Friday, December 30, 2011

CR3 #99: But I Trusted You: Ann Rule's Crime Files #14 by Ann Rule

I really wish I hadn't read three of these Ann Rule books in a row. They're a major pain to try and blog about, because frankly they are all basically the same. As with the others, this book includes one novella length story and then several very short cases.

The main story in this volume is about a man who was murdered by his estranged wife, mostly over money and child custody. She was under the impression that her rich boyfriend in Hawaii was going to take care of her, if only she could get her husband out of the way. Unfortunately, she wasn't nearly as clever as she thought she was and got caught. It's an all right story, but for some reason doesn't feel nearly as well fleshed out as much of her previous work.

The other shorter stories are all pretty good, though rather old. Two of them are unresolved, and remain mysterious to this day.  One of the unsolved cases involves a tragic family boat trip with not one but two mysterious deaths. The rest of the tales are not quite as engaging, but all are interesting in their own ways.

To save time, here is what I learned from this book:

1. The police are often smarter than one might expect.
2. Most criminals are stupider than one might expect.
3. Letting someone who's been in prison for a violent (non-lethal)  sexual crime out early is a bad idea, because the main thing HE'S learned while locked away is not to leave witnesses next time.
4. Your loved ones are equally or even MORE likely to murder you in a horrific way than a stranger is.
5. Apparently Washington state in the 1970s was a death trap for pretty young women.
6. DO NOT GO WITH THE CREEPY STRANGER. IT NEVER TURNS OUT WELL.

For those who like Ann Rule's books, this one is more of the same. I think she's losing her touch a little, but after all, she IS in her seventies now and not as able to chase down sources. Still, it's a great beach/bus/plane read.

CR3 #98: Titanic's Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler by Bradford Matsen

This is the most recently written book I've read about Titanic, and it frankly blows up all previous theories of how and why the great ship sank.

In the mid-2000s, Richie Kohler and John Chatterton--known for their previous wreck diving work and their television show exploring underwater wrecks--were contacted by a man who had been on a recent journey to the Titanic's wreckage. He claimed that he had seen some interesting debris--"ribbons of steel" on the sea floor that might provide new information about how the ocean liner sank the way it did. The divers arranged for an expedition out to the remains with a Russian group of submersibles. What they found revolutionized the way that they thought about the way the sinking occurred.

Basically, they found large intact pieces from the bottom of the ship. When closely examined, the way these pieces were broken suggest that instead of the ship breaking in two because it was tilted 45 degrees up out of the water, it may have only had to be tilted 11 degrees before it snapped in the middle and sank. This theory explains some of the mystery that has persisted for years about the sinking itself. The fact that the ship was not tilted far up in the air, but rather only slightly up may explain why so many passengers either didn't believe there was any danger (and thus refused to get in the lifeboats) or never even left their cabins before the ship went down. It also explains why the ship sank so quickly--other large ships that had experienced major accidents at sea had managed to stay afloat for hours or even days.

Another revelation is proved by a gentleman who worked for many years at the shipyard where Titanic was first built. He worked in the archives, and had access to many of the internal documents and memos regarding the construction of not only Titanic, but of her older sister ship, Olympic and her younger sister, Brittanic. What he discovered was that the company--and the designer, Thomas Andrews--knew that there were flaws with the ships' designs. The Olympic had serious issues with her hull during her first voyages that required emergency repairs, and these flaws led to changes in the Titanic's design. Unfortunately, not enough changes were made. The engineers at Harland & Wolff calculated after the sinking that the ship had broken up on the surface, not as it went down. They never shared this information, however, in order to save the business.

The book follows Kohler and Chatterton's expedition to Titanic, then takes several chapters to discuss the men who financed and built the great ship. It provides a very different view of White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay, who has been portrayed as the villain of the tragedy for many years. Those chapters are written in more of a historical fiction style (though the author has provided copious notes at the end of the book to explain where he has gotten his facts). It's an odd tonal shift, but I did enjoy finding out more about the process of shipbuilding at the time, and the financial maneuverings that led to production of the giant ships.

The book finishes out with Kohler and Chatterton diving the wreckage of the Britannic (which sank after hitting a mine during WWI), trying to prove their theories. All three ships were made from the same original plan, but Andrews tried to fix flaws that showed themselves on Olympic when putting together the Titanic. The divers figured that the engineers at Harland & Wolff probably made changes to the design of Brittanic to fix the flaws that had brought down the Titanic, so they wanted to look at Brittanic's wreckage and compare the areas they suspected had caused the problems with the Titanic. What they found seems to confirm their ideas that Harland & Wolff had quietly discovered Titanic's fatal errors, and attempted to correct them on Brittanic.

The book is fascinating, and despite the minor issues I had with structure, it is an amazing read for someone who is as interested in the Titanic disaster as I am. The author did a great job showing where he found his information and digging up useful facts. In general, it was a really interesting book that gave me a whole new perspective on the sinking.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

CR3 #97: The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist by Mary H. Manhein

Since nothing says "holiday season" like books about rotting skeletons and murder most foul, here's another about my latest obsession, forensic anthropology.

Mary Manhein has written a book similar to my last review, Dr. William Maples's Dead Men Do Tell Tales. It is part memoir, part collection of cases she has worked on. She discusses her work with identifying historic remains as well as assisting law enforcement with victims of violent crime. She also tells stories about how she entered her career, and how she handled it in the early days.

The book is mostly made up of short vignettes, many between two to three pages long. They are brief snippets from her past, all put together somewhat randomly. Frankly, while her mini-stories are all very interesting (some are funny, some sad, some spooky, some bizarre) they aren't organized in a particularly coherent fashion. She leaps around in time, neither using chronological nor thematic organization, which made this a little confusing. Also, her vignettes seem to have more to do with emotion than with the science of forensic anthropology. While Dr. Maples used his cases to illustrate useful scientific information, this author is mostly telling anecdotes from her long career. The tones are quite different -- one that of a college professor speaking to a lecture hall, the other an extremely amusing, fascinating dinner companion.

I enjoyed this book, but the tone and subject matter were a bit lighter than I'd expected. Not a bad book, but nothing all that special, either.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CR3 #96: Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by Dr. William Maples

This book is partly case studies and partly a memoir of Dr. Maples's journey to becoming one of the world's preeminent forensic anthropologists. Maples gives history of both himself and of the field of forensic anthropology, explaining how and why it developed. He also explains how and why he became interested in it. He goes on to detail some of the cases he's worked on, including some famous ones like investigating whether President Zachary Taylor was actually poisoned, whether the bones in a chapel in South America really belonged to Francisco Pizarro, and whether the bones found in a mass grave in Russia did in fact belong to the assassinated Romanov family. He also discusses more mundane cases, using them to illustrate various aspects of the forensic anthropology field; burned bones, chopped bones, buried bones, and hidden bones--all have their own stories to tell if they're read properly.

This book reflects Dr. Maples's scholarly nature (his "day job" is being a professor at a college as well as running his very impressive investigative lab) and is quite detailed (sometimes overly so.) He presents his cases in methodical fashion, illustrating his lessons as clearly and as simply as possible. He treats his reader like an interested student--gently leading without patronizing, though sometimes getting a little too wrapped up in his thoughts to be as clear as one would prefer. However, the book was extremely informative and full of information I hadn't come across before.

I'd certainly recommend this to anyone who likes true crime or enjoys the show "Bones". Dr. Maples has a strong, distinctive voice, and his style is for the most part quite relateable.

CR3 #95: The Cases That Haunt Us by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker

John Douglas is widely recognized as one of the earliest criminal profilers. He worked for the FBI for years, and has had a great effect on both the world of crime solving and the world of pop culture. In this book, he collaborates with filmmaker Olshaker to analyze some of history's most puzzling crimes, using his modern methods of profiling. He's careful to point out that these are merely his own observations, based on whatever evidence he's been able to access along with his years of profiling experience.

Douglas goes through some of the best known crimes in recent history--Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, the Black Dahlia murder, the Zodiac Killer, up to the murder of JonBenet Ramsay. He lays out all the available evidence and then tries to understand what the killers might have been like. He makes his case for why he thinks Jack the Ripper never actually wrote the letters that gave him his famous name, why he believes no one but Lizzie Borden could have killed her father and stepmother, what the Zodiac Killer might have been like, and why he doesn't believe that the Ramsays killed their daughter. Applying new methods to old cases makes for interesting reading, and Douglas explains his reasoning every step of the way, illustrating the process involved in criminal profiling.

It's a well-written book, though occasionally a bit dry in spots. The author provided specific reasoning for all of his deductions, and at no point did I feel he was stretching too far or making anything up out of thin air. I'd definitely recommend it for true crime enthusiasts (get used to that phrase -- it's the end of the year and I am on a true crime tear!) though it's a bit graphic and not for the faint-hearted.

CR3 #94: A Rage to Kill and Other True Cases by Ann Rule

I am a fiend for true crime. Particularly now, when I am a little burned out with CR3 and brainwork in general. True crime is an easy and quick read for me. It's fascinating to me what humans are capable of doing to one another. It's also fascinating to follow the path of those who solve these mysteries.

This is the sixth of Ann Rule's "Crime Files" series, and it consists of one longer story and several short ones. The main story is of Silas Cool, a man who climbed on a city bus in Seattle, shot the driver, and managed to send the bus careening off a bridge. The police who worked the case had little to go on because they couldn't figure out WHY this had happened. Through all their research, they still only have a few clues as to what might have gone wrong. It's fascinating to see how the detectives try to solve the case, and all the various avenues they travel to find information.

