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Patrick Burnett "penngos" (San Francisco, CA USA)

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The Dante Club: Historical Mystery
The Dante Club: Historical Mystery
by Matthew Pearl
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bah. A Load of Humbug., 31 Mar. 2005
Once again I find myself opposite a tide of favorable opinion regarding a popular new book. I was, of course, excited to read Matthew Pearl's notable first novel, The Dante Club, both because of the many positive reviews and the historical context. I'm a sucker for historical figures in fictional situations and my tastes lean toward the lowbrow, so if the historical figures are running around solving mysteries, so much the better.
My excitement with The Dante Club, however, dissolved to dismay and ended in disgust. I have very few kind words to offer about this weak and pompous offering about Boston's foremost Dante scholars solving a series of grisly murders that mimic the punishments Dante doled out to the damned in his Inferno.
Hard to believe, but in post-Civil War America, Dante Alighieri had not yet become the college student's worst enemy. His seminal work, The Divine Comedy, had not yet been completely translated from the Italian. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher JT Fields are working on just such a project when they are approached by the police, in the person of Nicholas Rey, Boston's first black officer, with a scrap of paper on which is scrawled a phrase in Italian. The paper is related to a murder on which Rey is working. In the first of many befuddling moves, the Dante Club, as these scholars call themselves, elects to keep mum, both in the translation of the paper and when it becomes clear to them that the murders are Dante-related. In true mystery style, the group decides to investigate themselves.
It's clear that author Pearl has done scads of research about the principle characters and wanted to bring them to vivid life within the pages of The Dante Club. But it seems equally clear that this research was his undoing. He throws too much data at we poor readers, without the skill required to make it seem effortless or natural. He delves too deeply into the personal lives of Longfellow, portrayed as a spectral weakling unable to recover from his wife's death, and Holmes, who just can't seem to get along with his adult son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would go on to become one of America's foremost jurists.
These characterizations may be acurate, but the disproportionate amount of space spent recounting them is both unnecessary and distracting. Certainly, there is a secret joke in Holmes, Sr., chastising Holmes, Jr., for studying law and telling him there is no future in it, when we, from the perspective of history, know that Jr. would serve on the Supreme Court for thirty years, but it is completely unnecessary to the story. Equally frivolous is the amount of time spent examining the underbelly of academic politics.
Pearl includes a note at the end of this novel that indicates he recreated much of the language and dialogue from the "poems, essays, novels, journals, and letters of the Dante Club members and those closest to them." Ah! That would explain why most of the dialogue spoken by the Dante Club members sounds stilted, pompous and, at times, comically inept! People do not write the way they speak and, rather than bring these famous figures to life, Pearl embalms them in their own words, making them sound effete and foolish.
Most interesting is the character of Rey, the black cop, who is unwanted by his white counterparts and those he serves and protects. Though no such police officer existed in postwar Boston, Pearl uses Rey as a vehicle to introduce us to the racial difficulties arising from the Civil War. He is also useful device for prolonging the story, since, because he is black, none of Rey's fellow policement believe his theories and won't commit resources to following his investigative intuition. If he's been white, the book might have been a hundred pages shorter.
The plot itself is surprisingly reasonable. When we learn how all the pieces fit together, it makes sense and I reluctantly applaud Pearl for this. But other clunky moments are just unbelievable, like the Club's decision to stonewall the police for fear their translation of Dante will be shelved and they themselves might be considered suspects. What? Let's not help catch a violent killer so our book can be published? This is not consistent with what I know of Longfellow and his crew.
Overall, The Dante Club is a long, dull look into the pettiness of American academia with occasional spikes of interest that come with descriptions of the violent killings. It doesn't hold a candle to Caleb Carr's "The Alienist", despite what other reviewers have said.


