Monthly Archives: March 2009

Book Briefs

Fool by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore’s re-telling of Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear has great comic potential. It’s just too bad that this novel doesn’t come close to its potential.

Told from the point of view of Lear’s court jester, there are some genuinely amusing moments in this book. However, as I read the book, I kept thinking this was like a Saturday Night Live skit that had been stretched beyond its initial humorous value and just kept going and going and going.

Backup by Jim Butcher

Told from the persepctive of Harry’s brother, Thomas, this short novella is a nice chance of pace for “The Dresden Files.” While it won’t be essential to read it to enjoy the on-going storylines about Dresden, it does give readers some new insight into Thomas. Also, the concept of having a story in the universe told from a different point of view is interestind and Jim Butcher really runs with the concept.

A Shred of Truth by Eric Wilson

Aramis Black is a private detective working in Music City USA (aka Nashville, TN). In this previous novel (which is referred to early and often in this book), he tracked down a family treasure and had a variety of adventures. Now he’s back, helping his brother celebrate the release of his new CD and on the trail of a new threat. This time, the connection is a bit closer to home for Black, who is quickly pulled into a web of conspiracy and deceit.

“A Shred of Truth” has its moments and I genuinely liked the character of Aramis Black. In contemporary Christian fiction, it’s nice to have a guy who struggles with his daily walk and how to live that out effectively. It’s also nice to have a character who is aware of who he was but isn’t defined by it nor does he allow it to become too much of a burden. In short, Black feels like a real guy, working every day to live out his life in a way that is a walking example of what it means to be Christ-like.

I just wish the mystery that surrounded that character struggle was as intriguing. Eric Wilson does a nice job of throwing in red herrings and keeping the plot moving, but when the final solution is presented, it still feels a bit unsatisfying.

Now I’d love to see a novella told by Karin Murphy.

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“Crosscut” by Meg Gardiner

In the fourth Evan Dalaney novel, Evan returns to China Lake for her high school reunion and discovers that the death toll among her classmates is unusually high. After two classmates are brutally murdered, Evan suspects something is up and begins to piece together what might be killing her classmates.

It all stems back to a day when the group took a field trip to the local Navy base and were exposed to some kind of experiment. The results are still haunting and affecting the group to this day and it also created a serial killer who is hunting down the people on the trip and slowly eliminating them. Evan is forced to dig into her past to find answers and to try and stop the killer before he or she kills again. And when Evan discovers she’s pregnant, things become even more urgent.

As a check your brain at the door and just enjoy the ride, “Crosscut” works well. But the problems of having a first-person perspective begin to break through as the novel progresses. The story requires that some events unfold outside of Evan’s viewpoint and Meg Gardiner shows us those events. It’s all about upping the suspence quotient, but unfortunately it proves distracting in the novel’s final third. Gardiner is forced to jump between three perspectives in the novel’s final pages and it makes the ending seem a bit forced and overly melodramatic.

But the elements that come before it make it worth enduring some clunky writing in the final pages. The story unfolds at a quick pace that keeps the pages turning and will hook you right in. The overall conspiracy nature of what’s going on is fascinating and done well enough to keep you guessing about certain elements, all the way up to the final revelations.

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Filed under mystery, review, Series Challenge

“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson

Just before the start of her freshman year, Melinda attended a party and ended up having to call the police.  The police showed up, broke up the party and everyone there is mad at Melinda.  She becomes an outcast, retreating into herself and becoming a shadow of her former self.  The only connection she feels to the outside world is in her art class, where she’s given the year-long project of creating art work around the theme of trees.

Of course, it’s easy to figure out early on that something more happened at the party to Malinda. And while the seeds are sewn early on as to what is could be, it doesn’t take away any of the impact when what happened to Malinda that fateful night is finally revealed.  In fact, it makes it that much more horrifying as we’ve just spent so much time inside Melinda’s head, seeing how it’s eaten her up, made her withdraw from family and friends and left her a virtual outcast in her new high school. 

“Speak” is a mature novel intended for teenage readers.  The first-person perspective of Melinda is a fascinating one.

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Monday’s Movie — “Lakeview Terrace”


“Lakeview Terrace” (2008)

“Lakeview Terrace” is one of those movies that’s both fascinating and frustrating in just under two hours.  The first hour is a fascinating, character driven story that asks some interesting questions while the last forty-eight minutes or so quickly descend into something less satisfying and a film that takes the easy way out rather than offering any real or substantial answers to the questions raised in the first half.

