THE CITY: A Review

As a longtime reader (30+ years) of Dean Koontz, over the past decade I have approached his new books with much apprehension. His most recent fiction has become … hopeful and uplifting to some  … cloying and overly-sentimental to me. Sentimentality has always been present in most of Koontz’s fiction. His male-female relationships are so stylized and romanticized they often weaken the story.

cityWith The City, Koontz give us a much younger protagonist than usual – 10-year old Jonah Kirk who is a child piano prodigy – growing up with a blue singer mother, jazz pianist grandfather and a mostly-absent father, who is slowly draws the family into extreme danger. He also meets a woman named Pearl who informs Jonah that she is the soul of the city. Pearl serves almost as an ex deus machina and is one of the more unbelievable aspects of the story. 

The book painfully creeps out of the gate, and rarely has any story momentum … something few Koontz books can be accused of. As much as Koontz tries to get the reader emotionally involved with Jonah and his family, it never happens. Instead, a sense of annoyance replaces any sense of anticipation. And, then … Koontz commits an error that, to me, ran the entire book completely off the tracks.

The story takes place during the 1960s, and Jonah becomes friends with a Japanese-American man, Mr. Yashioka, who lives in his apartment building and spent several years in a WWII interment camp. In a conversation with Jonah Mr. Yashioka uses the phrase “slam dunk.”  He even goes so far as associating it with basketball.  And it stopped me cold. The story was set in the late 1960s when dunking was not allowed in basketball. The phrase “slam dunk” was made popular by Los Angeles Lakers’ announcer Chick Hearn in the 1970s. 

I read the rest of the book with declining interest from that point onward. Unlike most Koontz books, The City has little tension, narrative drive or suspense. Go back and read classic Koontz novels like Strangers, or Watchers.   

2 palmettos

THE GHOST: A Review

Almost every other review of this book makes reference to it’s roman a clef nature – the main character Adam Lang is a thinly veiled portrait of former British Prime Minster, Tony Blair. They go on and on about the clever plot and dialogue and point out all the parallel political tidbits. But, I don’t give a damn about the political nature of the story. No one ever points out the major glaring error which forced me to literally THROW THIS BOOK ACROSS THE ROOM and say “Screw you, Mr. Harris, be a better writer.”Ghost_cover_scan_

A quick summary: Former British prime minister Adam Lang (modeled on Tony Blair) is up against a firm deadline to submit his memoirs to his publisher, and the project is dangerously derailed when his aide and collaborator, Michael McAra, perishes in a ferry accident off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. To salvage the book, a professional ghostwriter is hired to whip the manuscript into shape, but the writer, who is never named, soon finds that separating truth from fiction in Lang’s recollections a challenge. The stakes rise when Lang is accused of war crimes for authorizing the abduction of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, who then ended up in the CIA’s merciless hands. As the new writer probes deeper, he uncovers evidence that his predecessor’s death may have been a homicide and begins to fear for his own life.

Okay, sounds fine. The book opens with the ghostwriter meeting with the publishers and taking on the job of finishing the Prime Minister’s memoirs. He has one month to take the unreadable manuscript and turn it into something salable. It will be his largest pay day ever – $200,000 for four weeks of work. The writer has made a decent living churning autobiographies of rock stars, celebrities and sports figures, but this assignment is the opportunity of a lifetime.

He also has to sign a confidentiality clause and is under strict guidelines as how and where he can work on the manuscript. He can only work on the manuscript at the palatial house on Martha’s Vineyard where the PM and wife are living. He cannot discuss the manuscript with anyone. He cannot make copies. His laptop on which he is writing and editing the book, cannot leave the mansion. The writer has no problem with that … hey, he’s making $200,000 to basically re-write a completed manuscript.

So what does this idiot do? On page 98, after an interview session with the PM, the writer e-mails a copy of the manuscript to himself so he can work on the book at night while he’s in his hotel room. That was the moment when I tossed this book. The only reason for this idiotic action was to give the novel its plot. Who cares if it goes against everything we have learned about the character? It’s the plot that counts.

And another thing: if it was so important for the manuscript to stay secret until publication why in the hell is the writer staying at a deserted hotel in off season Martha’s Vineyard? Why wasn’t the writer sequestered in the mansion with the PM and wife and staff and secret service? Why? Because then, there is no plot.

“Screw you, Mr. Harris. Be a better writer.”

