Friday, April 4, 2014

CBR6 #10: The Colony by F. G. Cottam

In 1825, the colony of settlers on New Hope Island--a barren rock just off the coast of Scotland--disappeared. Not a trace was ever found of them or of their charismatic leader, a former British slaver who found God and moved to the island for a chance to freely practice his own form of religion.

In 1934, a crofter named David Shanks moved to the island and built a cabin. He wasn't there long before he took a film that showed something deeply unsettling--he left the island never to return.

Now, in modern day, newspaper mogul Alexander McIntyre is forming a group to investigate the island for a series of exclusive features for his newspaper. He's got a virologist, an anthropologist, a celebrity scientist, and a psychic, as well as reporters and his own pet detective. It's bound to be the story of decade--perhaps the century!--and he sends a small security force to protect the island and keep his scoop safe.

Unfortunately, things at that point start to go wrong. McIntyre doesn't realize what he's gotten himself into, nor does he know that he's about to find out what really happened on "No Hope" Island, and it will turn out that he will wish he'd never asked.

This was a great, atmospheric, spooky book. The characters were well drawn, and I found most of them quite sympathetic, particularly alcoholic detective Lassiter and feisty reporter Lucy Church. I enjoyed the plot for the most part--once again, Cottam has done a great job of pulling together the history of a haunting, forcing the characters to search for the source and reveal it a piece at a time throughout the story. However, there was a point in the middle where I felt it dragged quite a bit. There was a very long section about the team preparing to go to the island, but I felt like they should have arrived earlier and spent more time there.

For the most part, I liked this a lot, and thought it was a very well-done ghost story.

CBR6 #9: Paradise Denied by John L. French

I am going to admit up front that the only reason I decided to read this is that it was available on Kindle for free. I was on the train and out of reading material, and this didn't look entirely terrible. Also: FREE.

I got lucky this time.

Normally, I don't like short stories. Often the medium leaves me frustrated and unfulfilled. The stories end before I'm ready to leave them, or they simply don't capture my attention because they're working too hard to cram in too much. However, this collection of paranormal short stories by former Baltimore CSI John French was about fifty times better than I expected it to be. The stories were all well-written and interesting, and several were also very funny.

French's background in crime scene investigation was often evident in his stories of police or detectives faced with the supernatural, including one in which a confidential informant dies, is resurrected in order to give his testimony...and then manages to escape from the morgue to wander the streets. There's stories of vampires, faeries, and zombies mixed in with tales of detectives trying to solve their cases. When the world's dead rise, what are their legal rights, and who can they turn to to solve their murders? Who is peddling dangerous magical drugs on the streets, and what's their motive? How far should a detective go to unmask a local super-hero, when the motive is pure politics?

The characters in each story were distinctive and interesting, and while each story was satisfying in itself, I definitely would have been happy to follow any of the main characters along into other pieces.

On the whole, this was a fantastic book for a paranormal fan who also has a functional brain.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CBR6 #8: Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto

Nic Pizzolatto's Galveston is not an especially plot-driven book. It's more a character study focused on one man, and how his decisions during a specific period in his life echo across the years.

Roy Cady is not a good guy. He works as a heavy for an even worse guy, and one day he gets the sense that his usefulness has come to an end. Unfortunately for everyone else involved, Roy's just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has absolutely nothing left to lose. He manages to escape the situation, but finds himself burdened with a teenage prostitute and no plan for the future.

This book is dark, and it is also quite violent. It's also well-written, gripping, and surprisingly optimistic about the possibility for redemption and change. I liked it, but I'm not sure I'd ever want to read it again.

Friday, March 7, 2014

CBR6 #7: Rise Again by Ben Tripp

Sheriff Danny Adelman has enough problems upon waking on July 4. The Iraq vet has PTSD, a growing problem with alcohol, and a younger sister that has run Danny's beloved Mustang. It seems like the worst that that will happen in the small town of Forest Peak that day is awkwardness over the mayor's terrible patriotic costume and dealing with the town drunk.

That's before the first screamer comes running out of the woods and drops dead in the town square.

Things just keep going downhill from there, and problems start piling up awfully quick when the dead start to rise off the sidewalks.

