Review: Herman Koch’s The Dinner a tasty good read

by G. Robert Frazier

The main course of Herman Koch’s The Dinner  is deliciously twisted, and so too is the dessert. After reading this compulsively addictive novel, you’ll want to make it the topic of conversation at your next dinner with family and, perhaps, for many meals to come.

The DinnerOriginally published in the Netherlands in 2009, Hogarth – an imprint of Crown Publishing – has served up a new Extra Libris printing of the New York Times bestseller for connoisseurs of fine reading, with a reader’s guide as well as a behind-the-scenes essay and conversation with Koch. And it’s worth every juicy morsel.

The Dinner introduces readers to a pair of brother-and-wife couples during the course of an evening meal at a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. But as the night wears on, the conversation – like the dinner itself – takes on a meatier tone. Masked beneath the gentle dab of a napkin and the fussy attentions of the restaurant’s manager (and his obtrusive pinky finger) is a family secret that threatens to spoil the couples’ friendship, their reputations, and very livelihoods.

Koch masterfully draws readers into the conversation, spoon-feeding tasty nuggets of information to us as if we were sitting at a nearby table eavesdropping for gossip. Much of the story takes place during a single evening, but Koch weaves in numerous flashbacks to deepen and enrich the characters’ feelings and relationships to each other like appetizers before the main meal.

The further we dig into the story the more we also learn of the narrator’s own secrets and the less trustworthy he becomes, adding a bit of spice and bitterness to the tale in the same sort of vein as Gone Girl’s unreliable narrators.

Ultimately, readers are left to chew on one insatiable question where it concerns not only the story’s main characters but in their own lives, and that is: how far would you go to protect your loved ones?

Koch is the author of eight novels and three short story collections. The Dinner has been published in twenty-five countries. Just desserts indeed.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this honest review.

Review: Questions posed in Powerless linger well after novel is finished

by G. Robert Frazier

If you’ve never given a thought as to what to do in a disaster, you’ll probably change your mind after reading Tim Washburn’s terrifying debut novel Powerless (Pinnacle Books).

PowerlessAt the very least, you’ll find yourself taking an extra long look at those survivor magazines at the grocery store checkout lane, or setting your DVR to record those doomsday prepper shows. You may even feel compelled to go a step farther by purchasing a gas generator for your home, nonperishable foods by the pallet, and cases of bottled water. You might want to get a gun or two as well–one for hunting and one for self-defense.

Because when the power goes out–for good–you’ll need all of it sooner rather than later.

The characters in Washburn’s debut novel learn that lesson the hard way when a massive solar flare wipes out electricity across the northern hemisphere, plunging the entire US into complete chaos.

Read the rest of this review on Killer Nashville

Book review: White Leopard a gritty, graphic PI novel

by G. Robert Frazier

Whether it’s shooting thugs in the kneecaps, punching them in the solar plexus, or chopping off their hands at the wrist, author Laurent Guillaume doesn’t pull any punches in his gritty and graphic English-language debut, White Leopard (Le French Book, $16.95).

White LeopardGuillaume’s anti-hero Souleymane (Solo) Camera is a tough-as-nails private investigator making his living in arid Bamako, Mali, in West Africa after running from a dark past in France, where he was a former drug force detective. Solo’s cases typically involve chasing down and photographing cheating husbands in divorce cases, although he has handled a few higher profile criminal cases, netting him the title’s nickname from police. (He’s part French, part Malian, and reviled by both.)

A simple case—“buying” the freedom of a woman arrested on drug charges by offering a bribe to the local magistrate (apparently an all-too common occurrence in corruption-rife Mali)—takes an unexpected turn when the woman is brutally murdered upon her release. The sister of the victim, who hired Solo in the first place, boasts that he will bring the killers to justice, which only serves to make Solo the next target for the thugs.

Read the rest of this review at KillerNashville.com.

Review: Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography a hilarious diversion

by G. Robert Frazier

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (Three Rivers Press, $16) was a fun little diversion from the usual high-octane thrillers and hard-boiled detective novels I like to read. Every once in a while you need something a bit more light-hearted to sort of decompress. This fit that bill nicely.

