Friday, July 31, 2009

Cannonball Read #44: Lisey's Story by Stephen King

I have to hang my head and admit that I thought Stephen King might be done. I thought that after his accident his books had headed downhill and might not be coming back. I mean, Dreamcatcher was kind of terrible in my opinion. Then I read The Cell and thought that maybe things were improving. Lisey's Story made me sure.

Lisey's Story is the story of Lisa "Little Lisey" Landon, widow of famous author Scott Landon. Two years after Scott's death, Lisey begins trying to organize his papers. As she goes through his things, her past (and Scott's) begin to catch up with her. It turns out that there are dangers approaching from within and without, and Lisey will need help from her crazy older sister...and possibly from her dead husband.

It's kind of hard to elaborate on the plot much more than that, because it's such an odd book. To say much more would give away some of the surprise, and I would hate to spoil it even the slightest bit for anyone who's thinking of reading this one. I liked the character of Lisey--she had a strong voice, and seemed like a strong, likable female character. The other main character in the story is Scott, and he is also well-drawn. I thought the plot was tolerable. The main thing I loved about this was the literary gymnastics that I so revere King for. His use of words in both dialogue, narration, and description is fantastic. Some of the language can be a bit troublesome at times--sort of in the way that A Clockwork Orange can be troublesome--in that the character is kind of speaking in "couple language," the language a couple develops over many years, with special words and inside jokes. It may take the ready a chapter or so to truly adjust, but it is SO worth it.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book and will most likely read it again. It's spooky, funny, and as far as I'm concerned extremely well-written.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #43: Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective by Jay Atkinson

This book was supposed to part of my July 5K, but I didn't get around to blogging about it on time, unfortunately.

The Winter Hill of the title actually encompasses the area where I now live, so the field trip portion of my 5K ambitions was pretty easy for this one. The church Joe McCain got married and got eulogized in is at the end of my block, maybe 60 yards from my apartment. The funeral home where his wake was held is across the rotary from where I wait for the bus every morning. The tiny Irish bar the author hangs out in with Joe Jr. is a place my friends used to hang out before it closed. The whole book is full of landmarks I recognize from my daily life. It's like being inside the story, although things are obviously significantly different than they were 40-odd years ago when Officer Joe McCain was walking the beat.

The loose framework of the book involves author Jay Atkinson spending a year working at a Boston detective agency founded by detective Joe McCain and run by his son. During the course of his work he learns about the criminal element of old Boston (the Winter Hill neighborhood in particular) and about Joe McCain's success as a police officer and detective keeping his streets safe. There are many colorful anecdotes about Officer McCain's experiences dealing with Irish mob kingpins and low-level con men alike, as well as fighting corruption within the police department.

On the whole, it's a good book, although it's extremely episodic and frankly a bit jumbled for my taste--there is no organization to the tales as far as I could tell, which often left me confused about when events had occurred. The character of Big Joe was well drawn, Atkinson letting the people who knew the man best tell us about him in their own words. I think the book could have been tighter and include more real information--it seems as though a lot of times the author relies on secondhand stories without doing any real primary source research. However, on the whole I would recommend it to people who enjoy police stories or are interested in the Winter Hill neighborhood.

Cannonball Read #39 - 42: Dennis Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro Mysteries

Considering how much I enjoyed Gone, Baby, Gone (downer though it may be) I decided to go ahead and read the rest of Lehane's series featuring Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angela Gennaro. Starting with A Drink Before the War, and continuing through Darkness, Take My Hand and Sacred which all come before Gone, Baby, Gone and concluding with Prayers for Rain, I greatly enjoyed the entire series, though I found them somewhat mentally and emotionally exhausting.

All of the books center on mysteries that occur in and around Kenzie and Gennaro's home neighborhood of Dorchester, MA. Although I didn't find the neighborhood itself playing as much a part in the other books as it did in Gone, Baby, Gone, it did set the scene nicely for the violence and despair that encompassed the books fairly equally. The mysteries themselves were twisty and interesting, and most of the time I didn't know where Lehane was going until we actually arrived, which is nice for someone who reads as many mysteries as I do. I also enjoyed watching the gradually developing relationship between Patrick and Angie through each book, as well as seeing the progress of other repeat characters.

Taken as a set, these books--though often similar in feeling--don't fall into the trap that often occurs with series books...they don't begin to feel formulaic, the world of the novels is not like a sitcom, where everything resets and goes back to normal at the end. You can watch Patrick, Angie, and their friends change with the dark and dismal events in each book.

I don't think there will be any more books in this series--Prayers For Rain seems to finish things up for the main characters and leave them in a relatively good place--but I greatly enjoyed reading them (I chewed through all 4 in the course of one weekend) and would recommend them to anyone who enjoys mysteries and can handle some depressing subject matter.