The rest of the stories in the collection are also for the most part about "stranger" killings, several involving spree killers or murderers who stalked their unknowing victims before their savage attacks. Once again, each time the police have their work cut out for them because there are no obvious motives.

Ann Rule always does a good job fleshing out her stories, even the very short tales in this collection. She provides imagination-grabbing details, as well as including (sometimes graphic, but definitely illustrative) photographs. The one issue I had with this collection is that it's rather old. Some of the stories end with the murderers being jailed, and a note like "He won't be eligible for parole until 2003" but I don't know if he DID get out in 2003!

On the whole, while this is nothing spectacular, new, or original, it is reliable reading for a true crime enthusiast.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

CR3 #93: A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross

 Oh man, I am SO CLOSE to reaching my goal for the year, but I simply do NOT want to write these reviews. However, I am going to battle through it, just so I can say I managed to complete a double Cannonball in a year. (Also, speaking of, if any of you are interested in joining the Cannonball Read this year, you can find the information here. It's a lot of fun, and there are a lot of cool people involved.)

A Broken Vessel is the second book in Kate Moss's Julian Kestral series, and the British dandy once again finds himself embroiled in a mystery. This time, the action starts with Julian's valet Dipper's sister. Sally is a prostitute, and while stealing from her johns one evening, she discovers a letter from an anonymous woman begging for help. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know who the woman is, and Sally isn't sure which of the three men she saw that evening had been carrying the letter. When she runs into her brother Dipper, he gets Julian involved. Soon, Sally has to go undercover, and a woman is murdered in a house full of suspects.

Once again, Kate Ross has done a great job. The plot of the book is twisty and engaging. I followed all the clues carefully, and was still surprised by the ending (but not in a "where the hell did THAT come from?" sort of way). The characters of Julian and Dipper, as well as Julian's elderly doctor friend are all wonderful. I liked them very much and was definitely invested in what happened to them. Sally was not as believable, and I frankly found the romantic subplot a little ridiculous. However,  on the whole this was another very enjoyable mystery.

Friday, December 9, 2011

CR3 #92: Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters by John Waters

The works of John Waters are not for everyone. Most people can figure out whether they are fans or not after a mere ten minutes of one of his films. I find his gleeful devotion to raunch, camp, and blatant bad taste hilarious, but even I find it a bit overwhelming at times. I think the thing I most enjoy about John Waters is the sense that underneath the determinedly trashy exterior, he's actually a very sweet person. He can say things that--coming from anyone else--would probably be horrifying.

This book is a collection of essays he wrote over the years for various publications, and this particular edition has some extras that he wrote later on. He discusses his love for the National Enquirer, Baltimore public television, Christmas, and things that hates. My favorite essays were "Going to Jail", "John Waters's Tour of LA," and one he wrote about bringing "Hairspray!" to Broadway. "Going to Jail" is about time he spent teaching classes in prison. It's very funny, because Waters and the prisoners are equally bewildered and starstruck by one another (as a crime aficionado, Waters recognizes some of his students and is fascinated by their crimes). He teaches them a little about film theory, as well as scripting and improv, coming away feeling as though he's contributed at least a tiny bit to society. Plus, he finds the whole experience of going to the prison and dealing with the prisoners all great fun. In "John Waters's Tour of LA," he gives a detailed explanation of the best tourist sights in town (hint: most normal people would NOT be interested, as a lot of them are morbid/creepy/bizarre).

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. It was hilarious, but also occasionally poignant. Waters's voice comes through very clearly, and it's easy to picture him sitting in an ostentatious chair, smoking a cigarette and reading it all to you. Definitely good for those who enjoy his films. (For those who don't, I'd probably skip it.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CR3 #91: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This book happens to be one of those very, very rare cases in which the movie is actually better.

The basic story is that Miss Pettigrew--a middle-aged spinster--receives a new post as a governess in 1930s London. When she arrives, however, she finds no children. Instead, she meets beautiful young nightclub singer Delysia LaFosse. Delysia is trying to juggle three men and a burgeoning social calendar, and things are beginning to get too difficult. Decisions have to be made, and Delysia isn't sure she's up for it. Luckily, Miss Pettigrew finds that she can be of help.

The book is quite clearly a fantasy, something of a Cinderella story. Miss Pettigrew makes new friends, gets a makeover, and finds a happy ending. Nothing too difficult happens, and nearly everyone goes away better off. It's an adorable story, but frankly a bit light.

The movie, on the other hand, is stellar. Frances McDormand stars as Miss Pettigrew, and Amy Adams plays Delysia. They're supported by an excellent cast of gentleman (particularly Lee Pace as the brooding piano player Michael and Ciaran Hinds as lingerie designer Joe Blomfield) and Shirley Henderson as the poisonous Edythe DuBarry. The movie has more conflict--Miss Pettigrew has more to lose, and is forced to make tougher choices. Miss Pettigrew in the book tends to drift along in everyone elses's wake, whereas McDormand shows the steel that lies beneath Miss P's frumpy exterior. Adams's Delysia is a bit more scatterbrained than the one in the book--she's not as strong a female character in the film, and requires more rescuing--but she is still charming and lovable. Both Adams and McDormand are able to communicate volumes with a small look or tiny raise of the eyebrow.The fact that the film is set against the run-up to WWI also helps to put the characters in a more precarious position. The plot contains more conflict, but it all resolves rather well.  In addition, the costumes, sets, and music are all gorgeous. They set the mood very strongly, as well as making the movie a pleasure to see. As usual, Focus Features has done an excellent job bringing a period piece to a modern audience.

On the whole, although I enjoyed the book, I'd recommend skipping it and going straight to the film.

CR3 #90: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

I was always a big fan of 'Cold Case Files' on Discovery (back when the Discovery channel wasn't entirely populated by strange reality shows about creepy diseases and truck drivers). It was fascinating to see what a determined detective could do with scientific advancement and sheer perseverance. Cases that seemed unsolvable were closed, and people who had spent years thinking they'd gotten away with murder found themselves behind bars.

This book by Stacy Horn illustrates that these cases can take years to solve, if they are ever solved at all. And all the while, the detectives have to fight both the public and their own administration, pinching every penny and defending their unit's existence to all-comers.

The author spent a few years checking in on several detectives in New York City's cold case squad. She follows the progress of four cold cases, the earliest committed in 1951, the most recent in 1996. As the detectives backtrack, retest, and rethink their cases, Horn squeezes in a lot of information about how the cold case squad was formed, how it has continued to function, and the daily stumbling blocks that the detectives face in trying to accomplish their goals.

The dominant emotion to permeate this book is frustration. The detectives are frustrated by a multitude of different things: poor police work in the original investigations, reticent witnesses, the loss (or destruction or non-collection or mishandling) of vital evidence. Bureaucracy, red tape, and the usual petty office politics that plague any multi-tiered workplace. Knowing that a suspect is guilty, but being unable to come up with enough tangible evidence to satisfy a DA concerned with his win rate. It's a never-ending cycle of beating one's head up against a brick wall. Yet these men (at the time, there were no women on the squad, though that has probably changed by now) continue to try and find justice for the victims, be they an innocent child, a "fallen woman", a police officer, or a drug dealer. Some of the crimes detailed in the book get solved and the perpetrators go to prison. Others are deemed too old or too difficult. One gets passed along to another unit because it turns out to be mafia-related. This book has very few tidy endings.

This book is a great work of non-fiction, and the author does a great job of making each detective distinct. There is some issue with the organization -- the information related to each case is scattered through the book, which can be confusing until you realize that it's organized more or less chronologically, chronicling the detectives' progress as years pass. I think I might have preferred a different structure, but at the same time it does illustrate the way that these cases don't get solved all at once, but instead take years (and sometimes several detectives) before they can find any resolution.

I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in true crime and/or police procedure, but it's a bit dry for entertainment reading.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

CR3 #89: In the Night Room by Peter Straub

Up until now, I've mostly enjoyed Peter Straub's books. I found the plots interesting and the characters compelling. I also enjoyed the way they were all slightly related to one another, by either plot or character. However, this book seems to be where he went down the rabbit hole.

In the Night Room features Tim Underhill, who has previously appeared in Koko and The Throat. Underhill is living in NYC, working on his latest novel, when he begins to have a problem. The ghost of his nine-year-old sister April (whose murder was unraveled in The Throat) has started appearing to him, trying to communicate a very important message he can't quite figure out. He's also started receiving emails from dead people, which is disconcerting, to say the least. He's not sure what's going on, and when his "guide" turns up, he's not nearly as helpful as one would hope. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, a woman named Willy Bryce Patrick has been losing chunks of time, she suspects her fiance might not be what he seems, and she hears the calls of her dead daughter from the inside of a produce warehouse. Soon, these two characters are drawn together by fate...or are they?

I think frankly this book got a little too "meta" with the "author-writing-a-book-within-a-book-about-himself" thing. Although I like Tim, I suspect it has more to do with liking him a lot in the two previous books, rather than anything that was added to his character here. And while Willy was pretty cool, she didn't really get enough time to actually do anything. The side characters were okay, but nothing to write home about. The plot barely made sense to me, so I can't really say I liked that too much. I get the sense that perhaps there was another book that belonged between The Throat and In the Night Room, and maybe if I'd read that, it would make more sense? I just don't know.

This book is okay, but I'd only recommend it for the hard-core Straub enthusiast. Perhaps if I ever find the book that belongs in the middle of the series I'll be able to appreciate In the Night Room more effectively.

CR3 #88: Dead Famous by Carol O'Connell

(I received this book for free from the publisher through a Goodreads.com give-away. Don't worry, I'll still be honest.)

Dead Famous is apparently the seventh in Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory series. I haven't read any of the others, so I can't comment on how this fits in to the series. However, I will say that I did enjoy the book quite a bit.