I liked this book a lot -- as far as the plot goes, it's in many ways a fairly standard zombie book. However, I really appreciated the characters, and was actively rooting for all of them. Danny is a fantastic character, with a lot of real human emotion, despite the bad-ass exterior. Stranded TV star Patrick, local veterinarian Amy, and alcoholic Vietnam veteran Wulf are also great.

The plot moved along briskly, and never did I find myself getting bored. There was action going on in several locations, which kept things interesting, and there were many reasonably well sketched out side characters to people the story. Also, I appreciated not being subjected to an ill-advised love story--the author didn't seem to feel the need to add that particular subplot, which is rare. Plus, the ending provided a surprise twist that I didn't see coming at all.

On the whole, this was a likable book in this genre, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

CBR6 #6: The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo

If you are expecting this to be an Ann Rule-style book that simply details a bunch of cases, you will be disappointed. However, if you're looking for crime-fighting combined with an excellent, multi-year character study of three very different men who come together to solve murders, then this is your story.

The Murder Room details the forming of the Vidocq Society, a group that brings together the best minds from a variety of crime-fighting disciplines (medical examiners, forensic artists, dentists, and anthropologists, police detectives, customs agents, profilers, psychologists, district attorneys, and others) to network and to put their considerable brain-power toward solving cold cases. The three dynamic men behind this endeavor were William Fleisher (former FBI agent and mensch), Frank Bender (eccentric and flamboyant forensic artist), and Richard Walter (equally eccentric and slightly grim profiler)and this book is just as much a tale of their ongoing friendship than it is stories of solved murders.

The book does tend to skip around a bit chronologically, and can occasionally be difficult to follow. There are also some story threads that simply disappear, and are left without any conclusion. However, these men are all fascinating in their own ways, and their interactions with each other are nearly as intriguing as the cases they work on.

I'd definitely recommend this to any true crime lovers who are also interested in well-written character studies.

CBR6 #5: The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens

Eric Greitens's story of his life, and of the widely varied experiences he has had is a pretty good read.

Greitens grew up fairly privileged, but always had a desire to help and serve others. He combined his love for humanitarian service with a fighter's desire to conquer and achieve, and managed to make them into a life of which he could be proud.

The book is a bit scattershot, focusing longer on some aspects of the author's life than others -- the main sections concerned his collegiate boxing training, his college and post-college humanitarian missions to a variety of countries, and his training as a Navy SEAL. There were some other areas that I would have liked more detailed description of, but at the same time, I can see how he was trying to fit everything into the theme of the heart (charity work) and fist (boxing/military) working together in order to try and improve the world.

This book reminded me of the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, except Eric Greitens came off a lot more relateable and less like a self-righteous prig.

On the whole I'd recommend this, particularly to those who are struggling to figure out how they might combine power and compassion in order to help others.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

CBR6 #4: Poems New and Collected by Wisława Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska is one of my very favorite poets. Her work is often both abstract and specific, and she combines remarkably evocative imagery with a variety of emotions, ranging from frustration to detached interest to dry humor. She is one of the few things I got out of a college lit class that was worth remembering.

Poems New and Collected is a retrospective of her work, and spans forty years of poetry. My favorites were probably from the pieces published in her 1972 work Could Have, though I liked poems from her entire collection. She writes on a variety of themes, including love, death, and most often what it means to be a part of humanity, and the collective experience thereof. It's kind of interesting to see how the themes change and develop over the course of forty years of writing.

The piece below is an example of one of her shorter works, this time from 1957's Calling Out to Yeti.


The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
the hour of thirty-year-olds.

The hour swept clean for roosters' crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.

Empty hour.
Hollow.  Vain.
Rock bottom of all the other hours.

No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we're happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we've got to go on living.

It's brief, and it's simple, but it paints such a clear picture of a particular time and emotion.

For those who like poetry and don't mind a bit of a challenge, I'd highly recommend this.


CBR6 #3: In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

Stefanie Pintoff's debut novel was both a fantastic historical fiction and a compelling detective story.

It's 1905, and Detective Simon Ziele has moved out to the New York City suburbs after his fiancee perishes in the General Slocum disaster (that detail being what hooked me on the book in the first place, since that wreck is one I was very interested during my maritime disaster phase). He expects the life of a small-town policeman to be fairly quiet, but it isn't long before a horrific murder drops into his lap. The victim seems to have had many enemies, but none with a hatred violent enough to result in bloody homicide. Ziele is at a loss until Professor Alistair Sinclair shows up--Sinclair has been pioneering a field of criminal psychology at Columbia, and he thinks one of his test subjects might be the man the police are looking for...the only problem is finding him.

