Monthly Archives: December 2010

Review: The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Novel

The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A NovelThe Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Novel by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At this point, any new work by Laura Lippman is an automatic must read for me. Novel, short story, novella, short essay, anything.

So, when "The Girl in the Green Raincoat" arrived, even though I had a long list of other books demanding my attention, I just couldn’t help but take a peek inside the covers of this one. One sentence into the story and I was hooked.

This novella, originally published in the New York Times Magazine, finds Lippman’s Tess Monagahan confined to bed rest for the final two months of her pregnancy. Tess decides she’ll use the time to catch up on her reading and movie watching, but ends up taking a page from "Rear Window" and becoming curious about a woman in a green raincoat who walks her dog each afternoon. Tess quickly requests a pair of binoculars just as the green raincoated woman disappears, but leaves the dog running free.

Before you know it, Tess is pulling in Crow, Whitney and several other familiar faces from the long-running series to help her look into the mysterious disappearance of this woman.

"The Girl in the Green Raincoat" rockets along at a confident pace, doing what all good mysteries do–putting all the clues out in plain site but not necessarily telling you how they’ll all connect until the final few pages. Lippman connects Tess and the green raincoat girl in a number of ways and it’s nice to see not only Tess’ inner struggle but also nice to get a chance to spend some time with recurring character and Tess’s best friend Whitney as well. The sequences in the story that take place from Whitney’s point of view with Tess off-screen as it were are among the most compelling in the book and will have long-time fans wondering if a novel centering more on Whitney might not be a good idea in the near future.

As with all Lippman stories, I was drawn in by the first few sentences and the hold didn’t let go until I’d turned the final page. This novella is intensely satisfying and well-constructed and the only complaint I can find with it is my own impatience in not savoring it more.

Another winner from one of the top writers working today.

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Review: Red Harvest

Red Harvest (Star Wars)Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Following the success of last year’s "Death Troopers," "Red Harvest" gives us another zombie/"Star Wars" mash-up.

This time instead of zombies attacking and eating the brains of storm troopers, it’s the Jedi taking on zombies. And not just any Jedi, mind you but an isolated training camp of Sith apprentices. On the surface it seems to have a lot of potential for a lot of fun and mayhem within "a galaxy far, far away." But just like "Death Troopers," "Red Harvest" comes up just a bit short for a lot of the same reasons.

The biggest thing working against the book is a lack of familiar characters. At least "Death Troopers" had a big, twist cameo halfway to keep things going. Nothing much here. Instead, we get a lot of characters who are simply in the book to become zombie fodder over the course of the story. In a zombie movie, shallowly developed characters who are zombie food isn’t necessarily a horrible thing. In a novel, it doesn’t quite work as well since we don’t have as much investment in the characters. The story does develop a handful of characters beyond a basic outline, but it doesn’t necessarily go anywhere new or interesting with them.

Of course, I could be thinking about this too much for my own good. At times I found myself clicking off my brain and just going along for the ride. I enjoyed those moments, but minor niggling details kept cropping up to take me out of things.

That’s not to say there aren’t some cool moments here. It’s Jedi battling zombies.

But it the end, it should be cooler than it ends up being. File this one under a good attempt but ultimately a disappointment.

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Review: The Sherlockian

The SherlockianThe Sherlockian by Graham Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I heard the premise for "The Sherlockian" I was intrigued. I’ve been a fan of the great detective ever since I picked up "Hound of the Baskervilles" in a school reading class years ago. And earlier this year, I read the fascinating book "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes" that delves into the true story of how an avid Holmes fan was killed and what possible motives there might have been.

Graham Moore’s "The Sherlockian" feels a bit like a fictional exploration of that question. In one storyline, avid Holmes fan Harold White has just been inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars. At the annual convention, a man is scheduled to appear to discuss his discovery of a long-lost journal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The journal comes from the time between the publication of "The Final Problem" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" when Doyle killed off his detective and tried to establish himself in other genres and with other characters. The man is killed in his hotel room and the diary vanishes. Teaming with a reporter named Sarah (who serves as his Watson), Harold takes on the task of trying to apply Holmes’ methods to solving the murder and finding the lost journal.

Woven between this is an historical story of the lost journal time with Conan Doyle attempting to also use Holmes methods to solve a crime. In this case, Doyle is joined by Bram Stoker (yes, THE Bram Stoker) as his Watson.