At the heart of the story is a serial murderer--he's been hunting down and murdering the members of a jury who let a killer go free. The tale is told mostly from the perspective of Riker, a former-cop who has turned to crime-scene cleaning work. There's also the view of his employee Johanna, a hunch-backed but beautiful mystery. In addition, there's Mallory, who is a brilliant and devoted--if slightly sociopathic--police detective. She is trying to get Riker to return to the police department, but he's got other plans. She hopes perhaps this new murderer will help convince him. Complicating matters is a shock-jock, who has been using his program to provide information to the killer about the locations of the remaining jurors.

The plot was twisty enough to keep me interested, and I was mildly surprised at the identity of the killer. I was also a little shocked at the way things turned out at the end. The characters were interesting, particularly Riker and Johanna. Mallory was not at all likable in this story, but I can see how she might be, in story told from mostly her point of view. I think this would probably be a good book for those who enjoy the Rizzoli & Isles mysteries. It's not spectacular, but it was good enough that I'm considering getting the earlier books to see how they might change my view.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

CR3 #87: The Intern Blues by Dr. Robert Marion

As many of you may know (or have guessed by now), I work in the hospital system. I'm not a medical professional by any stretch of the imagination--I am strictly administrative--but I work with physicians, and occasionally I wonder how some of them managed to get through medical school. After reading The Intern Blues I am still wondering how they managed to get through, but this time it's because I'm not sure how ANYONE could make it through that insanity.

Dr. Robert Marion worked with a group of interns (first year of medical residency out of medical school) who were going to spend a year rotating through two pediatric hospitals in the Bronx. The year was 1985, and on top of all the normal childhood ailments, AIDS infections, crack-addicted babies, and domestic violence were on the rise. Dr. Marion asked three of his interns to record their experiences over the course of the year, which--along with his own observations--are what he used to put together this book. The interns begin completely overwhelmed by how much they don't know, and also by how often they are put in positions where they have to make decisions they don't feel at all qualified to make. They work endless shifts, sometimes thirty-six hours on at a time, and are pushed to the brink by exhaustion and stress. However, they also start to develop confidence in their abilities as well as an affinity for the work they're doing. By the end of the year, they all look back at their experiences and try to decide what they want to specialize in.

The book is extremely well-organized. For each rotation (usually about a month long) there is a chapter from each intern and an explanatory chapter from Dr. Marion. All the medical terms (as well as intern slang) are defined within the text, so reading the book isn't a struggle form someone not familiar with pediatric terminology. Since each of the interns' sections are transcribed from tapes they made, they come across as very personal. Another interesting thing is that since all three rotated through the same areas of the hospitals, you can often get three different perspectives on the same environment, sometimes even on the same patients.

Two of the interns, Mark and Andy, were great to read. Although both succumbed to the stress at various points, they both managed to maintain a sense of humor. They were likable and fun to read. Mark specifically has a biting, sarcastic, cynical sense of humor that I really enjoyed. His battles with sickly preemie called Hansen are the highlight of his sections. The third intern, Amy, was...not likable. She had just had a baby two months before starting the internship, and spends most of her time whining about no one understands how HAAARRRD it is to be away from her BAAAAAAAABY! And why don't they all let her leave early without complaining? After all, SHE HAS A BAAAAAAABY! Why do the people who have to cover for her complain when she wants to take off on a night when she's on call (even if means that someone else will have to work an extra all-night shift on top of their usual three per week?) Don't they understand that her BAAAAAAAABY is sick? Or when she wants to call out on another day she is supposed to be on-call to sit with her father after he's had minor surgery? She spends nearly half of her chapters whining about everyone else and how no one is nice to her and no one makes allowances for her and how everyone is OUT TO GET her for NO REASON AT ALL. Then when she turns up pregnant again toward the end of the year, she is SHOCKED that everyone is more concerned about who will be responsible for coverage during her six weeks of leave the next year rather than showing unfettered joy for her MIRACULOUS FUTURE BAAAAAAAAABY! Oh God, how I hated her. I certainly understood why no one liked her, and why they seemed  put out at her insistence that having a baby should result in some kind of special treatment. All of them were working 100+ hour weeks, and if anyone slacks off, that work has to be made up by someone else somewhere along the line. Having a BAAAAAAAAAAAAABY doesn't make you special. It makes you a mammal. Women like Amy give other women who want to have both careers and families a bad name. There are plenty of women who can balance both without behaving as though they deserve some kind of special treatment.

Hmm. I hadn't really realized how strongly I felt about that until I got all CAPS-lock ragey back there.

Anyway, the edition I read had a new forward and epilogue. It turns out that not too long after the events in the book took place, regulations were enacted that limited the amount of time interns could spend working. It prevented the long, sleepless weeks and endless shifts that had pushed these interns nearly to the breaking point. Dr. Marion discusses how this happened and the effect it had on medical training. He also looks up the three interns that participated in the book to see where they are, more than a decade after they had done their internships.

On the whole, I think this is a great read for anyone who works in or is interested by the medical profession. It definitely gave me a lot more respect for the physicians I see on a daily basis (most of whom probably did their internships back when this was the way things were).

CR3 #86: Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross

It's a real shame that Kate Ross passed away after writing only four Julian Kestrel mysteries. Her hero is an 1820s-era English dandy, possessed of a keen fashion sense and an even keener set of wits. He's a fascinating and well-drawn character, and I could probably read about fifty more books about him quite happily. Unfortunately, it looks like I'll have to settle for four.

In this novel Kestrel finds himself at a country home inhabited by the Fontclairs, a high-class and very proud family. Having provided a much-needed service to young Hugh Fontclair, Julian is invited to be a groomsman in Hugh's wedding. It turns out that things are murkier than expected--the wedding is based on secrets and blackmail, the families are at each others' throats, and then a beautiful dead woman turns up in Kestrel's bed. His valet Dipper (a former pickpocket) is suspected, and this (aside from the fact that the girl was apparently murdered in his bedroom) drives him to involve himself in solving the mystery.

The plot is quite twisty, and this is helped by the book's shifting perspectives. Although the main POV is Julian's, nearly everyone else in the story gets a chance to express his or her own opinions and thoughts, from Sir Robert Fontclair, the head of the family, down to the housemaids and Hugh's eleven-year-old sister Phillipa. I am pleased to say that I didn't figure out "who done it" until the very end, but when the solution was presented, it fit neatly with all the evidence previously shown. The story was intriguing, and the characters were all interesting. Julian especially was likable and entertaining without being too good to be true. His personality was quite charming, which makes it easy to see why he is so popular with all the other characters.

I really enjoyed this book, and as I said I can't wait to get the rest of the series. Great for anyone who enjoys smart period mysteries.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CR3 #85: Swan Song by Robert McCammon

My favorite books and some of my favorite movies involve groups of very different people who are thrown together by circumstance and must work together to accomplish a goal (IT, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Westing Game). It's particularly effective in post-apocalyptic scenarios, since it's up to the survivors to try and recreate society.

Swan Song has drawn many comparisons to The Stand, and it's easy to see why. Due to a world-wide catastrophe (nuclear holocaust, basically) society has collapsed. The climate has changed and nearly all the plants are dead. Those who survive are left wounded and sickened, some with hideous, tumorous growths. People will do anything to survive, including form large armies that travel across the country, pillaging and stealing anything they can. In this mess we find our main characters, which include Sister Creep, a homeless woman from New York city, Roland, a boy whose survivalist parents perish early in the process, Colonel Macklin, a Vietnam vet who finds himself in a hard spot again, "Black Frankenstein," a travelling semi-pro wrestler, and Swan, a young girl with magical abilities. All of them are criss-crossing the country until the time comes for them to meet up. Following them is "The Man With Many Face" who has nothing but trouble on his mind.

The characters in this book are great--even the secondary characters are vivid and memorable. The plot marches along at a good pace (though there were a few spots I found it a little draggy) and the descriptions are good. Although I didn't find the language as intriguing as King's The Stand (and the book therefore not as viscerally effecting), the ending was a hell of a lot better. It was a great book for those who a enjoy a good post-apocalypse fiction.

Friday, November 11, 2011

CR3 #84: The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin

I think I've mentioned here before that I draw a very fine line between "quirky and whimsical" and "desperate and over-the-top." Sometimes that line is tough to define, and many people disagree with me--Sacred Cow and I have very different feelings about Terry Pratchett. Many of my friends love Christopher Moore and I am not a fan. Robert Rankin's The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse falls just to the side of the line where I like to place Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman.

Toy City used to be a sweet place, but it's really gone down hill. Mother Goose is now Madame Goose, and she's running a brothel. Georgie Porgie is a child molester and Little Miss Muffett has a talk show. All the old fairy tales have been corrupted, and the toys of the city are getting very jaded. Into this rotten mess arrives Jack, a not-especially-bright farm boy, come to seek his fortune. At the same time, someone begins inflicting painful (and somewhat apt) deaths on the nursery rhyme stars. Jack joins up with detective Eddie Bear--a stuffed bear with all the chutzpah of Humphrey Bogart--to try and solve the mystery.

The descriptions, dialogue, and general tone were all hilarious to me. For example: 
Yet another theory is that there was more than one Humpty Dumpty, but no wall involved: one Humpty fell from the side of a grassy knoll and another from the window of a book depository. This is known as 'The Particularly Stupid Theory'.
 It's sort of a very twisted children's book. All the childhood cliches are there, but turned on their heads (much like Eddie Bear when he's drinking).  The characters were not exactly deep, but I did enjoy the developing friendship between Jack and Eddie. I also enjoyed the idea of Toy City--reminded me a lot of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The idea that a city full of these characters exists along-side the "real" world is interesting to think about.

