Books
Title Author Review Rating Reviewer
11/22/63 (2011) Stephen King High school English teacher Jake Epping returns to the past in order to stop the assassination of JFK. While biding his time in a small Texas town (his jaunts always begin on the same date in 1958), he falls in love with a school librarian. If that sounds like two separate books, it isn't without reason. In fact, the first third of this 842 page whopper is largely unnecessary and could have been a book in itself, it's certainly long enough. So, this is really three books: one (the best of the three) is set in Derry, Maine, the setting of the author's It (Jake even meets a couple of characters from that book); one involves the assassination, in which King clearly has no interest (Jake knows next to nothing about it going in and learns nothing new along the way); and the third book is a "nostalgic" paean to mid-century romance (the quotation marks are deserved, for Jake's small-town characters exhibit awfully modern, big-city ideas). King claims to have read a stack of books taller than himself about the assassination, but you'd never know it; his real research was the period, and evidence of that fairly drips from every page. Still, with his treacly characters and his skill at emotional manipulation, many will no doubt love this book. 3 Brian Martin
Airframe (1996) Michael Crichton With a huge sale to China hanging in the balance, Casey Singleton, an investigator at Norton Aircraft, races to solve the mystery of Flight 545, a transpacific flight from Hong Kong to Denver that makes an emergency landing at LAX after trouble in the air leads to numerous injuries and three deaths among the passengers. Crichton’s cautionary thriller about air safety comes complete with union goons, media sharks, and, of course, corporate duplicity, all in the service of a thin plot and a not-terribly-interesting conclusion. 3 Brian Martin
Angels & Demons (2000) Dan Brown If the mystery at the heart of Angels & Demons doesn’t quite pay off the way we would have liked, Dan Brown at least provides an unexpected and unusual solution that saves the novel from Good Book, Awful Ending status—though it leaves us, really, with two stories. One is a breathless race against time through Vatican City and Rome: an antimatter device capable of wiping out everything within a half-mile radius of its location has been stolen by the Illuminati, an ancient secret society with a grudge against the Catholic Church, and placed somewhere in Vatican City; Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is tapped to trace its location by following centuries old Illuminati clues spread throughout Rome in its art and architecture. The second story is about the Church itself and Brown’s pessimistic belief that it survives on the strength of its secrets. If the marriage of the two is not exactly a happy one, still each shares with the other a sense of mystery, suspense, and vast conspiracy that make Angels & Demons, if not a great novel, at least a pleasing diversion. 4 Brian Martin
Brimstone (2004) Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child “A body is found in the attic of a fabulous Long Island estate. There is a hoofprint scorched into the floor, and the stench of sulfur chokes the air.…[T]hirty years ago four men conjured something unspeakable. Has the devil come to claim his due?” These are the liner notes for Preston and Child’s novel Brimstone, and if you liked the authors’ first novel, Relic, which is about a monster loose in the bowels of New York City's American Museum of Natural History, you might be thinking you’ll like this supernatural thriller, as well. There’s only one problem: nothing supernatural ever happens. Not a thing. In fact, we might as well make that two problems, because the book isn’t terribly thrilling, either, despite the re-teaming of FBI Agent Pendergast and cop Vincent D’Agosta. So threadbare is the plot that the authors introduce a subplot involving a religious zealot the only purpose of which, just like the religious/supernatural trappings of the main storyline, is to distract us from the fact that nothing relevant is occurring. The Warner paperback is over 700 pages long. The actual plot, however, belongs in a short story. 1 Brian Martin
The Charm School (1988) Nelson DeMille Overlong but exciting Cold War thriller that gets off to a terrific start when a young tourist calls the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with a startling revelation. This leads Sam Hollis (military intelligence), Lisa Rhodes (press attache), and Seth Alevy (CIA bureau chief) on a mission to discover the secret behind a mysterious Soviet facility known as the Charm School. DeMille preserves the mystery as long as possible, then substitutes a certain moral ambiguity to keep things interesting. And it's all set against a finely detailed and realistic portrait of the USSR, the largest country in the world and yet one of the most stiflingly claustrophobic. 5 Brian Martin
Coma (1977) Robin Cook Medical student Susan Wheeler attempts to unravel the baffling mystery of several cases of unexplained coma at Memorial Hospital in Boston, rapidly uncovering a vast, sinister conspiracy that puts her own life in danger. Sounds exciting, but after a promising beginning, Cook undermines the whole thing with his ludicrous characterization of Susan (and everyone else in the book), incompetent criminals, and the logical union of both: laughably unbelievable crisis resolutions. It's too bad, too, because the plot is genuinely disturbing. At least the medical portions are realistic and fun, in a queasy, glad-it's-not-me sort of way. 3 Brian Martin
