Sunday, August 29, 2010

When The Dead Speak by S. D. Tooley

It was the paranormal aspect of S. D. Tooley’s novel, When the Dead Speak that caught my attention. The sleuth, Sergeant Samantha (Sam) Casey has a unique gift. She can sense images and intuition from the dead. They tell her things. Being an author of paranormal abilities, I had to read this book.

A quote from Mystery news is printed on the cover above the title: “The book opens with a bang, literally.” Well, not so much ‘literally’ but it does open with an eighteen wheeler smashing into a concrete support on a highway overpass. As the column crumbles, a body is exposed, encased in the concrete. That is a good way to open a novel.

Meanwhile, Sam Casey is working undercover, infiltrating the household of a state senator, who has his eyes set on the governor’s seat. She is nearly caught by a security guard but manages to escape.

After hearing reports of a break-in at the senator’s home, her chief suspects Sam of using her off-duty hours for private work and transfers her to another precinct. There, Sam comes face to face with her near-captor, Jake Mitchell and his partner Frank Travis. She is assigned to work with them to investigate the body in the concrete pillar. Since she was in disguise when he almost caught her, she hopes he won’t recognize her. Unfortunately, Jake never forgets a perfect set of legs.

The find themselves at odds with each other, exacerbated by Sam’s mother, Abby, who soon has Jake staying at their house, fixing him meals and washing his clothes. They manage to forge a working relationship as they try to solve the mystery. The man, Harvey Wilson, was reported as AWOL during the Korean War. So what happened to him between 1951 when he went missing and 1977 when the overpass was built? The leads they uncover lead to the state senator, Washington, DC and even to Sam’s father, who was an investigative reporter who died in 1977, the same year as Harvey Wilson. The common bond between all of them is a pin in the shape of a lightning bolt.

The investigation is hampered by the length of time since the Korean War. Most of the men who fought have long since died, narrowing down the number of people they can rely on for clues. But it seems there are those still alive and want those secrets to stay buried and Sam finds herself in increasing danger. She’ll need all of her powers if she is going to come out alive.

Tooley incorporates Native American mysticism into the story, more so than the paranormal. Abby has the ability to communicate with the spirits and ask for their intercession. Whether the spirits answer her supplications is conjectural, but Abby knows that Jake is meant for her daughter and makes certain that they see each other through her eyes. If they can stop being hostile to each other.

There is more than spirits and clairvoyance here. Tooley’s characters Sam, Abby and Alex, a Native American man living on Sam’s sprawling estate, can talk to the animals. Birds, especially, act as messengers and spies. Of course, not all conversations are aboveboard as Sam demonstrates when she has two pigeons do their business on her new commander’s paper work.

So the book has a sense of humor, too. Tooley spins a great tale mixed with government cover-up, blackmail, the unknown and love. It’s reminiscent of Brad Thor’s thrillers, which also involve government officials all the way up to the president.

When the Dead Speak is an exciting mystery with interesting turns every chapter.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

I haven’t seen the movie adaptation of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (even though George Clooney is a tempting reason), but it’d be interesting to see how a non-fiction book about America’s enigmatic psychic program. Ronson’s funny sarcastic book centers on an incident in which a man stared a goat to death.

In his quest to find the fatal gazer, Ronson finds a lot of other weird stuff going on. The book starts with a general hypothesizing but failing to prove it’s possible to walk through walls. It doesn’t get any less bizarre. He tells of America’s Psychological Operations (PsyOps) program, a group of psychic spies, who were charged with keeping a clairvoyant eye on our enemies. But like walking through walls, the remote viewing had limited success.

The ideals that the military entertained, according to Ronson are so esoteric and bohemian, they are hysterical. Despite the improbability of emulating Kitty Pride, the military top brass bought into the idea.

Another possibility was Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion, developing the ‘Warrior Monk’, someone who could become invisible and walk through walls. As Channon wrote in 1979 “The U.S. army doesn’t really have any serious alternative than to be wonderful”. Trainees to the First Earth Battalion would “fall in love with everyone” and carry “symbolic animals” such as lambs into hostile countries. These Warrior Monks would also be ‘supersoldiers’, that could “pass through objects such as walls, bend metal with their minds…see into the future…and be able to hear and see other people’s thoughts”.

Sounds cool, doesn’t it? Not so fast.

The pictures taken at the Abu Ghraib prison that sparked such a firestorm of controversy were part of a carefully orchestrated plan by the PsyOps to incense our enemies. Other aspects of this type of mind-blowing warfare included blasting Iraqi prisoners 24/7 with Metallica’s “Enter the Sandman”, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, and Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You”. If that won’t make them talk, nothing will.

