Sunday, December 30, 2012

CBR4 #47: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

I'm not sure why it surprised me to find out that the guy who is responsible for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a graduate of my alma mater. To be honest, it actually makes perfect sense--that kind of weirdness is one of Emerson's keystones. In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the author once again turns preconcieved notions on their ears.

This story is about a side of our sixteenth president that is rarely spoken of: his lifelong quest to hunt and destroy vampires. Beginning as a child when a vampire killed his beloved mother, young Abraham trains for what he sees as his life's purpose: to be a hunter of the undead. He joins up with a moral vampire, who helps him reach his potential and seek out the most ruthless bloodsuckers to slay. He also begins his political career, starting his rise toward the highest office in the land.

In AL:VH, Grahame-Smith takes on a more difficult task. Instead of inserting new things into a pre-existing work, he's written something entirely new. However, it's clear that he's also done some extensive research into the life of Abraham Lincoln. Excluding the vampirey bits, the context surrounding the story is all correct, as far as I know.

It's an interesting lens through which to view a man who was in real life a hero. The story is well-written, and the character of Lincoln is extremely empathetic.

I haven't had a chance to see the movie of this yet, though I suspect I'll probably be disappointed. (I much prefer seeing a movie first, and then discovering the book--it tends to improve on a good experience, rather than make an initially good experience a let-down.)

Last but not least, if what I've read of him and his sense of humor is true, I think Abraham Lincoln probably would have found this book just as entertaining as I did.

CBR4 #46: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

There are some books that I read and by the time I'm finished with the final page, the tale is already slipping out of my head. I intellectually know I read it, and if prompted I could probably give a reasonable summary of the action, but that's about as far as it goes. Then there are other books that stick with me. Books that I find myself thinking about days, weeks, months, or even years later. Books whose characters become like old friends, about whom I find myself thinking at the oddest times.

The Hotel New Hampshire falls into the latter category.

It's the story of the Berry family, a group of odd ducks led by patriarch Win. Win is a dreamer, who leads his family on an epic journey from rural New Hampshire, to Vienna, to New York City, and back again. The family consists of Win, his wife, his father Iowa Bob (football coach and weight-lifting enthusiast), eldest son Frank (lover of uniforms), spitfire Franny, narrator John (who is in love with his sister), gentle soul Lily, oddball Egg, and flatulent dog Sorrow. They have experiences both comic and tragic, meet a cast of bizarre, fantastical characters, and grow together as a family.

This is the kind of story that makes me wish it were a million pages long so I could know everything that ever happened to the Berrys. Even after I finished it, I found myself thinking of them, imagining the things that occurred outside the edges of the novel. The writing was wonderful, and I loved Irving's turn of phrase. John's narrative voice is distinct and likable, even if some of the things he does are disturbing at best.

I managed to find a copy of the 1984 film starring Rob Lowe as John and Jodie Foster as Franny. While it was fairly faithful to the source material, the tone seemed wrong, somehow. It seemed like the director couldn't decide if it was a broad comedy or a drama or a fairy tale or a mix of genres. I think it would be a great project for Wes Anderson to take on, actually. The Berrys are like a New England version of the Tenenbaums, and Anderson is a master of mixing tones and genres. While it's maybe a little different than his usual work, I think he could really pull it off. Besides, it'd be nice for him to stretch himself a bit--his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, was disappointing to me in that it felt extremely repetitive and altogether too reminiscent of his earlier works.

On the whole, I'd highly recommend this, though I suspect it may not appeal to everyone--it requires a certain whimsical world view, and an acceptance of some of the wilder aspects of the story.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

CBR4 #45: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

I really should stop reading these books about troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They only seem to make me feel angry, upset, and hopeless about the situation there.

David Finkel spent the majority of 2007 and part of 2008 following a battalion of Army Rangers as they participated in the "surge" in Iraq. It focuses mostly on their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich (by the end referred to by his troops as "Lost Kauz") and his struggles to try and be successful at a task that seems doomed to fail. They are tasked with improving the situation in Baghdad by patrolling, setting up outposts, and making inroads with the local people. Instead, they spend most of their time avoiding IEDs, being shelled, and trying to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare that accompanies trying to accomplish anything.

Meanwhile, soldiers--ones we have been introduced to and have followed for pages or even chapters--die. Or are horribly maimed. Or are psychologically broken. Their friends, fellow soldiers, and commanding officers have to not only deal with that, but also have to handle the fact that tomorrow, it could just as easily be one of them zipped into a body bag or evacuated on a  helicopter.

Life isn't much easier for those who get to go home. Many of them must cope with debilitating physical and mental injuries. Their families must try to adjust to these unfamiliar men who have returned wearing the shape of their husbands, fathers, or sons. A section that details a visit to a Texas rehab hospital is completely gut-wrenching.

The worst part of this book is that in the end, nothing has really changed. The unit's fifteen month mission has basically been a  failure, in that they have not really improved anything. It's still impossible to know who is on the Americans' side and who is going to try to kill them at the first opportunity. The Iraqis still live in a state of constant fear and danger, and the the US has done nothing but lose good soldiers for no reason at all.

It's a well-written, well-researched book, but it's also extremely depressing and disheartening. It's absolutely worth reading, but it's not something you'll necessarily feel good about once you've finished it.

CBR4 #44: The Road to Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

This book was my first experience with Lovecraft, and I'm not sure I'm all that thrilled with him. It consists of a number of short stories, spanning the length of his career. They're all supposed to be dark and spooky, though some are more successful than others.

There were a few stories I liked. "Herbert West: Reanimator" was pretty good--it's a tale of an experimental scientist gone made--but it was clearly originally published as a serial, since at the beginning of each section the author goes back and recaps everything that JUST HAPPENED which gets a little annoying. However, a lot of the stories were either unnecessarily long ("At the Mountains of Madness") or not very interesting. He also, earlier in his career, had a tendency to pull the "Up the tension, up the tension, up the tension...AND THEN IT TURNED OUT HIS MOTHER WAS AN ALBINO GORILLA THE WHOLE TIME! The End" bit more than was acceptable. I mean, I like a good twist ending, but it's a trick that can be easily overused.

On the whole, I was not wildly impressed with this collection. Although it definitely had some cool moments, I think this is a genre that was done better before by Poe. Also, I didn't feel that any of the stories contained any real character development. The characters were put into situations mostly because that was where the author wanted them. I didn't find myself particularly interested in or sympathetic toward any of them (with the possible exception of the narrator of the "Herbert West" story.) I know you might say there isn't room in short stories for character development, but maybe if he'd spent less time endlessly describing echoing chambers and tentacled monsters he might have been able to create some more interesting characters.

Anyway, it's one of those books you should read as an introduction to help recognize the influence on other authors, but I don't feel the need to rush out and find any more of Lovecraft's work.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CBR4 #43: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

Remember what I was saying about how I love Stephen King, but I sometimes wonder why I bother?

Stories like The Wind Through the Keyhole are why I keep coming back, no matter how many times old SK burns with with terrible endings or ass weasels or giant spiders. This is a good, solid fantasy novel. There are no tricks, no nonsense. Just a really great story.

This book takes place during the events of the Dark Tower series, in between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. It's not really tied in to the plot of the series--it's more like an interlude within it. Roland the Gunslinger and his ka-tet find themselves trapped in a building, waiting out a very bad storm. While they wait, Roland tells Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy a tale of his youth. Then, within that story, he tells a scared young boy another story, the tale of Tim Stoutheart. All the stories are reflections of the larger through-lines of the series, but this is also probably the only one that could be read as a stand-alone (with the help of a little explanation in the author's introduction.) However, reading it within the context of the Dark Tower brings a lot of insight about Roland's character.

On the whole, I'd heartily recommend this one. It's full of the storytelling magic that I look for from Stephen King, and I think that fans of his work (particularly fans of the Gunslinger) will like it quite a bit.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CBR4 #42: Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

Oh, Stephen King. I love your work so much, but there are times when I wonder if you're worth it.

Dreamcatcher is not an utterly terrible book. It is not nearly as painfully dull as The Tommyknockers, but it is not good either. While it has its moments, there is also a lot of unnecessarily gross gore, and the plot is...not good.

The book is the story of four friends--Henry, Pete, Jonesy, and Beaver--who come together once a year at a remote hunting cabin to spend time together and celebrate their childhood friendship. Although they've grown apart, they are also bonded by more than just the times they spent together as kids--they have a fifth friend, Duddits, who is very, very special. Although Duddits appears to be just a man with Down's syndrome, he is actually a LOT more. While the group are spending time out in the woods, a man wanders into their camp, displaying some very odd symptoms. Pretty soon, the four find themselves involved in a situation that could have effects the world over...a situation that their friendship with Duddits may somehow have prepared them for.

Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn't it? Well, start throwing in alien fuzz, and ass weasels, and an entity called Mr. Grey, and things start going off the rails. Then add a batshit crazy army colonel bent on hiding the truth at any cost. It starts to spiral out of control pretty quickly.

The characters are pretty likable, which is what saves the book from being irredeemable. Jonesy's lonely battle against Mr. Grey is one of the strongest parts of the tale, and I also enjoyed the brief glimpses of their childhood times together. Each of the friends is well-defined, and I had no trouble identifying with them or rooting for them. Some of the secondary characters are less effective, though I liked what little we saw of Duddits's mother.