1 palmetto

THE PASSAGE: A Review

First, the good things:

There is NO Bella in this book. No misty eyed teenage romance. There is no soul-searching Lestat who laments his life in overlong paragraphs filled with purple prose. There is no erudite Count with a cape. No Victorian damsels in flimsy nightgowns and heaving bosoms. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the “vampires” are the result of a military genetic experiment gone horribly wrong and ultimately, out of control. They are vicious, nasty, virtually unstoppable and very very hungry. The first 250 pages of The Passage are the best fiction I have read this year.

Now the bad:

passageUnfortunately, the book is 766 pages long. With two sequels on the way. The novel covers over 1000 years. The first section follows modern day events. A military/ scientific expedition in South America captures a jungle virus and takes the secret to a lab for study. They discover the virus increases strength in test monkeys and prolongs their lifespan. The government hatches plans to create a Super Soldier. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is put on special assignment with the military to bring “volunteer test subjects” from death row prisons across America to be infected with the virus. But when Wolgast is ordered by his military superiors to capture a 10 year old girl, Amy, and deliver her to the lab, he rebels. The army hunts them down and Amy is taken to the lab to be tested. Then, the world goes to hell.

Twelve of the infected creatures escape the lab and overnight destroy the entire military installation. Wolgast and Amy barely escape and spend the next several years living in isolation. Then … one day there is a brilliant explosion to the west. Amy is blinded by the nuclear blast, and Wolgast slowly dies of radiation poisoning.

The book then jumps 1000 years in the future. The creatures (called Virals or Jumps) have wiped out most of the human population. Ninety per cent of infected humans die – ten per cent become Virals themselves.

What follows is an alternately entertaining, horrific, tedious and ultimately, frustrating apocalyptic story of the human survivors and their civilization. This is where author Justin Cronin falls woefully short of his goals. Having published two short modern and very literary novels, Cronin branches into territory usually reserved for such “inferior” writers as Stephen King, Robert McCammon and Richard Matheson. When “serious” writers stoop to write horror or science fiction – genre fiction! – the result is usually well-written crap.

Several years ago we got the novel Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrel, an old fashioned English novel about magic and evil. The literary world loved it … heaped praise upon it and claimed that it “redefined the horror novel.” It sure did – it redefined the horror novel as tedious and stodgy. The Historian was also forced upon us as a “brilliant re-working of the vampire legend.” The only brilliant thing about the book was its ad campaign. The book was literary sawdust. Remember when Norman Mailer (a literary giant, just ask him) claimed he could write a great mystery novel, and we got Tough Guys Don’t Dance? If you actually finished that book, your place in heaven is assured. Those of us going to hell will probably have to reread it for eternity.

There are sections of The Passage, and I mean dozens of pages, that beg to be skipped. Cronin often forgets he is NOT writing a mainstream novel where nothing is supposed to happen. He has chosen to write a genre novel for money … and of course, he can make it better than those popular writers because, after all … he is a serious novelist.

If you really want to read this kind of story, I recommend 2009’s The Strain, with a similar story and sweep (now a TV event on FX) or how about two all-time apocalyptic classics: The Stand by Stephen King and Swan Song by Robert MacCammon. Those two pulp writers managed to write a couple of horrific novels that are everything The Passage isn’t … great. 

For all its posturing (and intellectual promotion among the literary elites) The Passage is not a bad novel, just not a good one. I’m betting the Hollywood movie will be better than the book.

3 palmettos

Wayward Pines Trilogy: A Review

Book One: Pines. Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke arrives in the idyllic town of Wayward Pines in Idaho – surrounded by tall pine tree forests and insurmountable mountains on all sides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two agents who had landed here two weeks before.  He is involved in a horrific accident that leaves him with partial memory loss. But when he recovers, his interactions with the town residents  makes him realize there is something wrong with the whole town itself. He is not able to reach his wife and kids in Boise or his handler within the agency. Dead bodies turning up, mysterious bar-tenders who disappear, a psychiatrist and a nurse who seem hell bent on harming him than curing and a whole town of kooks who love nothing more than shooting the breeze during day time and take part in blood fetes at night. It gets murky and weirder by the page. And then, when he attempts to escape the town, the real horror begins … pines trilogy

Book Two: Wayward. Except for the electrified fence and razor wire, snipers scoping everything 24/7, and the relentless surveillance tracking each word and gesture Wayward Pines is an Eden. None of the residents know how they got here. They are told where to work, how to live, and who to marry. Some believe they are dead. Others think they’re trapped in an unfathomable experiment. Everyone secretly dreams of leaving, but dare not. Ethan Burke has seen the world beyond. He’s sheriff, and one of the few who knows the truth—Wayward Pines isn’t just a town. And what lies on the other side of the fence is a nightmare beyond imagining.

