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?

Friday, July 8, 2011

CR3 #58: The West End Horror: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D. by Nicholas Meyer

So this is another "lost" Holmes story written by Nicholas Meyer. Although I very much enjoyed The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Look! Look! My review was posted on Pajiba!) The West End Horror leaves much to be desired.

This story begins with the murder of a theater critic during the winter of 1895. Holmes and Watson are drawn into the case by Sherlock's friend Bernard Shaw (yes, THAT Bernard Shaw). Soon, they are wending their way through the dark and shady world of London theater as more murders soon pile up. In the course of their investigation, they meet several notable theater figures of the time: Gilbert and Sullivan! Bram Stoker! Oscar Wilde (just as he gets involved in the libel trial versus the Marquess of Queensbury)!

Unfortunately, it seems that the author go so carried away trying to stuff in as many historical figures of the time that he forgot about the other minor but necessary details of writing a book, such as character and plot. As thrilling as having Oscar Wilde as a character was, I would much rather have had more time with Holmes. Even though he was ostensibly the main character, I didn't feel like we got much of Sherlock's personality in the story at all, and ordinarily I find him the most interesting thing about any story he's in. In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Sigmund Freud was a character, but he felt integral to the tale, rather than a last minute add-in to make things more exciting. Also, the plot was not just thin but stupid. It made almost no sense, and did not fit together until a giant burst of exposition toward the end (as the murderer confesses his deeds and motives, of course.)

I was quite disappointed in this novel, since I enjoyed the other so much. I recommend stopping with Meyer after finishing The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. You'll probably be much happier.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

CR3 #57: Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub (King REreview #2)

The first time I read this book, I didn't like it very much. It seemed scattered, bringing in characters that seemed like they should be familiar but weren't, and referencing things that were treated like common knowledge but weren't mentioned fully in the course of the story. The whole thing felt like a mess. I thought perhaps the trouble was the collaboration between the two authors--perhaps they hadn't been able to mesh their ideas and styles together as easily as originally intended?

It wasn't until later that I realized this book is actually a sequel. The first book the two authors wrote together is called The Talisman, and that tells the whole story of young Jack Sawyer and his trip over into "The Territories" to find the talisman and save his mother. After I read that book, Black House made a LOT more sense. And after reading the Dark Tower series, it makes even more, since the world of The Territories seems to be inextricably linked to that of Mid-World. There's also some carry-over from Hearts in Atlantis as well. Basically, this is NOT a book to read on its own--it is okay by itself, but loses a lot if the reader is unable to pick up all the connections.

Jack Sawyer is now an adult, and has left his job as a hotshot Hollywood homicide detective to retire to the Wisconsin countryside, taking up residence just outside the town of French Landing. He isn't sure why he chose this place, but has an inexplicable feeling that something has called him. Unfortunately, not long after he arrives a serial killer dubbed "The Fisherman" begins to kidnap and kill--and dine on--children from around French Landing. The police are stumped, and although Jack doesn't want to get involved (he's retired, after all!) it seems the more he tries to avoid being pulled in, the more the universe seems to push. Before long, another child is kidnapped, and Jack discovers that this all ties back to the adventure he had as a child in The Territories. It's up to him (and some new friends he's made along the way) to solve the case, save the child, and perhaps even save the world as we know it.

This is a great story. I very much enjoyed the plot, which moved along at a good clip--only occasionally getting bogged down in King's trademark descriptions. All the characters were interesting and well-drawn, even the smaller bit players. In particular, blind DJ Henry Leyden and biker Beezer St. Pierre were fun and interesting to follow. The dialogue was excellent, and it was often very funny. Not to mention it had some very spooky, very disturbing parts for the horror fans. Also--probably due to Peter Straub's influence--the ending wasn't stupid. It all actually made sense and worked out properly.

On the whole I'd definitely recommend this, but ONLY after reading the Talisman (and preferably after reading at least the first five Dark Tower books as well).

Friday, July 1, 2011

CR3 #56: The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald

This is the first of John D. MacDonald's novels about Travis McGee, a sometime private eye who lives on a boat and takes jobs when money runs low. Basically, Trav hunts down things that have been taken (or lost or stolen) and returns them, keeping half the proceeds for himself. In this particular case, he gets a little more than he bargained for when he agrees to help a woman get back her late father's nest egg.

The story takes place in Florida during the sixties, and I very much appreciated MadDonald's sixties vibe--it felt very natural. The character of Trav is quite likable--tough but funny, and sensitive when the situation demands. I pictured him as sort of similar to Jim Longworth of The Glades (if you haven't been watching this show on A&E, you should. It's a fun summer procedural), very laid-back but capable of violence if sufficiently provoked. The other characters in the story were also interesting and fairly well-written. MacDonald's style of writing is really what sells the book, though. He has a way with descriptions that actually reminds me a little bit of Stephen King. He's one of few authors that can write a multi-page description of something and manage to keep me interested enough not to skim.

I'd recommend this to anyone who likes traditional mysteries (i.e. girl in distress seeks help from tough detective, hijinks and gun play ensue), particularly those that are well-written, funny, and clever.