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Debra Hamel is the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

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Updated 6-12-24. [Reviews are longer and have ratings. Notices do not have ratings.]

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Book Notices | The Armor of Light by Ken Follett

Ken Follett, The Armor of Light


The Armor of Light is the fifth novel in Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series, which started with the publication of Pillars of the Earth in 1989. The book spans about thirty years in the history of Kingsbridge, from 1792 to 1824, and focuses on the city's cloth trade—its millworkers and clothiers and the issues of the day that impacted their lives: the adoption of labor-saving machines, the rise of Luddism, anti-union policies, a corrupt justice system, press gangs, and the Napoleonic wars. As usual with Follett's novels, the cast of characters includes strong female leads and men who abuse their powerful positions, and good people are abused but ultimately find true love. Also par for the course is that the book is—for the most part—extremely readable. But there's a big chunk in the last 20% of the novel that could have been edited down. Follett describes the war against Napoleon in excessive detail, using his characters' participation in events as an excuse to write history rather than allowing the history to form the backdrop of the characters' lives. It also struck me as implausible that so many of the book's main characters would find themselves overseas and involved in the major events of the day while also by chance often finding one another amidst the chaos of military actions. So a good read, but with that caveat.

Book Notices | In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood


I'm late to the party reading Truman Capote's true crime classic In Cold Blood. Most people are probably familiar with the basics of the story, either from the book itself or from the film that was made of it (which I've not yet seen): In 1959, four members of the Clutter family were murdered in their farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, a crime that initially baffled investigators. Capote traveled to Holcomb (with his friend Harper Lee) to interview the townspeople and investigators and write about the case. His book, which was published in 1966, covers the events that preceded the murders, the crime itself, the investigation and trial, and the imprisonment and execution of the culprits. It ends with a lovely and surprisingly moving epilogue, which made me realize that the author had succeeded in depicting the Clutters as real people whose deaths can still feel tragic 65 years later. Capote's prose is at times beautiful, particularly at the beginning of the book when he is describing the remote Kansas landscape that forms the backdrop of the story. But elsewhere too, I was struck by the quality of the prose. Reading his account, I got a sense of Capote being on the scene in the aftermath of the murders, talking to people and soaking in the feel of the place, and yet he never explicitly inserts himself into the narrative. (After finishing the book, I was curious about the circumstances of its composition and so read this 1966 interview of Capote by George Plimpton. It's an interesting read, and it's very clear from it that Capote was a very intelligent and thoughtful writer.)

I've seen In Cold Blood described as frightening. I may just be numb—and I do think I lack imagination when I'm reading, so that the film version of this story might have a different effect on me—but I didn't think it frightening in the least. Sad, tragic, unnecessary, all that: I can certainly regret the evil or lack of humanity or wretchedness of the human condition that propelled the two killers toward Kansas and the utterly unnecessary, unprovoked murders they committed there. But no, I wouldn't classify the book as a scary read.

Book Notices | Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Robert Harris, Act of Oblivion


I've lived most of my life in or around New Haven, Connecticut, which means that the names Dixwell, Whalley, and Goffe are etched in my brain (alongside the locations of the best pizza places). They're the names of three main thoroughfares linking downtown New Haven with its suburbs. I've always been aware that the streets were named after the three regicides who fled here from England and hung out for a time in Judges Cave on West Rock. But that's about all I knew. Robert Harris's fictionalized account of the regicides—mostly Whalley and Goffe, with a smattering of Dixwell—follows their years on the run in New England and the efforts made to catch them. Now, a lot of Harris's story is made up. There's only so much that is known about what the regicides were up to, and the author had to fill in some blanks. So you can't allow the novelized account to settle as fact in your brain (which may be easier said than done). After finishing the book I read the following summary of events to help in that regard: Although one has to be careful not to accept the whole story as gospel, I found Act of Oblivion a really interesting read, although honestly somewhat depressing: So many years passed in hiding—away from family, staring at attic ceilings—seems pretty dismal. But perhaps the reality wasn't as miserable as portrayed here. I'm happy to have read this one!

Book Notices | Calico by Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg, Calico


I don't particularly like police procedurals, and I don't particularly like westerns, but it turns out that I really like police procedural-westerns that are blended with a dash of science fiction—at least this one. Lee Goldberg's stand-alone Calico is named after a town in the Mojave Desert. In the 1880s, it was a squalid mining town. Nowadays—in real life and in the book—it's a restored ghost town with attractions like gunfights and gold panning and a trading post. The area surrounding Calico (at least as Goldberg describes it) is the kind of place people drive through to get somewhere else—unless they get trapped there for some reason. Beth McDade is one of the trapped. An unhappy transplant from Los Angeles, she's a detective in nearby Barstow who's investigating a series of strange events that turn out to be related—a disappearance, a skeleton dug up at a construction site, a vagrant hit and killed by a motor home. Her investigation also winds up being connected with events in the same area in the 1880s, and Goldberg deftly alternates between the two timelines, both of which are equally compelling. I don't want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that this is the most page-turny book I've read in a while. With a six-shooter to my head, I'd complain that the pace of the book slows quite a lot at the end and that during the big reveal, there are a handful of names thrown at us that I had trouble keeping straight. But it would be a quibble. Loved this book.

