Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Audiobook Review: A Strange Habit of Mind by Andrew Klavan


 I picked up When Christmas Comes, the first book in this series as a palate cleanser after an action-heavy thriller and was immediately enchanted by the mysterious protagonist Cam Winter, an English professor who is more than meets the eye. I was delighted to discover that a sequel was already written and grabbed the audiobook from my local library at the first opportunity.

While it helps to read these books in chronological order to get the full background on the main character, it's not strictly necessary. The framing of this story, just like the previous one, consist of therapy sessions, where Cam recounts crucial events from his past to his therapist, a much older woman who is remarkable in her own right Andrew Klavan is one of the few writers who can insert long flashbacks into an otherwise fast-paced story while still holding the reader's rapt attention, and in this case the technique works beautifully. The meandering nature of the sessions rings true to life. Even readers who'd never been in therapy know how our most important memories flow in and out of the back brain and the effect they have, obviously or not, on our present.

What we get, essentially, are two stories in one: the past and the present. In the past, Cam kills his best friend. In the present, he investigates an apparent suicide of his former student for whose fate he feels partly responsible.

If this sounds dark, it is. Klavan started out as a writer of hard-boiled noir thrillers, and is still able to take the reader to pitch-black places. However, since his conversion to Christianity, there is an added layer of hope and love of humanity that keeps me coming back too his work.

I noticed that this novel is classified as a mystery, and I suppose it technically is, but more in the mold of Colombo than Poirot. The culprit is known very early on, and it's only a matter of obtaining the proof. That doesn't make the story any less compelling, and the stakes are certainly as high as can be, but the nature of the tension is different.

The villain would not be out of place in an older James Bond movie, although not in the modern reincarnation of the franchise. If you read Klavan's portal fantasy Another Kingdom (which I highly recommend and have reviewed on my blog) you will likely see some similarities, and that's all I will say to avoid spoilers.

While the climax and the plot resolution are satisfying, the story takes its sweet time winding down, leaving us with plenty to think about the nature of good and evil, the line in between, and how a person might end up crossing one way or the other. With the protagonist being an Enlish professor, Klavan has an excuse to include more philosophy and poetry, literal and figurative than would be expected in the genre. If the story feels vaguely inconclusive, it's not only because the sequel is in the works, but also from the nature of the questions it leaves lingering in the reader's mind. And in these days of mostly disposable and forgettable entertainment, this is a rare gift indeed.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Book Review: Split by Kurt Schlichter


Split is book is #6 in the Kelly Turnbull series, but chronologically #2, picking up where Crisis left off, a short time after the country has been divided between "the blues" and "the reds." The main plot has Kelly infiltrating the recently formed People's Republic to get out a crazy scientist or failing that, get hold of the MacGuffin said scientist had squirreled away. Spolier: things don't go as planned, putting Kelly on a collision course with a couple of powerful players and hooking up with unlikely allies.

While being the grimmest, most violent book in the series so far (I hear #7 takes the prize in that regard), there are plenty of humorous references to certain real-life politicians and of course commentary on leftism run amok. My favorite running joke is one of the side characters spending most of his non-shooting time explaining to everyone that he's not Ben Shapiro. It's one of those little absurdities that is truly appreciated in the midst of continuous tension and bloodshed.

Much like the rest of the series, and probably more so, this is a dire warning against letting the "national divorce" fantasy of so many come to life. Most of the warning of this particular entry is directed at the Right, Schlichter's political allies, pointing out with ruthless certainty that having guns and the will to fight won't be enough for those caught on the "wrong" side of the breakup. (Earlier published and chronologically later Indian Country shows that resistance can be possible, but is still quite unflinching as to the cost.)

A couple of new characters are introduced of whom I'd like to see more in the remaining entries, and a few meet well-deserved demise, including one at the end that's both highly satisfying and possibly the worst imaginable way to die. As with the last few entries, Schlichter's progress as a writer is great to see. His characters are more fleshed out, the social commentary is more complex, and the action scenes are more immersive. I'm looking forward to reading more of the series soon.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Audioook Review: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, read by Denny Delk

I read this one in my pre-teen years, in Russian translation. I don't remember it making much of an impression, but back then I was more into "girl" books and was probably just too young to fully understand the story. I finally decided to check it out on audiobook, and so glad I did! In fact, I think it is best appreciated as an audiobook. The narrator does a spectacular job transporting you to the time and place, both by using the appropriate dialects (you actually get a warning at the start that the characters will speak differently) and by the general tone and attitude.