On the whole, I found this book to be a lot of fun and an engrossing read.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

CR3 #83: Castaways by Brian Keene

I know, I know, it's been ages since I've popped by to babble incoherently about what I've been reading. My only excuse is that work has been madness. (Speaking of work -- word of advice to you gentlemen in the audience: If you are age 50 or above, be sure to talk to your doctor about starting to screen for prostate cancer every year. It's a simple blood test, and the earlier prostate cancer is detected, the more easily and successfully it can be treated. For you gentlemen between 17 and 50: Feel your balls. You are in the prime age group for testicular cancer, another disease that can be treated fairly simply and successfully if detected early. *Shooting star graphic* The More You Know!) Since I need to get 22 reviews in before the end of the year in order to make my Double Cannonball, I guess I'd better get cracking. I can't promise genius literary criticism, but I'll do the best I can.

Castaways by Brian Keene is the story of a group of people left on an island for a Survivor-type show. Unfortunately, as it turns out, they aren't as alone as they'd originally thought. There are natives on the island, and they are very unfriendly.  The main characters, Jerry and Becka, are about as bland and All-American as you would imagine, and the rest of the show's participants all fit into their own stereotypes...not unusual, because it's explained that they were actively cast that way. The plot isn't anything special--there's some creepy things in the jungle, they're mean, furry, and hungry. A big storm is coming. The castaways have to try and survive both those external threats as well as the threats that they pose to each other. It's a little more gory and a lot more rape-y than I prefer my horror fiction.

It's interesting to compare this to Andrew Foster Altschul's Deus Ex Machina. Although both books have the same very basic plot--reality television run amok--Altschul has more of an introspective perspective. His work spends more time analyzing the effects of reality TV on the participants and the audience, wondering how each reflects on and changes the other. This book, on the other hand, was just a horror story. There was no real thought about reality television, no statement to be made. The reality show was just a plot set-up designed to get a bunch of attractive, treacherous young people alone on a deserted island to have sex, be terrified, and be sliced to bloody ribbons. While I don't always look for (or even want) a deeper meaning to my fiction, I feel like an opportunity was missed here. The thing is, I wouldn't have noticed the missed opportunity if the writing had been better--I don't always need a "message" but I do always want a good, solid, entertaining, engrossing story.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

CR3 #82: Houses Without Doors by Peter Straub

Houses Without Doors is a collection of short stories by Peter Straub. Some of them are tied to his Blue Rose trilogy, but most are unrelated. I was not a fan of this book--it was simply too dark for me, and not in a fun way. The stories were technically quite good, but I just found them unpleasant. Topics include fraternal abuse, molestation, infantilization, murder...It's all too much, even for a morbid person like me. The characters were all right, but the short story format doesn't necessarily allow the amount of depth a novel does. Besides, some of the characters (the main character from "The Buffalo Hunter" for example) were people I wanted to get to know anyway. I thought some of the short vignettes between longer stories were interesting and thoughtful, but the full-length stories really put me off.

For those who like short stories, I'd say skip this collection and read Stephen King's short stories instead. He manages to make them both well-written AND fascinating.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

CR3 #81: Moonlight Mile (Kenzie & Gennaro #6) by Dennis Lehane

Twelve years ago, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro got involved in tracking down Amanda McCready, a missing child from the tough Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. The case was a moral quandary, and nearly destroyed their relationship. Both of them still have doubts about how the girl's problems were solved, and whether returning her to her substance addled mother was the right decision. Now, time has passed, Patrick and Angie are married with a daughter of their own, they've both grown dissatisfied with the private eye business, and Amanda is missing again. Patrick sets out to find her, perhaps to quiet his long restless conscience.

The plot on this is good and interesting, though rather far-fetched. My problems had more to do with the characters. Although the characters of Patrick and Angie were more or less believable, everyone else was a cartoon. Amanda was too smart, the adults around her too stupid. The eastern European gangsters were stereotypes. It's almost as if Lehane were revisiting his old characters not because he wanted to or felt particularly inspired, but because he thought that's what his fans want--a book to tie up the series and leave Patrick and Angie to live happily ever after. The writing was funny and clever, and for the most part I enjoyed it. However, it felt like there was no soul there--the previous books are so firmly set in time and place, full of the little details that evoke those special parts of Boston, and this one was adrift. It could have taken place anywhere.

On the whole, not a bad book, and one to check out for those who have followed the series. However, there's no point in reading it unless you have at least read Gone, Baby, Gone.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

CR3 #80: Floating Dragon by Peter Straub

Floating Dragon is the story of a town that isn't quite right, and has never BEEN quite right. From its earliest beginnings, the town has been off-kilter, and every thirty years or so, really bad things seem to happen. Unfortunately, this time not only is the evil back, but it has help from a man-made toxic agent. The people in the small town are going mad, there's a serial killer on the loose, and the only people who can stop it are a former child star, an old man, a teenager, and a battered wife.

This story has a lot in common with the work of Stephen King, which is probably part of the reason I like it so much. In some ways, it's a lot like IT, and also shares some traits with the TV show Haven*, in that evil has come to rest in a small town and has been devouring the people who live there for centuries. I will say that Straub moves his plot along better than King usually does, and he also manages to put together an ending that doesn't make me want to kick the wall out of sheer frustration with the nonsense. However, although his characters were detailed and distinct, I didn't necessarily feel them very clearly. For example, although Richard Albee was one of the main characters of the story--of the four of them, he was focused on the most--I still only have a vague impression of him. To compare, in The Stand, there are probably at least twenty featured players, but I can see each and every one quite clearly in my head, and I understand their motivations. Straub often explains a character's motivations to the reader, but doesn't do a good enough job showing the character's motives in motion. I guess that's why the two authors did such good work together--they're both very talented, and their strengths and weaknesses complement each other perfectly.

I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone who's a fan of the genre. It's well-written and fairly exciting. I've seen that some reviewers found it too long, but I think it actually suffered from being a little too short. I really liked finding out the history of the town, and would have loved to see even more of that.

*Did anyone else watch Haven this summer? What a great show! Aside from my obvious pleasure in the multitude of Stephen King references, the actors are doing a fantastic job with their characters, and the over-arching mystery is taking shape without completely swamping the show. I'm really excited to see where they're going to with the "Troubled" vs. "Normal" showdown in Haven, and which sides the main characters will fall toward. Plus, the love triangle between Audrey, Nathan, and Duke is enticing. They've used guest stars judiciously--brought them in for actual arcs, rather than stunt casting (I was pleasantly surprised by how WWE's Edge was used, and also by his not-at-all-terrible acting)--and have also slowly worked in some other town regulars. It's so disappointing that I have to wait almost an entire year to find out the next chapter in the story! On the whole, I think that SyFy has done some great things with their original programming (Warehouse 13 is also a lot of fun), though I refuse to stop pointing out how stupid the whole "SyFy" branding is.

CR3 #79: Gone South by Robert McCammon

Dan Lambert is a Vietnam vet whose whole life is falling apart around him. He's broke, unemployed, and dying slowly from a combat-related disease. Just when he thinks that things can't possibly get any worse, they do. In a moment of rage and panic, he accidentally kills a man. Alone and on the run, he isn't sure what to do. Along the way, he meets up with a disfigured young girl who is searching for a mythical healer. Dan finds himself unwillingly helping her in her quest, all while trying to figure out what his next step should be. The situation is further confused by the advent of two very, very unusual bounty hunters.

This was a really great read. The main characters are all quirky and interesting without being over the top. Even bounty-hunters Flint and Pelvis--who could definitely come off as cartoonish--are drawn in such a way that they are totally believable. I was deeply interested in the characters and rooting for all of them. The plot moved along quickly, and I never found myself bored or skipping ahead. McCammon's writing style is engaging and he moves between pathos and humor with equal skill. The scenes at the beginning with Dan explaining his situation are gut-wrenching, and some of the scenes between Flint and Pelvis had me giggling aloud.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys an odd caper now and then.

Friday, September 30, 2011

CR3 #78: Treachery at Sharpnose Point by Jeremy Seal

The full title of this book is Treachery at Sharpnose Point: Unraveling the Mystery of the Caldonia's Final Voyage. And that is a fairly accurate description of what this book is about.

The author, Jeremy Seal, begins by discovering an antique masthead planted in the ground at a quaint Cornish cemetery. He finds that it's a memorial to several sailors who died during a shipwreck in 1842. Seal is intrigued with the possible story behind this monument, and decided to do some research to find out who these men were, what might have happened to them, and how they came to be buried in this particular graveyard. In his research he uncovers the history of shipwrecks along the coasts of Cornwall, and the effect these wrecks had on the locals--plundering the battered wrecks of ships was a village effort, especially due to food shortages and high taxes. Seal starts to suspect that perhaps the people of Morwenstow had more to do with the wreck of the Caledonia than noted in the historical record. After all, rumors persisted for decades that some of the people along the country's coasts were less helpful (to the point of blatantly destructive) to ships that found themselves in trouble. The author tracks both the men on the ship and some of the villagers--their larger-than-life vicar, for example--to try and understand what happened.

Unfortunately, this book isn't quite sure what it wants to be. In some ways it is pure non-fiction. The author not only writes about the researched facts of the case, he also details his pursuit of them, and his feelings about what he finds. It's straddling the line between scholarly non-fiction and memoir in a strange but not unworkable way. However, on the other hand there are fiction chapters interwoven in with the factual chapters. In these sections, Seal writes a tale about the men who sailed on the Caledonia's final voyage, and tries to imagine what brought them to their doom. It's a weird combination of fact and complete fiction, and I think some might find it rather confusing. I wish the author had chosen either fact or historical fiction and then stuck to his plan.

