Tag Archives: thriller

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

I’ll admit it:  I’ve become rather fond of Harry Dresden, the hero of The Dresden Files series.  He’s always off fighting something interesting — rogue wizards, werewolves, toad-monsters … they’re all problematic creatures Dresden has to face.  Grave Peril, the third installment in the series, covers a new type of supernatural creature — the ghost.  The results are spooky and good at the same time.

Jim Butcher starts off the book with Dresden and a friend, Michael Carpenter, going in to a hospital to stop a ghost from smothering the babies in the nursery.  Michael is some sort of paladin — faithful, honest, strong, and steadfast — and his sword is an instrument for smiting evil.  A surprisingly difficult battle with the ghost ensues after they pursue her to The Nevernever, as does a visit from Dresden’s godmother, Lea, who apparently owns his soul and wishes to collect as soon as possible.

Added into this mix is the Nightmare, a sentient ghost-like creature that takes some of Dresden’s power, incapacitates Karrin Murphy, the head of Special Investigations for the Chicago Police Department, and enjoys taking people over when they sleep.  We’ve also got significant vampire activity and the involvement of some back-story that provides for clever surprises with the plot.

One of the attributes I like about Butcher’s series is the humor.  I’m a sucker for puns, so I got a kick out of Dresden’s joke about the vampiress on a diet (“Make hers a Blood Lite”), among others.  Yet this book felt darker to me than the previous two, and I wonder if some of that is because we’re getting to know Dresden better.  It’s harder to joke around with characters when they’ve become established and people have developed attachments to them.  The change toward a more serious tone isn’t bad, and Butcher still keeps his tongue in his cheek a good bit.  This installment is just a little less so.

A couple of things about this particular book made it a little more difficult to like.  The first may seem petty, but it drove me nuts:  Dresden says “Hell’s bells” a lot in this book.  This is the first time I can recall him ever using this term.  He says it, on average, one time per chapter.  That would make for thirty-nine “Hell’s bells”.  It’s not just the term, which I find mildly annoying; it’s also that I don’t think it’s something that the Dresden I knew from the first two books would say.  Maybe I just overlooked it, but, in Grave Peril, the abundance of the comments jarred me out of the narrative each time I read it, which I’m pretty sure isn’t what Butcher was aiming to do.

The second is that quite a bit of time, series-wise, has elapsed between the previous book, Fool Moon, and this one.  That means that there’s a lot of back-story we only have filled in part-way — Michael has been his partner on the exorcisms, but when did they meet?  How?  What’s the full story on the big event that involved Special Investigations?  Is it in a short story somewhere?  Couldn’t it have been part of the story of this book?  That would have been fantastic, and I wouldn’t have spent part of the book wondering why something was the way it was until it was explained through a narrative about past events.

The Dresden Files is an awesome series.  Grave Peril is a fine addition, but not quite as good as its predecessors.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under 3.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

After having read Storm Front, the first book in the Dresden Files series, I promptly put the rest of the books on my to-read list.  I’m one of those people who isn’t happy unless she’s reading through at least one series; I think it’s because recurring characters and a familiar world is easier to lose yourself in.  Anyway, Fool Moon is the second book in the series, and it is certainly just as thrilling as the first one.

We meet up with wizard Harry Dresden six months after the end of Storm Front.  He’s healed up, but most of his business has dried up.  Chicago’s Special Investigations unit isn’t using him much anymore, since he caused all kinds of problems for them the last big case they had him work on.  So it’s not surprising when he’s willing to talk to Kim, a woman he’s been mentoring in the wizardly arts, about something she’s stumbled upon in exchange for dinner.

He recognizes the power of what she’s messing with, and warns her away.  Then Karrin Murphy, the head of SI, asks for Dresden’s help, and we’re on our way to another supernatural adventure.

This series has many good things going for it.  Butcher writes well, with a good mix of narrative and dialogue.  There’s a good amount of humor in both, which is probably the biggest draw for me.  Literary fiction, almost by definition, takes itself seriously, sometimes to the point of tedium.  Genre fiction, whether it be science fiction, fantasy, romance, or mystery, gives the author so much more room for exploring that essential part of human experience.  Butcher gives the reader plenty without overdoing it, which I really like.

I also enjoy the first-person point-of-view.  I don’t get to read many that stick with one character and also has him “narrate” his own story, and I like that.

There were some stumbling points for me with the book, however.  It felt, to me, that we missed some things in the six months between Storm Front and Fool Moon, and that’s a bit unsettling.  I like to feel like I’m getting the full story in a series like this, and dislike it when the author leaves a good amount of information out.  This is probably just me, but I would have liked a little bit more about Dresden’s life in-between the end of the evil wizard of Storm Front and the beginning of the bad werewolf of Fool Moon.

Butcher also stretched my ability to suspend disbelief with the amount of abuse Dresden is able to take.  I mean, sure, a main character can withstand more than the average person, but not even a Timex watch made of titanium and Teflon could make it through what our hero is forced to endure.  I hope future books give him a little more healing time between beatings.

Overall, I find Butcher’s writing to be fun.  Everyone needs their fiction to be something they can immerse themselves in with no hesitation, and the Dresden Files is definitely a series that I can sit back and enjoy with relish.