Ziele and Sinclair wind their way through the neighborhoods of old New York, coming into contact with every strata of society, from the mayor all the way down to local drunks and hoods in the search for the murderer.

This book was awesome -- I really enjoyed the character of Ziele very much, and found him quite sympathetic and believable. I also appreciated Alistair Sinclair's daughter-in-law Isabella, who was a much-needed female presence, and painted as a smart, independent young woman. The mystery wasn't obvious, and while I had my suspicions, I didn't know for sure who had done it until the reveal. I also enjoyed the historical context (though on occasion it did feel a tiny bit "OH HERE IS A THING THAT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK IN 1905 THAT WE JUST HAPPEN TO MENTION CASUALLY READER, DO APPRECIATE OUR HISTORICAL CONTEXT!" for the most part it was well done).

I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or detective thrillers. I can't wait to get my hands on the second and third books in the series.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

CBR6 #2: The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff

     The Harrowing would make a great movie. I'd cast Elizabeth Olsen as Robin, the depressed and lonely protagonist, spending her Thanksgiving break in a supposedly empty dorm. Brittany Snow as her nasty southern belle roommate Waverly, and Chris Hemsworth (or someone younger...I'm old and don't know who the current crop of stars in the "college student" age group are anymore) as Patrick, her jock boyfriend who also ends up staying behind. Rounding out the five "discarded" students who find themselves thrown together for three days in Baird College's Mendenhall dorm would be Eva Amurri as Lisa, the sexy bad girl, Kit Harrington as dark musician Cain, and Dane DeHaan as mousy nerd Martin. The five find themselves riding out a nasty storm together, and then of course they discover an old Ouija board...

This was actually a pretty gripping little horror story. The pace remained pretty consistent, and although the protagonist started out a little bit whiny, she rapidly improved into a likable character. The villain was not immediately obvious, and there was a bit of a twist toward the end that I wasn't expecting.

The only downside about this one was I felt as though it could actually been a little longer. I would have appreciated a bit more development from the secondary characters, particularly since the book was VERY focused on the main five. Some depth to their personalities was sketched out, but I felt like the author may have relied a little too much on archetypes rather than making each supporting cast member into a truly unique person.

On the whole, I thought this was an entertaining read, and would be interested in reading other books by the author.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On Life: A Manifesto

Another new year.

Jesus, it seems like Thanksgiving was only last week and now suddenly we're halfway through January already. As I get older, it seems like time gets significantly more capricious each year. It's like "I can't wait for spring / where did spring go? / Why is it so hot? / Oh God, will it ever be warm again? / How can the holidays be here already I thought it was still summer?"

 At the end of last year, I was feeling kind of lost and directionless. A bit like a paper boat that had gotten stuck in an eddy--just swirling around and around in circles, not sure how to go forward...not even entirely certain which direction WAS forward. I was feeling trapped, with no idea what to do about it. Lucky for me, a good friend did me a solid and gently lifted my little boat out of the whirlpool, dispensing some good advice and depositing me back into the stream, ready to surge forward toward the horizon. (Thanks, friend. I hope to have the chance to return the favor some day.)

Traditionally, this is the time of year to make resolutions. I generally don't bother, as they usually turn out to be things I am totally not going to do, so instead they become just one more thing to add to the stack of stuff I did not get done, which leads to guilt. And guilt is really nobody's friend. Therefore, instead of resolutions, I have some looser declarations which--like the Pirate code--are more guidelines than anything else.

1. On Writing: Last year, I didn't manage to get my Cannonball Read even close to finished. Although I continued doing the same amount of reading, I had trouble forcing myself to do the reviews. "After all," I figured, "no one is reading them, except my mom. What's the point?" The point, of course, is that goals need to be set and conquered once in a while, if for no other reason than to prove it's possible. Also, writing breeds writing (hence this blog entry). On a related note, if I DO manage to finish Cannonball Read 6, I am going to throw myself a party to celebrate.