Both stories are interrelated and feed off each other with considerable success. As a mystery, the story works well, keeping the thread going in both time lines. The novel manages to deliver on its intriguing premise and comes up with an interesting explanation of what happened to Doyle during his time away from Holmes and why he returned to his character. It also speculates on why when Holmes returned he was a much harder character than previously seen.

The only points off for "The Sherlockian" was that I was able to deduce one key plot point early in the story. (It concerns the plotline of Harold.) Otherwise, this is an intriguing read that should be of interest to fans of a good mystery and especially those of a good Holmes story.

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Read My Review: SciFi

First of all a hat tip to SciFi Media for making me aware of this meme/challenge.  It’s part of A Trillian Book and this week’s challenge is to pick a review of a science-fiction book you’ve written.

I skimmed over my reviews here and decided to pick one of my favorite books (science-fiction or otherwise), Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

As for why I picked it, there are a couple of reasons.  One is that while I read a lot, I don’t often go back and re-read many books.  There has to be something special to make me read a book again.  Man in the High Castle is one of those books that I can read and then immediately want to read again.  It’s a fascinating story that looks at what might have happened if the United States was defeated in the second World War.     The iChing figures heavily into this story and according to what I read on-line, Dick used the iChing at several points to figure out where the story would go next.

A lot of people have probably heard of Philip K. Dick because of the myriad of movies made from his stories and novels.  Some of them come closer than others to capturing the true tone and spirit of Dick’s writing.   If you’ve seen any of the movies, you may be curious to read something by Dick.   This novel, along with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep are good starting points.  They feature a lot of the typical themes of a Dick story, but aren’t as dense and full of paranoia as many of his later works.

So, that’s my reason for picking this as my review for this meme.  It’s one of my favorite books and I hope to help people discover or re-discover it.

 

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Review: Sleep No More

Sleep No More (Mississippi series)Sleep No More by Greg Iles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m kind of a sucker for any novel or movie that Stephen King recommends. It may not always pay off when it comes to movies, but when it comes to good books, King has rarely steered me wrong. It’s because of King that I discovered one of my favorite authors, Laura Lippman.

I didn’t come to Greg Iles through King. I picked up his novel "Turning Angel" and was hooked immediately. Most Iles books are those that I’d classify as "books that own me" while reading them. I keep wanting to go and do other necessary things, but I can’t because I just have to read "one more chapter" to find out what happens next.

So, combine the fact that I already like Iles with a front cover blurb by King and I find myself wondering why I hadn’t read "Sleep No More" before now.

Set in Iles fictional town of Natchez, Mississippi, "Sleep No More" tells the story of John Waters. With his long-time friend Cole, Waters is part of an oil-drilling business that’s had some solid success. He’s married to Lily and they have a precocious daughter together. Their marriage looks great, but it’s been on a shaky ground since Lily had a miscarriage several years before and they haven’t exactly been connecting in a physical way.

Years before, Waters had a long romance with Mallory Candler, a beautiful woman who turned out to be a couple of tacos short of a combo platter. The romance took place in college and the couple aborted two unwanted pregnancies. This helped bring on some of Mallory’s less desirable traits and led to her stalking Waters for a period of years. She was killed several years before and Waters hasn’t forgotten her but has tried to move on with his life.

Enter Eve, a woman who claims she’s been possessed by the spirit of Mallory. She comes to Waters and tells him this. Eve is a local real estate agent who has a certain reputation around town. Is she looking for a new fling with Waters or is she telling the truth? Waters is convinced it is Mallory and enters into an affair with Eve/Mallory. (It seems that Mallory can enter the body of a new host upon sexual peak only).

If it all sounds like it takes a huge dose of suspension of disbelief to make the story work, it does. But the thing is that by ground Waters as he does, Iles takes a page from King or Richard Matheson and gives us an ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances. Seeing how Waters reacts as the web slowly closes in around him keeps the pages flying, just to see what happens next. And Iles is willing to at least throw in a few things that are plausible reasons as to why this could be certain people in Waters’ life trying to mess with him.

In fact, half the fun of the story is trying to figure out which twist is the right twist and which are red herrings.

According to the critical blurbs, "Sleep No More" was recommended as a beach read when it was first published. And that’s exactly what it is. Iles has done some great stories and while this may not be his most profound or important, it’s one of the more enjoyable stories he’s told. Like a blockbuster, popcorn movie, don’t think too much about it and just enjoy the ride. You’ll be glad you did.

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Review: The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock HeartThe Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Born on the coldest day ever recorded, Jack’s heart is frozen and replaced with a cuckoo-clock.