Abel Turner is a widower, father of two children and a veteran L.A police officer.  Abel lives by a very strict code of conduct and is the type of person who sees right and wrong as absolutes.  For Abel, there are no shades of gray, as clearly evidenced in early scenes when he insists upon a certain code of conduct and behavoir by his children and showing him out on patrol as a police officer.  Abel lives in a nice neighborhood and is, at first pleased to see the house next door has sold and he has new neighbors.

Abel is clearly attracted to the young woman moving in next door, the newly married Lisa Mattheson.  Abel assumes that her father is her husband upon first glancing at them only to be less than happy when he finds out that her husband is Chris and that Chris and Lisa are an interracial couple.  Abel begins to harass the couple to show his displeasure in their being in the neighborhood–from refusing to move his flood light to not shine in their bedroom window to his refusal to allow his children to have anything to do with Chris and Lisa.  Chris and Lisa try to reach out to Abel with varying degrees of failure.  Abel comes to a party thrown by the couple and ends up aliennating the couple and their friends.  Abel is suspected of coming onto their property and slashing the tires of Chris’ cars (the car is parked in the garage when this happens).

Abel follows an agenda of passive-agressive harassment of the two and it quickly becomes cleary Abel has some problem with the couple that extends far beyond just Chris and Lisa.  Things aren’t helped with Chris and Lisa christen their outdoor pool where Abel’s two children can see what’s going on.

The early scenes show that Abel, who is African-American and played by Samuel L. Jackson, has a bias against white men.  His reaction to Chris and his reaction to a suspect underline this, as does his interaction with other male characters of other backgrounds.   It’s as this point that “Lakeview Terrace” raises some interesting questions for viewers to ponder, including how do you fight back against someone in power who has some kind of vendetta against you.   Abel clearly relishes his authority, at one point daring Lisa to call the police, saying he knows everyone on duty.

And Abel’s moments aren’t exactly helping Chris and Lisa’s marriage, since it’s established early on that the two each have secrets. Chris hides his smoking from Lisa and Lisa hides that she’s stopped taking her birth control from Chris.  If Abel is trying to break them up or get them to move, his plan could work, except the two seem to be too stubborn.  Or not willing to lose a lot of money on the home investment.  (A subplot of Lisa’s father wanting them to move back closer to her family goes largely unresolved, but does add some tension to the film).

So, where does it all go wrong?

Pretty much from the point we find out why Abel is so upset.  After Chris finds out Lisa is expecting, despite their “agreeing” its not the right time to start a family, Abel and Chris share a drink in a bar.  Abel reveals that three years ago, his wife was called in a car wreck with a white man driving.   Apparently his wife wasn’t at her office or job, but instead somewhere she shouldn’t have been with the man.  The implication is that she was having an affair or on her way to have an affair with this man.  Abel can’t imagine any other reason she’d be with the man, in the area of town of the wreck at the time of day it occurred.   Abel clearly has issues and is taking it out on Chris.

It’s at this point that some fascinating questions come up, such as was Abel this strict before the accident?  And was what Abel assumed was going on really going on?  Or was it his imagination?  Or is it part of his world-view and his own racial bias that is clearly established in the first half of the film.

Unfortunately, none of these questions is really answered in the second half of the film.  Abel is put on leave by the department over a lawsuit by a subject and slowly becomes more and more unwound.  He goes so far as to hire a man to break into Chris and Lisa’s house, trash the place and encourage them to leave.    It’s at this point the movie goes from one that is raising questions about racism to pretty much your standard pyscho thriller.  Abel is desparate to cover his tracks and that leads to, well, pretty much the ending you’d expect.  A subplot of California fires slowly threatening the homes comes into play here as their homes are threatened.

The final few minutes of the film are a bit over the top and overblown.  As I said, from the time we find out why Abel is so upset, the film takes a dramatic turn from a fascinating, compelling thriller into the area of being little more than your standard crazy person is threatening us story.  And the ending while it wraps things up in terms of eliminating the threat of Abel leaves far too many questions unanswered.   There are no easy answers to the questions raised, but it might be nice to see the film at least make some effort toward addressing them, rather than sweeping them under the rug.

Also of interest are the deleted scenes, that actually add some depth to Abel’s obsession and highlight his attraction to Lisa.  One in particular should have been left in, I think, if only because it helps add a different layer to the film.  One that the film really needs in its final hour.

I’m not going to not recommend this movie, but I will say I recommend it with reservations.  Don’t go in expecting a lot and you won’t be disappointed.


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“The Associate” by John Grisham

Good books don’t necessarily have to provide all the answers to every plot thread introduced into them. We want our characters to feel like they have lives beyond the confines of the printed page and that their story exists before, during and after the book we’re reading. But a good book should at least provide the reader with some sense of closure and not the feeling like an editor was standing over the writer, pointing out that he or she had x-number of pages left or he or she was slowly reaching the word count for the novel and that wrapping up the book soon would be a good idea. There should be some sense of closure, not just a sense of wrapping things up.