On the whole, not a bad book but not one of the better ones in its genre.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

CR3 #77: 48 by James Herbert

James Herbert's 48 begins three years after the end of World War II. In this world, Hitler's final act before committing suicide was to release the Nazis' top secret bio-weapon over London. The weapon is a blood disease that causes most people to drop dead wherever they may be. Some take slightly longer to die, some linger for years as their blood slowly turns black and congeals in their veins. Some, it turns out, are totally immune due to a sheer fluke of genetics. One such person is an American pilot named Hoke. He's spent the past three years surviving alone in London, accompanied by a stray dog. As the book begins, he's on the run from a group of "blackshirts," a group of "slow-death" suffers lead by a mad nobleman. Hoke runs across a small band of fellow survivors, and soon all of them are fighting for their lives in a post-apocalyptic world.

This was not a bad read. The characters are a tiny bit cliched, but it is after all not a character study but a thrilling empty-world adventure book. For the most part, the main character is a typical action hero, full of cutting one-liners, bravado, and a slightly tragic back story. The other characters are distinct, but not particularly engaging. The story is frankly too short to get attached to any of the secondary characters. There are some really great chase scenes, and one through the London tube system is dark, creepy, and a little bit scary. On the whole, this is not a bad action book, but there's not much more to it than that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

CR3 #76: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night is technically part of Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey series, but it isn't narrated by Wimsey. Instead, he is a secondary character, and the narrator is author Harriet Vane. Harriet has returned to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College at Oxford, for her "gaudy" (reunion). She finds while she is there that there is a malicious poison-pen writer stalking the current students and faculty, and what begins with childish pranks soon becomes more and more terrifying. Harriet, as a mystery novelist, is called upon by the dean to try and investigate the situation while ostensibly staying at the college to work on some academic writing. Eventually, she finds herself beyond her depth and calls upon Lord Peter Wimsey--who managed to save her from hanging a few years previous when she was accused of murder--to assist her. He brings with him his own set of difficulties, as their relationship isn't really what either of them wants. They have to work together to both find the suspect and figure out what they mean to one another.

The book is set in the early 1930s, and women who pursued higher education were looked on very differently than they are now. Woven in with the mystery is the debate over what a woman's role in society should be. Should all women be in the home? Should they all be attending college? Is one group superior to the other? Harriet has to navigate through a variety of viewpoints, and also decide what her opinion is, and that adds another dimension to the book, elevating it above a simple mystery tale.

Sayers has people this story with many different and interesting characters. The professors at the college, as well as the domestic staff, the students, and the male students at the institution of learning next door are all detailed and entertaining. The plot is interesting, and made sense logically. There were some points where things dragged a little bit--some of the philosophical debates ran a bit long for my taste--but the pace would always pick up again. Also, the interactions between Harriet and Lord Peter are adorable.

I highly recommend this book to fans of old-fashioned mystery stories, and I intend to pick up more of Sayers's work in the future.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

CR3 #75: Deus Ex Machina by Andrew Foster Altschul

I know that reality television is destroying our brains. I know that it's irreparably damaged the scripted television industry. I know that it is a worthless waste of time. And yet...I still love some of it.

I'm picky about the reality I watch. I don't like anything medical-related. Both Hoarders and Intervention are deeply psychologically upsetting to me. I generally avoid dating shows (with the notable exception of Rock of Love--that was trashy in ways I had previously never imagined). I feel particularly strongly about not watching reality shows featuring children (they are at the mercy of their attention-whoring parents, and thus unable to avoid the damage that comes from being exposed to the world). I try to be ethical about my reality show choices. I don't want to give my support in any way to shows that include the word "wives" in the title, nor do I want to support shows that reward people for popping out an unreasonable number of children (both that show about those people with 19 kids and Teen Mom would fit into this category).

As for things I like: I will watch anything with a drag queen on it. I love to watch pretty girls cry on America's Next Top Model. I like shows like Project Runway or America's Best Dance Crew where talented people have to overcome challenges to try and create something. Watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition makes me feel good about myself because they are actually helping people. But the gateway drug is definitely Survivor.  Take a group of people, drop them in some out of the way spot, force them to participate in challenges, and make them vote EACH OTHER off the island until only one is left. The show has the potential to be tremendous--in past seasons, there have been moments of wild humor, pathos, and extreme drama. All of the players attempt via different strategies to be the last one standing. There have been years when the least likely players have managed somehow to make it to the end. And of course there is the joy in watching the heat, hunger, lack of sleep, constant stress, and sheer inability to have a moment of privacy get to these people. Some of them just lose their minds, and then they become REALLY interesting. Obviously, the show has changed a lot over the years. Now there is more product placement ("And now we are heading to our Charmin Toilet Paper toilet hut!"), more manipulation of the game itself (dividing tribes by age or race, immunity idols, making sure the women are all stranded in totally inappropriate clothing), and worst, the players now understand being on TV. They plan to play a character, instead of allowing their genuine personalities to emerge. They know they can turn three weeks of Survivor into a career of club appearances, TV guide channel shows, and other reality television. It's changed the way they approach the game, which has in turn changed the game.

Deus Ex Machina is the story of "the producer." He created a show called "The Deserted," which seems to be a Survivor clone. The original concept was to drop ten people off and just watch them exist.  However, by the time the book begins, The Deserted has mutated into something unbearable. It's all product placement, network meddling, and online polls. The producer doesn't know what's happening, but he knows that it's not what he originally wanted. Meanwhile, this season's Deserted stumble around the island, playing for all they're worth. The production crew follow, documenting everything that happens, and trying to figure out where the line is between improving and intervening. After a while, the whole mess begins to go mad, and the producer starts to lose his grip.

The story feels very similar to a Chuck Palahniuk novel, in that it starts out sort of reasonable, then starts to spiral out into more and more insanity. The language is fairly stark, and in some places the plot can be a bit difficult to follow, since the producer is both experiencing what's happening now and flashing back to things that happened in the past. It's tough to say whether the characterization is good or not, because most of the characters are meant to be caricatures, especially the Deserted players. For anyone who has watched at least a season of Survivor, this book feels familiar, but also slightly disturbing. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys reality TV or at least discussing the ethics of it.

CR3 #74: Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign by Thomas Desjardin

One of my peculiar enthusiasms is the Battle of Gettysburg. It's probably in the "Top Five Subjects I Know a Lot About" along with the Titanic, the Lincoln assassination, the Holocaust, and the American campaign in Europe in WWII. I've always been particularly fond of Colonel Joshua Laurence Chamberlain and the exploits of the 20th Maine regiment during the second day's battle at Little Round Top. This book details how that particular regiment arrived at that point in history, who their opposition were, why the battle turned out the way it did, and what happened to the group after that notable day.

Unfortunately, Hollywood has apparently over-dramatized slightly the impressive feat that was accomplished on July 2, 1863. Apparently the brave bayonet charge that swept the 15th Alabama down off the hill was less a brilliant strategy from Chamberlain and more something that occurred almost organically. And it might not have even worked had the Alabamians not been split off from many of their fellow troops...and also without any water. Chamberlain actually spent the rest of his life trying to correct some of the misconceptions about his deeds, and many of the men became estranged due to their varied ideas of exactly what happened that day.

It's kind of a sad story, really. When portrayed in the movie Gettysburg (an AMAZING film that I highly recommend), the bravery of the charge and the glory of the moment are breathtaking. It's too bad that some (if not most) of that tale is untrue, or at the very least highly exaggerated. However, it's important to keep in mind that while the story may be hyperbolic, it's still a fairly impressive moment. Regardless the reasons for the charge or the way it began, a group of battered, exhausted men who were under attack by a determined enemy and had little to no ammunition left did charge down a hill and drive off the enemy, protecting the extreme left flank of the union army from being collapsed. Had that short battle--it's estimated to have been just over ninety minutes of fighting--turned out differently, the battle of Gettysburg might have turned out very differently.

The book itself is rather dry--it's clearly written to be a scholarly text rather than a pleasure read. It's extensively footnoted, and it's clear that the author was very careful in his research. He does his best to support his every argument with documented evidence, which is reassuring. He also includes several lists at the back of the book with information about the individual men who fought in the battle.

I've visited the 20th Maine memorial at Gettysburg, and it's fairly impressive. Although there's a neat path there now, it's still a surprisingly steep hill, and hard to imagine anyone trying to charge either up or down it without serious injury (let alone dressed in layers of wool on a July day in Pennsylvania). While the book does ruin some of the romantic notions about what these men did, it's still a great reminder of the things they accomplished and I'd recommend it to any Civil War enthusiast.

(I took this photo off the top of the Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg. It overlooks the memorials to the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 4th New York Cavalry, and the 2nd New York Cavalry, as well as the 8th Pennsylvania infantry and an information plaque about the Cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

CR3 #73: The Crossing by Serita Ann Jakes

(I received this book from WaterBrook Press free through Goodreads.com. I appreciate their generosity, but my opinions cannot be swayed.)

When first reading the description of The Crossing, it sounded intriguing. Years ago, at a railroad crossing, a gun-wielding man got on a bus coming back from a high school football game. He shot one of the players in the arm and killed the young cheerleading coach. Many years later, the assistant DA husband of one of the girls who was on the bus, along with the football player--who has now become a police officer--reopen the case to try to get to the bottom of things. The premise sounded good...what I didn't notice was the last bit of the description: "As the Campbells and Casio teeter on the bring of losing everything, will they be able to discover that what begins at the crossing ends at the cross?"

