Archive for August, 2011

29
Aug
11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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29
Aug
11

CR3 #68: The Throat by Peter Straub

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

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

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

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

25
Aug
11

CR3 #67: Koko by Peter Straub

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

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

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

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

16
Aug
11

CR3 #66: Flesh Eaters by Joe McKinney

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

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

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

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

10
Aug
11

CR3 #65: Mystery by Peter Straub

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

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

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

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

04
Aug
11

CR3 #64: Summer of Night by Dan Simmons

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

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

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

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

01
Aug
11

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

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

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

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