that movie and put it in a Nazi German concentration camp setting, you’d got a pretty good idea of most of the plot beats in this book. You know the pacifist scientist will have to be contribute to the survival effort by the end of it, just like you have a pretty good idea of what outcome the insurance bombing run will have if their mission goes down to the wire. Likewise it’s not a spoiler to say that the two main characters, McConnell the scientist and Stern the muscle, will initially not like each other and come to a deep respect for one another.

While I enjoyed a lot of the main story, overall its predictability in character notes would have me giving this book a three overall. However, the book also has a separate subplot running through it from the perspective of a woman stuck in the concentration camp. When we first encounter Rachel, her husband is being shot and she and her two children under the age of 4 are stuck in a camp where children’s purpose is as test subjects for dangerous medical testing and women’s purpose seems to be as pawns for the Nazi soldiers to use as they see fit. I’ve found that since I’ve become a father a few years ago that stories involving children have a much stronger impact on me than they did before I had rugrats. Here the story of a woman doing anything possible to keep her two children safe in one of the deadliest situations in world history really got to me.

Also in the concentration camp are interesting figures like the Shoemaker and Ariel Weitz. The Shoemaker is one of the longest surviving prisoners at the camp, a man able to stay alive by blending in when needed, and fixing shoes for the soldiers on the side. Ariel Weitz is the Jewish prisoner willing to do anything the Nazis ask, even pulling the switch on the gas chambers and then prying gold teeth from the deceased, in exchange for more freedom throughout the camp. Iles does a great job of taking these two characters in surprising directions, making the stakes of Stern and McConnell’s mission feel much higher because of the stories within the camp.

There’s a saying that Nazis make the best movie villains, and here they are as evil as anything imaginable. The atrocities described in this book are such that there’s no person that could read them and sympathize with their actions and not be a monster his or her self. The main Nazi bad guys are a one eyed officer and a jealous sergeant who have a rivalry with each other for power within the camp. As the officer has an interest in Rachel, the sergeant uses her as his method for tormenting the officer. The top ranking official, a scientist named Brandt, is practically a ghost in the story just showing up as somebody that does terrible things to little children.

If you’re a reader that finds depictions of violent or deadly acts to women and children difficult to read, this is not the book for you. Although Iles doesn’t linger on any descriptions for too long, there are still dozens of scenes of despicable acts that occur or are remembered throughout the plot. The subject matter of the book seems to require it, and besides making me emotional a few times I thought if anything it added to the impact of the book. I was also loaned Iles other WWII book, which I’ll probably check out next, so that’s as good an indicator as any that I enjoyed this as 1200 pages in a row by any author is usually not my style.

4-star

“Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger Review

Andrew JAckson Battle

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans:  The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny

Authors:  Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Published:  2017

I’d read a biography on Andrew Jackson last year (Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands), but was given this one as a recommendation by another reader, who gave the glowing recommendation that it was interesting and could be finished in two nights. As a result, I already had a pretty good knowledge of most of what was in this book prior to reading it. Overall though this was still an interesting read because Andrew Jackson’s early exploits are fascinating enough to visit twice.

Although the title of this book makes it sound as though it’s entirely about the Battle of New Orleans, out of the 230ish pages I’d say just about half or less focuses on the actual battle (buildup, battle and immediate aftermath). The rest of the book gives some good background on Jackson’s early years, the other key figures in New Orleans during the battle, and some political background to make the context of the war understandable. This is a very quick read though, and a book I’d recommend for somebody that just wants the exciting parts of Jackson’s pre-presidential biography.

More than any other president (at least through Lincoln… I’m still working my way up from him), Jackson came from nothing and had exciting moments throughout his life. From the early encounter with the British (and loss of his entire family), to duels with future powerful politicians and battles with Native Americans, Jackson lived the type of life that created a frontier folk hero. Having read several biographies of presidents after Jackson, I enjoyed the refresher on how important moments occurred with guys like Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, who obviously both went on to have massive political careers of their own.

The description of what occurred in the Battle of New Orleans was what you’d hope for in a book like this, providing drama that reminds me of the stuff I find in Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic War books. The stories of dying Generals and ships unable to escape cannon fire provided both memorable moments and emotional resonance usually lacking in biographical material. More than any other moment, I’ll remember the heartbreaking story of a man trying to warn the Americans about the arrival of the British and his loyal dog that followed him along the way. Because I prefer my biographies more complete and detailed than this, it definitely doesn’t crack my favorites, but I think this is a book many fans of history could really enjoy.

4-star