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.