PsyOps, according to Ronson, is also responsible for LSD being introduced to America’s subculture, a cheap way of observing its effect on humans.

I didn’t know how to take The Men Who Stare at Goats because I’ve been caught off-guard by tongue-in-cheek non-fiction before, but Ronson seems to have a good handle on the “covert” machinations of America’s psychic spy program. Even if the psychic spies don’t have much of a handle on anything.

Ronson’s writing style flows easily, almost conversational, making it an easy read. But it makes it easy to be scared, too. I’m an advocate of learning psychic skills but it doesn’t seem that anyone is taking this seriously.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

In an interview with author Louis Bayard, he said he didn’t set out to write a sequel to A Christmas Carol, and although Mr. Timothy takes place fifteen years after the events in Dickens’ classic novel and contain two of its most memorable corporeal characters, it most definitely is not a sequel.

Tiny Tim is now Mr. Timothy and his crippled leg has nearly been healed, leaving him with only a slight limp. He’s not the sweet innocent boy, spouting ‘God bless us, everyone’, endearing himself to all. His parents have passed away and his surviving siblings scattered across England.

Timothy has immersed himself in the seedy underbelly of London, teaching the madam of a brothel to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. As part of their arrangement, he rooms at the bordello.

Timothy seems determined to distance himself from his beneficent Uncle N, aka Ebenezer Scrooge. The crabby old miser remains changed after his encounter with the spirits. He dotes on his ‘nephew’ Tim. He spared no expense in finding the best doctors and medical care money could buy in treating Tim’s bum leg.

But Scrooge’s change of heart had a negative effect on the Crachitt family. He hired a second clerk to help Bob. Mr. Crachitt had more time on his hands and drifted away from his family.

Timothy’s siblings didn’t begrudge him the attention shown him by Scrooge but it did manage to set him apart from him. The final result is Timothy is only in contact with his brother Pete and his wife Annie.

Mr. Timothy is a trip through the sexual deviancy in Victorian England, a stark contrast of the prudish era in which the novel is set. It could probably be considered a prequel to Jack the Ripper, since Bayard’s novel shows us the dark and violent side of London. We see the buildings covered in soot from hundreds of chimneys belching smoke. We smell the Thames at low tide where the receding water reveals refuse Londoners have tossed away. We feel the bitter cold, sleet and fog that permeate thin blankets, threadbare clothing and worn shoes. No Mary Poppins or Eliza Doolittle here.

In these filthy streets, Timothy finds the bodies of two young girls. He soon encounters a third who is very much alive. He pursues her, wanting to keep her safe from the diverse people – a rich gentleman, a female ‘proprietor’ of a safe haven for orphans – eager to grab her and ‘save’ her.

Bayard’s tale gets even seedier as Tim uncovers a child prostitution ring catering to London’s elite. Why should the dukes and lords of the city degrade themselves with the common whores when they can have a younger, prettier and more importantly, pure and innocent.

Sexual perversion is a recurring theme throughout the novel and not just the mystery and Tim’s abode. He is accused of being a homosexual as his manhood is questioned more than once. And he is assaulted by his accuser.

The harshness of Mr. Timothy packs as much of a punch as A Christmas Carol, but more shocking than scary. It’s a grown up version of the Dicken’s tale. Bayard doesn’t give us a happy closing line from Tim Crachitt and he leaves a huge question unanswered.

Slow to start, Mr. Timothy draws you into the shadows and you may not want to leave.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Private by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

There is a lot going on in Private, the collaboration between James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. In the novel, Jack Morgan has just received fifteen million dollars from his loser-father who is in prison. His father wants him to re-establish their private investigation firm. Five years later, Jack has more clients than he can shake a stick at.

His best friend’s wife has just been murdered. Shelby Cushman was Jack’s former lover, before he introduced her to his pal, Andy.

Jack’s uncle, who has part ownership of a team in the NFL, hires him to investigate accusations of a gambling and bribery scandal that could ruin the sport.

During all of this, Los Angeles is a hunting ground for a serial killer preying on school girls. His modus operandi is different with each victim, making it difficult for the profilers to get a fix on him.

Jack’s twin brother Tom is a chip off the ol’ block. Unfortunately. Jack discovers that his brother owes the mob $600,000, but there is so much animosity between the siblings they make Cain and Abel look like the Olsen twins.

Then as a filler, it seems, two high-profile celebrity couples come to him wanting to switch partners. Legally.

With all of this going on, it would appear difficult for Jack to have a social life but he does manage one. However he screws it up.

And his isn’t the only one to hit the skids during the short time span in the novel.