The movie is not great either, though the performances are about as good as possible. Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant (Olyphantastic!), and Damien Lewis star as the four friends, and Lewis's creepy turn as Jonesy is pretty cool. Morgan Freeman and his eyebrows chew every available piece of scenery as he romps and stomps in the role of the crazy colonel, while Tom Sizemore plays it cool as the colonel's assistant. There's also an interesting performance from Donnie Wahlberg (or as I like to call him "The-more-talented-but-not-as-attractive-Wahlberg") as adult Duddits. However, ass weasels are something that never needed to make it to film, and the plot is a bit too jumbled to really translate well. Much like the book, the movie is not exactly terrible, but I wouldn't necessarily call it good either.

CBR4 #41: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Eleven years ago, James Stark's friends cast him into hell. Unfortunately for them, he's escaped. Now he's roaming the streets of Los Angeles--armed with supernatural weapons, hellion spells, and the skills picked up from spending more than a decade doing battle in hell's arena with the worst the underworld had to offer--looking for revenge on the people who cast him down and in particular the ones who killed the woman he loved.

With the help of an immortal alchemist, a literal talking head, a mysterious man who sells very mysterious things, an angry angel, an underground doctor, and a video store clerk, Stark discovers that he's not the only one with an axe to grind...and that the fate of the entire world may just hang in the balance with only him to save it.

I like this book a lot. It reads like a Jason Statham movie--blood, guts, action, magic, fights, and funny one-liners. I enjoyed all the characters, though some were not fleshed out as well as I'd like, since the focus was mostly on Stark and the story was told from his perspective. I was right with him, though, trying to figure out what was going on and predict his enemies' next moves, as well as figure out whether his friends could be trusted. Obviously, this is not high literature, but it was tremendously entertaining.

This is the first book in a series, and I can't WAIT to get my hands on the next one.

Friday, December 7, 2012

CBR4 #40: Coffin County by Gary Braunbeck

The town of Cedar Hill is one of those places. It's a place like Derry, Maine or Bon Temps, Louisiana or Sunnydale, California; it's a place where things are not quite right, nor have they ever been. The town--since its founding--seems to draw tragedy and death like a magnet. From a massacre of the early settlers right up until the explosion and fire at the coffin factory that destroyed an entire neighborhood a few years ago, the people of Cedar Hill have become accustomed to bloody surprises.

Police detective Ben Littlejohn finds himself chasing another one of Cedar Hill's deadly mysteries when he's called to the scene of a mass murder in a diner. The murderer has left his fingerprints all over the scene, and Ben hopes it will be an open-and-shut case. Of course, that's not how it works out. The fingerprints are but the first of many indications that things have gone wildly askew. Soon, Ben is confronted by inexplicable new tombstones appearing in the cemetery, and a video tape that shows something that simply cannot be.

The book also has two shorter stories included--one is about an out-of-this-world showdown that occurs at a rural bar one night, and the other involves the life of some of Cedar Hill's factory workers.

All three tales are great--spooky and well-written. The first is a little longer than it really needed to be--I think it should have been the same length as the other two--but still absolutely readable. I like the way the stories' locations and characters tie in to one another, as well as to Braunbeck's other works (including Keepers and Mr. Hands). I like his work, and plan to read more of his Cedar Hill stories.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Life Lessons: 2012

I recently celebrated my 31st birthday, and late in the festivities, I was asked for five life-lessons I have learned in my 3+ decades of living.

Here's what I came up with:

1. Don't make terrible decisions. Of course, not every terrible decision is obvious in its terribleness at the time it's made. But let's admit it: some of them totally are. If something seems like a terrible idea, DON'T DO IT. Or at least think it over further. A lot of the stupid things that have happened to me over the years were preventable, and at the time I was doing them, I KNEW they were bad ideas. So, you know, stop doing that.

2. In the words of the most fabulous RuPaul, "What other people think of me is none of my business." I'm still working on this one, but it's an important step. Learning to live without constantly worrying about how other people perceive me is not easy, but it's definitely been beneficial. As we all know, haters gonna hate. The trick is to say "M'eh. Fuck them." and go one with your life. It's frankly pretty freeing.

3. Get plenty of sleep. Seems pretty obvious, but you'd be surprised how long it took me to come around to this one. I am no longer 21, and therefore I can no longer stay up until the wee hours, then expect to get up in the morning and be effective. Forcing myself to go to bed at a reasonable hour has been a battle, but the results have been worth it. If I'd figured this out earlier, I might have spent a lot less time during my 16 years of education asleep.

4. Moisturize! I caught some flak for this one, since it apparently was not profound enough. Still, it's important. If you don't want your hands to crack and bleed in the winter and feel like they're made of sandpaper, MOISTURIZE! You know why my hands are so soft? Because I moisturize them constantly (and I avoid manual labor, which helps.)

5. Sometimes you have to let things go. Whether it's hurt feelings, clothes that don't fit anymore and probably never will again, friends who have moved off in a different direction, or ideals that are no longer true, some things just have to go. This is another one that has been really hard for me, since I am by nature something of a hoarder. I have wasted too much time and space in my life trying to hang on to things I no longer need. I've learned that if I haven't used or worn it in more than a year, it needs to go. If I am the only one working to maintain a friendship, it's probably not worth keeping. Keeping track of slights and insults is absolutely no benefit to anyone, especially me.

Mind you, all of these are still a work in progress. I am more successful some days than others; there are times when I take two steps forward and one step back in my attempts to improve myself. But the last lesson (a bonus lesson, if you will!) is that Progress is Progress. Figuring this out (mostly with help from Unfuck Your Habitat) has revolutionized my life. Things don't have to be completed or perfect to be an improvement. The important thing is to continue to make an effort. Even if the progress you're making is small, you've still made some, and that is worth being proud of.

I hope that next year I've learned five more useful lessons I can share with all of you!

Friday, October 26, 2012

CBR4 #39: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

I have recently had to admit to myself that I have become a Trekkie. Mind you, this DOES NOT mean that I am going to put on some go-go boots, pick up a phaser, and go stand in line to catch a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy. But when you live with a person who has to have Star Trek playing in order to go to sleep at night, you pick things up, whether you want to or not. Now, I don't know much about the original series, since The Boyfriend does not understand camp and thus does not enjoy the original. I have, however, seen pretty much every episode of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine (ugh), and Voyager at LEAST once, probably multiple times. I'm not aware of every piece of trivia, but should the conversation turn to Klingon battle philosophy or the plight of the oppressed Bajorans, I can hold my own. I have even been known to say things (out in public, no less--how embarrassing) like "We are not the Borg! Just because one of us knows something doesn't mean we ALL know it!" It is this shameful side of my personality that made this book so much fun.

Night of the Living Trekkies takes place at a Star Trek convention in Houston. Army veteran Jim Pike works at the hotel where the convention is taking place. He lives a life of trying to avoid responsibility, since his time in Afghanistan has led him to loathe being responsible for anyone but himself. However, things begin to get weird at the convention--and not in the normal kind of way. Jim finds himself leading a small group of survivors through what seems to be a zombie apocalypse. He has to figure out a way to keep his team--including his younger sister, a red-shirt, a Klingon weapons maker, and Princess Leia--alive long enough to escape from Houston. Along the way, they also may discover the source of the epidemic.

This book is hilarious for those who enjoy both zombie stories and Star Trek. The winks and nudges are all there, but the story is good as well. Sometimes in parody stories the author will expend more effort with the jokes than on  the plot or the characters--that's not the case in this book. I thought that the characters were all distinct and sympathetic, and that the plot moved along in a reasonable way.

If you don't have a basic working knowledge of Star Trek, this book is not for you. If you don't find the idea of a zombified, costumed marching band called "The Seventy-Six Trom-borgs" funny, this book is probably not for you. If you are looking for a major departure from the traditional zombie story genre, this book is not for you. But if you think that you could get behind some good old-fashioned bat'leth battles and zombie fleeing, you might get a kick out of this one.

CBR4 #38: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manfesto by Chuck Klosterman

I suspect that Chuck Klosterman (much like fellow Chuck, Palahniuk) is one of those authors that you either love or hate. Either you love him--because the thoughts that he's writing down mesh perfectly with the things that you have already been thinking, and the conversations he's having are things that you either already discuss or wish you could, and the connections he's making are connections you've either already made or at least understand completely--or you hate him--you find him a whiny first-world hipster who wastes entirely too much time thinking about 90s sitcoms, soft rock, and Axl Rose.

I fall into the first category.

People have been recommending Klosterman to me off and on for years, but somehow I never got around to reading him before. (Sometimes, when a whole bunch of people recommend a book and tell me "Oh, this is SO YOU!" I find that reading the book turns out to be a disappointing experience which just makes me think my friends don't know me very well.) It turns out that he's exactly what I've been looking for in the "non-fiction essay" genre. I mean, I like David Foster Wallace, but he can frankly be a bit heavy for me. Klosterman, on the other hand, is definitely fluff...but well-written, INTERESTING fluff.

The essays in this book run the gamut through pop culture. My particular favorites included his take on how a comparison between Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson is not only apt, but a reflection of the way society has changed since the 1950s, how you are either a Celtics person or a Lakers person and why this influences your world view, and the one documenting his travels with a Guns n' Roses cover band. I found the writing to be both funny and intelligent, and his wide grasp of both pop-culture and general culture remarkable.

To sum up, Chuck Klosterman is like the friend I've always wanted but never had--a sharp, witty misanthrope willing to spend hours eating cereal and discussing the cultural ramifications of Saved By the Bell. As a person who once wrote a paper comparing Hester Prynne and Rizzo from Grease, I can relate totally. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, best to just move on to something else.

Friday, October 12, 2012

CBR4 #37: Dark Echo by F.G. Cottam

I love ghost stories. LOVE them. The problem is that I insist ghosts have a purpose--I don't like when an angry spirit shows up somewhere and is just evil for no reason. I like ghosts to have back-story. I want them to have history. And in a ghost story, I want the characters to find that history. I want to uncover it as they do--I want to feel like I too am racing to try and put the pieces together before it's too late. Dark Echo was an excellent example of everything that I want in a ghost story.

