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 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.

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...