With keeping up on all the plot lines, Patterson and Paetro throw another curve at the reader. The narration switches from first person told from Jack’s point of view to third person. It’s difficult to see what the advantage is to this since it doesn’t add to anything to the story except perhaps to write a death scene from the viewpoint of a person dying, in this case, Jack. He expired briefly in the prologue after a helicopter explodes during his tour in Afghanistan. This incident causes nightmares, interrupting Jack’s sleep. Another aspect to an already crowded novel.

With numerous stories occurring at once, a few of them are dispatched without much suspense or action. The celebrity couples appear in only two chapters, so why include them? They didn’t add anything either. The NFL scandal which makes the blurb on the inside flap is relegated to a subplot.

Despite the dizzying pace and the constant switching of viewpoint or plot from page to page, Private is a good story that will keep your interest, especially if you have a short attention span.

The Bride Collector by Ted Dekker

The only problem I had with Ted Dekker’s chilling novel The Bride Collector was it’s all about the beautiful people. The victims are beautiful. The serial killer is beautiful. The main character. All the secondary and periphery characters. Yet all that was a minor aspect of a great novel and a scary story.

Unlike the globe-trotting, money-falling-for-the-sky spy novels, The Bride Collector is well-grounded and entrenched in Denver, Colorado. Brad Raines, a special agent for the FBI, is on the trail of a killer who has murdered several beautiful young women and leaves a bridal veil covering their faces.

Dekker reveals the identity of the serial killer in the second chapter so no mystery here. But he takes that opportunity to build the suspense and terror as the reader is allowed into the mind of a murderer. Dekker takes his audience on a thrilling ride into psychosis.

Nearly all the main players have their own demons to deal with, none more so than Brad. He hasn’t gotten over the suicide of his gorgeous fiancĂ©e over a decade ago. She took her own life believing she wasn’t beautiful enough. As Brad delves into the case, he is drawn to a young woman who can see ghosts.

Paradise and her friends live in a picturesque manor in the mountains near Denver, a place for those with mental illness and money. The world sees them as crazy but Brad slowly realizes the genius trapped inside their addled minds. Soon he is asking for their help and the results astonish him. Each utilizing their own gifts, the ‘residents’ help him decipher the ramblings of a madman who is just as psychotic and as brilliant as they are.

Meanwhile, the killer continues his murderous rampage and turns his attention to Brad, taunting him and challenging him.

Brad and Paradise form an uncomfortable alliance, not trusting themselves with each other, but gradually their mutual trust grows and so does their love.

The final showdown between Brad, Paradise and the killer who knows them both is the longest section of the book because Dekker milks it for all it’s worth. The pages fly by with unexpected twists and surprising developments. The Bride Collector is a spooky story that will have you looking over your shoulder.

Blowback by Brad Thor

After reading The Defector by Daniel Silva, I thought I was ready for Blowback by Brad Thor. Like the former, Blowback was the first novel I read by the author and like the former, I’m ready for more. Both are action-packed spy novels with pulse pounding excitement.

Since I’ve been turned onto spy novels, a new genre for me, only I thoroughly enjoyed Blowback. Compared to Gabriel Allon in The Defector, Thor’s main character Scot Harvath is tougher, less suave and much less subtle.

However, Scot’s playing with a different set of rules. While trying to apprehend a notorious terrorist in Afghanistan, he is caught on tape beating a seemingly innocent market vendor. An ambitious senator with her sights on the White House tries to serve his head from a silver catapult to oust the current president. The commander-in-Chief has no choice but to ask for Harvath’s resignation.

With his next breath, the president hires him back in secret. A strange virus has decimated all but the Muslim population of a small village in north Afghanistan and Harvath is the person best qualified and now, most expendable to find out what’s going on.

The repercussions from this virus are staggering. The West suspects Al-queda may have a terrifying weapon at their disposal. But how? The terrorist group and their sympathizers don’t have the capability to engineer a virus or a plague that affects only non-Muslims.

Harvath finds that there is a connection between the lethal illness that turns its victims’ brains into a black goo and the discovery underneath a glacier in the French Alps. Since Harvath is officially ostracized from Washington, he has to rely on his own resources with minimal help from the very few who are in-the-know about his situation.

Still he manages to bounce all over the globe, where money is no object and avoiding ID checks at border crossings, since he is wanted for murder in a number of countries.

Thor includes plenty of cliffhangers but what really stretches the imagination is Harvath’s near-indestructibility and extreme luck. He gets out of more scrapes and close-calls than Indiana Jones. Nevertheless, it’s all in good fun.

To me, Blowback is a terrific book that I couldn’t put down. Even readers who aren’t fans of thrillers and spy novels may enjoy this.