Martin Stannard is a disappointment to his father, titan of industry Magnus. Martin had a talent for boxing, but wasn't a successful boxer. He tried to enter the priesthood, but couldn't stick with it. He is a nice enough guy, and successful in his own way, but his father has never been quite satisfied. Therefore, it's rather a shock to Martin when his father tells him that he is going to purchase and restore an antique sailboat, which the two of them will then sail across the Atlantic to the US. The trouble is that the boat gives Martin very bad vibes. Its history is murky and full of bad luck and tragic death. And its first owner, Harry Spaulding--an American playboy who was an infamous commando during WWI--is cloaked in vaguely unpleasant mystery. Martin's girlfriend Suzanne takes time away from her research into Irish hero Michael Collins to do some digging into the Dark Echo and Harry Spaulding. What she finds makes her wonder if she will ever see Martin again.

This is the first ghost story I've read in a while that I've found genuinely spooky. The writing was tight, and though it got a teensy bit bogged down in the middle, the last third rocketed along at an excellent pace. Suzanne was a wonderful heroine--using her talents in research to figure out what was going on and put all the pieces together. She was not a victim, but an active heroine in the story. Martin and his father were also likable characters with reasonable motivations. And the ghosts...well they're pretty great too, in their own ways.

I'd absolutely recommend this to anyone who enjoys a well thought out ghost story, or just a great story. I tore through it as fast as I could because I couldn't wait to find out what was going on and what Martin and Suzanne were going to do about it.

CBR4 #36: Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William M. Bass and Jon Jefferson

I have read quite a few of these books by top-notch medical examiner/forensic pathologists, and there is quite a bit of room between the best and the worst. Some are procedural, some are poorly organized, some are either too personal or too clinical, and some are just boring. Death's Acre isn't any of those things. It's a really excellent, interesting, and educational book, with a little bit of everything. And it's held together by a narrator with a wonderful, avuncular, self-deprecating voice.

Dr. Bill Bass created and oversaw the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm," where dead bodies are used in experiments (related to insect activity, decomposition, etc) to advance the cause of forensic science. The work done by Dr. Bass and his students has helped solve and successfully prosecute murder cases all over the world. Knowing how long it takes for a dead body to break down under a specific set of conditions can be the key to setting an innocent man free or convicting a guilty one.

The book is (ghost)written from Dr. Bass's point of view, and he is an engaging narrator. He mixes together scientific facts and theories, history, and cases he's worked on with his personal history and hilarious anecdotes (for example, his need to buy his wife a new blender, or how he discovered that good fences do indeed make good neighbors). He also details the struggles he had when he began the project, both from the University and from the public. It's a great story and it's told well. I'd highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in forensic anthropology.

As a side note, I am very seriously considering donating my body to the Body Farm should something happen to me. I think it would be a fitting end for someone so fascinated by murder mysteries!

CBR4 #35: Catch Up 2: Electric Boogaloo

In my ongoing attempts to catch up with my blogging for the Cannonball Read, here are five more mini-reviews on books I have read (I was going to add "recently" to this sentence, then realized that I read some of these in July, which is no longer considered "recent". Oops).

1. Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris: These books just keep getting stupider and more outlandish, but I still keep right on gobbling them up. They are the literary equivalent of Velveeta, but I just can't quit them. In this entry (allegedly the next-to-last in the Sookie series), there is a mystery, and some complications, and some stupid vampire politics, and stupid faerie politics, and Sookie Gets In Trouble Yet Again! Her relationship with Eric is down the tubes (boo, I really liked Eric) and there are just waaaay too many characters. I'm kind of glad this series is ending, because I think the author's been tired of it since somewhere around book eight. I'll read the final one when it comes out, but I'll breathe a sigh of relief when it's over. (The show became so unbearably stupid last year that not even Alexander Skaarsgard could tempt me to watch it anymore. And that is saying a lot about the level of stupidity, because he is VERY PRETTY.)

2. The Dead Path by Stephen Irwin: Nick Close sees dead people. Unfortunately, he only sees them repeat their final, fatal moments...over and over and over again. Even worse, one of these tragic souls is his beloved wife. Needing to get away from the scene of her death, he goes to visit his parents in his home town, only to find that his problem has followed him. And his hometown can be a dangerous place, particularly for children. Now Nick must use his dubious talent to find a way to stop the evil that lurks in the shadowy woods. This book wasn't bad, but it wasn't anything particularly thrilling, either. Nothing about it was especially memorable, and it didn't exactly keep me awake at night with terror.

3. Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy: This is like a coffee table book of death and insanity. Author Michael Lesy has combined creepy photos from the late 19th century, taken by a little-known Black Falls, WI photographer with snippets from newspapers and medical records from the time--all from the same desolate area of Wisconsin. It reads like a litany of misery, death, disease, mental disintegration, and generalized anguish. I watched the documentary film narrated by Sir Ian Holm, which was pretty interesting, though creepy. However, the book is almost too much, and too morbid. I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone unless they were very interested in that area and time period. Plus, the author's introduction and end-note are about as artsy-fartsy and pretentious as you can get without wearing a beret.

4. Pariah by Bob Fingerman: Zombies. This time, the main characters are the residents of an Upper East Side apartment building. They survived the initial apocalypse, only to find themselves beginning to starve. Luckily, a teenage girl comes walking through the throngs of zombies, able to move among them without being bothered. She's their savior, but who--or what--is she? Where does she get her ability to move unnoticed amongst the undead? The apartment building's survivors are both grateful and suspicious. And a few of them are not very nice people. In fact, they're just as dangerous as the drooling hordes outside. This isn't a great zombie book, but it's not the worst I've read. There are flashes of ironic humor, and most of the characters are sympathetic. I didn't think the main mystery of the plot was adequately explained, but it wasn't all that bad.

5. The Pariah by Graham Masterton: This is another story about a widower who sees his wife's ghost. However, John Trenton isn't the only one who sees his wife Jane. And Jane's ghost is not content with quietly haunting--Jane is angry. So are the other ghosts in the coastal town of Granitehead. As John comes to find out, something happened in Granitehead long ago that the town's forefathers kept a dark secret. The problem is, that dark secret is starting to get out. Not a bad book, though I found it a bit draggy through the middle.

And there you have it -- five books for the price of a single Cannonball Read entry! I have been reading a lot of horror stories this year (can't seem to get enough of them) and it's a genre that has a LOT of variation in quality. I'll be getting to some better examples later on. For now, this is what you're getting. ;) Enjoy!


CBR4 #34: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Sometimes I think that as much as I love his supernatural brick-sized books, Stephen King's real talent shines best in novella form. Some of my very favorite of his work are novellas (The Bachman Books and Different Seasons, particularly) and while I enjoy his more extensive work, I think that the shorter form reins him into telling tighter stories. After all, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is a novella, but the story is epic.

In Full Dark, No Stars, King presents us with four novellas and a short story.

In the first tale, "1922" a man makes a confession and regrets the choices he made in his life. This may or may not be a supernatural story (it depends a lot on your interpretation of it) but it is definitely disturbing. It's tough to decide whether to condone or condemn the main character, and I'm sure that the side you take will color your view of what happens and your interpretation of the narrator. This one has some great historical context to it as well, and the narrator's voice feels pretty authentic.

The second story, "Big Driver" feels less like a Stephen King story and more like one of the thriller novels I tend to enjoy. The main character is a writer (shocking!) but a female for a change. On the way home from a book signing, she takes a shortcut that turns out to be a big mistake. There's nothing supernatural in this one at all, but it's still an edge-of-your-seat story with some very good twists and turns. The character of Tessa is determined and tough, despite the horrific things that happen to her.

"Fair Extension" returns us to the realm of the supernatural, and is another story that is colored by the reader's interpretation of it, since the ending is a bit ambiguous. Dave Streeter is an average man living a fairly average life. Then he's diagnosed with terminal cancer and things start to come apart. One day he meets a strange man sitting at a table out by the airport, and this man offers him a trade. The rest of the story was the result of that trade on Dave and the people around him. As I said before, this story is definitely open to interpretation, and I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, and trying to figure out if that made me a bad person...or if the fact that I was happy that it didn't was what made me a bad person! I'll admit this was my least favorite of the novellas, as I didn't feel it had the urgency of the others.

The last novella, "A Good Marriage," is another story with absolutely no supernatural elements, but it also kept me on the edge of my seat. Darcy Anderson is a housewife who considers herself the epitome of the American Dream. She has two wonderful children, a nice house, and a husband who has a good job and does things like lead a boyscout troop. Unfortunately for Darcy, she makes a disturbing discovery about a secret her husband has been hiding in the garage. Darcy's struggle to figure out how to deal with this revelation is gripping, and I liked her as a character. It's another piece that feels very different from most of King's work, but is a taut little thriller.

Finally, the short story "Under the Weather" (which isn't included in all editions of the book) is just a quick amuse bouche in a William Faulkner sort of vein. I can't say too much about it without spoiling the surprise. It's a trick, and it's an old trick, but it's still a good one.