There’s a distinct lack of closure to John Grisham’s new novel.

“The Associate” spents 275 pages setting up the situation Kyle McAvoy faces. Years ago, his roommates at a frat party took advantage of a young woman, while she may or may not have been passed out. The young girl had a reputation and when she tried to press charges for rape, the investigation hit a quick dead end and the matter was dropped. Or so it would appear. While Kyle wasn’t one of the participants, he was in the room when it happened. Now, years later video from a camera phone has surfaced in the hands of men who want Kyle to do thier bidding. He is to accept a job with a high-prestige law firm and spy on them for these men.

This mysterious group seems to have their fingers in a lot of pies an a lot of power, though it’s never explained why or if they’re manipulating certain aspects of Kyle’s life and that of his friends. They hold the tape over Kyle’s head throughout the story, saying that while it may not lead to charges it will certainly ruin the life of Kyle and his friends.

Kyle is pressed into service in an impossible situation and slowly begins to try and find a way out of it. By reading spy novels, he routinely sheds those tailing him and begins to slowly fight back, forming a plan of his own. Meanwhile, he’s got the soulless first year job at a law firm and maybe a connection with a fellow female associate.

It’s a lot to take in and Grisham does a nice job of keeping the plot moving for the first 300 or so pages. But it’s right around a huge turning point in the novel that things slowly being to unravel. I won’t say the turning point, but if you’ve read the book, you can probably peg it. It involves one of the group of the accused who went to Hollywood seeking his fame and fortune. Suddenly, things kick into a different gear and Kyle makes some decisions. These are things that could and should change the story and ratchet things into a higher gear, adding to the suspense and making the pages turn faster. And they do…except these things all happen 30 or so pages before the novel ends.

And the novel just wraps up. In one of the more unsatisfying endings I’ve read in a while, Grisham just finishes the story. In the end, justice isn’t really served and you can see how Grisham is trying to create a morally ambigious ending, but yet it just doesn’t feel satisfying. Kyle isn’t a purely innocent character, but it’d be nice if it felt like some or any of the bad guys got what was coming to them in the end. Instead, it’s one of those–hey, life sucks but what are you going to do? endings that left me frustrated and wondering where the rest of the book was.

We could at least know that Kyle got the girl or something. A hint, anything besides what we go.

And that’s a shame. Because Grisham works hard in creating Kyle and allowing us to identify with him and feel sympathy for him as the net closes in around him.

This could have been great Grisham. Instead it’s just mediocre Grisham

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Monday’s Movie

It’s not book-related, but it still looks like a fun meme.  I found this meme over at A Novel Menagerie and decided it looked like fun.  Plus, I actually sat down and watched a Netflix rental on DVD this past weekend….

Tropic Thunder

Starring:  Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Time: 2 hours, 1 minute (director’s cut DVD)
Rating: R
Studio: Dreamworks

Every time I see one of the new Hollywood comedies that everyone raves about, calling it the next big thing, I have to wonder–do I just not have a sense of humor any more?  Because nine times out of ten, these comedies have their amusing moments, but more often than not I fail to see the point or why everyone else thinks they’re so funny.  Cases in point: Anything with Will Farrell post “Anchorman,” most Adam Sandler films, “Napolean Dynomite” and now, “Tropic Thunder.”

“Tropic Thunder” is the latest in a long line of films in which Hollywood pokes fun at itself.   After blowing a huge scene and putting production of their war movie behind schedule and severely overbudget, a group of actors is dropped off in the wilderness, given a list of scenes and told that hidden cameras will be filming them.   Little do they know they’ve been dropped off inside the zone of a group of drug lords, who mistake them for DEA agents.  Basically, it’s the same premise as “Three Amigos” where you have a group of actors who think they’re playing while the bad guys are deadly serious and out to kill them.  Only difference is that “Three Amigos” was funnier and a bit broader in humor.

There are moments in “Tropic Thunder” that work well.  Tom Cruise is hilarious as the foul-mouthed Hollywood big-shot.  But when the real highlight of the film are the fake trailers that play before the movie, you know there’s a problem.  The cast is trying hard and there are some funny moments here.  But the movie goes for the throw jokes at the wall and see what sticks mentality that a lot of comedies seems to use these days.  And a lot of the jokes just don’t stick. 

The cast is solid, the movie looks and sounds great.  It’s just not as funny as it thinks it is. 

My rating: 2 bags of popcorn out of 5.


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