Bad City Blues
Bad City Blues
by Tim Willocks
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book about a Bad City, 31 Mar. 2005
This review is from: Bad City Blues (Paperback)
Once in a while I come across a writer who is so dexterous, so acute, that I am willing to follow him to whatever depths of depravity to which he chooses to descend.
Tim Willocks is such a writer, and in Bad City Blues, he has elected to visit a deeper place than I have gone before. The setting is a Louisiana hotter, dirtier and uglier than the one I have visited and it is peopled with demons disguised as policemen, addicts, thugs and men of the cloth. These creatures are violent and vengeful, heaping pain and indignities upon one another with an abandon that should chill and repel the reader, but the spare beauty of the language keeps us hanging on through the worst of it.
There are only seven characters in Bad City Blues and in lesser hands such paucity of interaction might seem cramped and claustrophobic, but it's clear that Willocks requires every one of the books 245 pages to bring them to life and could probably have done with another hundred or so.
As with most of stories of human nature, Bad City Blues is about two brothers. It is a logical way for a writer to start - two men who have had the same upbringing and background should turn out roughly the same way, yet one goes bad, the other goes worse. Cicero and Luther Grimes (Grimes - dirty, besoiled, low - even the names are evocative) are white trash who haven't spoken in years due to an unnamed wrong committed by Luther on Cicero. Luther spends most of his time in South America, training death squads and dealing drugs, while his brother elected to go to medical school. Cicero could have been a successful doctor, but instead now lives in a broken-down firehouse in a broken-down part of town and tends to the afflicted, often free of charge. Does this make him a good man? No, not really. Violence and retribution boil just below the surface of his calm demeanor. Though the "good" Grimes does not uncork his rage, the bloodlust surges through him and is as ugly as the acts perpetrated by the other characters.
Separated by years and miles, the brothers are pulled together by Callie Carter, a former hooker and current addict, who is on the run with a million dollars stolen from the bank where her husband is a Vice President. The husband, Cleve Carter, is also a television evangelist who sparks through his brief appearance in this book like a high-voltage wire chewed through by wild nutria.
Clarence Jefferson is a crooked cop who destroys or befouls everything he touches, including his sweet and unassuming Baptist wife. He catches wind of the million dollar heist and sets out to claim his piece of it, leaving a wake of bloodied and broken humanity behind him.
Bad City Blues is a ferocious and extraordinary book that will be enjoyed by fans of Chuck Palahniuk and James Lee Burke and burned in horror by fans of Agatha Christie and Joan Hess.


Amnesia
Amnesia
by David Best
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Don't forget to remember to read "Amnesia", 24 Feb. 2005
This review is from: Amnesia (Mass Market Paperback)
Imagine how your world would change if you were to witness your sister's murder, unable to aid her in any way, and that the man responsible got away clean. Then imagine that you have been given the opportunity to set things right. Suppose you have prepared your entire life in order to do so, but instead of bringing the murderer to justice, you find yourself involved in a plot so bizarre and unlikely you suspect you may have gone crazy?
This is the conceit of David Best's latest thriller, "Amnesia". The title is apt, as it deals with the mysteries of human memory, the way we store and process information and, possibly, the ways we may lose it.
Marti Segerson is the young girl, now grown and a psychiatrist
in rural Tennessee. Having taken a job with the asylum where Vernon Odessa, the madman who killed her sister, is incarcerated, she aims to prove Odessa did the deed and ensure that he is punished. The only problem? If Odessa did it, he can't remember. And Marti's memory is starting to develop more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese.
Having previously enjoyed David Best's "The Judas Virus", I was excited to read this one. I am pleased to report that "Amnesia" is even better. The characters are sharply drawn and individual enough to be believable but without the unbelievable quirks that some freshman authors add as a substitute for characterization. Marti is resourceful and smart, but vulnerable and wounded by her childhood trauma. Her neighbor and landlord, Clay, might be a tad on the superguy side, being a rodeo rider and volunteer fireman, but these traits may be forgiven by his understated demeanor and self-effacing humor.
The plot is laid out like a fine tapestry, with seemingly insignificant occurrences carrying greater weight as the story unfolds. The story is literally plotted like a roller-coaster, with Best bringing us to the point of revelation again and again, only to let the reader slide away in a rush, until the final plunge into the breathless resolution.
This is a fine book, a terrific commute or beach read that will keep you turning the pages. Enjoy!