Book Notices | Bad Weather Friend by Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz, Bad Weather Friend


Benny, as we keep being told, is a really nice guy, and this despite having experienced a string of awful situations during his childhood and adolescence. But at 23, he's got money and a fiancée and a nice house and a good job—until one day, a lot of that inexplicably disappears. Enter a weird, casket-like box sent by a mysterious distant relative, and suddenly Benny's on a road trip with some new friends to figure out why his life has imploded. The story is told in two threads: Benny's present and past play out in alternating chapters and eventually end up at the same point. It's a fun enough story, engaging enough to read, but you have to suspend disbelief quite a bit—and I'm not talking about the insect-human hybrids and other non-human characters. It's more that the story is based on this bizarre conceit that nefarious forces are bent on methodically doing away with niceness in the world by targeting guys like Benny. Eh. It's a fun enough light read.

Book Notices | The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone


On June 25, 2003 (less than a month after my first blog post here), I ordered three books from Amazon. I read and reviewed two of them pretty quickly, Greg Iles' 24 Hours and Paul Hoffman's Wings of Madness. The third book was Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, which I was interested in because it's one of the first detective novels ever published. But my interest in its subject didn't lead to action on my part, and the book sat on my shelves for twenty years. I measure the enormity of that time mostly by the yardstick of my children's ages—the then 7-year-old is finishing up her MSW, and the 1-year-old is graduating from college in the spring—although God knows a lot else has changed besides.

Anyway, clearly, I've finally gotten around to reading Wilkie Collins' book! It's been a while since I've dived into a sprawling 19th-century novel. I'd almost forgotten the pleasure of it. The mystery here has to do with the disappearance of a priceless diamond, the titular Moonstone, which was bequeathed to Rachel Verinder by an unsavory uncle and delivered to her on her 18th birthday. That very night, it goes missing from the Verinders' country estate. A police investigation follows, and thereafter investigations by private actors. The story is told as a series of accounts contributed by various concerned parties, all part of a project undertaken some two years after the stone's disappearance to record what happened as a matter of historical interest. My main impressions upon leaving the book are simply, first, that the mystery held my interest, such that I was quite riveted when approaching the resolution of it; and second, that with the luxury afforded by a high word count, Collins has created a handful of very well-realized characters. For me, the most memorable of them among the much larger cast are Gabriel Betteridge, the Verinders' long-time steward and resolute fan of Robinson Crusoe; the sanctimonious, religious-tract-thumping Miss Clack; and the tragic outcast-cum-physician's assistant Ezra Jennings. I'm happy to have finally read this one. (And holy cow! [That's an apt interjection given this book, as it happens]. There's a comic book version of The Moonstone coming soon!)

Book Notices | Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister

Gillian McAllister, Wrong Place Wrong Time


Jen Brotherhood sees her teenage son kill someone and is immediately plunged into a nightmare. There's the expected one—police lights and handcuffs and shock. She has no idea what could possibly have led to this. But she wakes up the next morning in a second nightmare: She's started to live her life backwards, by days, weeks, years. Every morning brings a new date in the past. Obviously, that's a fascinating prospect in some ways: the phones get bigger; her son gets shorter; she gets to see old living spaces and old coworkers, old waistlines; old people grow younger, and the dead return to life. Cool idea. But meanwhile, she's trying to figure out what led to her son becoming a killer so she can prevent it from happening again. It's an interesting concept, and the book was a fun read.

I found it a bit difficult to keep track of the timeline, although the author does do a good job in the narrative of locating us in the "present" with each time jump. One thing I really hated is an ostensibly small thing, but it had a big impact on my enjoyment of the book. The titles of most of the chapters refer to the date Jen has jumped to relative to day zero, for example, "Day Minus One Thousand Six Hundred Seventy-Two, 21:25." As you can see, the numbers get pretty big. And as you can see, they are written in words. I found it surprisingly difficult to mentally process them this way. Imagine how annoying and, to a degree, difficult it would be to read the time on a clock as, say, "eleven forty-seven" rather than 11:47. That's the trouble I had with it. This probably contributed to my having to refer back to the previous chapter's title each time to see how much time had passed in the jump. The information in written form simply hadn't stuck. (And then there was the added difficulty of having to convert something like "one thousand six hundred seventy-two days" into the more meaningful units of years and months.) I would suggest that these title dates be changed to digits if it all possible in subsequent editions of the book.

Book Notices | Upgrade by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch, Upgrade


Logan Ramsay lives with the guilt of having been involved in his brilliant mother's accidental destruction of the world as we know it. Now, in a post-apocalyptic world in which lower Manhattan is under water and dark gene labs are producing exotic new species to sell to Russian oligarchs, Logan—who only ever wanted to follow in his mother's scientific footsteps—is doing his penance as a federal officer tracking down rogue geneticists. At least until he's attacked at a cellular level and transforms into a kind of superman. And then he needs to save the world, more or less. Logan's metamorphosis is pretty far out there, of course, but it's so well described that it all seems very believable. There's a lot of science-y explanations throughout the book that lend the story credibility (but at the same time feel a little skippable). The dramatic battle at the end was a little hard to follow and felt rushed, but the story was capped off with a sweet epilogue that left me more contented than I would have been without it.