Cannonball Read #38: Drop Shot by Harlan Coben

Drop Shot is the second in Harlan Coben's "Myron Bolitar" mysteries. To refresh your memories, my review for the first book in the series is Cannonball Read #32. Coben's wise-cracking sports agent Myron Bolitar is back and trying to solve another case that rocks the sports world.

While at a high level tennis tourney to watch his latest young client climb up the rankings, Myron is shocked when a former tennis prodigy who had recently tried to contact him is murdered in the stadium in front of at least a dozen witnesses who seem to see nothing. Not only does Myron want to solve the case because he feels guilty that he never got in touch with the young woman, but he also worries that this case may hit a little too close to home for his Nike commercial-bound client. Myron (along with his sociopathic colleague/best friend Win) have to navigate through the dark alleys of the pro tennis world, handling psychotic mobsters, slimy trainers, hyperactive ad executives, secretive families, suspicious stalkers, and many other odd characters before they can get at the surprising truth.

Although I didn't find this book as suspenseful as the first--the plot was a little more obvious, and I figured out the twist before the final chapter--it was still an enjoyable read. The characters of Myron and Win are still entertaining, and some of the female supporting characters got a little more to do this go-round. On the whole, I liked this book and would recommend it to a mystery fan with a sense of humor as a good beach/travel read.

Cannonball Read #37: Something's Alive on the Titanic by Robert Serling

This could have been an awesome book. It could have been creepy and weird and disturbing and downright scary. Unfortunately, Robert Serling decided not to go in that direction. Instead he decided to focus primarily on showing off all of his scientific knowledge about diving gear and less on making his damn horror book...scary. Or interesting.

Something's Alive on the Titanic is a story in two parts--the first is the story of a crew of divers in 1975 (nearly a decade before the real discovery of Titanic by Bob Ballard) who discover evidence that the ship went down with millions of dollars of gold bullion aboard. They decide to locate the ship and remove the gold. Unfortunately, a great deal of unpleasantness occurs (SPOILER ALERT: Giant shark! Giant squid! Giant primitive dinosaur fish! Inexplicable machine malfunctions! Hurricane!) which dooms their expedition. Twenty years later, the American Navy (along with the sole survivor of the 1975 expedition) set out to steal the bullion, and shockingly they run up against unpleasantness as well! (Oh noes, broken flashlights! How terrifying!)

The whole thing was kind of lame...when I read a horror story, I really don't need 6 pages on the intricacies of deep-sea diving suits. If I wanted to know about deep-sea diving suits or remote controlled submersibles, I'm sure there's a non-fiction book or Jacques Cousteau documentary or something I could watch.

My friends and I have discussed the idea of writing a "zombies on the Titanic" movie--I guess that's sort of what I'd hoped this book would be and was extremely disappointed. I don't recommend this to anybody, really, unless you are really REALLY into the Titanic.

Cannonball Read #36: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

I had been trying to avoid the Dark Tower series, and had managed to do so for...well, let's put it this way: The Gunslinger, the first book in the series, was published in 1982, nearly three years before I learned to read. Why have I been resisting the work of an author I usually unabashedly love? Surprising though it may be to the few of you that follow this blog, but I really do try to put a cap on my nerdiness. I am perfectly happy to admit that I read most of King's novels, but...a fantasy series? Really? I felt as though getting involved in the Dark Tower books would push me over into the world of Trekkies, fanboys, and people who dress up like wookies.

Fortunately for me, my undeserved prejudice was undone by a bus trip. Last weekend, I went to the North Country with The Boyfriend for his cousin's wedding. The bus takes about 4.5 hours each way, and when I was gathering reading material for the journey I discovered I was fresh out of books I hadn't read. Normally, I love re-reading old favorites, but since I started Cannonball Read I've managed to consume nothing but new all year. I discovered The Gunslinger sitting on a shelf amidst my rather formidable King collection--purchased for The Boyfriend who LOVES fantasy novels--and decided I might as well give it a whirl.

I am glad I did.

The story is about Roland, who is a gunslinger (sort of like a knight in his world.) He is on a quest to catch "the Dark Man," and is in the process of chasing him across a wide desert when the story begins. The plot winds a bit, and there are a LOT of unanswered questions throughout--it is clear this is meant to be part of a series and not a stand-alone novel. As the reader quests along with Roland, we slowly begin to pick up pieces of his past and about the events that led to the post-apocalyptic world he now travels. The book definitely achieves what King states in the re-written introduction he'd attempted: a book combining the fantasy and scope of Lord of the Rings with the dusty, dangerous atmosphere of Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy. Roland certainly comes across as an old-school Clint Eastwood character, but the magical, questing feeling of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous works is also well represented.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I was going to. In any case (much to The Boyfriend's delight) I think I will need to go ahead and purchase the rest of the series.