On the whole, I think this is one of Stephen King's better story collections. I'd say it could stand with Different Seasons (in my opinion his very best novella work, with the exception of "The Breathing Method") or The Bachman Books. I'd highly recommend it, even to those who might not normally enjoy King's work. This is him working at his best, sharp, quick, and mesmerizing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

CBR4 #33: The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

Have any of you been watching the BBC's Sherlock? I just watched the first two episodes of series two and they were SO GOOD. The fact that Benedict Cumberbatch didn't get an Emmy for his portrayal of Holmes was galling, and the fact that Martin Freeman wasn't nominated for best supporting was equally annoying. The episode "Scandal in Belgravia" just gutted me. The chemistry between the leads is riveting. If you haven't seen series one and two, you really should. (I haven't watched S2E3 yet--it's the Reichenbach Falls, and that's bound to be a tough one. Particularly since it's going to be FOREVER before series three finally arrives.)

Anyway, I told you that as a lead in to The Italian Secretary. This is a Sherlock Holmes novel, and as such it is not a bad addition to the genre. Holmes and Watson are called to Holyrood House in Scotland by Mycroft Holmes. They're asked to look into several deadly incidents that have occurred at the house while Queen Victoria was in residence, as Mycroft is concerned about them being related to a planned attempt on the queen's life. Folded in to the existing mystery is the historic mystery of the house--Queen Mary of Scots once lived in the house, and her favored musician David Rizzio was murdered within its walls in a plot by her husband. It's said that the Italian music teacher's spirit still haunts the house. Holmes and Watson investigate in their usual way, discovering additional mysteries along the way that all come together in a dramatic finale.

  While this is nothing particularly amazing, it's a solid Holmes book, and not bogged down by any blatant changes to the characters or their circumstances. Both are totally recognizable in their personalities and settings. The story isn't bad, although I figured it out sooner than I would have preferred. There is quite a bit of debate about ghosts, and I'm not sure I really believed Holmes's take on that subject, but then again, maybe that's the point? On the whole, this is a decent, well-written, inoffensive mystery tale.

Friday, September 21, 2012

CBR4 #32 - The Catch-Up (Five Books)

I've decided that I am going to go ahead and just do blurbs on some of the books I've read over the past several months. That way at least I can get it out there that I have not allowed my brain to turn entirely to mush. Plus, maybe I'll find while I'm writing the short bits that I have more to say than I realized. For the moment, I am going to count this as one giant entry for CBR4.

1. Dead Man's Song by Jonathan Maberry - This is the second book in the Pine Deep series and picks up right where the first one ends. The story of things going terribly wrong in the small town of Pine Deep continues hurtling along. The main characters are finally starting to draw together and get things figured out, while still trying to fight off vampires, the undead, and the difficult memories of things that happened the last time things went wrong in town. This is still mostly a set-up for the final book in the trilogy, but it feels a lot less like non-stop exposition.

2. Far North by Marcel Theroux - This is the story of Makepeace, the sheriff of an empty town. The world as we know it has come apart and left behind nothing but the flotsam of a ruined society. After spending many years alone, Makepeace begins to long for the company of other people and heads out to try and find other survivors. However, it turns out that many of those who are left are not just poor company, but are actively dangerous. The story is a tale of post-apocalyptic survival, but not in a fun way. I found the book to be worth reading, but extremely bleak and not especially enjoyable.

3. Empty Promises by Ann Rule - Lesson: you can't trust anyone not to murder you, including those you hold dearest. I enjoyed it, but it is seriously just like every other Ann Rule book ever. Also, Multnomah County, OR is a fucking dangerous place, apparently.

4. Blockade Billy by Stephen King - This book is really more two novellas combined into one cover. The title story is a tale of 1950s era baseball, and of a rags-to-riches player named William "Blockade Billy" Blakely. Unfortunately, Billy has a secret that will result in his one season of play being wiped from the record books. The narrator--an assistant on the team--has a great voice, and the suspense of the story builds wonderfully. Sadly, the payoff isn't as great as I'd hoped, though it's still pretty shocking. The second story, "Morality" is about a young couple who make a shady deal that ends up ruining both of them. I didn't like it very much; it lacked the humor, chills, or literary gymnastics that I treasure about King's better work. On the whole, it wasn't bad--and necessary if you're a King completist as I am--but nothing to write home about.

5. The Dark by James Herbert - This book is spooky but didn't make a particular impression on me. A group of good guys band together to fight back against a rapidly spreading evil that travels in darkness. I felt that there was a lot of very exposition-laden bits, but that the story was still suffering from holes. There were some very good moments--the soccer hooligan riot, for example--but on the whole this is another book that, while okay, could just as easily be passed over.

Okay, that's enough of that for the moment. I will probably have to do a few more of these catch-up posts, and I'm also going to try and throw in a few regular posts as well. Just because I am behind doesn't mean I should give up. Forward!




CBR4 #31: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

I've seen a lot of people reading this book, and have read some very good reviews about it. Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to the hype.

This book is divided between two subjects. The first is the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The second is Chicago-based serial killer H. H. Holmes, who took advantage of the chaos caused by the fair to lure scores of women to their deaths in his "murder castle." Although these two subjects effected one another, and occurred at the same time and place, they don't mesh together as well as one one hope in this book.

The parts about the World's fair are very interesting--the amount of work and effort that was undertaken in such a short period of time are breathtaking, although there is the standard amount of ridiculousness that surrounds any very large project helmed by a forced committee (witness the 9/11 memorial museum, which is still incomplete eleven years after the event). Still, they managed to erect a miniature city filled with attractions and events, in a relatively undeveloped part of the country, during a time before computers--a time before power drills! The 1893 World's Fair saw the first Ferris wheel. It also put Chicago on the world map for something other than beef. It's an incredible accomplishment by a group of incredible men (only men, mind you--one woman designed one building, but she was driven to a nervous breakdown shortly after its completion and never mentioned again in the book). There is also a lot of information about the history of Chicago, and the way that the city changed during the years leading to the turn of the century.

The parts about H. H. Holmes are also well-written and well-researched. The author tracks his path of destruction from his origins to his house of horrors in Chicago, and then follows him while he's on the run. The story of the detective who doggedly pursued him across the country in hopes of rescuing (or at least locating) the children Holmes had taken with him on the lam is gripping as well.

The problem, as I mentioned before, is that these two stories would seem as though they should fit together, but as written they really don't. They feel more like two separate (and good) books that were jumbled together during the printing process. It's an interesting concept, but I don't think it works as well as expected.

I'd still definitely recommend this book, because--like I said--these are both good, interesting stories. The parts about the World's Fair and the politics of Chicago at the time were particularly intriguing to me, since I didn't didn't know anything about either topic. I'd just suggest lowering your expectations before you start reading it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

CBR4 #30: Nevermore by Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter is mostly known for his true-crime accounts of serial killers. However, with Nevermore he introduces one of my favorite characters of the year: Edgar Allen Poe, narrator and detective.

Through set of rather interesting circumstances, Edgar Allan Poe (pre-authorial success--he makes a rather small living writing book reviews, most of which are scathing at best) finds himself faced with the angry author of a book he has reviewed: famed American frontiersman Davy Crockett. Crockett and Poe are polar opposites, but they wind up ensnared in a perplexing murder mystery which they must work together to solve.

Poe is both exactly what you would expect and delightfully beyond what you could imagine. His voice is so deliberately and agonizingly over-the-top that it is hilarious. For example, an early passage from him runs thus:

Before I could summon this agonized yell (an act which would unquestionably have alarmed the entire neighborhood and occasioned me a great deal of embarrassment), a dim awareness of my true situation broke into my overwrought fancy. Suddenly, I realized that the noise I had mistaken for gravedigging was in reality the muffled thud of some unknown caller, pounding on the front door of my residence. 

His voice continues like that through the whole book, combining Poe's real-life style with the popular tone of that time. What makes it even more entertaining is that Davy Crockett's lines are all in a more rough (and less frilly) prose, and the contrast is wonderful.

The plot is reasonable, though I will admit that--while historically accurate--Poe's obsession with his pre-teen cousin is a bit creepy. Another great thing is how the events of the book are set up to appear to be the inspiration for Poe's most famous works (note the subtle 'Raven' references in the passage above). The characters and the writing were the real draw of this book for me, but even though I loved it, Schechter's take on Poe's style can occasionally become a slog. On the whole, though, I highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the work of Poe or good mysteries.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

CBR4 #29: Blood Groove by Alex Bledsoe

The basic plot of this book involves the Baron Rudolfo Zginski, a vampire who was captured and killed in 1915...well, not exactly killed. Badly maimed would probably be a better way to describe it. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he rises to find himself in 1975 Memphis. He has to figure out where he is, what's going on, and how to work things to his advantage. Along the way, he meets up with some young (and rather poorly trained) vampires, whom he teaches the ins and outs of being undead. He also must deal with a mysterious plot to destroy vampire-kind.

The plot of this was interesting and moved at a good pace. Baron Zginski wasn't a bad main character, though I will admit that I bristled a little at the way he treated some of the women who surrounded him, particularly his living meal-ticket. The younger vampires were more likeable, and I wanted to know more about all their back stories.

I think the most interesting thing about it is the idea of waking up after sixty years and having to make an immediate adjustment to modern life. It's also the main thing (read: pretty much only thing) I enjoyed about the recent movie Dark Shadows. While Baron Zginski and Johnny Depp's character Barnabas Collins have little in common as far as personality, they are both faced with the need to learn about a world that has changed in ways they would never have imagined. Can you possibly imagine going to sleep during a time when horses and carts were still a relatively common method of transportation and waking up to discover that a man had walked on the moon? Ponder the surprises presented by the prevalence of telephones, television, and airplanes! Even navigating basic daily tasks like shopping or getting from place to place has to be a constant shock. The other major change would be a social one--the way women and minorities were treated in 1915 is significantly different than they were in 1975. Think about how much society can change in 10 years--now multiply that by six! Not to mention that the mid-seventies were a weird time for people who were there from the beginning...