Yes, I had somehow gotten myself involved with contemporary Christian literature by mistake. "Well," I figured, "too late to do anything about this now. Might as well read the book. The premise is still fairly interesting." As it turns out, this was not a bad book at all. It was just not a good book for me.

The characters are all right, though it's a little tough when the introduction to one of the protagonists (Casio, the former-football-player-turned-cop) begins with him raping and beating the crap out of his girlfriend. Apparently, his experiences back on the bus have led to a life of untamed rage (though I found myself wondering if perhaps some of his rage was due to having been named after a cheap brand of plastic keyboard). Claudia, the other main character, is also a wreck--the teacher killed had been her best friend, and she knows some secrets about the possible motive. Her husband Vic, the assistant DA, opens the case to try and bring Claudia peace, but finds that his help is just making everything worse. Luckily, he is understanding of her issues, because he is almost too perfect to be true. Narration is also provided by BJ, the teacher who died. The shifting perspectives actually work pretty well, and provide a variety of ways to look at the story.

The story itself is all right, though there are many diversions from the heart of the mystery, instead focusing on Claudia's relationships with Vic and God, and also on Casio's relationship with his girlfriend Hannah. I often found myself bored with Claudia and her philosophical and theological tangents. The author tried to bring in some other issues, including her relationship with her pastor father and critical mother, but I found those mostly distracting. Another problem was that the stakes for the characters never got very high. The plot plodded along as Vic and Casio investigate the old case, but really no one is ever in danger, and aside from possible closure, there is no real drive to solve this murder. The only real shock in the whole novel doesn't even have anything to do with the murder. Personally, I didn't find "Will Claudia be able to reconnect with her husband AND God?" to be a particularly pressing motivation to keep reading.

As I said, I am sure there are people who would enjoy this book. It is well-written, and the characters were for the most part reasonably realistic and interesting. However, my lack of interest in the Christian aspect of the story served as a major turn off for me.

Friday, September 2, 2011

CR3 #72: Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre

(This book was graciously sent to me for free by W.W. Norton & Co. via Goodreads.com. I think they're going to wish they'd sent it to someone else.)

I hated Catcher in the Rye. I know it's supposed to be some kind of iconic book about about teenage angst or something, but to me Holden Caulfield was just sort of a whiny twit who created most of his problems himself. Boohooo! My parents don't understand me and my lack of effort is resulting in poor school performance and OMG SOMETIMES ADULTS LIE ABOUT THINGS! I tell you this because Lights Out in Wonderland is like all the worst things about Catcher in the Rye combined with a book Chuck Palahniuk might write after a serious head injury.

Gabriel Brockwell is twenty-five. He comes from an upper-class British family, and at the beginning of the book, finds himself in rehab. Deeply unsatisfied with his life, he decides that the best solution is to kill himself. However, before he does that, he feels that he should have at least one brilliant party first. From there, he travels around the globe, inadvertently fucking things up for almost everyone he meets. In between, he whines about how his daddy wasn't nice to him and his job was unfulfilling, and how people liked his friends more than they like him (unsurprising, really.) He has no direction in life! Things have not turned out the way he hoped/expected! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

The writing was not terrible -- there were some interesting descriptions along the way. However, it was often repetitive, but not in an interesting, witty, Palahniuk-type way, but in a repetitive way. Not to mention the mind-numbing, self-indulgent, and wholly unnecessary footnotes. YOU ARE NOT DAVID FOSTER WALLACE.

I'm sure there are a lot of people who might enjoy this book. I am just not one of them.

CR3 #71: A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons

This book is the sequel to Simmons's Summer of Night. Dale Stewart--last seen as a terrified child in Summer of Night--has grown up. He was a literature professor and writer, but now his life has begun to fall apart. He left his wife for one of his grad students, only to be unceremoniously dumped. He's taken a sabbatical from teaching and was pushed to the brink of suicide. At the beginning of the book, he makes the decision to go spend some time in his old hometown. He rents the farmhouse where his (late) friend Duane grew up, determined to work on a novel about the summer of 1960. As it turns out, that summer isn't nearly as distant as Dale would like to think, and real life (represented by a pack of skinheads who dislike Dale's ideology) isn't exactly peachy, either.

This is a ghost story, similar perhaps to Stephen King's Bag of Bones or even The Dark Half. The past dredges itself up and begins to assert itself on the "real" world. Dale's struggle to understand what's real and what isn't drives him to the edge of sanity. The novel is mostly first-person, though some sections are narrated by Dale's friend Duane, who died at twelve during the events of the previous book. The Duane sections are a bit weird, since it's not clear if he's a real presence or something more similar to the narrator of The Lovely Bones, merely a partially-omniscient narrator. Although the previous book is suspiciously similar to King's work, this book--while in the same vein--is definitely more original. The character of Dale is a  consistent (though unreliable) narrator. There are also some interesting secondary characters, but for the most part this is totally Dale's story. There are some good action scenes that keep the story moving right along, too.

I made it through this book pretty quickly, and though I would not necessarily call it a "good" book, it was enjoyable enough to keep me interested. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Summer of Night (don't try to read it without reading that first--it won't make any sense.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

CR3 #70: The Burning by Jane Casey

(St. Martin's Minotaur press sent me this book for free through a Goodreads.com giveaway. Fear not, my opinions cannot be swayed by free books. Now, were they to send foodstuffs...)

Maeve Kerrigan is a detective in the London police department. She and the rest of her colleagues are on the hunt for a serial killer called "The Burning Man" who beats women to death and then sets them on fire in parks. The stress is building because there have been four deaths already and the murderer doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Then, late one night, another body turns up. Twenty-eight year old Rebecca Haworth is found and it looks like she's become the eighth victim. However, things don't add up for Maeve. Something about this is off, and she makes it her mission to figure out what's going on.

The story is told from both Maeve's perspective and that of Louise North, Rebecca's mousy best friend. Both women's stories entwine as they seek the truth about Rebecca's demise.

Maeve is a great character (though she can get a little whiny and defensive, being the only woman on her squad and constantly determined to prove herself to her superintendent) and I think a book series could easily be built around her. Although most of the story revolves around the murders, there is also a certain amount of personal issues going on for Maeve, and a minor romantic subplot. On the whole, I'd happily read another book about her. The other characters were also pretty distinct, particularly the people in Rebecca's life and those in the police department.The mystery was complicated, but I figured it out a ways before the end. However, I didn't mind because I was enjoying finding out what Maeve (and to some extent Louise) were going to do.

This book is nothing mind-blowing, but it was an enjoyable and well-written mystery. I hope Jane Casey will write more Maeve Kerrigan books, because I will read them.

Monday, August 29, 2011

CR3 #69: Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet

(St. Martin's Press was kind enough to send me an advance copy of this book via a giveaway at Goodreads.com. Fear not--my scathingly honest criticism cannot be swayed by free gifties.)

Wicked Autumn reminds me very strongly of an Agatha Christie mystery. It takes place in a small English village in the countryside, the protagonist is somewhat unlikely (a MI5 spy-turned-vicar), the murder victim is almost universally disliked, and there is no sex, no swearing, and nothing even the slightest bit provocative.

I don't mean to imply that the book was bad. On the contrary, it was a very serviceable mystery story. Max Tudor--former spy and now the vicar of Nether Monkslip--finds himself at the center of a mystery when the town's pushiest, most unpleasant society matron turns up murdered during the local harvest festival. There's no dearth of suspects, since Wanda Batton-Smythe had a wonderful way of making people hate her with very little effort. Although Max wants to stay out of the whole thing, his MI5 instincts can't help but draw him in.

The characters (aside from Max himself, who is the tiniest bit dull) are the kind of charming eccentrics that populate BBC sitcoms, and the plot proceeds along at a logical speed. The clues were available, but not obvious, and the solution to the mystery was not shocking or out of left field. I didn't figure it out until Max did, which is a win for any mystery story. I thought Max's back story should either have been more prominent or referred to less, since it didn't really add much to the narrative. I suppose since this is ostensibly the first in a series, it was intended to be some added exposition to develop the character. I felt that his past was a little misused--he was a charming, witty, and very sharp vicar, but for a former spy he seemed a bit dim.

As I said before, this is not a bad book at all. It is exactly the kind of book my grandmother loves, and it would absolutely be appropriate for slightly older children as well. However, I personally found it a bit tame for my taste.

CR3 #68: The Throat

The Throat is the third novel in Straub's "Blue Rose" trilogy, and I'm still not entirely sure how I felt about it.

First of all, unlike the other two books, The Throat is not a stand-alone work. Without having read both Koko and Mystery, you will be totally lost. The main character in The Throat is Tim Underhill, the free-spirited writer from Koko. He explains that the previous two books were works of fiction that he wrote based on true experiences. Therefore, you need to know the events related in the previous two novels, but they are now somewhat unreliable, since Underhill explains that he definitely changed some things. This work begins when Tim receives a call from a long-lost army buddy, whose wife has been attacked. John Ransom wants Tim to come back to their hometown of Millhaven to look into the case, since it appears to be connected with a series of murders from fifty years before. The Blue Rose murders (mentioned briefly in the other two books) are thought to be long solved, but now it seems that the killer has returned. Tim--with the help of eccentric genius Tom Pasmore (hero of Mystery)--has to delve through current events as well as those from the time of the original murders and from Ransom's service in Vietnam to figure out the truth.

This is a pretty good book, but I didn't feel quite as connected to it as I did to Koko. That one felt a little more visceral, and the variety of characters added a lot to the story. In this one, Underhill is mostly on his own, and while he is interesting, he could use a little help. Straub has once again done a good job with the secondary and peripheral characters--Ransom's semi-senile father-in-law, an elderly jazz musician, and a visiting nurse, for example--all of whom are interesting and vibrant. One of the only problems I had with The Throat is the same as the one I had with Koko--I figured out the twist far before the characters in the story did, and I found it frustrating. I couldn't figure out why they were so unable to see what was obvious to me.