Looks like I am going to have to clear yet another shelf in my bookcase for the master of horror.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cannonball Read #35 (July 5K Book 3): Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy And Its Aftermath by John Esposito

This 5K thing is exhausting. I've actually read all the books but the blogging is killing me.

The issue with my love of disaster books is that while I still enjoy reading them, there is only really so much you can say. "There was a disaster. It was a big disaster. Boy, was it really disastrous. A lot of people died. Whooo, I'm glad I wasn't there. Here's what society learned/gained from this disaster." I guess the things I enjoy about the disaster genre don't really translate well into blog posts. The acts of unimaginable heroism from everyday people are tremendous to read, but lose a lot when taken out of the wider picture. The historical context which frames the disaster adds an element of unexpected education (turns out the guy the Tobin bridge is named after was peripherally involved with the owner of the Cocoanut Grove club and kind of corrupt--although, as I understand it that is not necessarily a bad trait in a Boston politician.)

Even though the basic events are the same (particularly with the fire books, of which this is my 4th...though I haven't gotten around to blogging the others) the details of the story--the exact part that is sort of impossible to extract and put in a review--is what makes each one different and fascinating. There is always that wonder of "What would I have done? Could I have survived? Would I have crawled through the smoke and flames to batter my way through any available exit? Would I have floundered in the darkness only to collapse in a massive pile of humanity in front of a door swinging the wrong way? Would I have just stood in frozen terror as a gush of flame sucked the air and the life right out of my body? What would I do? Could I do it?" One lesson these books impart is that people can never be sure how they'll react until the day of the disaster arrives. Ordinarily tough military men freeze, nervous young busboys and college girls reach deep into themselves and find the strength to accomplish feats of heroism. It could be anybody, really.

The Cocoanut Grove fire was appalling, tragic, horrifying, and worst...mostly preventable. The author of this book goes on to compare it to the events of Rhode Island's Station nightclub fire--greed, neglect, and total disregard for safety from multiple players resulted in great loss of life.

I tried to go find the location where the Grove once stood (according to Wikipedia there is some kind of small memorial in the sidewalk) but I couldn't seem to find it, though whether my failure was due to poor directions or my notoriously poor sense of direction, I don' t know. I guess if a city as old and as active as Boston put up a statue for every disastrous occurrence, there wouldn't be room to move around.

To sum up, the book is quite good, with a lot of well-researched details and fascinating facts. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in disasters or Boston history.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #34 (July 5K Book 2): Rise To Rebellion by Jeff Shaara

The field trip I picked for this book involved going to see Boston's old state house and the location where the Boston Massacre took place. I went on my way home from work one day, ignoring the summer's constantly dreary weather to visit the place my country was ostensibly born. Turns out that the marker is on a traffic island. Yes, the location where a momentous event in my nation's history took place is now in the middle of the street, and required me to hop through rush hour traffic to see it. Not sure if that's emblematic, appalling, or a little of both.

The first in a two part series on the Revolutionary War, Rise to Rebellion is relatively good, though I wouldn't put it as high on the list as Shaara's Civil War works. Rise to Rebellion is the story of the events leading up to the Declaration of Independance and the battles of the Revolutionary War. The main characters include Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington from the Colonial side and General Thomas Gage on the British side.

It was an interesting tale, as it chronicled events (i.e. Franklin's time in London and his relationship with his loyalist son) I knew very little if anything about. However, I think Shaara tried to cover too much ground in one book--the reason The Killer Angels (his father's novelization of Gettysburg) works so well is the amount of detail. Jeff Shaara can't manage that much detail while dealing with 5 years worth of history. The most disappointing thing was that the battles--including the battles of Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord--were not very well fleshed out. I felt as though they were a bit glossed over.

I'd definitely recommend this book, since it is a great way of learning some less talked-of U.S. history, but it's not nearly as engrossing as Shaara's Civil War efforts. However, I will be reading the sequal just because it's more good history.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cannonball Read #33 [July 5K Entry 1]: Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane

I figured since this 5K is "Locally Grown" and the idea is to read 5 books set in places you lived/live/want to live, I'd choose books about Boston and surrounding areas, since I've been here for nearly 9 years. Then, I'd visit a place relevant to the book. You know, like a field trip. Unfortunately, I found myself cheating almost immediately--Gone Baby Gone is set in Dorchester, and I have no intention of returning to Dorchester.

Let me explain.