Abandoned by his mother and raised by the witch doctor, Dr. Madeleine who installed the clock, Jack is warned that he must never fall in love because it could overwhelm his unusual pacemaker. Jack does well for about ten years, until he meets Miss Acacia, a street performer who wears glasses and has a pretty voice. Jack is in love and sets out to find Miss Acacia.

Thus begins the story of "The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart."

The journey Jack goes on–both geographically and emotionally–is a compelling one. The story relies heavily on magical-realism. So your enjoyment of the book will depend heavily on how willing you are to jump on board with that. I was willing to do so and found the novel to be magical at some points.

However, it’s a bit disappointing in the final pages. Several key revelations late in the story ring false and the story ends on a bit of a down note. I can see what Mathias Melzieu was trying to do, but I don’t think the story was necessarily successful in achieving it. (And yes, I am being deliberately vague here to avoid SPOILERS).

The first three quarters of "Cuckoo Clock Heart" are compelling, fascinating and magical. The last quarter is a bit of a letdown.

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Movie Monday: “The Karate Kid” (2010)

You realize you’re getting old when Hollywood begins remaking movies you saw as a teenager for a new generation.

The first time I saw the original “Karate Kid,” I thought it was one of the greatest movies I’d ever seen.  Six months later, renting it on VHS, it had paled a bit and was never quite the same.  I’ve caught bits and pieces of it on cable over the years and it has its moments.  Most of the charm of the first movie comes from the give and take of Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi.

So, when I saw the trailers for a remake, I wasn’t quite sure.

Seeing the new version, I can say it’s a fairly faithful modernization of the original.   No surprises here if you’ve seen the first one, though moving the setting from California to China is an intriguing move.  Our hero is Dre, forced to move to China after the death of his father and his mother gets a new job there.  Dre crosses paths with some bullies on his first day in his new home, defending the honor of a cute girl.

Dre is beaten up and soon begins hiding from the bullies at his new school.   One afternoon Dre is following his tormentors at a distance and throws a bucket of dirty water on them.  This leads to them chasing him and beating him up, six on one.  Enter Mr. Han, the building maintenance man who drives off the attackers and takes Dre to their kung fu school to talk to the instructor.  Han agrees to allow Dre to fight, but only in the upcoming kung fu tournament.

If you’ve seen the original (or really any underdog sports movie ever made) you’ll know there aren’t any surprises here.   As I said before, what the movie’s success comes down to is the on-screen pairing of Han and Dre.  Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith have the right give and take to make it work, even in several scenes as we learn about Han’s inner struggle and pain .    There aren’t any scenes as memorable as “wax on, wax off” but visually this version has a lot more going for it with the backdrop of China.

I do wish Dre hadn’t had quite as much attitude as we see early on, but at least they try to have some character arc to it.  Neither this or the original will be mistaken as a classic, but both are fun in their own way.

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Booking Through Thursday: The Crap

btt button

Inspired by this post:

Do you ever crave reading crappy books?

I guess it depends on what you define as “crappy.” If you mean a book that is poorly written and ignores the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, then no. If you mean a book that may not be seen to have a “socially redeeming value” or be “great literature” then sure I will read them, if I’m interested. In this pile, I put some of the media tie-in novels that I like to read. I enjoy a good, comfortable adventure with familiar friends and they can be a good break or palate cleanser when needed. Or they can be good for reading while on a plane or traveling.

Of course, one person’s crap is another person’s treasure. I don’t care much for Dean Koontz and would file most of his books in the crap pile. (Honestly, the man writes the same book over and over again. But then so do a lot of authors.) But I know he has a large following of fans who love his books. I may not understand why they do, but I don’t begrudge them their love of something I think is crap.

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Review: Playdate

PlaydatePlaydate by Thelma Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lance is a former weatherman turned house-husband. His wife, Darlene, is busy opening up the first in what could be a chain of new restaurants targeted at working mothers.

The two have one child, sixth grader Belle. They’re considering having more and while Lance is excited, Darlene may not be as enthusiastic. She’s so driven by her job and starting up her business that she is slowly becoming disconnected from Lance and Belle. Meanwhile, Lance is connecting with other women in his life, included the wife of Darlene’s business partner and Julia, the babysitter who watches over the kids of the wife Lance is having an affair with.

Apparently, being the king of the Girl Scout cookies is quite the turn-on for some of the ladies in Lance’s life.