Choose Your Own AutobiographyTypically I wouldn’t bother with anything about Neil Patrick Harris, let alone an autobiography. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s a talented actor and he’s certainly making a name for himself following his post-Doogie Howser M.D. fame. But I was never a big fan of Doogie and … wait for It … I never got into How I Met Your Mother either. The best thing he’s been in of late was Gone Girl, and maybe I only liked it because (SPOILER ALERT!) he got killed in the most grisly fashion. (What’s that say about me?)

Bottom line, I don’t really regard him as someone I need to know about in great detail. At least not at this point. Maybe after he is elected president someday … maybe.

But at this point, I’m more than content with a short article in Entertainment Weekly or Variety about him than reading an entire book about his life. I think part of that is he’s still so young and he just hasn’t done enough yet to pique my curiosity further.

I think, somehow, Harris knows this about himself too. It explains why his autobiography is really nothing more than a series of snippets or vignettes from his life collected together as a sort of best of moments. Almost like they are funny stories he’d tell if he were a guest on a late night talk show or as if they were brief flashes of memories from his life. (And isn’t that the way all memories are anyway? I mean, who really remembers their life in a linear timeline?)

There’s no real narrative or arc binding the vignettes together, so to make things even more interesting, Harris allows the reader to pick which vignette to read next by offering a choice at the bottom of each. The idea is brilliant in that regard and immediately makes for a more engrossing and interactive reading experience.  It also allows you to read the book in spurts, without having to keep track of an over-arching theme. If you want to read something else in between chapters, so be it. No harm done, because every entry is self-contained.

To keep you on your toes, he throws in some hilarious “what if” scenarios that usually end badly for him.

Admittedly, several of the more truthful vignettes were also amusing diversions and fascinatingly good reads. Some more so than others.  Depending on how you choose you can actually get to THE END in no time flat, which is what I did. I reached the “final page” so quickly that I actually found myself going back to other chapters I knew I hadn’t read yet to see what I’d missed.

If anything else, the book makes you wonder “what if” your own life diverged in different ways. What adventure would you rather choose if you could?

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Related reading:

7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach About Writing

Review: Medical thriller Fatal Complications best left in the waiting room

By G. Robert Frazier

Believable characters – and what motivates them to do what they do – are the key to any great story. If the reader can’t buy into the character’s actions, then the story is going to fail no matter if everything else is done well. Unfortunately, Fatal Complications (Oceanview Publishing, Dec. 1, $26.95) by John Benedict is lacking in this area.

IMG_20151027_132424480 (861x1280)A medical thriller set in a small hospital, the novel follows anesthesiologist Luke Daulton who discovers things aren’t what they appear to be. An operating room emergency leads him to suspect that his surgeon boss, Dr. Katz, is behind some kind of nefarious scheme.

The FBI is also suspicious of activity at the hospital and has planted a spy within its walls to ferret out the truth. When the spy discovers damning evidence and is about to bring it in, Katz and his right hand man, a giant Russian orderly, knock him out and dump his body into the hospital incinerator.

But, Gwen, who is the girlfriend of another hospital worker, has seen the whole thing. She also happens upon a piece of paper in the trash at her billing office with some strange numbers on it – it’s a Sudoku page, go figure — and immediately makes a leap that it has something to do with our dead FBI guy. She passes the paper on to her boyfriend, Ron, who passes it to Luke, who passes it to his wife, Kim, who has a knack for puzzles. (See how this all makes sense?)

Rather than call police, Gwen confronts Katz directly in an attempt to blackmail him, while Kim deciphers the message on the Sudoku puzzle and learns that Katz is trying to kill a state senator who is in the hospital for gall bladder surgery.

Did I mention that Katz is completely off his rocker? His son died in a house fire fifteen years ago and ever since he’s developed a thorough hatred for God. He lets evil consume him while he plans “the complete domination of mankind.” But before he implements those plans, he takes on the job of killing the state senator, because you can’t rule the world without money, right?

By now, you have probably figured out what’s wrong with this novel. Too many coincidences, contrivances, and implausible motivations. I.e., a lack of believable characters.