2. On Art: When asked recently what I'd want to do if I could do anything, I surprised myself by immediately answering "Art." I've always enjoyed it, but since I left school I haven't done much with it. My reasons have mostly been about lack of time, or space, or materials, or inspiration, but clearly those are just excuses. This year, I am going to try and "art" at least once a week for an hour or two. Maybe not daily, but enough. And I am going to try new mediums, and probably inundate my hapless loved ones with sketches and comics and cross-stitches and slightly lopsided sculpey figurines of yaks. I have realized that I can't art for myself, but I am great at arting for others, so that's what I'll do. What I'll get out of it is the process of creating, exercises for a muscle I'd almost forgotten I had.

3. On Exercise: I would like to say that I am going to take up a focused exercise program and learn to love working out, but that would be a bald-faced lie. What I AM going to do is continue looking for something active that I like to do. Monday I've committed to trying a Bollywood dance fitness class. Maybe I'll like it. Maybe I won't. But I'm not going to let the possibility of a bunch of skinny, flexible people giving me the hairy eyeball keep me from trying it. If I don't like it, maybe I'll find something else I do like. And if I like it but don't like them...there's always dvds.

4. On Weddings: According to The Knot, there are exactly 499 days until the Boyfriend and I are scheduled to get married. You'd think after ten years of couplehood I'd be more than ready for it, but I must say that my feet are a little cold now and then. The idea of such a massive undertaking is daunting, particularly for someone like me who has trouble even organizing a meal where all the parts finish at roughly the same time. However, I am going to try to relax and remember that this is not about throwing the social event of the season. It is about celebrating the Boyfriend and my commitment to spending our lives together with our most beloved family and friends. It is not about aisle runners, centerpieces, sand ceremonies, passed hor d'oeuvres, unity candles, save-the-dates, or any of the other bullshit that the WIC (wedding industrial complex) is pushing. We will have the wedding we want, doing things that make sense for us, and we will put aside traditions or trappings that don't. And we will make it super fun. That is my number one priority, and I will be sure to keep that at the top of my mind when making decisions.

5. On Diets: I have decided to give up on dieting. I don't like it, it doesn't like me, and frankly it does me very little good. I will say that making an effort to eat more healthy this year (i.e. more vegetables, fewer processed foods) is on my list of things to do, as well as the aforementioned exercise. However, I am not going to count or calculate or weigh or watch. I am a fat person. I am also a healthy person--my blood pressure and cholesterol are basically perfect, my asthma's improved, and since I started taking vitamins I've been sick a whole lot less. I am not going to torture myself  anymore about my weight. I am who I am, and those who don't like it are welcome to exit stage left. Also, comments about "don't you want to be a beautiful bride?" will be met by hostility, as I would be a be a beautiful bride if I were to get married tomorrow, motherfucker, and don't you forget it.

6. On Outlook (no, not the email program): A friend recently described my personality as a "reliable little grey cloud." I am pretty sure that he meant that affectionately, but that makes it no less depressing. Nobody likes to be thought of as a rain cloud--we all want to be the sunbeam in others' lives. Now, I'm aware that he was totally accurate in that my natural personality does not trend toward sunny or optimistic, but I suspect that is something that can be learned (or at least faked with concerted effort). I also suspect that once I make the effort, it will begin to become second nature through sheer habit. This is a tough one, and I'm not sure how much progress I can make, but it's worth a shot.

7. On Openness: This last is the most difficult, but also potentially the most rewarding. It ties in with the Outlook issue, in that it's going to be a major change and will require a certain amount of brutally painful effort. This year, I intend to become more open and available to people. It should not take someone more than two (or even six or eight) years to feel as though they are friends with me. I'm not saying I plan to become a Barnacle Girl, glomming on to everyone in sight and declaring them my very bestest friend. But I should definitely be capable of making conversation and possibly arranging plans. I've been told by a number of people over the years that they would have liked to get to know me better, but that I come off very aloof. It's true; I do come off aloof, and it's both a function of genetics (my father's photo may actually be next to the word "aloof" in the dictionary) and experience (it's tough to reject someone who wasn't interested in you in the first place, after all). But I am not twelve years old anymore, and I need to stop expecting people to behave the way they did back then. Seriously, it's not brain surgery! It's "Let's hang out...okay, how about this time at this place?" God knows that once I'm comfortable with someone it's nearly impossible to get me to shut up, I just need to start opening my mouth sooner. 

And there you have it. I think seven declarations are enough for the time being. Some are easier than others, but I think all are totally manageable in context. Now it's just a matter of getting started...