If it all sounds a bit complicated, it can be at times. But you won’t have any trouble keeping up with things in the story. Told over the course of three days, Thelma Adams’ “Playdate” fills in enough of the details to keep you interested but it doesn’t really break any new ground. The main question the novel ponders is how much do we all what we do to define a person or persons. The story could have been a bit better if had actually delved a bit deeper into the questions asked here, but the novel instead goes for humorous moments and brings everything together in a nice, neatly wrapped romantic comedy package in the final pages.

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“Full Dark, No Stars” by Stephen King

Full Dark, No StarsMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the afterward of “Full Dark, No Stars,” Stephen King says that the four stories collected here go into some dark corners. And he’s not kidding. Easily one of his darkest collections ever, the stories are all still vintage King, looking at ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. There are no happy endings here, but instead some fascinating, page-turning stories that will linger with you long after you’re done reading. (I know I’m sure still haunted by aspects of many of them.)

One of the great things about King is that after all these years he’s still willing to take chances as a writer. King has never been content to rest on his laurels and he’s earned the trust of his readers over the years. He’s experimented in the world of publishing and been successful at just about every venture.

He’s done a serial novel, collections of short stories and a couple of novella collections. His novella collections have yielded some of his most successful big-screen adaptations.

But it’s been a while since King delved into the novella world. With “Full Dark, No Stars” he delves back into it.

“1922″ — The first entry in the collection reminds me a bit of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Only instead of a beating heart, it’s rats seeking our their revenge on the first-person protagonist. Told as a confession, Wilfred James reflects on the worst year of his life. When his wife inherits a plot of 100 acres next to his farm and plans to sell it to a local slaughter factory, Wilfred is forced to make a difficult choice. He and his son murder his wife and bury her down on old well. But that’s not the worst thing. As with all King stories, there’s a supernatural element to things as Wilfred tries to come to terms with the consequences of his actions.

As with many of King’s best stories, there’s a question as to whether or not the element is supernatural or psychological. But it’s still a fascinating tragedy of a story and while you won’t root for Wilfred, you understand where he’s coming from and why he does what he does. A solid star to the collection. ****

“Big Driver” — Tess writes cozy mysteries in the “Willow Grove Knitting Club” series and also does a few speaking engagements each year to build her retirement fund. When she’s asked to fill in at the last minute at a book club close to her house, she accepts. As she’s preparing to leave, the librarian in charge offers her a short cut that will cut ten or so miles off her return trip. Tess accepts the advice and sound finds herself in the middle of a nightmare. The road she travels has boards with nails on it, causing a flat tire. A guy shows up in a truck, offering to help but instead rapes Tess and leaves her for dead.

“Big Driver” is a revenge story but one with a dark, dark turn. Watching Tess’ transformation is fascinating and seeing just how far she goes is compelling. You may not like where she goes and where she ends up, but the trip is worth taking. Reading the first few chapters of this one, I thought this could be a nice movie. But then it goes dark quickly and I wonder if it would translate well to the big screen. *****

“Fair Extension” — The shortest novella in the book and one that channels the spirit of Richard Matheson. Driving home from chemo, Dave Streeter notices a sign offering a fair extension. Curious, he pulls in to find out more and soon is making a deal with the devil. He can get an extension on his life, cancer free. The cost is he has to name someone he hates whose luck will take a turn for the worse.

Dave names his long-time best friend, who he helped coast through high school and who stole his high school sweetheart. Even though Dave is happily married now, he resents the success his friend has while he continues to languish. The deal done, Dave heads home to find the cancer gone. And then his friend’s life starts to go down the tubes.

“Fair Extension” channels the spirit of Matheson’s “The Box” with the added twist of instead of bad things happening to someone you don’t know, they happen to someone you do. *****

“A Good Marriage” — In a book with stories on murder, rape and inflicting plagues upon your friend, you’d think it couldn’t get much darker. Then you get to “A Good Marriage” and realize that it can.

While looking for batteries for the remote, Darcy Anderson discovers a hidden adult magazine in the garage. It’s not your typical Playboy or Penthouse, but instead a magazine depicting bondage and torture. Darcy is disgusted, but not so much as when she hears a thud and leads her to a hidden alcove behind the box. In it is the box for cuff links she gave her husband years before. But inside aren’t cuff links but a drivers’ license with another woman’s name.

Is her husband having an affair?

Actually, it’s far worse than that. Seems Bob’s been keeping a pretty big secret all these years. And it’s one that will shake Darcy and their marriage.

A compelling idea for a story, “A Good Marriage” treads some dark waters. ****

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