The story is a classic and literary criticism of it is widely available, so I will only give my general impression of what, to me, makes it worth a fresh look.

While many consider it THE Great American Novel, it fell out of favor lately, another victim of cancel culture and presentism. And in truth, take the offending word out, and it still asks questions which our advanced society hasn't resolved in a satisfactory manner. How many of us would stand by a friend in defiance of propriety, societal norms, and religious teachings? How many would matter-of-factly accept condemnation in this life and damnation in the next? I think that's the real reason this novel, while both fun and exquisitely written, might be too unsettling for modern sensibilities.

And that's a shame, really, because we need more stories like this one, especially for the younger generation, and especially for boys: a thrilling, engaging adventure that's also thought-provoking, with a lot of heart and faith in humanity at its core. That said, I recommend it to anyone, including those who read it at a young age. Check it out again, and if you can, get your hands on an unabridged audiobook. You'll very likely be surprised at what you find.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Book Review: Crisis by Kurt Schlichter


 Chronologically first in the series, but I now see why the author recommends for it to be read later on. After the satire-heavy Inferno, the change in tone is striking. This one is unrelentingly dark and more plausible now than when it was written. After reading Crisis, it's impossible to keep accusing the author of "wishful thinking" as there's zero doubt it's only a tale of dire warning.

That said, with the knowledge that the series ends with the country coming back together, it's a fairly enjoyable read. The pacing, characterization and action are all solid. As an author myself, I appreciate watching Kurt's writing skills improve with every new entry. Moving on to The Split next since this one ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.

I shelved it under dystopia on GR because it's "The US Gone Bad" premise, but the beats and style are more those of a military/political thriller. Fans of both genres will find it worthy of their time.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Book Review: Death Cult by Declan Finn

When I first read this book over the summer, my first impression was that the story is worth the price of admission just for the first chapter. Having skimmed it to refresh my memory in preparation for writing the review, I stand by that statement.

To quote one of my favorite Youtubers, "Allow me to explain."

At first glance, all we have is probably the most common opener in the thriller/urban fantasy genre, namely, an action scene. And it is a good one in it's own right, which is something Finn's readers have come to take for granted. However, two qualities combine to make it stand out.

First, we immediately connect with and care about the characters involved. Surprisingly many authors forget that no matter how spectacular the action, we still need to be told why we should care. Books are not movies, and descriptions of gunshots/explosions/hand-to-hand combat don't have the same immediate appeal when read as when experienced on the giant screen in surround sound. Here we have Tommy Nolan and his family, whom we'd already come to know and love from Hell Spawn, so of course we care about them being under attack. But even going into this second book in the series cold, there is immediate, visceral desire to see the family come out intact from a violent confrontation.

That brings me to the second part. I love thrillers, but too many of them suffer from the same flaw as horror movies: the characters existing in a state artificial ignorance, having never cracked opened a book or watched a movie. There are certain things that happen in those genres, and they nearly always catch the main characters by surprise.

Not so with Detective Nolan and his family. They might live in the world of urban fantasy,but they're very much grounded in reality, knowing what is likely to happen and prepared for even the most unpleasant of possibilities. Thus, the first chapter does not go the way we might expect, setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the story.

What follows is a combination of ever-escalating challenges, which Tommy and his small group of friends and colleagues meet by not simply out-fighting, but out-thinking the enemy (including figuring out who and what the enemy is). The action scenes are evenly spaced out in between the actual detective work, so the pacing never slows down enough for us to lose interest. The climax is... fiery, both literally and figuratively, and while the story does come to a satisfying resolution, the jaw-dropping last paragraph makes you run, not walk, to start on the next installment.

Tommy Nolan as a character is a joy to follow around. He is a genuinely good man with no dark past or extra emotional baggage (aside from whatever naturally comes from years of police work in a large city coupled with his recent encounters with supernatural evil). He is a family man, and a man of faith, with both of those qualities being an organic part of the character rather than something slapped on as an afterthought. It's a refreshing change, considering that the urban fantasy genre almost requires the heroes to be flawed, dark and brooding. I like those too, when they're done well and don't go overboard on darkness, but it's good, and for lack of a better word, restful to spend time with Tommy Nolan and his crew. I would recommend it both to the traditional urban fantasy fans and to those who want to an easy, fast paced read as their first introduction to the genre.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Book Review: Another Kingdom Trilogy by Andrew Klavan

 Austin Lively has all the makings of a standard YA protagonist, although I suppose being male would make him stand out. He is an all-around loser: unloved by his parents, overshadowed by his successful, better-looking brother, always ragged on by his so-called friends, and too much of a coward to confess his feelings for a girl he likes.Suddenly (yes, "suddenly" is the first word in the book) he is transported into a fantasy world, where he is taken for a hero and compelled to embark of a quest with a help of a quirky sidekick.