Darwin’s Radio (1999) Greg Bear An ancient virus turns out to be the triggering mechanism for a worldwide speciation event, signaling the next stage in human evolution. Against a backdrop of official denial and misinterpretation, a handful of scientists work to bring the truth to light. This literary disaster won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novel. Must have been the year that pretension was in. Or camp. Peopled with absurd characters whose incessant soul-searching is as shallow (and self-pitying) as it is unbelievable. Worse, it’s all chaff, spewed out by author Greg Bear in a transparent effort to conceal a severely under-written plot. Rarely have characters been so comically divorced from their circumstances. In a world in which tens of thousands of people (in America alone) have been murdered for fear of what they believe is a disease, one self-involved woman gushes that she’s never been happier. No wonder mankind is being replaced. 1 Brian Martin
The Deadly Percheron (1946) John Franklin Bardin A psychiatrist is drawn into mystery and murder after meeting a new patient, a young man who claims to be working for leprechauns. Mildly successful when first published and rediscovered by the Brits in the 70s, who admired its psychological components, it's really all about the mystery, which is unusual and intriguing. 4 Brian Martin
Disclosure (1993) Michael Crichton Straight-arrow executive at a Seattle computer firm gets a crash course in corporate politics and intrigue after his new boss, a sexy woman who just happens to be his former lover, sets him up on a sexual harassment charge. The question is, why? Tense, fast-paced thriller thankfully lacking the author’s usual twist ending, perhaps because, as Crichton informs us in a postscript, it was based on a true story. Made into a movie in 1994, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. 4 Brian Martin
The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, 1951; Foundation and Empire, 1952; Second Foundation, 1953) Isaac Asimov Asimov’s epic of the fall of a splendid galactic empire and the efforts of a relatively small group of people to usher in a new one is rightfully considered a classic of science fiction. Oh, there’s much to quibble about. None of the three books (which span 400 years or so and were originally written as a series of linked stories) contains much direct action; the Milky Way, though densely populated, contains not a single alien; women are second-class citizens; and more besides. Asimov cheerfully sweeps all this aside, thereby allowing himself to follow that age-old maxim of writing: write what you know. The result is an entertaining mix of ideas, logic, science, and, above all, history—all neatly encapsulated in Asimov’s concept of psychohistory (the combination of social psychology and historical probability in a single mathematically precise scientific discipline), which supplies the background—and the backbone—for the entire series. Foundation, the first book, is the most unified of the three, and the one that most closely resembles Asimov’s admitted inspiration, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; although, in this case, it cleverly details the rise of the Foundation, charged with shortening the period of barbarism that is the inevitable result of the Empire’s decay. The second book, Foundation and Empire, is divided into two parts, the first of which deals with a threat from the dying Empire. The second part, perhaps the most intriguing (as well as the most enjoyable) section of the trilogy, is about an unexpected threat from a mutant known only as the Mule, who can control the emotions of others with his mind alone. This part also features the trilogy’s only truly significant adult female character. The trilogy winds up with Second Foundation, a reference to, well, a second foundation, established at the same time as the first, but at the “opposite end of the galaxy” that may itself be a threat to the aims of the first Foundation. In all, a shining example of Golden Age science fiction. 5 Brian Martin
Invasion (1997) Robin Cook No one is ever going to accuse Robin Cook of writing good dialogue or creating engaging characters to speak it, but that having been said, Invasion is a reasonably effective science fiction thriller about the efforts of a small group of people to combat an alien virus that turns its hosts into eco-zombies who believe that mankind had its chance to take care of the Earth and failed miserably. Made into a movie for TV in 1997, starring Luke Perry and Kim Cattrall. 3 Brian Martin
The Investigation (1959; English translation 1974) Stanislaw Lem Lem tackles the question of reality vs. perception in this metaphysical mystery about a Scotland Yard detective assigned to a bizarre case of corpses that have seemingly come back to life and disappeared. Lem's highly evocative mood of eerieness and mystery informs everything from the strange nature of the case itself to things as commonplace as weird nosies from the apartment next door. Creepy. 5 Brian Martin
I, the Jury (1947) Mickey Spillane Spillane's first Mike Hammer novel is a hardboiled mystery that begins with the murder of one of the private eye's best friends and ends with…well, you can probably guess how it ends. In spite of his brutal methods, Hammer's a likable fellow with a sense of humor and a sentimental core. It's just that his idealism includes a rough sense of justice. Not for the overly sensitive politically correct crowd, of course, but for fans of the genre, it's fast-paced, straightforward entertainment. 4 Brian Martin