The Arcanum
The Arcanum
by Thomas Wheeler
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Arcanum, 4 Nov. 2004
This review is from: The Arcanum (Hardcover)
Thomas Wheeler's The Arcanum is an ambitious novel by a competent novelist. Regrettably, a story this ambitious requires more than mere competence. It requires vision, talent, skill and imagination, features that are in short supply here.
The first indication that this was going to be a substandard read was right on the cover - the back of the dustjacket was lined with praise from primarily mediocre writers like Christopher Golden and Robert Doherty. The second clue is the cast of characters, a group of historical figures so overused as to have become a crutch for authors of little imagination. How many times have Doyle and Houdini been paired as erstwhile detectives? How many times has Doyle been cast as a hero of Holmesian intellect? How many times has Lovecraft come face to face with the Old Ones of his Cthulu mythos, having thought they were merely figments of his imagination? The only fresh character here is Marie Laveau, but even she had to be shoehorned into place from across space and time, seeing as she never left New Orleans and died years before 1919, when this book takes place.
Wheeler comes up with half a dozen clever ideas that he tosses casually into a paragraph, magical explanations for such events as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the murder of the Romanoff family, but the cleverness of these tossed-off concepts pales beneath the ineptitude of the rest of the novel. It appears Wheeler did very little research into the time period about which he wrote, or the characters with which he elected to populate The Arcanum. Lovecraft is portrayed as a sniveling madman and Marie Laveau is characterized only with dropped g's at the end of gerunds and a few "cheres" thrown in to remind us all that she is from the south. Never mind that she was an intelligent Creole woman, not a Cajun.
The story itself is a ridiculous mash. The chief badman is intent on destroying the world, a pretty ridiculous proposition for anyone. Think about it - where would he live, and with whom? There are angels, demons, lost tribes and ancient artifacts. Aleister Crowley appears as a menacing mage, instead of the fusty old milquetoast fraud he truly was. Other historical figures wander wanly through the narrative without convincing us of their veracity.
This is a moderately entertaining book for those who prefer their historical fantasy fiction without all that messy "history", but if you are a stickler for research, plot and characterization, move on to anything by the sublime Tim Powers and pass on The Arcanum.


Bridge of Birds : A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was
Bridge of Birds : A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was
by Barry Hughart
Edition: Paperback

5 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bridge of Bored, 18 Jun. 2004
Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is a modestly entertaining novel, by turns amusing and dull as a textbook. With the author's tendency to grossly underplay certain story elements, it is simultaneously simplistic and confounding. I suppose an optimist could look at these traits and say to himself, "This is a book that works on manylevels." Being a pessimist, I'm afraid I fall under the, "This is a book that can't decide what it wants to be."
Ostensibly this is a book about Lu Yu, nicknamed Number Ten Ox, who travels from his rural town to the big city to engage a wise man to return with him and cure the village's children of a deadly sleeping sickness (fortunately the sickness is not so deadly that the heros cannot fart around for a year or so before actually helping the sick children). The only wise man willing to work for the paltry sum offered by Number 10 Ox is Li Kao, a twinkly-eyed old drunk who has the perplexing ability to con anyone out of vast sums of money (putting into question his insistence on sleeping on the floor in a dirty old tenement in the first place). The cure takes the two on a romp through a mythical old China peopled with the kind of moronic rubes found in all fairy tales - those greedy and stupid enough to hand over their money just because someone tells them they'll be receiving some magic beans and a donkey that poops gold coins.
Hughart stretches this hoary old chestnut within an inch of its elasticity as Master Li and Ox wander from city to city collecting bits of the Great Root of Power in order to effect the cure. But at times it appears that the only real purpose in doing all this traveling is to get Number 10 Ox laid, for he winds up in bed with a woman in every town. I expect this was meant to be amusing, but eventually became merely tedious.
I am not generally prudish, but I found myself startled by the astounding amount of violence in this book. Couched in amusing anecdotes and twinkly narrative are hundreds upon hundreds of murders enacted by or caused by the two "heros". I could see in many cases that the doomed characters deserved their fate, but not all.
Bridge of Birds has its moments, but I didn't find it to be the gem of which so many reviewers wrote. Still, I liked it enough that if I come across the sequels, I will surely read them, but I won't be traipsing hundreds of leagues, murdering everyone who gets in my way, to find them. I may not even cross the street.