The twist in the above? The subject of our seemingly cookie-cutter hero's journey is a thirty-year-old failed Hollywood screenwriter, whose main (only?) admirable quality appears to be a stubborn refusal to give up on an obviously dead and buried dream of his youth. 

Andrew Klavan, an award-winning best-selling author who deserves both designations for reasons unrelated to the recent merit-allergic metrics, has made a bit of a splash about a decade ago with a number of YA adventure/action novels aimed specifically towards teen boys. Anyone who knows me at all would not be surprised that I read and liked all of them, in addition to the adult novels Mr. Klavan produced during that period.

It was, therefore, with extremely high expectations, that I started reading this particular work. You could say my expectations were subverted because I only expected an entertaining story, not a trilogy that from Book One started edging up on my list of my all-time favorites, and now is cemented into the Top Ten, if not higher.

I spent a few days trying to articulate why that is the case. The central idea and the plot are not particularly unique. The fact that the author's worldview, which aligns with mine, unabashedly comes through, certainly helps, but philosophical alignment is no guarantee of enjoyment [frowns in the direction of too many conservative filmmakers to count]. The style is at times jarring. I normally love "first person past" narration, but here it's almost like having the camera zoom in and out, from being deep inside the character's head to having him pause to either warn the reader that something important was coming, to explain an action he'd just taken, or to "speak" to the reader directly with comments like "Right?" and "Can you believe it?" Then again, some scenes are so horrific that a bit of narrative distance might be justified, just to give the reader a break.

As an aside, the violence (with more than a touch of horror) is quite intense and feels even more non-stop than it is, in part because the mental/emotional burden placed on the protagonist, both in the real world and in his excursions into the fantasy land, is arguably higher than the physical one.

That last part might be why the story lands so well, and I am surprised to see it come from an author who made a name for himself mostly in noir thrillers.Sure, his recent books have taken on more than a tinge of Christian fiction (without the flaws associated with that genre), but on the whole his characters have been consistently tough-as-nails hyper-masculine men, and even his teen protagonists were well on their way, if not there already. This is more a story of a man discovering his masculinity, or rather reclaiming it from the stifling and corrupting circumstances of his upbringing and surroundings. 

Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Austin finds his way towards something that has always been within his reach. The fact that he hits several breaking points along the way, each leading into deeper and more complete despair, provides a different kind of realism than we're used to in gritty, "manly" fiction. Our society both demands that men become more "sensitive" and "open about their feelings," yet still ruthlessly ignores, even mocks, otherwise strong men who show moments of vulnerability or need help dealing with grief or trauma. (Witness the Twitterbots' reaction to Kyle Rittenhouse crying during his trial). It is refreshing to see a story that does not shy away from the mental cost of fighting the good fight.

Last but not least, there are quite a few women who guide and/or inspire the hero to become, well, heroic. And what women they are... I'm hard-pressed to find my favorite. The beautiful and courageous Beth, the near-saintly Jane, the ever-elusive Ellen and of course the acid-tongued "squirrel-girl" Maud-- each one is crucial to the story and heroic in her own right, while being exceptionally feminine in ways that modern feminism cannot possibly appreciate. 

The villains are both banal and over the top, which rings true to life. I will leave it at that without spoilers, except to say the biggest female villain we encounter can give Atlas Shrugged's Lillian Rearden a run for her money in her utter lack of soul, in both religious and secular sense. 

The ending is perfect in being both perfectly satisfying and not entirely conclusive, at least the part that is set in the real world, and that once again rings true. But as I turned the last page, with that special happy/sad feeling that comes after an outstanding read, my first thought was--

"Good Lord, please don't let Klavan sell the movie rights."

Which considering that Hollywood was very much a part of the story, and not in a good way, was quite appropriate. 