It's not my favorite work of Bledsoe's (I prefer his Eddie LaCrosse novels) but it's a decent read. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes vampire books that don't take themselves too seriously.

CBR4 #28: Hollywood Nocturnes by James Ellroy

I hadn't read any Ellroy before this, but it totally grabbed me. Hollywood Nocturnes is made up of six semi-interlocking short stories set in Ellroy's favorite haunt--post-war L.A. In one story, a musician decides to solve his problems by having himself kidnapped. In another a mob enforcer is entranced by a woman who dates the two most powerful men in town. A series of murders on the African-American side of town isn't necessarily what it it seems to be.

The characters are mostly anti-heroes--in fact, some of them are pretty terrible--but they all have their own special charm. I was particularly fond of Buzz Meeks and his story.  The stories are quickly plotted, and detailed enough to be satisfying without running over. Ellroy's prose is clipped and slightly brutal, but also lovingly arranged, I and I enjoyed it in the same way that I enjoy some of Stephen King's literary gymnastics.

This book made me immediately set out to get my hands on more of the author's work. Both his style and his subjects really appealed to me, though I will admit that if you are looking for strong female characters, you are probably not going to find any here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

CBR4 #27: Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

I know, people. I know. At this point I am so far behind I can never possibly catch up. But doesn't mean I shouldn't put forth SOME effort while I have the chance. Let's just pretend that I don't have 35+ books sitting un-reviewed and focus on one book at a time.

I hadn't wanted to read Game Change for a while. I mostly find political rhetoric exhausting and infuriating. I'm not especially good at political conversations, since I'm not very good at pulling out well-sourced facts in the face of (what I consider to be) woeful misinformation. I usually end up sputtering "Well I read somewhere that that's not true!" and then eventually getting so angry and frustrated that I have to give up. My brain contains a LOT of information (you should see me play Jeopardy) but knowing exactly where it came from isn't a strong point. And if you're going to be discussing things of this level of importance, you should be able to source your facts. The other problem is that I--like most people, probably--don't necessarily fall neatly into a single category. Mostly I'm a pretty liberal Democrat, but there are a few issues where my conservative Republican upbringing rears its head. What I'm saying basically is that when it comes to politics I am often confused and conflicted.

The interesting thing about Game Change is that it seems the politicians involved can be just as confused and conflicted.

The book tells the story of the 2008 presidential primaries and election from an insider's perspective. It's mostly the story of the struggle between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and details both the campaign itself and also how both candidates made the decision to run. This is a warts-and-all portrayal, though Obama does come off slightly better than anyone else depicted. His flaws are portrayed as being occasional arrogance, consistent cockiness, quite a bit of naivete. Hilary is shown as a bit more cynical, coming at things from the perspective of a long-time Washington insider and part of the "Clinton Dynasty". Both have to try and decide their reasons for running, how they want to proceed with their campaigns, what strategies to employ, how far to go, and how their fight will effect the party as a whole.

The second part of book continues to follow Obama's presidential campaign, and also brings in McCain's. The choice of running mates, the decisions on which strategies to pursue, and the election itself are all closely followed. The book ends by showing President Obama convincing Hilary Clinton to come aboard as Secretary of State.

On the whole, this book is intellectually interesting as far as the structure and nature of politics goes. The idea that there are so many people involved in an undertaking of this type (and that so many of them hate each other and are embroiled in constant power struggles) is mind-boggling. The choices that have to be made can have unforeseen effects, and every word must be carefully checked (the problems on this front with both Joe Biden and Bill Clinton are obvious.)

I have to admit, though, that my favorite part was the more gossipy end of the spectrum. What was the deal with John Edwards and his loony mistress? How do the Clintons get along and was Bill really subconsciously sabotaging Hilary's campaign? Why did McCain choose Sarah Palin as his running mate? The insider's view of the personalities involved was what really kept me reading the book. I found myself feeling more admiration for Hilary Clinton and more sympathy for Sarah Palin than I'd expected. It's politics on a grand scale, but when it comes right down to it, it's all personalities.

I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in the guts of a national political campaign, or in any of the people involved in this one. It's not a particularly flattering account of anyone involved (Obama comes out slightly better than the rest, but he takes his lumps, too) but it has a feeling of honesty.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

CBR4 #26: War by Sebastian Junger

I've been putting this book off for a while, but decided to finally read it in honor of Memorial Day. It was worth it, and the only reason I give it four stars instead of five is that I have no desire to read it ever again.

There is quite a bit of military in my blood, though I'm a generation removed from it. All three of my grandfathers served in the military--two in the Navy and one in the Army. One of my uncles served briefly, and at least one of my great-grandfathers served in WWI. I have a few friends who either have served or are currently serving in various branches of the armed forces. This book makes me realize that no matter how much I may want to understand their experiences, nothing I can read will ever make that truly possible.

Sebastian Junger spent fifteen months on and off embedded with troops in Afghanistan's Korengal valley, easily the most dangerous and fatal area in all of Afghanistan for American soldiers. He goes on patrols with them, spends time with them during the interminable hours between firefights, gets shot at with them, and even gets hit by an IED with them. The book is basically documenting the experiences he witnesses while he is observing, and the way that his perceptions of the soldiers change. He also uses research to discuss the way the soldiers (both those he is embedded with and those throughout history) cope with the things they've done and seen.

Junger spends a lot of time talking about the difficulty for these men of transitioning back into civilian society after spending more than a year isolated in the wilds of Afghanistan. His position is that the problem is less about the violence, stress, and trauma they encountered and more about the lack thereof on their returns. These men spent months bonding with one another, and functioning amid a level of never-ending lethal tension. At any moment--while they sleep, eat, piss, or simply sit around--they could die. Every single moment of the day could be their last, and they spend all available mental and physical energy dealing with that fact. Every action has to be considered as to whether it will beneficial or detrimental to the group. They begin to act almost like ants or bees--every individual gives himself over to the group, and behaves accordingly. And the group in turn protects each member. The men know that no matter what happens, their brothers-in-arms would each give his life to save the others. Everything beyond that fact is more or less unimportant. This behavior is what keeps them alive on the battlefield, but becomes problematic in a civilian setting. The men aren't used to having to deal with subtleties. They can become frustrated by the minutia of daily life--car payments, arguments with wives or girlfriends, the small decisions that those of us on the outside take for granted. After spending a year on constant high-alert, watching friends die or be injured, living in a place where not only the population but the land itself is hostile, it's difficult to muster up an interest in working an office job or mowing the lawn. Not to mention that they've gone from being in a place where every man has his back--whether they like one another or not--to having to survive entirely on their own. Reading this made me surprised not that there are so many soldiers who have trouble returning from duty, but rather that so many manage so well.

It's a great book, and not really political in any way. Aside from a very brief mention at the end, the President is not mentioned at all. The military leadership are not mentioned often, and when they are, it's usually questions from the author, not from the soldiers. Frankly, most of them have little interest in the broader politics of the campaign, and are only focused on doing the job they've been assigned. The author's questions about why they are in Korengal in the first place are mostly met with shrugs. The only question the soldiers seem to have is not why they are at war in Afghanistan but why they are NOT at war with Pakistan (a prescient question at the time, considering what we now know about Pakistan's role in harboring Osama Bin Laden). For the most part though, they are merely interested in keeping their fellow soldiers alive.

I found this book pretty emotional--several of the soldiers featured do die--but not graphic. The language is a bit salty, but that's to be expected. On the whole, I thought it was a well-written, well-researched story of a world I can never truly understand.

And to all members of the military--past, future, and present--thank you for your service to our country. Maybe we don't say it as much as we should, but your courage and sacrifices are appreciated.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

CBR4 #25: The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

On its surface, this book sounded like something I would like. A movie critic/historian sets out to write a book about Tubby Thackeray, a silent-era film star who has been all but forgotten by the modern era. Unfortunately, it turns out that things would have been a lot better if Tubby had stayed forgotten.

The problems I had with this book were probably mostly personal. I didn't like the narrator at all--I found him to be something of a spineless twerp--and none of the other characters appealed to me either. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed that Tubby didn't crawl out of the screen Ring-style and eat everybody in the first 100 pages. Plus, I am very iffy about unreliable narrators. Although sometimes the effect can be used really well, in this one I found it extremely obvious and therefore a bit lame.

Some of the imagery was good, and I did appreciate the tone of ever-rising paranoia and tension, but there were long bits that consisted of the narrator arguing via message board with an anonymous commenter...who spelled terribly.  I know it was intentional, but as a word nerd, that just irked me no end. I got what the author was going for, I just didn't like it very much.

Allegedly, this book is very Lovecraftian. I don't know about that, as I haven't gotten around to reading any Lovecraft yet. I'll just say that while others might enjoy this book, it wasn't for me.

CBR4 #24: The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

In some ways, this is a stereo-typical noir parody. The detective, Eddie LaCrosse is an embittered cynic, just trying to get by and deal with his dark past. His office is above a bar people with tough characters and an even tougher barmaid. An old friend (who is now a pretty important guy) drops by with a problem -- it seems that his wife has gone crazy and killed their son. The friend wants Eddie to investigate and see if everything is as it seems to be (hint: it's not.) Eddie has to not only solve the mystery, but also confront some of the demons of his past.

Now take that story, and move it to a time of swords and horses. Eddie's friend is a king, and magic is involved in daily life. Eddie still has to solve the mystery, but now there are sword battles and curses and all the tropes of fantasy.