Extreme Unction
Extreme Unction
by Tim Powers
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Extreme Phantom, 26 Mar. 2004
This review is from: Extreme Unction (Paperback)
Tim Powers has done it again, ladies and gentlemen. In his inimitable style, Powers has again melded magic, history and reality into a powerful story about a single, flawed man's struggle against forces he cannot comprehend.
This time it's the story of Father Damien at the Molokai leper colony, Erwin Rommel (famous as WWII's Desert Fox), Norwegian blood magic and a Cotts Ranec, a fisherman blown off course at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Through copious research and deft plotting, Powers reveals the secret history behind Cuba's retreat behind the Iron Curtain and Polynesian Cargo Cults.
This is a remarkable book, an intriguing read by an author who deserves a greater audience. Read it. You won't be disappointed.


Extreme Unction
Extreme Unction
by Tim Powers
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Extreme Phantom, 26 Mar. 2004
This review is from: Extreme Unction (Paperback)
Tim Powers has done it again, ladies and gentlemen. In his inimitable style, Powers has again melded magic, history and reality into a powerful story about a single, flawed man's struggle against forces he cannot comprehend.
This time it's the story of Father Damien at the Molokai leper colony, Erwin Rommel (famous as WWII's Desert Fox), Norwegian blood magic and a Cotts Ranec, a fisherman blown off course at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Through copious research and deft plotting, Powers reveals the secret history behind Cuba's retreat behind the Iron Curtain and Polynesian Cargo Cults.
This is a remarkable book, an intriguing read by an author who deserves a greater audience. Read it. You won't be disappointed.


Egypt Green
Egypt Green
by Christopher Hyde
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Best Action Author You've Never Read, 26 Mar. 2004
This review is from: Egypt Green (Paperback)
I accidentally acquired my first Christopher Hyde novel two dozen years ago when I discovered it in a bag of books I had brought home from a bookstore near my house. They were closing and offered a container full of books for a dollar. One fellow used the back of his station wagon as a "container". I made do with a grocery sack.
When you've got a grocery sack and no time to fill it, you will later find any manner of book in your collection. I got true crime, mystery, cookbooks, political diatribe. And somewhere in there I managed to pick up Egypt Green by Christopher Hyde. At the time, I dismissed it as fluff - typical paranoiac potboiler stuff about government evil, bubonic plague and kids kidnaped to repopulate the world. I tossed it aside, intending to look at it later, but knowing I probably wouldn't.
Fast forward to last year. I was in a motorcycle accident and broke my hands and elbows. After a few days watching TV became interminable and I switched to books. I read everything in the TBR pile and, in desperation, in my long-forgotten sack of books. And Egypt Green, with some trepidation.
But here's the rub, readers. It was good. It was damned good. Hyde created the right amount of tension, mostly believable characters, an interesting plot and page-turner of a book. Sure, there are some elements that don't quite add up, like the nearly-perfect Devon, a teenaged girl who is as competent and deadly as a CIA assassin, the unlikely coincidence at the and and the neat, too-quick wrap up, but overall this was an enjoyable book, with sharp, interesting writing, following the stories of several players in the aforementioned plot to infect the third world with plague. Toby Hagen, the teen prodigy, one of those chosen to carry on and repopulate, Devon, the girl who loves him, Mickey, a reporter and Wolfe, a former astronaut kidnaped and forced to participate in the plot.
Also introduced, but under utilized, is Willie Chang, a Hawaiian-Chinese drug smuggler who helps the group get to the bottom of the evil plot.
Since reading this book, I've gone on to read a dozen or so more of Hyde's books and he just keeps getting better. His books are well-researched, based in fact and terrifyingly plausible. I recommend him highly.