Let the Right One In (2004) John Ajvide Lindqvist Swedish author Lindqvist’s first novel tells the story of Oskar, a smart but frustrated twelve-year-old boy who by virtue of having become the class bullies’ favorite target finds himself all but ostracized from his peers. That is, until a new girl about his own age moves into the next apartment, a girl whose windows are always blanketed during the day and who only comes out at night. Dark, intimate, occasionally disturbing vampire tale that, unfortunately, casts too wide a net, snaring a number of secondary characters who seem to exist primarily to define the nature of the vampire in ways Oskar’s tale alone cannot. At least, not without resorting to convention, which Lindqvist tries hard to avoid, even though it means opening up the narrative just when it ought to be tightening. Part social allegory (the characters are all low-income misfits whose coping mechanisms range from alcoholism and glue-sniffing to pedophilia), part vampire tale, Let the Right One In is ultimately best appreciated in terms of its unusual and creepy atmosphere rather than its plot. 4 Brian Martin
Meg (1997) Steve Alten Giant prehistoric shark—a 60-foot, 20-ton megalodon—inadvertently lured from its feeding grounds deep in the Mariana Trench, eats innocents and idiots alike, while a small band of marine lovers try to capture it. One teenage boy, after witnessing the gruesome death of a rival surfer, asks a suddenly available beach bunny for a date. An Author’s Note assures us of considerable research, then recommends a single book, on great whites. Superficial and largely puerile. 2 Brian Martin
The Night People (1977) Jack Finney The Night People are two couples craving some excitement in their seemingly mundane lives who begin playing practical jokes on themselves and the police in the dead of night. Finney’s intriguing premise degenerates quickly into a revenge match between the couples and an exceptionally stupid and violent cop, a yokel from Oklahoma. This rather short novel reads like a reject from the sixties/early seventies, when its radical, cop-hating attitude might have stirred sympathy from like-minded hippies. Likewise, Finney’s characters and dialogue seem ripped from one of the author’s own essays into nostalgia, harking back to a time well before any of them were born; plunked down in 1977, they come off not as sophisticated, but rather as silly, stilted, and thoroughly unbelievable. 2 Brian Martin
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) George Orwell George Orwell's dystopian warning about the dangers of a police state, thought-control, and the forced abrogation of individuality is a glorious satire, chock full of details and terminology that can be profitably applied to any number of situations. And as science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four still stands as a thoughtful, mature work that deserves its place on all those lists of the best books in the genre. Well-written, observant, and with a diabolic internal logic it tells the story of Winston Smith, a man trapped in the iron grip of a society that controls every aspect of his dreary existence through indoctrination, surveillance, torture, and fear. His minor rebellions lead him into the arms of Julia, a younger woman with whom he shares a hatred of the system, and eventually into contact with a man representing the rumored underground of resistance fighters. But what the book is really about is the society itself, its principles, how it operates, and what it does to its people. So effective is it in describing this world that words like Big Brother, doublethink, and unperson became part of our vocabulary. Perhaps more tellingly, however, is the fact that no matter how or in what context you say “Big Brother,” it still never comes off quite as menacingly as “Hitler.” It’s one of those spot-on observations that make this novel so compelling. 6 Brian Martin
Prey (2002) Michael Crichton Science fiction thriller about an isolated team of scientists and computer programmers whose experiments in nanotechnology have unleashed an entirely new type of predator: a swarm of billions of tiny, essentially living machines seemingly bent on the destruction of the human race. Trendy, fast-paced entertainment, but nothing more. 4 Brian Martin
Red Harvest (1929) Dashiell Hammett Hammett's first novel, featuring the Continental Op, a detective with the San Francisco-based Continental Detective Agency. Called to the town of Personville, the Op finds his client murdered and the town, known locally as Poisonville, in the grip of rampant crime and corruption. He decides to clean it up, by pitting the various factions against each other. A labyrinthine plot and a body count that quickly rises to obscene proportion pull the reader into a nightmare world of murder and mayhem that even the Op finds difficult to resist. Hammet is "so hardboiled," Dorothy Parker wrote in The New Yorker, "you could roll him on the White House lawn.” Red Harvest is Exhibit #1. Based on four linked stories from 1927 and 1928, originally published in Black Mask. 5 Brian Martin