Aside from that one issue, this is a pretty good book, and I recommend the series to anyone who likes mysteries that are a little outside the norm.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

CR3 #67: Koko by Peter Straub

Koko is the first book in Peter Straub's "Blue Rose" trilogy, but it stands alone quite well.

Dr. Michael Poole and three of his friends--all former members of his unit in Vietnam--travel to Washington D.C. for the opening of the Vietnam War Memorial. While there, they discuss a spree of grisly murders in East Asian cities that are reminiscent of something they witnessed during the war. They suspect that the murderer is another former member of their unit, so they decide to travel overseas to hunt him down before it's too late. Unfortunately, for some of them it's already too late. Their collective past has come back to haunt them, and it becomes a race against time to save themselves.

This was a great book. Dr. Poole and the other main characters were very well-written, and I was definitely captivated by their hunt for the killer Koko. The secondary characters were also really great, including the mystical Maggie Lah and the psychotically arrogant Henry Beevers. All the characters were distinctive, and each brought his or her own special something to the story. Even the sections from Koko's perspective--though distorted--were interesting.

The plot of the novel was relatively good, following the men around both East Asia and New York City, dealing with both the trouble of the present and the ghosts of the past. However, I was a little frustrated because I figured out the twist quite a while before the main characters did, and it seemed quite obvious to me. However, the resolution of the book is satisfying, and it was a good, suspenseful read.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

CR3 #66: Flesh Eaters by Joe McKinney

I have read a surprisingly high number of zombie books for someone who had--up until relatively recently--a fairly strong phobia about zombies. There is something about them that just bothers me. Perhaps it's the mindlessness--unlike vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and other classic literary/movie monsters, the zombie has no motivation. It has no feeling except hunger, and it can't be reasoned with, cajoled, convinced, or threatened. There's no conscious thought, only a need to feed. A zombie is more closely related to an alligator than a human, but it's nearly unstoppable. An alligator can be trapped, injured, slowed down. A zombie is like an eating machine, except it looks like your family, friends, and neighbors. I'm not sure I can think of anything more horrifying.

Unfortunately for me, I've been rather badly spoiled as far as zombie books go. World War Z may be the definitive work on the subject, and all the others I've read since have paled in comparison. The sheer scope of WWZ makes it unlike any other book. However, there have been a few novels that have come close by having really great characters. In a book about zombies, your protagonists need to be very lively in order to compete. Otherwise they just blend in to one big ball of terrorized humanity.

Joe McKinney starts with an interesting premise in Flesh Eaters. He's set it in the city of Houston, just as a devastating hurricane is about to hit land. The main character is Eleanor Norton, a wife and mother who works in the local emergency preparedness department. After the storm hits, most of Houston is under water, and survivors are directed to a local college campus. The crowded conditions and the destruction of ANOTHER hurricane lead to squalor,  disease...and zombies.

Most of the story consists of Eleanor trying to get her family to safety and of her boss and his sons trying to pull off a heist. Although the original concept is good, and both Eleanor and her boss are decent characters, the secondary characters are fairly boring, and I felt like the tale rapidly lost steam after the initial panic. This is certainly not a BAD book, but it's also nothing special, and there are many much better zombie books out there.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

CR3 #65: Mystery by Peter Straub

This is the second book in Peter Straub's "Blue Rose"  trilogy, but I read it first and didn't find myself having any problems (the first book is Koko, which I am reading now).

Tom Pasmore is the only grandchild in one of the ruling families on a small Caribbean island. Unfortunately, that's not enough to protect him from suffering an accident that nearly kills him. He was an odd child to begin with, but his near-death experience changes him in ways he can't understand. Years later, when he's a teenager, he gets involved with a mysterious neighbor, who points him in the direction of crime-solving. Soon, Tom finds himself investigating a decades-old murder and trying to figure out how it connects to his family and to the richest family on the island, the Redwings. Tom's grandfather sends him to the family's summer compound in Wisconsin, and from there things just get more suspicious...and dangerous.

This was a long book, and it started off a bit slowly. I was about a hundred pages in before I really started to get pulled in. After that, though, I couldn't put it down. The character of Tom is very well-drawn, and the secondary characters are also very well-defined. The plot was twisty, and I didn't figure it all out too far before the conclusion, which is great. I first discovered Peter Straub because of his collaborations with Stephen King, and although they definitely have some similarities, Straub's work is both less supernaturally-based and also less tangential. This book is a straight-up mystery (hence the title) but still quite suspenseful.

On the whole I'd recommend it, but it does take some time to really get into.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

CR3 #64: Summer of Night by Dan Simmons

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons desperately wants to be IT by Stephen King. I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, but then again IT is probably one of my very favorite books of all time. However, the influence--to me--was extremely obvious, right down to some of the character descriptions, plot points, and peripheral events. I'm not saying the books are total duplicates--there aren't any clowns, thank goodness--but the similarities are enough that a Stephen King fan may find him or herself suffering a strange deja vu feeling while reading.

The plot consists of a group of boys between eight and thirteen (and later one girl), who notice that things in their small rural town aren't quite right. There are disappearances, some of the adults are acting very strange, and some of the places around town have become downright disturbing. Each boy starts to experience spooky events, and soon they realize they will need to band together to save themselves and their town from a recently awakened ancient evil.

See? Doesn't that plot sound kind of familiar? Not to mention the kid in the cast, the scary basement, a moment with a bloated, floating corpse, and I'm not saying there are creepy alien spider eggs, but...well, there are some similarities.

Please don't think I intend to steer you away from the book though. Despite (or perhaps because of) the close ties to Stephen King, this was a pretty good read. The characters were distinctive and interesting and the plot, while not the most original I've ever seen was still pretty good. On the whole, this was a fun summer read I'd recommend to people who enjoy this sort of book.

Monday, August 1, 2011

CR3 #63: Nightmare in Pink by John D. Macdonald

Nightmare in Pink is the sequel to Macdonald's first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Good-by. In this adventure, Trav finds himself doing a favor for an old friend's sister, investigating the circumstances of a suspicious death and accusations of embezzlement. Unfortunately for Trav, it turns out the situation is significantly more complex (and more dangerous) than he ever would have guessed. He gets himself wound up with some unsavory characters while investigating the circumstances of an eccentric New York businessman, as well as finding himself forming romantic entanglements with his client.

This book is a solid mystery story, but nothing especially exciting. The character of Trav is all right, but I think the series suffers from a lack of repeat secondary characters. Some of the best series are good specifically because of quirky, interesting sidekicks, villains, or peripheral characters. After all, what would Sherlock Holmes be without Watson, Moriarty, and Mrs. Hudson? Where would Nancy Drew be without Bess, George, and Ned? Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro novels wouldn't be nearly as interesting without their gun-wielding friend Bubba. Dr. Alex Delaware would be lonely without his friend Milo, the gay police detective. A mystery series needs to have more characters recur than just the lead. Particularly when the lead is somewhat cynical and not very exciting.

As I said, this was a perfectly serviceable novel, but nothing about the plot or about Travis McGee makes me the slightest bit anxious to get the next book in the series. It's a shame, since there are so many of them, but I think I'll go back to the Nero Wolfe mysteries instead.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CR3 #62: Kings of Colorado by David E. Hilton

(Disclaimer: I received this book free from Simon & Schuster in a giveaway through Goodreads.com. My opinions are my own.)

William Sheppard is a kid from mid-60s Chicago who--in a moment of desperation--stabs his abusive stepfather with a pen-knife. Although the man survives, Will is sent away for two years to Swope Ranch, a reformatory for boys in the Colorado mountains. He makes few friends (though the ones he finds are something special) and a few (brutal) enemies. He spends time learning how to break horses, how to survive in a completely hostile environment, and trying to figure out who he will become. The majority of the staff are at best uninterested and at worst actively dangerous. Soon, Will and his friends find themselves in a situation none of them could have imagined when they arrived.

Kings of Colorado reminded me a lot of Lorenzo Carcaterra's book Sleepers, in that both take place in a prison for boys, and the circumstances vary from grim to downright deadly. Sleepers begins with the main characters already being friends, while Kings of Colorado has the boys meeting once they reach the ranch. Also, in Sleepers the story spends almost as much time on the boys' adult lives (and their revenge on the reformatory) as it does on their youth, while Kings of Colorado is almost 90% about the time spent at the ranch. The characters are well-drawn, and the plot for the most part moves along. The descriptive passages are pretty enjoyable, and the author definitely has writing talent. My main complaint with this book is that it was almost relentlessly depressing. There were a few very brief occasions of happiness or humor, but for the most part the book consisted of terrible things happening to mostly nice people. Since I connected closely to the characters, it made it worse that nothing good ever happened to them. I did enjoy the way things ended--it tied the book together and gave the reader a (albeit very tidy) conclusion.

I'd recommend this because it's a pretty good coming-of-age story with some really great descriptions and characterizations. One thing to note, although this may look like a YA book, it would probably only be appropriate for older teenagers, since it is--as I mentioned--pretty dark. On the whole, a great debut effort from David Hilton. I look forward to seeing what he does with his next work!

CR3 #61: Carrie by Stephen King (King REreview #3)

(Sorry people -- I've been reading just as much lately, but work has been sort of horrifying, and when combined with this ridiculous heat wave, it doesn't do a whole lot for my motivation to accomplish...anything at all, really [well, except maybe eat popsicles and drink mojitos, but neither of those things exactly counts as productivity]. I have a couple reviews to write, but I'm hoping they'll get done in the next couple days.)