It’s a shame, really, because outside of all of that Benedict proves to be a capable wordsmith. His action scenes are strong, his descriptions vivid, and his medical knowledge is clearly evident. Benedict is a board certified anesthesiologist in private practice in Harrisburg, Pa., according to the book’s notes on the author. He is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Penn State University College of Medicine where he completed a cardiac anesthesia fellowship, so he certainly has the credentials in medicine to write with authority in his medical scenes.

As a reader, you do feel like you are there in the operating room with the main character. But it would be best to leave this book in the waiting room.

Review: When Clowns Attack a silly, but serious survival read

by G. Robert Frazier

Just in time for Halloween comes an indispensable survival guide, When Clowns Attack (Ten Speed Press,  $14.99). The slim hardcover book by Writer’s Digest advice expert Chuck Sambuchino may sound silly, but it treats its topic as deadly serious. (Hey, clowns might look like they are having a lot of fun, but that’s part of their way of luring you in for one of their patented bozo attacks!)

When Clowns AttackFollowing on the heels of the popular Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks by Max Brooks and his own How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack, Sambuchino exposes a far more credible threat and ways to deal with it in his killer clown opus. Zombies may be scary, but clowns are real, OK?

Clowns, he explains, are simply not what they appear to be. You never know their real names, they gallivant about in size 22 shoes, purposefully wear oversized pants in which they can hide all manner of weapons, seem impervious to pain, and have a fetish for children, who they routinely kidnap and indoctrinate into their colorful lifestyle.

Sambuchino speaks from personal experience: both his grandfathers suffered at the hands of these deranged jokers years ago, he tells us in his introduction. As a result, Sambuchino founded the anti-clown group Red Nose Alert and its mission to dutifully arms readers for every  eventuality when confronting crazed clowns, explaining what to look for (from their facepaint to their clothes), how to outrun a clown (throw imaginary objects at them to distract them!), and how to defend yourself in an attack (make a fart sound and they will double over in hysteria) .

The book is full of colorful photographs of the felonious jokesters, though many are stock images. It would have been more exciting to see photos of such crazed clowns as Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J from Insane Clown Posse, or Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story: Freak Show, but obviously copyrights would probably have been difficult to obtain.

Still, the book is a fun diversion overall and, who knows, could prove useful in the event of a clown attack. At the very least, you could smack the book over the head of a clown. So there’s that.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

 

 

 

 

Review: Devil’s Pocket offers YA action, intrigue

In today’s society where everyone gets a trophy no matter how you finish, it’s no wonder that kids get so excited about do-or-die worlds like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, or The Maze Runner. The imaginary free-for-alls that make those books and movies so popular seem to provide kids with an outlet for their competitive spirit… At least in a literary kind of way.

Devil's PocketAuthor John Dixon’s latest young adult novel, Devil’s Pocket, rides that trend with its own kill-or-be-killed funeral games. The novel focuses on 16-year-old Carl Freeman, who has been technologically enhanced by a chip in his head, and hundreds more throughout his body, turning him into a lightning-quick, lethal super soldier. Along with two other members of Phoenix Force, he will be pitted in the squared circle against the best young fighters in the world in a deadly competition. At stake: $10 million, bragging rights, and their very lives.

But as the body count continues to grow, Carl becomes more and more disillusioned by the game he’s been forced to play. Barely able to keep his temper in check, he and former girlfriend Octavia, who represents an opposing team, begin to plot their escape and the demise of the Few, a collection of masked overlords who run the games for their own nefarious purposes. The tension boils over into an explosive climax reminiscent of a James Bond movie.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Review: The Dead Student is exciting, psychological thriller

New York Times best-selling author John Katzenbach knows how to get into people’s heads, whether it’s in the psyche of his characters, or the minds of his readers. His newest novel, The Dead Student (The Mysterious Press, Oct. 6), is a perfect example.

KatzenbachThe Dead Student wastes no time shaking things up for his protagonist, Timothy Warner. A PhD student better known by his nickname “Moth”, Timothy is a recovering alcoholic who battles the temptation to sink into the depths of drink and despair every day. Even with ninety-nine days of sobriety behind him, Moth knows he is one glass away from falling into a devastating abyss.