It's an odd cross between Sam Spade and Lord of the Rings, but it somehow works. The character of Eddie is great, and the mystery was intriguing. It's particularly entertaining for anyone who enjoys both of the parodied genres, but the author--while certainly working the parody angle--is serious about the plot and making the story work on its own. The details are great, and I often found myself chuckling aloud at the dialogue or at Eddie's take on how events unfold.

I really enjoyed this, and look forward to picking up the other books in the series.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

CBR4 #23: What the Corpse Revealed by Hugh Miller

As you well know, I've read several of these medical examiner books, and frankly, I was least impressed with this one. It's not that it was bad, necessarily. There were several cases laid out wherein forensics were used to find out what had happened to the victims. The writing was clear and relatively easy to read. The main issue was that all the stories were second-hand--the author, unlike the authors of the previous works I've read on this subject, was not personally involved as a forensic professional, but is just documenting the cases of others.

While I don't like TOO much personal stuff intruding into the case histories (see this season of Bones for an example of a perfectly-balanced procedural tipped over into "crappy family drama") there is something to be said for seeing a glimpse of the forensic pathologist behind the mask. The kind of people who seem to get into this profession are often interesting characters, and have a lot to add to any story that may involve them. It seems a shame to go too far the other way, leaving out the personal touch almost entirely.

As I said, this isn't a bad book for the genre, but it doesn't have any additional spark or personality to lift it above "informative" and into "exciting reading" territory.

Friday, May 11, 2012

CBR4 #22: Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky

Strangely, this is another book I picked up due to my viewing habits. I am a huge fan of the film Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. Although it's obviously very fictitious historical fiction, it's still a tremendous film full of amazing performances. My favorite character in it is definitely Sir Francis Walsingham, played by Geoffrey Rush as a cunning strategist and loyal ally. I figured that while he's obviously been made more interesting for the film, somewhere there must be a grain of truth to his role, and I bought this book to try and find it.

Walsingham was in fact one of Queen Elizabeth's most trusted advisers. He was a devout protestant who had spent a great deal of time outside of England, acting as an ambassador. He was a quiet, frugal person, a devoted family man and conscientious civil servant. He was also a master of strategy; he managed to place double agents, crack codes, use misinformation to achieve his goals, and handle a rather indecisive monarch. At the time, there were plots against the queen from every direction, and Walsingham used his network of spies to stay one step ahead of every one.

The other historical personalities who appear in the piece are pretty well fleshed out as well. The queen herself doesn't come off very well--she's shown as often refusing to take action until circumstances are already out of hand, making Walsingham's job more difficult than it needed to be. There is also a lot of petty jealousy from other members of court, as well as some traitors within the walls.

The book is well-researched, but it is not entirely chronological, which leads to some confusion about the sequence in which events happened. However, it's a fascinating depiction of the work of a man far ahead of his time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

CBR4 #21: Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West by Ann Seagraves

I am a big fan of westerns. I love the old ones--anything with Clint Eastwood on a horse will probably make me happy--and I like the newer ones, like Tombstone and the Coen brothers' excellent remake of True Grit. I am especially fond of HBO's (entirely too short-lived) TV show Deadwood. If you haven't seen it, I'd suggest you run out and get seasons one and two immediately (season three is...not as good.) The show is graphic (it's HBO, there are going to be boobs), the language is EXTREMELY salty, and some characters require the use of subtitles to get anything out of their dialogue. However, the acting is top-notch, the plots and dialogue are nearly Shakespearean, and Al Swearengen is about the coolest character to ever grace my television.

I told you that story to tell you this one:

Several of the characters on Deadwood are prostitutes. During the first season, pretty much the only women in the fledgling city are the hookers that were brought in to make money off the miners. The actresses who play them were great at their jobs, and they made me wonder about the lives of the real women who made their living on the wild frontier. Hence, this book.

Soiled Doves is not a bad book. It is filled with interesting anecdotes about famous prostitutes and madams of the time. However, I feel like the author glossed over some of the reality of their situations. While she does point out that many of the women who ended up as wild west hookers did so out of desperation, she tends to focus more on the ones who were successful. I realize that that makes for a more entertaining and enjoyable book, but sometimes I felt like the message was "Here's some adorable stories about prostitutes!" The writing is a bit repetitious, and could have used a more strict editor.

The other problem I have is that while I am sure the author did extensive research, I wonder how accurate many of these stories are. They seem very tall-tale-ish to me, just as the stories of Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp have become more palatable over time (for example, Kurt Russell's portrayal aside, Wyatt Earp was in reality kind of a scumbag con-artist -- still an interesting guy, but not the folk-hero he's made out to be). The danger of a book like this is while Seagraves does point out the downside of prostitution in the era, she also does a certain amount of romanticizing. I wonder if she would find the habits of modern prostitutes as quirky and their drive to survive in difficult situations as "courageous".

This is not a bad book to start with if one is interested in the subject, but I think I may have to dig a little deeper to get any real information.

Also, seriously, watch Deadwood. It's tremendous.

CBR4 #20: San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires by Dennis Smith

In 1906, a massive earthquake struck the young city of San Francisco. While still suffering the aftershocks of the quake, fires broke out in several locations. Due to poor preparation and some very poor decision-making by those in authority, the fires would grow and rage out of control for days, destroying large swaths of the coastal city.

This book did a great job of explaining the events that led to the fires, as well as the context of how the city functioned at the time. Corruption in the local government was indirectly responsible for the lack of available water to fight the fire, and an unclear chain of command resulted in an unqualified member of the military taking charge of the fire-fighting process. His decisions to evacuate citizens (instead of allowing them to stay and try to save their homes), authorize the use of dynamite (by unqualified, untrained soldiers) to create firebreaks, and to declare martial law in the city resulted in the death of many people and the destruction of much of the city.The local firefighters, some local businessmen, and some members of the military--particularly the Navy--are portrayed well in the tale, but for the most part it is a litany of incompetence and poor planning.

The book is written well, and is clearly well-researched. My main issue with it is the switch back and forth between somewhat dry historical tome and historical fiction. I feel that the author should have gone in one direction or the other. However, I find this is often the case in books about historical events like this, since they can get very dry and impersonal if left without the emotional impact of having relateable "characters".

On the whole, I'd recommend this to any history buffs who might be interested in the event, but not to someone looking for pleasure reading.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CBR4 #19: Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a WWII U-Boat Attack by Tom Nagorski

In the fall of 1940, London was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live. The German blitz was raining down destruction on the heads of Londoners, and anyone who could manage to get out of town did so. Many wealthy families moved to their country estates, or at the least sent their children to stay with friends outside the city. Since this was not an option available to the poor, the British government developed a program which would allow children from low-income families to travel to Canada and remain safely across the Atlantic from the hazards of war. Many thought that having their children accepted into the program was a lucky break. Unfortunately for those whose children boarded the S.S. City of Benares, it became a nightmare.

The ship, which carried ninety displaced children (as well as chaperones, crew, and paying passengers, totalling about four hundred people aboard total) was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic, nearly 600 miles from shore. The weather was rough, and despite the best efforts of crew and passengers, most of the lifeboats capsized, dumping adults and children alike into the cold seas. Most were forced to wait almost 24 hours for rescue, clinging to whatever bits of wreckage they could find. One lifeboat, which had been tossed away from the others, drifted for eight days with forty-six passengers aboard, among them seven of the children.

Although the story is extremely sad, as all but fourteen of the children perished, the tale of those who survived is inspirational. The lengths the surviving adults went to in order to save the children were positively heroic, and the actions of the children themselves border on the miraculous.

The book is written extremely well, keeping the story moving along while still incorporating as many facts as possible. The author has done extensive research in order to make everything extremely realistic as well as captivating. He also had a personal connection to the story, as his great uncle was an adult passenger on the lifeboat that was adrift.

I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys inspirational stories of survival .

CBR4 #18: The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan

[Okay, so I am about 16 books behind in my blogging. I wish I had better excuses (you know, like "I was in a shipwreck!" or "I was kidnapped by a cult!" or "The zombie apocalypse happened and I was holed up in a grocery store without wifi!") but really it's just that work has been busy and by the time I get home I really don't feel like spending any more time staring at a computer. However, today is quiet, and I figured I should probably make an effort at catching up before the hole is so deep that the mere thought of trying to dig out is overwhelming. That means the reviews will probably not be very long, but at least there will be SOMETHING getting done around here.]

It's tough to describe The Hawkline Monster. I suppose that the author's view of it as a "Gothic Western" is not exactly inaccurate, but at the same time it's not very descriptive. Then again, I'm not sure there's a word (or even a group of words) that could have prepared me for this book.

The premise--at its most basic--is that two gun-slingers in the old west are approached by a young Indian girl who asks them to come out to the Hawkline mansion and kill a monster. They agree, and ride out to the solitary Hawkline mansion and meet the young Miss Hawklines (not a typo--there are two), who claim there is a monster under their house. The two gun-slingers investigate and discover there IS something odd going on, though it's maybe not what they were expecting.

This sounds pretty straight-forward when described this way, but it's really not. The plot doesn't flow neatly forward, and large chunks of the action don't exactly make sense. One character morphs into another and no one seems to notice. The Miss Hawklines are so alike they can't even tell themselves apart. Conversations wander, time is lost, and one of the shadows in the house is a little more active than a shadow should be. It's all very absurd, but at the same time the style of writing is so prosaic that the weirdness becomes even MORE disconcerting because the reader is the only one who seems to notice.

Another thing that might not be obvious from the description is how funny this book is. Some of that comes from the tone, which is hysterically dry. Utterly bizarre occurrences are narrated as though they are common daily habits. The chapters are all very short and precise. Many deal with a single event, or even a single thought process. The dialogue is often so surreal it's tough NOT to laugh.