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Keep Calm and Stay a Dittohead


As a reader, reviewer, and occasional writer of fiction, I have become familiar with the term "shocking but inevitable" when describing a plot twist or an ending. All the clues were there that the event, or something like it, would happen, and yet when it does, we still taken off guard, whether from denial or from misinterpreting the signs or from being too caught up in the flow of events to pay attention.

And so, the news or Rush's passing should have shocked no one, and it did not shock me, as such, the way Andrew Breitbart's untimely death had some years ago. How could it? We all have known for a year about his terminal illness followed the updates on the treatments, watched the hope for recovery fade, and accepted that every day Rush was on the air might be his last.

Nor should a death of a seventy-year-old who had lived a profoundly meaningful life and achieved professional, financial, and at least from the outside appearances, personal fulfillment, be considered anything but a natural course of events, to be met with a quiet nod of acknowledgement of human mortality, including our own.

And yet, I have been feeling off-kilter ever since, more than usual, which is quite something during the period of time in our history when practically nothing and no one is steady and normal in the traditional sense of the word.

I've read several tributes from people I respect, and inevitable attacks from those who only confirmed themselves to be unworthy--not even foes because that word implies a measure of honor. I've reminisced of my years as a fan going back to my first "real" job as an assistant at a printer shop, listening to the radio, fascinated by the voice I instinctively knew was different from the rest, even if my still limited English prevented complete understanding. I joked with my husband, also a fan (thanks to me), about the time we were in the audience of Rush's TV show, and he briefly appeared on camera with a dreamy smile on his face from listening to Rush describe a particularly delicious cut of steak. He received calls from a few of his students who saw him on TV, and in those days it was all in good fun, and did not get him cancelled as it would have today. Even our children, now with views of their own, not quite as in line with ours as we would have liked, shared our sense of loss. Much of their childhood was spent with the Rush show in the background, and all of them are aware of the origin of the unusually bright-colored ties in their father's closet. A period of our lives had come to a close, and knowing that millions of Rush's fans have gone through a version of the same process should make it easier t bear, and it almost does. Almost.

All of the above kept me from organizing my thoughts until now, from seeing the true source of my unease and profound sadness. I think I finally understand what it is.

What made Rush so successful is the same reason he is irreplaceable. His unique combination of wit, intellect and unshakeable conviction made him into a one-stop recharge station-slash-sanity check for many of us on the loosely defined "Right." It's not that, as Rush used to quip, he told us what to think. But he did provide consistent analysis from a certain perspective, and did it accessibly, with kindness and respect towards the listener, as a patient teacher... 

... Or as a father.

Rush Limbaugh, a man who had no children of his own, was nevertheless a great patriarch of the pro-American, pro-liberty, pro-human dignity movement. 

Much as I miss Rush, this realization gave focus to my generalized sadness, and it also gave me peace. It is not a job of a patriarch (or any leader with a large following) to "finish" his life's work or establish a singe successor, much less one biologically related. What is important for a lasting, meaningful legacy is to give those left behind both motivation and the tools to continue, while staying united in their purpose. Rush has accomplished all three, brilliantly.

Sure, we have our work cut out for us, but it keeps us from becoming complacent and relying on someone else to step up. Just like financial wealth needs upkeep, so does intellectual and spiritual legacy, and even more so because it's not something that can be stashed in a bank earning compound interest. Freedom lovers made this mistake once, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, thinking that the threat of totalitarianism had gone forever, and can not, will not make it ever again.

There will never be another Rush, but his influence can be seen in the new generation of conservative voices, now successful in their own right. The anti-elitist common sense and relatability of Sean Hannity, Mark Steyn's unfailing sense of humor, Tucker Carlson's fearless intellectualism, Mark Levin's superb analytical skills--all qualities necessary to carry on a successful movement live on present in his younger successors, just like the traits of biological parents manifest in varied manner in their  children. 

And then there is the rest of us, millions of Dittoheads, all inspired by his example, united not only in admiration for one man's accomplishments but in knowledge that success is possible, even now, as we enter what is likely to be one of the darker periods of this country's history. The iconic greeting of "Dittos, Rush!" has never meant "I agree with everything you say" but "I love your work. Please never stop." 

This is our chance to make those words ring true, as we come to terms with Rush's passing. It is the time to make sure his work never stops even if he is no longer here to do it.

Mourn the man, but celebrate his life. Build on his work, and make him proud.

Dittoheads Forever.