Revelations in Black (1947) Carl Jacobi Collection of 21 stories by pulp writer and Weird Tales contributor Carl Jacobi somewhat tarnishes the mystique of that magazine (which originally published 11 of them). The stories, ranging in quality from indifferent to bad, show the author as a capable ideas man, but his plots are typically disorganized, self-contradictory, and laughably contrived. Jacobi’s favorite theme — and it appears in nearly all of these tales — is that of the outside, irresistible force that compels his characters to do things they cannot understand. Jove/HBJ’s 1979 reprint features the following Stephen King quotation on the front cover: “One of the finest writers to come out of the Golden Age of fantasy.” He must have been joking. 2 Brian Martin
Rising Sun (1992) Michael Crichton Japan-bashing at a mile a minute. When a beautiful young woman is murdered at the Los Angeles headquarters of a powerful Japanese corporation, the L.A. cops send in super-sleuth John Connor, their resident, if semi-retired, expert on Japan. His Watson, a Special Liaison officer with only rudimentary knowledge of his suspects, tells the story, which hinges as much on the subtleties of Japanese culture as the dangerous naiveté of American government. Oh, yes, Crichton bashes America, too, often just by comparison. An exciting, thought-provoking, opinionated thriller, with plenty of plot twists and two of the author’s most engaging characters. Made into a film in 1993, starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. 5 Brian Martin
Shock (2001) Robin Cook A couple of Harvard coeds (graduate students, actually) decide they want to find out if any progeny resulted from their donation of eggs at an infertility clinic. Of course, the only way to accomplish this goal is by breaking the law: assuming fake identities to find jobs at the clinic, stealing access cards, hacking into the computer system, and so on. Nothing illustrates the utter implausibility of this story more than the fact that the women not only allow just one day for this adventure, but actually succeed in that timeframe. Oh, and they uncover shocking secrets, too, from cloning to murder. 2 Brian Martin
Sliver (1991) Ira Levin Levin turns "Rear Window" on its head with this tale of a woman who discovers that the voyeur in her New York apartment building is also a murderer. Then it gets stranger. Suspenseful and fast-paced, the novel never becomes the uber-thriller of Levin's best work, probably because there's no grand prize dangling at the end for the bad guy. He's already got what he wants; it's just a matter of keeping it. And the whole thing leads to a climax the point of which is buried in the silliness of its resolution. 4 Brian Martin
State of Fear (2004) Michael Crichton Wildly implausible and systematically preachy tale of ecology-minded extremists determined to “prove” the theory of global warming by unnatural acts of mass destruction and the absurd band of men and women who have only a few days to stop them. A thriller that ultimately is more interesting than strictly entertaining, as Crichton (actually citing his sources in the text) sets out to demolish global warming—and a few other long-cherished theories along the way. 3 Brian Martin
Strega (1987) Andrew Vachss The author's second Burke novel pits the private investigator against a pedophile ring that snaps Polaroids of its young victims for collectors. The title character, Burke's client, is a sexy but strange woman whose background we've figured out long before Burke (blithely, conveniently ignorant) has it spelled out for him at the end. Too tough for its own good and claustrophobically insular, with one-dimensional villains that exist more to promote the author's mission against pedophiles than to entertain. Hardboiled community service masquerading as fiction. 2 Brian Martin
A Study in Terror (1966) Ellery Queen The novelization of the film. Part Ellery Queen, part Paul W. Fairman. Fairman wrote the novelization (as an unpublished manuscript by John Watson in which Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper) and Queen wrote the framing story (in which Ellery reads the manuscript and comes to his own conclusions). Both segments are enjoyable in their own way, but in the end, this mystery doesn't add up. Though Fairman does a reasonable job capturing Holmes and the period, he completely ignores everything known about the Ripper, turning the whole thing into a cynical marketing ploy. 3 Brian Martin
Temple (1999) Matthew Reilly Linguist William Race gets suckered into translating a rare 16th century manuscript in order to locate an idol carved from an extraterrestrial substance more powerful than uranium or plutonium that was hidden by the Incas in the wake of the Spanish conquest of 1532. Once conscripted, Race discovers that his is only one of several teams after the idol; an idol that, in the wrong hands, could be used to destroy the world. Deliriously action-packed thriller that reads like an old movie serial, with one cliff-hanger after another from which the hero couldn’t possibly escape yet somehow manages to do so anyway. Written with all the refinement of a third act chase scene in a second-rate film, Temple is nevertheless just giddy enough to be readable. 3 Brian Martin
Where Are the Children? (1975) Mary Higgins Clark Competent but uninspired thriller about a young mother whose two children are kidnapped—on the seventh anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of her two previous children. Made the Mystery Writers of America's list of the top 100 mystery novels of all time, probably due to the remembered effect on its members of the book's then-novel theme of child molestation. Clark's first suspense novel. Based in part on the Alice Crimmins case, of a young wife and mother accused of killing her two children. 4 Brian Martin
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