Back in 2002, my two friends and I were looking for a place to live for our junior year of college. I had grown up in the sheltered rural "suburbs" of central Pennsylvania. The Prancing Prince spent his formative years in the upper class suburb of Alexandria, VA. The Hindu Goddess grew up in Qatar. None of us had a fucking clue about finding reasonable accommodations in a city. We of course turned to the internet for assistance, and Hindu Goddess and I discovered the ideal place--a 3 bedroom townhouse! 3 stories! 2 bathrooms! Only one street over from the bay! It was perfect! We were delighted, and went to visit at once. The townhouse they showed us was beautiful, and the real estate agent assured us that because of its close proximity to UMass Boston, the neighborhood of townhouses and large apartment buildings was just FULL of students. We loved it! My friend The Beautiful Loser, who accompanied the Hindu Princess and I on our trip, was less than enthusiastic. "I don't like it," he said. We reminded him about the bedrooms! The bathrooms! The bay! "I don't like it," he repeated. "Look around. It's two in the afternoon on a Tuesday, and there are way too many people just...standing around."

We didn't listen, and we should have. He was right.

What we didn't know about our beautiful new neighborhood, Harbor Point, was that ten years ago it was called Colombia Point, and then--as now--it was "the projects." Ten years ago, the crime had been so bad that a full-scale law-enforcement sweep of the neighborhood had gone down. Since that time, a new company had bought the development and sought to make the place look like a place students and young professionals would want to live. They did a decent job, too. The problem was that apparently many of those swept up in the action a decade ago were getting out of jail and coming home. And their children were reaching the mid-teens and beginning to travel in dangerous packs.

In the two years I lived there, we had many thrilling experiences. The neighbors on one side were drug dealers (maybe they weren't. Though having people routinely pulling up outside at 2am to just run in and then out again...not to mention the ones who occasionally turned up screaming in the wee hours about "I WANT MY STUFF! YOU PROMISED ME IT WOULD BE HERE!"--made us quite suspicious, it's not like we were going to pop by and investigate) and the neighbors on the other side liked to get up at 7am on Sundays and blast terrible Spanish gospel music for four hours straight. There was a kid across the street of indefinite gender who wore a helmet and spent the long summer days sitting on its stoop alternately shrieking or breathing pensively through a whistle. One spring evening, I rounded a corner to find an elderly man taking a shit in the bus shelter. Someone was always standing in front of the small convenience store trying to sell you drugs. One New Year's Eve someone shot a police officer. There were car accidents and fires. The only places that would deliver food were a terrible Chinese place and Domino's. Cab drivers never wanted to pick up or drop off there. Bicycles weren't even safe locked to the street-signs--the miscreants would just unscrew the sign and take the whole thing. The final summer I lived there, my boyfriend got mugged at knife point on the way home from the subway, then within a one week span my house was robbed and my roommate was mugged and assaulted (unfortunately, they couldn't catch the mob of teenage assailants because someone had pulled the fire alarms in all the apartment buildings, and when the security officers showed up, someone slashed all the tires on both their SUVs.) That's when I decided I'd had it with Dorchester.

Gone Baby Gone actually reminds me a lot of my days at Harbor Point. A lot of Lehane's characters are exactly the type of people who would be loitering outside a convenience store on a Tuesday afternoon. The main characters of the story are Patrick Kenzie, private investigator and his girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro. Patrick and Angie grew up in the neighborhood, and are brought in to help on the case of a kidnapped 4-year old girl because they know all the dark corners of Dorchester and who lurks in every one. The story follows them as they try to piece together the actions and motivations of a wide cast of characters--cops, thugs, dealers, working class people, snitches, thieves--in an effort to track down the little girl before she comes to harm. Patrick has the added burden of trying to decide how far he's willing to go to make sure the child is brought home.

The plot is twisty and interesting, but the real winning factor in this book is the characters who populate it. Dennis Lehane has done a great job of fleshing out a world and filling it with the appropriate sort of people. Patrick and Angie have to interact with people on both sides of the law and try to decide how they feel about where that law line is drawn. The characters are so well-described, I felt like I could see each one--meandering down the street, hanging out in front of convenience stores, lingering in parks, gathering on porches. I also really enjoyed Patrick; as a character, I found him to be complex without being forced. He was believable in how he was trying to straddle both worlds--the side of the law and the side of the darkness. In fact, even some of the less likable characters were still complicated...very few were either all good or all bad.

I had seen the film version of Gone Baby Gone before reading the book, and was fairly impressed at how closely the film follows the book. Although there were a few divergences, I felt that none were major losses. Ben Affleck's direction was spot-on, and Casey Affleck was as good as I always expect him to be. Although it's not what I'd call a "feel good" movie, it--along with the original book--is definitely worth checking out. Although it's obviously not a totally realistic view of what life is like in Dorchester, it's fairly close to what my observations were like when I lived there.