A Catskill Eagle (Spenser)
A Catskill Eagle (Spenser)
by Robert B. Parker
Edition: Paperback

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Soars Higher than Most, 22 Mar. 2004
I just finished Robert B. Parker's "A Catskill Eagle" for the fifth time in as many years. I didn't intend for it to become a yearly ritual, but it has done that and I'm happy for it.
Eagle is the book that makes Spenser epic, that cements the bond between Spenser and Hawk among the great literary friendships. It is Parker's way of enforcing the comparisons between his own Spenser and the unstoppable, nameless knight of Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen". It is more than a knight's tale, more than a picaresque, more than a detective novel.
To rescue Susan from her other lover, a rich, cruel and brutal man, Spenser and Hawk cut a swath of destruction across America. In order to secure the distressed damsel, they commit murder and arson and eventually sign on for an assassination. As an example of the depths of love and fealty, this book ranks up there with The Sun Also Rises. As an action-adventure it is perfect. As a hilarious buddy comedy it belongs in the same cabinet as any Hope/Crosby road film.
If there is a weak spot in this novel, it is in Russell Costigan himself, Susan's lover. In his desire to make Russell the very opposite of Spenser, he makes him dislikable, crude, a whiny, insecure neanderthal undeserving of Susan's love or attention. It makes her decision bewildering and unbelievable, despite Parker's attempts to explain.
But this book isn't about Russell. It's not even about Susan. It is about the quest. It is about the things around us that define who we are and how we respond when we are needed. And in that, it succeeds far beyond almost anything else you will read in this genre.


The Devil's Hearth: A Fever Devilin Mystery
The Devil's Hearth: A Fever Devilin Mystery
by Phillip Depoy
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Catch Depoy's Fever, 11 Mar. 2004
Mystery fans, please remove your hats and bow your heads for the passing of a great detective - Flap Tucker, Zen detective, seems to be no more. After four charming, funny and intriguing mysteries(and one alarmingly ill-tempered and pissy one), starring the mysterious and easy-going finder of lost things and set in Atlanta, Georgia author Phillip Depoy seems to have laid Flap to rest.
But enough of the boohooing, boys and girls, because Depoy has rewarded those of us who stuck around after the lights went down with a new hero, one who is much like Flap, but somehow more mature and insightful, while maintaining the former detective's flummoxed charm.
Fever Devilin hails from another part of Georgia, the beautiful and spooky Appalachian Mountains. Fever has been living in self-imposed exile in Atlanta, which is physically only a few hours' drive from the mountains, but is on another planet ideologically. In this first adventure we find him returning home to find a corpse on his front porch, one that turns out to be his half-brother. Fever decides to investigate, but has been gone from his tight-knit and close-mouthed community that he is now considered an outsider and can barely get an answer from his friends and neighbors.
Depoy's characters, as always, are delightfully complex. They are true to themselves and their motivations, even as they are sometimes frustratingly obtuse. The relationship between Fever and his best friend, Skidmore, is a realistic portrayal of two friends, long separated, picking up where they left off, with warmth, trepidation and eventual trust. Fever himself is a worthy successor to Flap.
Depoy writes the Appalachians like he lives them, bringing life to the dark, smoky woods and guiding us through with a tracker's eye. I look forward to the next Fever Devilin mystery.


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