Book Three: The Last Town. The children of Wayward Pines are taught that David Pilcher, the town’s creator, is god. No one is allowed to leave; asking questions can be lethal. But Ethan Burke has discovered the astonishing secret of what lies beyond the electrified fence that surrounds Wayward Pines and protects it from the terrifying world beyond. It is a secret that has the entire population completely under the control of a madman and his army of followers, a secret that is about to come storming through the fence to wipe out this last, fragile remnant of humanity.


There is a downward spiral in the narrative. Book 1, Pines, was thrilling and suspenseful, with a v-e-r-y Twilight Zone feel to the entire story  Book 2, Wayward, is substantially less intriguing. The plot seems to be papered over and the ending (as is common with the middle books of trilogies) is flat and slightly unfair when the reader realizes the author has been misleading you the entire book – cheap and silly and very much TV. Book 3, The Last Town, is poorly written and runs out of narrative steam – the ending is a sudden jolt!

It seems perfect that FOX TV is turning the books into a series, executive produced by M. Night Shymalyan since most of his projects are intriguing ideas poorly executed.

3 palmettos

Good Money Gone: A Review

Having read Acevedo’s Felix Gomez vampire PI novels, I knew what I was going to get … a fast-paced, no-nonsense story, told with economy and grit. This is a slight departure only in the subject matter. Instead of vampires, werewolves and nymphos, we get a giant Ponzi scheme evidently based on a true story which Acevedo was hired to co-write with one of the people involved, Richard Killborn. 

good money gonePanama: a tropical paradise with an anything-goes attitude. Bring your wish list. It’s a place to start. Or to start over. Where the best of intentions are dazzled by the glitter of easy money. Steven McKay chases the quick bucks in offshore finance, playing fast and loose with his scruples until he discovers he’s merely one cog in a vast Ponzi scheme. Even as his paranoid boss puts the screws to everyone inside the conspiracy, McKay races to save his clients-and his skin-before the rotten machine grinds to a halt under the weight of sleaze, greed, and criminal investigations. He realizes too late that his dream for wealth and fortune was nothing but Good Money Gone.

This is a fascinating character study on greed and having it all, well-written and a page turner. Finished it in 3 sittings.

4 palmettos

The Gods of Guilt: A Review

gods of guiltSeems like it’s impossible for Mr. Connelly to write a bad book. “The Gods of Guilt” is one of his best. Once again, ethically-suspect Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer) is back at work with an impossible case, a new love (?) and personal problems up the wazoo … not to mention someone is trying kill him.

Mickey Haller gets a text, “Call me ASAP – 187,” and the California penal code for murder immediately gets his attention. Murder cases have the highest stakes and the biggest paydays, and they always mean Haller has to be at the top of his game.

When Mickey learns that the victim was his own former client, a prostitute he thought he had rescued and put on the straight and narrow path, he knows he is on the hook for this one. He soon finds out that she was back in LA and back in the life. Far from saving her, Mickey may have been the one who put her in danger. Haunted by the ghosts of his past, Mickey must work tirelessly and bring all his skill to bear on a case that could mean his ultimate redemption or proof of his ultimate guilt.

One of the joy of Connelly’s books are the full fledged secondary characters that pop up and weave in and out his stories. Another part of his brilliance, even though his books have continuing characters, who overlap into different series, you can pick up any one of his books, and feel right at home.

Highly recommended!

4 palmettos

THE FORSAKEN: A Review

Thirty-six years ago, a nameless black man wandered into Jericho, Mississippi, with nothing but the clothes forsakenon his back and a pair of paratrooper boots. Less than two days later, he was accused of rape and murder, hunted down by a self-appointed posse, and lynched.

Now evidence has surfaced of his innocence, and county sheriff Quinn Colson sets out not only to identify the stranger’s remains, but to charge those responsible for the lynching. As he starts to uncover old lies and dirty secrets, though, he runs up against fierce opposition from those with the most to lose—and they can play dirty themselves.

Even though this is the 4th book in the Colson series, this is the first one I have read and most likely the last.  I found it more than a little cliqued … another Southern redemption story about past wrongs … ALWAYS racial. Plowing the same ground that Greg Ilies is tilling in his most recent novels.  Found the characters little more than stage dressing … Colson the white knight, stoic ex-military sheriff; his tough, lesbian (of course) deputy; a local strip club owner who is a misunderstood businessman and politician, etc … etc …

Pretty tiring . 

2 palmettos