On the whole, I am pretty sure I enjoy this book, though I found the plot a little lacking. There is plenty of bad language and sexual situations, so not for children or delicate adults. However, for those who enjoy some determined weirdness, this isn't a bad way to go.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

CBR4 #17: The Tomb by F. Paul Wilson

Repairman Jack is a fixer. He isn't likely to fix a leaky sink or malfunctioning dryer, but he WILL help get rid of a stalker, deal with vandals who won't leave you alone, or track down property you might not want the cops to know is missing.

In this tale, Jack finds himself tracking down a special necklace for a Bengali diplomat. He also is called upon (grudgingly) by his ex-girlfriend to help locate an elderly friend who has gone missing. Unsurprisingly, the two events are related. What might be surprising is how things end up shaking out.

I liked the character of Repairman Jack very much. He's interesting, with a distinctive voice and clear motivations. His girlfriend Gia was not as likable, but at least her motivation to make the choices she did was also clear. The side characters were also well done, including Jack's pawn-broker friend and Gia's adorable daughter Vicky.

Frankly, I did see one of the twists coming from fairly early on, but it didn't effect how much I enjoyed the story. The characters managed to hold my interest even when the plot got a little obvious. It is a little formulaic, but in an enjoyable sort of way. I will definitely be looking into this series, as it seems to be some light, fun reading.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

CBR4 #16: Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson

A nun, a rabbi, a lesbian, and a disgraced priest survive the vampire apocalypse...

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it's actually the plot of this pretty good little page-turner by F. Paul Wilson.

Whereas most books about vampires taking over the world begin early in the process, this one starts after it's all over but the shouting. The vampires took over Europe, then swept into the US, destroying the power structure and rounding up the people to use as cattle. Some humans have remained free, but they live in fear. During the night, they hide from the vampires, and during the day they hide from the "cowboys" -- humans who work for the vampires. Most people scrape out survival as best they can, with little hope that things will ever change. However, a small group led by Father Joe--a priest who was thrown out of his parish in disgrace--discovers the will to fight back.

This is exactly the kind of book I like. A group of people who seem to have very little in common band together and fight for the common good. The baddies are ruthless, the good are flawed, and there are a few surprises along the way. I'll definitely be investigating the sequel to this one.

Monday, March 5, 2012

CBR4 #15: Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Thirty years ago, something evil came to the small town of Pine Deep. The evil was stymied, but not destroyed. Now, most residents of "the Most Haunted Town in America" have forgotten what happened. Some of them still remember, though. And some of them are still very, very angry.

This was a pretty good book. I liked the protagonists--ex-cop Malcolm Crow, his girlfriend Val, and young "Iron Mike" Sweeney--a lot. They were were relateable characters, with emotions and reactions I found believable. Crow in particular was very cool. Val was a strong female character, mostly independent and smart. Even the antagonistic characters--dangerous convict Karl, Mike's abusive stepfather Vic, and (most disturbing) religious fanatic Tow-Truck Eddie--had their own motivations and points of view.

The main problem I had with this book is that it feels incomplete. I realize that it's the first book in a trilogy, but it felt like there was a lot of set up and very little pay-off. Many things are hinted at, both from the future and the past, but almost nothing actually came to fruition. I found myself wanting at least a few answers. While I understand the author wanted to leave the audience hungry for more from the second book, I felt like he should have thrown me a bone at some point--explain a little more about what happened thirty years ago, or about the plan, or about the characters, or SOMETHING. Nothing seemed to resolve and I felt I'd been left hanging.

I plan to get the other books in this trilogy eventually because I am interested in finding out what happens to the characters. However, at this point I'm still feeling a bit annoyed with the author.

Friday, February 24, 2012

CBR4 #14: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

As much as I like them, I will admit that most zombie books are basically the same. Usually, they start out with things being normal, then the zombie apocalypse happens, the survivors are thrown into disarray, and eventually they band together and try to fight back after discovering that no help is on the way and the only people they can rely on are themselves. Lucky for me (and probably you too) this book is different.

This is the story of a man who is nicknamed Mark Spitz. Before the zombies took over the world, he was perfectly average. No matter what he did, he always ended up in the comfortable middle of things. He was neither very good nor very poor at anything. Then the world fell apart and it turned out that he was good at surviving, if nothing else.

When the story starts, Mark and his teammates Kaitlyn and Gary are employed as "sweepers". At the time, the government has been reestablished, and things are starting to proceed forward with all the grace and expediency one can expect from a burgeoning bureaucracy. The Marines had come in and cleared a large part of Manhattan of the rampaging dead, building a wall around their clear area. Now the teams of sweepers must go through and eliminate any stragglers. "Stragglers" are zombies who don't eat or chase, but just remain frozen like statues in some aspect of their former lives--opening the copy machine, standing on a corner waiting for a (long burned-out) light to change, window-shopping through a broken, empty window. The idea is to make this part of the city inhabitable again.

The frame of the story takes place over the course of three days, filled out with many flashbacks from Mark Spitz's life. He also spends time philosophically musing over the state of the earth and his place in it, and what place the zombies might have in the future of the country.

The writing in this was great (I read it directly after Johnny Gruesome and the adjustment was a little tough, because the language in this was so dense and full of top-shelf vocabulary). I identified with each of the characters, all of whom were distinct and relateable. Mark Spitz's voice is great, defined by a certain cynical humor. The story was sometimes confusing due to the lack of chronology, but it always came back together and moved on in a new direction. The plot was also very original and different than a lot of the other entries in this genre. In general, this was just a great book to read. I highly recommend it.

CBR4 #13: Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti

This past summer, there was a lot of hullabaloo about hurricane Irene. The idea of a hurricane hitting all the way up in here in New England with any kind of strength seemed somewhat ridiculous. Hurricanes are a southern thing, right? Something that people in Florida and Louisiana and places along the coast down there have to worry about, not those of us in Boston! Turns out, that wasn't true this summer, and it certainly wasn't true in September of 1938, either.

R.A. Scotti has put together an informative, well-researched book about what happened when a giant hurricane struck along the northern Atlantic coast. Due to lack of communication between the few weather tracking bureaus at the time, no one expected the storm. It hit as a category five, with an unimaginable fury: destroying hundreds of houses, uprooting trees, derailing trains, killing numerous people, and changing the landscape of the New England coast forever.

The author tells the stories of several groups who managed to weather the storm, riding on the storm surge on cars, a roof that had torn free, or even a set of outdoor steps. As a result of the devestation, the federal government began to make reforms in how weather was predicted and how knowledge could be shared in order to avoid such a tragedy in the future.The storm's ferocity and unexpected arrival was a terrifying reminder at the time that although men were making great strides in technology, nature could still be unpredictable and destructive.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in disaster history or in the science of hurricanes.

Friday, February 17, 2012

CBR4 #12: Johnny Gruesome by Gregory Lamberson

(Here thar be spoilers, me hearties. Though if you read this review and are still tempted to read the book, I've clearly done it wrong.)

You may have noticed in the course of the hundreds of reviews I've done over the past few years that there have been very few books to which I've had a strong negative reaction. Mostly I can find SOMETHING likable about each story.  If a story has something going for it -- interesting plot, relateable characters, gripping language--I am willing to overlook a lot. I can suspend my disbelief if I think it might be worth it. I can even appreciate things that are bad, as long as they are bad with aplomb. (Hence my Nicolas Cage obsession, obviously.) Even things that I don't particularly like, I mostly feel pretty "meh" about. I don't get worked up into Lewis Black-style rage.

Johnny Gruesome is the rare exception to that rule.

Eric is a senior in high school, and his best friend is Johnny Grissom. They have been best friends since elementary school, even though Evan is more traditional and Johnny is a bit of a rebel and trouble-maker (He likes heavy metal music and has LONG HAIR!) One night, Eric and Johnny are out with Johnny's girlfriend Karen and their friend Gary, and there's a car accident. Johnny gets a little crazy, and Gary kills him, despite Eric's somewhat pathetic efforts to the contrary. The three teenagers decide to make it look like an accident, so they push Johnny and his car into the freezing river. Then he comes back and starts killing EVERYONE!

This is the basis of the plot. There are some minor subplots that go nowhere, but for the most part it's just Johnny killing people he doesn't like. And Eric doping around not knowing what's going on for 90% of the book.

Let's look at some reasons this book is bad:

1. Plot: Most of the main characters are in no danger most of the way through. They're barely even threatened for the first half. Johnny instead spends some time changing his clothes and hanging out before heading out to kill a bunch of characters we've perhaps seen once. Johnny kills the local priest who apparently maybe molested him. He kills some of the guys on the wrestling team who were douchey to him when he was alive. He kills everyone who works at the funeral home, as he felt they violated him somehow while preparing him for his funeral. He sexually assaults his home room teacher. He murders Eric's girlfriend, whom he liked when he was alive. He kills Karen and Gary. And then he tries to kill Eric. Luckily, Eric manages to escape with the help of the home room teacher and her husband the "acting" police chief (a big deal is made about how he's not really the chief, but it's one of those subplots that goes nowhere). Then he traps Johnny in the river because he read on the internet that ghosts can't get out of flowing water. Seriously. That is the plot. Johnny spends the majority of his time in his room at his house being pissed off, going out occasionally to kill people and get moisturizer to keep his skin from all rotting off (I AM NOT KIDDING).