Carrie is the first Stephen King book I ever read. As I share a name with the protagonist, I figured I might as well read the damn thing so I would at least get the allusions people made to the novel. Therefore, at 13, I walked into the local library and hunted down the Stephen King section, which at the time was entirely made up of paper backs crammed into one tall rotating rack. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The story concerns Carrie White, a teenager living in Maine. She is neither attractive nor particularly bright, and due to her upbringing by a religious fanatic mother, her social skills are also nothing special. She has spent most of her life as the butt of every joke, tortured by her classmates and ignored by almost everyone else. The one thing Carrie has going for her--as she discovers one day during gym class--is a latent talent for telekinesis. Several stories--including that of Carrie, her classmate Sue, antagonist Chris, and the rest of the town--are entwined, coming together in a final explosive confrontation.

The story is probably familiar, as it's become a part of popular culture due to the film version with Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. However, the book is definitely worth reading. It's set up as an epistolary novel, combining news clippings, "witness testimony," and "scientific papers" as well as sections from the characters' points of view. In style, it has a lot in common with Dracula, which King has often mentioned as a strong influence on his writing. The characters are compelling, and you definitely find yourself sympathizing with Carrie, even if you do what is going to happen in the end.

I highly recommend this--it's a quick read, free from King's usual ramblings and tangents (which, though I do enjoy them, can lead to bloat in some of his works). It's a good introduction to his style without the thousand page commitment.

Friday, July 15, 2011

CR3 #60: Think of a Number by John Verdon

(Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Crown Publishing Group in a giveaway through Goodreads.com.)

Dave Gurney was a superstar detective in NYC homicide. He was well-known for his work putting dangerous serial killers away, but now he's retired and has moved to the countryside. He fills his time with his new hobby--despised by his wife, Madeleine--of doing digitally enhanced portraits of the serial killers he's put away. Life is going along quietly until one day he receives a call from a college friend he hasn't spoken to in 25 years. The friend has been receiving some strange, threatening notes in the mail, and is more than a little worried about his own safety. As it turns out, he's right to be.

Eventually, Dave finds himself getting more and more involved in the case, both due to concern for his friend and because he misses the joy of detection. The criminal is the smartest Gurney has ever encountered, and catching him is going to take every ounce of intelligence and experience Dave possesses.

The plot of this book was great and moved along quickly. The case was interesting, and the clues were intriguing. I really enjoyed the character of Dave, particularly watching the way his mind was organizing and analysing things. There were also some good side characters, like Detective Hardwick, a foul-mouthed veteran of the local homicide department, and Mr. Spline, the local DA with political aspirations. They were all well drawn (if occasionally a little two-dimensional) and I liked them. The only character I absolutely couldn't stand was Gurney's wife, Madeleine. She spends 99% of the book as a relentless, passive-aggressive harpy, and I was hoping she'd end up murdered so I wouldn't have to listen to her obnoxious and ceaseless sighing. Utterly horrible. Without her, I think the book would have been even better than it was.

On the whole, this is a great, quick-moving mystery novel with good characters and an exciting plot. I'd definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

CR3 #59: The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair is another well-written, classic mystery by author Josephine Tey.

The book takes place in a small British village called Milford. Robert Blair is a lawyer there, as has a member of his family for more than 150 years. He's a stodgy, forty-something who lives with a doting aunt and has his routines down so pat that he knows exactly what kind of cookies his secretary will be bringing him at tea time every day. Then, one afternoon as he's preparing to leave for the day, he receives a phone call. Two women who live on the outskirts of town need assistance--they've been accused of kidnapping a teenage girl, holding her hostage in their attic, and beating her unmercifully until she was able to escape. Robert would prefer to give the case to someone (anyone) else, since he is much more familiar with cases of probate issues and civil matters. However, the ladies will accept no one else, and he soon finds himself headed out to The Franchise--the dilapidated house where mother/daughter pair live--to see what can be done. Before he knows it, Robert is wrapped up in a game of intrigue, drawn further into the lives of Marian Sharpe and her mother. If he can't prove that the kidnapped girl is lying, his clients could find themselves in jail for quite a long time.

Tey does an excellent job of weaving the plot together, as well as keeping track of a fairly large cast of characters. Robert and Marian Sharpe are particularly well done, as are some of the side characters like Marian's mother, Robert's Aunt Lin, and Robert's old friend (and famous defense attorney) Kevin MacDermott. The plot makes sense, and while not easy to solve, it certainly proceeds in a logical fashion. This is a good solid mystery story by a very successful author.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sequels: Clerks II and Road House 2: Last Call

Sequels.

Sometimes they work and sometimes they do not. Recently, I ran across examples of both in the same evening. In the course of ONE EVENING, I watched both Clerks II and Road House 2: Last Call.

Actually, let's say I "watched" Clerks II and "subjected myself to" Road House 2.

Perhaps I should define for you what I think makes a good sequel, and explain why these two films do/do not qualify.

1. A good sequel is a rational extension of the original film. In this case, CII is a continuation of the lives of the characters from the first film. RH2 takes place in an entirely different place, with different people, and an almost entirely unrelated plot. There IS a bar, and there ARE some bad guys, but that's about as far as the resemblance goes. With the exception of a few mentions of Dalton and how he's the father of the main character in RH2 (as well as a few admittedly funny "I thought you'd be taller" jokes) this movie had absolutely nothing to do with Road House. In fact, it feels like it was written as a separate film and then adjusted to satisfy some studio suit. According to IMDB, this was originally meant to star Patrick Swayze reprising the role of Dalton, but he backed out (likely because the damn thing was so obviously bad) and it lingered in development hell until 2006, when it was changed to accommodate a new actor.

2. A good sequel will generally include the majority of the original actors/actresses. Unless the first film was an ungodly trauma to film, or unless the stars have have become SO HUGE that doing a sequel is beneath them, they should want to come back and do a sequel, even if a lot of time has gone by. Obviously, you don't want exactly the same cast--new cast members keep things fresh, as Rosario Dawson and Trevor Fehrman do in Clerks II--but the audience wants to see familiar faces. The Ocean's 11 franchise is an example of a group that did well with consistently adding new blood while still managing to bring back the original cast. A sequel without a single member of the original cast spells very serious trouble. That means they either waited too long or it was soooo bad that no one wanted to get near it.

3. A good sequel will acknowledge he time that has passed between the original film and the sequel. In CII, the whole idea is that time has passed and Dante and Randal have reached a point in their lives where things have to change. The gap between the events of the first and second film are explained as the natural passing of people's lives. The crux of the characters' problems have to do with that time passage. RH2 definitely takes place after Road House--theoretically about three decades later, since Dalton did not have a son (he barely had a girlfriend) in the first film and now his son is about thirty and working for the DEA. There are references to Dalton and his death, but the events of the first film are not even mentioned--they just took the name and referenced it once or twice. Not very creative, frankly.

4. A good sequel brings something new to the table without losing sight of what made the original so likeable in the first place. Kevin Smith has done a good job with this in CII. The things that made Clerks so great were the relationship between Dante and Randal, the conversations they had both with each other and with the people who surrounded them, the pop culture references, and the pure grade A raunch. He's done all that in Clerks II, and has also added some new elements. The familiar has been effectively combined with the new in a way that--IMO--is both comforting and intriguing. RH2 feels as though they've used all the same pieces that were combined to create Road House, but somehow they don't fit together quite the same. The older mentor, the girl in distress who is secretly connected to the villain, the crazy villain who likes to smash things, the final showdown (right down to the car that hurtles up to the bad guys minus driver)--they're all there, but somehow they feel forced. It wouldn't have been a particularly bad movie on its own, but it suffered from comparisons to the original.

Basically, what I am trying to say here is simple:

A. Road House 2: Last Call was an abomination that never should have been made, or at least should not have pretended it had anything at all to do with Road House. They could have called it Bar Brawl: Guns, Drugs, and Pelicans or DEA on Airboats or Punching and Explosions in the Bayou and it would have been the same film without all the undue expectations. Plus, as much as I enjoyed Jake Busey's performance as the villain (and God knows I do enjoy Jake Busey and his giant, terrifying Busey teeth), the acting was nothing special, leaving the whole thing just on this side of blaaaaah.

B. Clerks II was everything I wanted it to be. If you liked Clerks, and if you like Kevin Smith's films in general, you will probably enjoy Clerks II. However, if you DON'T like Kevin Smith's movies, don't bother seeing this one. To try and convince an anti-Smith person to like it would be a tremendous waste of time because it is so very him. The subject matter is raunchy, the language is appalling, and it consists of a LOT of time spent watching people stand around a fast food restaurant and talk to one another. Dante is still a whiny baby, but I loved Randal just as much or more than I ever did. There were some great conversations and quoteable moments, and I also really really liked the scene in the prison, because I think it illustrated well the relationship between the two main characters.  Rosario did well as the love interest, and the dance scene was a pleasant surprise. It was also wonderful to see Jay and Silent Bob one more time. (I will say that although I find Jason Mewes a sexy beast, the 'Goodbye Horses' bit was a little disturbing. I suppose it's more funny if you realize going into it that this is something he does to Kevin Smith randomly on a regular basis.) I guess I just loved the movie, but I'm kind of a fan girl. Take that as you will.

Maybe someday I will favor you all with my opinions on the second Boondock Saints film and why it sucks and I think Ghostbusters 2 is my favorite. Do any of you have thoughts on sequels?

CBR11 #4:Pretending to Care - The Pretenders (Cemetery Girl #1) by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden

I wanted to like this, but...I just didn't. I don't know if it was too short, or whether it would have more appeal for a YA audience...