Rating:  4/5.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

What if Israel, as a modern state, failed in its attempt to form in the 1940s?  What would happen to the Jews who had hoped to repatriate there?  Michael Chabon, the acclaimed author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, asks this question in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  Intertwined here with the story of the Jewish people who survived World War II is murder mystery, a government conspiracy, and personal tales of loss, despair, and, possibly, hope.

Our hero, Meyer Landsman, at first has the appearance of being just another doesn’t-play-by-the-rules detective.  He’s got a failed marriage and a over-fondness for alcohol.  He has a failed marriage in his past.  What does it matter that he’s Jewish and living in Sitka?

It matters quite a lot, actually.  Sitka is where the majority of the Jews who attempted settlement in the Middle East got relocated after the failure of the state of Israel.  The agreement was that they got the land for sixty years, after which they would have to apply for citizenship, find relatives who would take them in, or otherwise leave Sitka, and the United States.  They are living on borrowed time, which is due to be up in a couple of months for Landsman and the rest of the Jewish community.

It’s easy to imagine that the native Inuits weren’t happy with the situation.  They weren’t, in fact, and the two populations came to blows soon after the agreement was reached.  Relations still aren’t great, and those who are part-native and part-Jewish find themselves scorned by both sides.  Landsman’s cousin and partner, Berko, struggles with finding his place in this community as a resident and as a detective.  His reactions and behaviors were intensely interesting to me; those themes of being both, and so being considered neither, are universal.  The way one deals with them are not.

The friction between the two groups is also interesting in another couple of ways.  The first way is that it echos the European takeover of Alaska.  Russians, Canadians and Americans have all claimed part or all of Alaska at different times, and I thought it clever of Chabon to give us a glimpse of what a modern-day colonization action in the Americas would look like.

The second way this is interesting is perhaps a bit more subtle.  Chabon takes the theme of Jews moving to a new location that is already occupied and being forced to fight for their new home after being chased out of the old and puts it in a framework that is out of the ordinary for the modern reader.  Take away the religious and cultural clashes between the Arab world and the Israelis, and a lot of the bare issues are easier to tackle.

The plot of the book also is remarkable.  Sure, it’s a murder mystery, but it has a politico-religious theme.  Chabon’s Alaskan Jews want a Messiah, and they want to live in Israel.  The people, as a whole, have a longing to belong, and their religion dictates to them the when and the where, how that is possible.  Their leaders take it to the extreme, with the help of the American government, who wants to see them repatriated without having to officially sanction a holy war against the Palestinians.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is simply brilliant.  Chabon is a talented writer.  I especially enjoyed some of his understated puns; at one point near the end, he describes Landsman’s reaction to a couple of policemen as being “baffled by the fairings of their southern and gentile glamour.”  Now, does he mean “gentile” as in polite, or “gentile” as in, well, “Gentile”?  I loved it.  It’s the little touches such as this that makes this a new favorite for me.

Rating: 5/5

Leave a comment

Filed under 5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

Fatherland by Robert Harris

I have to admit, I was a little excited to read Fatherland.  It was recommended to me on the basis that it takes place in an alternate history.  I am a sucker for alternate histories, so I bit.  The premise sounded interesting:  what if Nazi Germany had won and survived World War II?  What type of society would that be?  Just such a nation is set as the backdrop for the story of a detective charged with solving the puzzle of the death of a high-ranking retired Nazi official.

It is unfortunate that the premise doesn’t lead to a truly unique story.  Our hero, Xavier March, is a detective in Berlin.  Called in to oversee the investigation of a body found in a river, March soon realizes that the death is more than a simple drowning.  He makes some quick discoveries as to who the dead man is, learning that he was one of the first high-ranking Nazi officers.

Then he is thrown off the case.  This is the first in the cliches embedded in Fatherland.  It makes liberal use of the tropes of how mysteries and thrillers work.  Despite the cleverness of the setting, Robert Harris merely took his story out of a real-life setting, like Russia, and plugged it into a slightly more interesting place and time.  He also has the woman who, at first, hated our hero, but came along and became the only person he can trust.  And we have the betrayals by people close to March — all of which were pretty predictable.

Even Xavier March’s feelings toward his own country are relatively predictable.  He’s always spurned the nationalistic activities and groups.  This makes it easier for him to accept the horrible secrets he later discovers, but it also makes it fairly unrealistic.  What person, raised and grown almost entirely in a land full of national and ethnic pride, is likely to be a malcontent?  He should, at least, be involved to an average degree.  I can’t help but think that, if he were miserable in Germany, he would have found a way to leave in a way acceptable to his government.  After all, his son isn’t a pull enough for him to stay once he realizes he needs to leave; he merely was going to give him some money.

I do think, however, that Harris’ setting is remarkable.  The way the society is structured is pretty believable.  The actions of people — the reporting of others, the shunning of those who don’t make the cut, the sterilization of people thought to have Jewish heritage, the fear of anyone in a uniform, the growth of an underground opposition — these are all clearly divined from what happened in the real (and failed) German Nazi state.  There, Harris has found something remarkably terrifying in its potential reality.

In whole, Fatherland‘s setting and society is wonderful.  The plot and characters are not.  For someone who enjoys the typical mystery thriller, this can, at least, provide for some entertaining and predictable reading.  But it almost certainly will disappointing those wanting more out of a book with such amazing promise.

Rating: 2.5/5

Leave a comment

Filed under 2.5/5, Book review, Fiction, Mixed