2. The writing is bad. This book is written like it's a YA novel, except the dialogue, drug use, sexual situations, and graphic violence make it totally inappropriate for children. It's not a stylistic choice, as far as I can tell. I think the author is just kind of dumb. I mean, he's happy to describe a woman having her head pulled open with a crowbar, but expressing any true emotional impact or interesting extraneous detail is apparently beyond him. Actually, the only time he even makes any real attempt at description is when he's going for a gross out--whether it's stuffing the local rich jerk's decapitated head in a deflated basketball, the aforementioned crowbar assault, sodomizing the priest, or Johnny trying to kiss the homeroom teacher with his rotting tongue. Perhaps if he'd put even a smidge of that energy into creating a passable environment or believable dialogue or subtlety of emotion he might have ended up with a better book.

3. The characters were poorly fleshed out. Their motivations didn't make sense, and sometimes were directly contradictory. Before death, Johnny was a rebel, but a good-hearted one. He was tough but loyal to his friend, difficult at school but not mean-spirited. Then he suddenly becomes evil. I mean, I suppose it's because he was killed, but I just didn't buy the about-face in personality. There was no conflict in him. As a reader, I couldn't wrap my head around the transformation, and the author did nothing to help. Eric is merely dull and useless. He wanders through the story suffering generalized anxiety, pondering at the spree of horrific murders. Eventually he confides in the teacher, who insists he go to the police. Then later he decides to go ALONE out to the icy river to confront the murderous wraith...which is how he ends up almost drowning in an ice coated river. The women in the story are even worse. One is a junkie, one might as well be named "Doomed Romantic Interest", and one is both a hysterical victim and also such a dope that she nearly shoots Eric while trying to rescue him. The minor characters conform to their particular stereotypes--arrogant jocks, asshole rich jock, sad alcoholic dad, half-witted former athlete, creepy funeral home family, sleazy drug dealer--without adding anything at all new, different, or interesting.

Clearly, this book wanted to be Stephen King's Christine. The difference is that Christine has SUBTEXT. Christine, at its heart, is about the destructive effect that addiction can have on relationships. This book at its heart is a direct-to-DVD slasher film starring a former porn start and some 80s sitcom actor who just got out of "Celebrity Rehab."


This book was goddamn stupid. Every single facet of it was poorly planned and poorly executed. Frankly, I find it INSULTING to my intelligence. It gives me a pain in the middle of my forehead, like any moment blood is going to start shooting out my nose. If any of you still feel the need to read this abomination after what I've said about it here...well...I'm not sure we can be friends anymore.

CBR4 #11: Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham's detective Albert Campion is not really very appealing. His decision to pretend to be stupid might be useful for the process of detection, but it doesn't make for a very pleasant reading experience.

In this mystery, Albert is trying to protect an American judge from the murderous intentions of the dangerous Simister gang. Nevermind that we don't really know much at all about the Simister gang aside from the brief mention in The Crime at Black Dudley. Suffice it to say that they are apparently very sinister and very dangerous. The American judge is clever but curmudgeony. His son is dashing and worried. His daughter is very beautiful and cries all the time. Albert's young friends with whom he secrets the judge are young, dashing, and worried, but in a much more British way. There is also a clueless art dealer, some colorful local people, and a chatty sneak thief. The characters are mostly entertaining, and I particularly liked Albert's friend Biddy and his large, criminally-inclined manservant, Lugg. Unfortunately, I didn't like Albert himself, which makes reading book in which he is the main character rather difficult.

The mystery itself was all right, and the plot moved along at a reasonable clip. At the end, when Albert stopped pretending to be an idiot and actually let his true self shine through, I finally really got into it. Too bad it took so long for that to happen.

This is definitely in the vein of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. I'm told that the books get better as the series continues, but it may be a while before I make another attempt.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

CBR4 #10: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage is sort of a book about vampires. It's kind of like 'Salem's Lot, but on a world-wide scale. It's also sort of a book about post-apocalyptic life, and how humans will survive when life as they know it suddenly ceases forever.

There are three main sections to this story. The first takes place in modern times. In the mountains in Colorado, the government is working on a special secret experiment. A group of scientists brought back something potentially revolutionary from the Amazonian jungle. Unfortunately, it's more dangerous than they'd realized. And it's not helping that they're testing it on death row inmates. Agent Brad Wolgast and his partner are tasked with going and getting the inmates to volunteer for the trial, which doesn't bother him too much. When the next target turns out to be a little girl, though, he begins to have second thoughts. And that's right about the time things go haywire.

The next section is set a hundred years in the future. It focuses on a young man named Peter who lives in a small fortified community. The middle chapters are a lot of exposition about what happened during the cataclysm and how Peter's world has come to be. It's frankly a little draggy, and I wished the author would have perhaps cut it down just a bit. Although it's interesting to see how different life is for Peter versus the way things were for people in the first section, not a lot HAPPENS. It's not until the third section, when Peter and a group of adventurers set out on a quest that things begin to get interesting again.

Except for the aforementioned slow middle, this was a great book. The characters were well-detailed, and even though there were quite a few of them, they all were distinctive. The plot was put together well, and it kept me interested nearly all the way through. Even during the slightly dull parts, I kept reading because I was so invested in the characters that I HAD to know what was going to happen to them. There were some predictable moments and also some cool surprises.

Apparently Justin Cronin is at work on a sequel, and if that's the case I am very much looking forward to it.

CBR4 #9: Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner by Michael Baden

I know, I know--once again with the medical examiner books. I'm sorry, but I just can't help it. The whole process is so interesting to me. I'm consistently amazed at the amount of information a forensic specialist can pull from tiny bits of biological evidence.

Dr. Michael Baden is one of the more famous medical examiners in the country--he worked on many historic cases, including the investigation into the Kennedy assassination, John Belushi's death, and the OJ Simpson case. He's also had a television program detailing his work on HBO.

The book was well-written, and Dr. Baden tries to be educational without being too dry or boring. There are a variety of cases with a variety of outcomes, and each attempts to be illustrative of a specific technique or method.

Unnatural Death is a pretty good example of the genre, though it necessarily goes over some of the same ground covered by the previous works. I will say that Dr. Baden spends more time that I thought necessary complaining about the politics involved in being the medical examiner in a large city. He had a bunch of political and legal issues that occurred back when Ed Koch was the mayor of New York City. I kept forgetting that the book is more than twenty years old, so all these slights were still fresh when he wrote it. I found it a bit petty and unrelated to the focus of the work, though.

On the whole, this is a pretty good read, and the fact that so many celebrities and famous cases were mentioned lends itself to a certain type of prurient interest. I confess that while I mostly read because I find forensic pathology fascinating, I am (like most people) not immune to a little celebrity gossip now and then.

Friday, February 3, 2012

CBR4 #8: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. The concept was interesting, some of the characters were really great. It just seemed like the author came up with a great concept and then kind of phoned it in for a while. The romantic part of the plot was not only distracting but kind of stupid. The fact that my favorite character in the whole thing was a German army commander doesn't really bode well, to be honest.

The basic plot begins when a German commander is ordered to move his troops to a fortified building that over looks a pass in Romania. The German high command is planning to move through the pass to the town of Ploiesti in order to both secure fuel supplies and set up a new "work camp", and they want to be sure they will have a clear path. The commander is uncomfortable with the order, uncomfortable with the direction things have been taking with regard to "work camps," and is frankly not feeling very optimistic about the building. The walls are covered with strange metalwork crosses, and the atmosphere is deeply creepy. And that's BEFORE his men start to be murdered in the night. He sends for help and a group of SS men (along with their arrogant leader) are sent to help out on their way to Ploiesti. The SS leader believes the local villagers are staging opposition. But then something happens to convince him, too, that things are not at all the way they should be.

The story continues on, gathering to the "keep" a disabled Romanian Jewish scholar and his beautiful daughter as well as a mysterious man with an even more mysterious mission. They end up having to defeat what might be the ultimate evil.

See? Doesn't that sound interesting? And it should have been! Something is eating Nazis! Is it evil? Is it helping? What is the deal with all the weird obsequious villagers and the lack of birds? Unfortunately, it sounds more exciting than it turned out to be. The origin story of the evil was pretty lame, and despite some excellent creepy moments along the way featuring the German soldiers and the Nazis, the finale was kind of a let-down. Plus, as I mentioned before, the romance was saccharine at best.

Though I wasn't crazy about The Keep, I plan to read another book by Wilson. There was a lot of potential here, and the characterization of the German leader (he was definitely my favorite character in the whole thing) was pretty good. I'll let you know if the next book lives up to my hopes and makes this one worth reading in retrospect.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CBR4 #7: The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

In some ways, The Crime at Black Dudley is a very typical British country house mystery. A bunch of upper class people are invited to a party weekend at some god-forsaken, off-the-beaten-path estate. They arrive to find they don't necessarily know each other, and are a bit curious as to why they have been chosen. The house comes complete with creepy relative, hostile manservant, and a very weird family tradition. When a murder occurs, it's only the beginning of what will turn out to be a simply disastrous weekend.  The women weep, the men engage in fisticuffs, there are secret passages, hidden identities, and a few fiendish plots.

The main character is Dr. George Abbershaw, a mild-mannered physician who occasionally consults for Scotland Yard. The actual detective of the piece is Albert Campion, who both extremely intelligent AND extremely weird. Although Dr. Abbershaw in some ways functions as a Dr. Watson, he is less privy to Campion's actions and motivations. It's a bit like seeing a Sherlock Holmes story from Lestrade's point of view--glimpses of the great detective at work, hints of his motives, some short and somewhat confusing explanations, but never a full picture of what is going on.

The characters were pretty well drawn and interesting. Although Campion was used sparingly, I can see why Allingham decided to make him the star of her series rather than Dr. Abbershaw. The plot was all right, though nothing particularly surprising or thought-provoking. On the whole, it's a decent murder-mystery, but nothing special.

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...