When his AA sponsor Uncle Ed is found dead, that yawning pit opens beneath Moth. It is only through a concerted effort, and the help of his AA group, Redeemer One, that he sobers up long enough to realize that his uncle would never kill himself. But gut feelings like his aren’t proof enough for police, who appear more than comfortable with their suicide theory.

Read the full review
 at Killer Nashville.

Review: The New World excites, then settles into a lull

by G. Robert Frazier

Welcome to the New World, Jim Hawkins; it’s savage, untamed, and wholly unpredictable. Hawkins, the son of Robert Louis Stevenson’s more renowned Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island fame, and his companion Natty get a rude introduction to life in North America courtesy of author Andrew Motion’s The New World (Crown Publishers, $25).

the new worldPart action-adventure part literary memoir, the novel picks up on the heels of Motion’s earlier unofficial sequel, Silver, with a violent shipwreck off the coast of Texas. Jim and Natty are among the only survivors, though their true ordeal is only just beginning.

Before they are able to gather their wits about them, the pair are beset upon by a tribe of brutal Native Americans who take them prisoner while plundering the debris of the shipwreck and its lost treasures The only other survivor of the ship, Mr. Stevenson, is quickly shot to death by the Indians’ arrows, immediately upping the tension for Jim and Natty.

The death of Stevenson is symbolic in a way of how this book deviates from the more action-oriented fare of the original author. After being taken into captivity, The New World morphs into a more introspective-laden memoir, detailing Jim’s every thought and nuance during his ordeal. There is considerably less emphasis on action and more attention given to Jim’s thoughts and feelings on everything from his life with his father to life with Natty to the lives of his captors.

Motion aptly hooks the reader with his forceful prose, then allows the lulls in the action to express himself in a more lyrical voice. His love of words and their sing-song quality — he is one of the UK’s most renowned poets and was actually poet laureate for ten years – is clearly evident.

That’s all well in good, for literary readers. For those who favor the swift action of a genre story, however, the sudden shift in styles and contrast in the story’s tone is a bit of a letdown. After a bold, action-packed start, the novel segues into moody memoir and colorful description. The action only briefly reasserts itself late in the novel when Hawkins must face his Indian captors in a final showdown in the bustling port city of New Orleans.

The New World lacks the sense of fun and danger that its classic predecessor managed to instill, instead taking on a darker, more serious tone. Nor is Hawkins’ antagonist, Black Cloud, remotely as interesting as Silver in Treasure Island. His companion, Natty, is unfortunately a totally unlikable character from the start.

Overall, The New World races out of the gate, but crawls to the finish line.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Review: Constance Kopp a heroine worth waiting for

Author Update (9-28-15): Author Amy Stewart promises a sequel in the Kopp sisters story due in 2016. Also, movie and/or TV offers in the works. Read more at http://nurph.com/LitChat/chats/2481

by G. Robert Frazier

Constance Kopp could be just the leading lady Hollywood has been waiting for. She’s independent, resourceful, intelligent, brave, and she won’t back down from any man. While we wait for the inevitable movie adaptation and for the dust to settle over which A-list actress should portray her on the big screen, readers can whet their appetite for Constance’s adventures now in the pages of Girl Waits With Gun, the new novel by Amy Stewart (available Sept. 1 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27).

Girl Waits With GunSet in 1914, the novel wastes no time as Constance, along with sisters Norma and Fleurette, are nearly killed in the opening pages in a horrific collision between a motor car and their horse-drawn buggy in Paterson, N.J. Both Constance and Norma escape the mishap with minor scrapes, though Fleurette, who is the youngest of the three at just 16, suffers a badly injured leg.

Making matters worse, the driver of the motor vehicle, silk factory magnate Henry Kaufmann, has no remorse for what’s happened and lays the blame for the wreck on the Kopp sisters. When he tries to drive off, Constance promptly shuts the car door in his face and demands his name so that she can send him the repair bill for the wreckage to their buggy. Right away readers cannot help but cheer for Constance Kopp and want to keep reading.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville