Archive for September, 2011

30
Sep
11

CR3 #78: Treachery at Sharpnose Point by Jeremy Seal

The full title of this book is Treachery at Sharpnose Point: Unraveling the Mystery of the Caldonia’s Final Voyage. And that is a fairly accurate description of what this book is about.

The author, Jeremy Seal, begins by discovering an antique masthead planted in the ground at a quaint Cornish cemetery. He finds that it’s a memorial to several sailors who died during a shipwreck in 1842. Seal is intrigued with the possible story behind this monument, and decided to do some research to find out who these men were, what might have happened to them, and how they came to be buried in this particular graveyard. In his research he uncovers the history of shipwrecks along the coasts of Cornwall, and the effect these wrecks had on the locals–plundering the battered wrecks of ships was a village effort, especially due to food shortages and high taxes. Seal starts to suspect that perhaps the people of Morwenstow had more to do with the wreck of the Caledonia than noted in the historical record. After all, rumors persisted for decades that some of the people along the country’s coasts were less helpful (to the point of blatantly destructive) to ships that found themselves in trouble. The author tracks both the men on the ship and some of the villagers–their larger-than-life vicar, for example–to try and understand what happened.

Unfortunately, this book isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. In some ways it is pure non-fiction. The author not only writes about the researched facts of the case, he also details his pursuit of them, and his feelings about what he finds. It’s straddling the line between scholarly non-fiction and memoir in a strange but not unworkable way. However, on the other hand there are fiction chapters interwoven in with the factual chapters. In these sections, Seal writes a tale about the men who sailed on the Caledonia’s final voyage, and tries to imagine what brought them to their doom. It’s a weird combination of fact and complete fiction, and I think some might find it rather confusing. I wish the author had chosen either fact or historical fiction and then stuck to his plan.

On the whole, not a bad book but not one of the better ones in its genre.

29
Sep
11

CR3 #77: 48 by James Herbert

James Herbert’s 48 begins three years after the end of World War II. In this world, Hitler’s final act before committing suicide was to release the Nazis’ top secret bio-weapon over London. The weapon is a blood disease that causes most people to drop dead wherever they may be. Some take slightly longer to die, some linger for years as their blood slowly turns black and congeals in their veins. Some, it turns out, are totally immune due to a sheer fluke of genetics. One such person is an American pilot named Hoke. He’s spent the past three years surviving alone in London, accompanied by a stray dog. As the book begins, he’s on the run from a group of “blackshirts,” a group of “slow-death” suffers lead by a mad nobleman. Hoke runs across a small band of fellow survivors, and soon all of them are fighting for their lives in a post-apocalyptic world.

 

This was not a bad read. The characters are a tiny bit cliched, but it is after all not a character study but a thrilling empty-world adventure book. For the most part, the main character is a typical action hero, full of cutting one-liners, bravado, and a slightly tragic back story. The other characters are distinct, but not particularly engaging. The story is frankly too short to get attached to any of the secondary characters. There are some really great chase scenes, and one through the London tube system is dark, creepy, and a little bit scary. On the whole, this is not a bad action book, but there’s not much more to it than that.

28
Sep
11

CR3 #76: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night is technically part of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, but it isn’t narrated by Wimsey. Instead, he is a secondary character, and the narrator is author Harriet Vane. Harriet has returned to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College at Oxford, for her “gaudy” (reunion). She finds while she is there that there is a malicious poison-pen writer stalking the current students and faculty, and what begins with childish pranks soon becomes more and more terrifying. Harriet, as a mystery novelist, is called upon by the dean to try and investigate the situation while ostensibly staying at the college to work on some academic writing. Eventually, she finds herself beyond her depth and calls upon Lord Peter Wimsey–who managed to save her from hanging a few years previous when she was accused of murder–to assist her. He brings with him his own set of difficulties, as their relationship isn’t really what either of them wants. They have to work together to both find the suspect and figure out what they mean to one another.

The book is set in the early 1930s, and women who pursued higher education were looked on very differently than they are now. Woven in with the mystery is the debate over what a woman’s role in society should be. Should all women be in the home? Should they all be attending college? Is one group superior to the other? Harriet has to navigate through a variety of viewpoints, and also decide what her opinion is, and that adds another dimension to the book, elevating it above a simple mystery tale.

Sayers has people this story with many different and interesting characters. The professors at the college, as well as the domestic staff, the students, and the male students at the institution of learning next door are all detailed and entertaining. The plot is interesting, and made sense logically. There were some points where things dragged a little bit–some of the philosophical debates ran a bit long for my taste–but the pace would always pick up again. Also, the interactions between Harriet and Lord Peter are adorable.

I highly recommend this book to fans of old-fashioned mystery stories, and I intend to pick up more of Sayers’s work in the future.

15
Sep
11

CR3 #75: Deus Ex Machina by Andrew Foster Altschul

I know that reality television is destroying our brains. I know that it’s irreparably damaged the scripted television industry. I know that it is a worthless waste of time. And yet…I still love some of it.

I’m picky about the reality I watch. I don’t like anything medical-related. Both Hoarders and Intervention are deeply psychologically upsetting to me. I generally avoid dating shows (with the notable exception of Rock of Love–that was trashy in ways I had previously never imagined). I feel particularly strongly about not watching reality shows featuring children (they are at the mercy of their attention-whoring parents, and thus unable to avoid the damage that comes from being exposed to the world). I try to be ethical about my reality show choices. I don’t want to give my support in any way to shows that include the word “wives” in the title, nor do I want to support shows that reward people for popping out an unreasonable number of children (both that show about those people with 19 kids and Teen Mom would fit into this category).

As for things I like: I will watch anything with a drag queen on it. I love to watch pretty girls cry on America’s Next Top Model. I like shows like Project Runway or America’s Best Dance Crew where talented people have to overcome challenges to try and create something. Watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition makes me feel good about myself because they are actually helping people. But the gateway drug is definitely Survivor.  Take a group of people, drop them in some out of the way spot, force them to participate in challenges, and make them vote EACH OTHER off the island until only one is left. The show has the potential to be tremendous–in past seasons, there have been moments of wild humor, pathos, and extreme drama. All of the players attempt via different strategies to be the last one standing. There have been years when the least likely players have managed somehow to make it to the end. And of course there is the joy in watching the heat, hunger, lack of sleep, constant stress, and sheer inability to have a moment of privacy get to these people. Some of them just lose their minds, and then they become REALLY interesting. Obviously, the show has changed a lot over the years. Now there is more product placement (“And now we are heading to our Charmin Toilet Paper toilet hut!”), more manipulation of the game itself (dividing tribes by age or race, immunity idols, making sure the women are all stranded in totally inappropriate clothing), and worst, the players now understand being on TV. They plan to play a character, instead of allowing their genuine personalities to emerge. They know they can turn three weeks of Survivor into a career of club appearances, TV guide channel shows, and other reality television. It’s changed the way they approach the game, which has in turn changed the game.

Deus Ex Machina is the story of “the producer.” He created a show called “The Deserted,” which seems to be a Survivor clone. The original concept was to drop ten people off and just watch them exist.  However, by the time the book begins, The Deserted has mutated into something unbearable. It’s all product placement, network meddling, and online polls. The producer doesn’t know what’s happening, but he knows that it’s not what he originally wanted. Meanwhile, this season’s Deserted stumble around the island, playing for all they’re worth. The production crew follow, documenting everything that happens, and trying to figure out where the line is between improving and intervening. After a while, the whole mess begins to go mad, and the producer starts to lose his grip.

The story feels very similar to a Chuck Palahniuk novel, in that it starts out sort of reasonable, then starts to spiral out into more and more insanity. The language is fairly stark, and in some places the plot can be a bit difficult to follow, since the producer is both experiencing what’s happening now and flashing back to things that happened in the past. It’s tough to say whether the characterization is good or not, because most of the characters are meant to be caricatures, especially the Deserted players. For anyone who has watched at least a season of Survivor, this book feels familiar, but also slightly disturbing. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys reality TV or at least discussing the ethics of it.

15
Sep
11

CR3 #74: Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign by Thomas Desjardins

One of my peculiar enthusiasms is the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s probably in the “Top Five Subjects I Know a Lot About” along with the Titanic, the Lincoln assassination, the Holocaust, and the American campaign in Europe in WWII. I’ve always been particularly fond of Colonel Joshua Laurence Chamberlain and the exploits of the 20th Maine regiment during the second day’s battle at Little Round Top. This book details how that particular regiment arrived at that point in history, who their opposition were, why the battle turned out the way it did, and what happened to the group after that notable day.

Unfortunately, Hollywood has apparently over-dramatized slightly the impressive feat that was accomplished on July 2, 1863. Apparently the brave bayonet charge that swept the 15th Alabama down off the hill was less a brilliant strategy from Chamberlain and more something that occurred almost organically. And it might not have even worked had the Alabamians not been split off from many of their fellow troops…and also without any water. Chamberlain actually spent the rest of his life trying to correct some of the misconceptions about his deeds, and many of the men became estranged due to their varied ideas of exactly what happened that day.

It’s kind of a sad story, really. When portrayed in the movie Gettysburg (an AMAZING film that I highly recommend), the bravery of the charge and the glory of the moment are breathtaking. It’s too bad that some (if not most) of that tale is untrue, or at the very least highly exaggerated. However, it’s important to keep in mind that while the story may be hyperbolic, it’s still a fairly impressive moment. Regardless the reasons for the charge or the way it began, a group of battered, exhausted men who were under attack by a determined enemy and had little to no ammunition left did charge down a hill and drive off the enemy, protecting the extreme left flank of the union army from being collapsed. Had that short battle–it’s estimated to have been just over ninety minutes of fighting–turned out differently, the battle of Gettysburg might have turned out very differently.

The book itself is rather dry–it’s clearly written to be a scholarly text rather than a pleasure read. It’s extensively footnoted, and it’s clear that the author was very careful in his research. He does his best to support his every argument with documented evidence, which is reassuring. He also includes several lists at the back of the book with information about the individual men who fought in the battle.

I’ve visited the 20th Maine memorial at Gettysburg, and it’s fairly impressive. Although there’s a neat path there now, it’s still a surprisingly steep hill, and hard to imagine anyone trying to charge either up or down it without serious injury (let alone dressed in layers of wool on a July day in Pennsylvania). While the book does ruin some of the romantic notions about what these men did, it’s still a great reminder of the things they accomplished and I’d recommend it to any Civil War enthusiast.

(I took this photo off the top of the Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg. It overlooks the memorials to the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 4th New York Cavalry, and the 2nd New York Cavalry, as well as the 8th Pennsylvania infantry and an information plaque about the Cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac.)

09
Sep
11

CR3 #73: The Crossing by Serita Ann Jakes

(I received this book from WaterBrook Press free through Goodreads.com. I appreciate their generosity, but my opinions cannot be swayed.)

When first reading the description of The Crossing, it sounded intriguing. Years ago, at a railroad crossing, a gun-wielding man got on a bus coming back from a high school football game. He shot one of the players in the arm and killed the young cheerleading coach. Many years later, the assistant DA husband of one of the girls who was on the bus, along with the football player–who has now become a police officer–reopen the case to try to get to the bottom of things. The premise sounded good…what I didn’t notice was the last bit of the description: “As the Campbells and Casio teeter on the bring of losing everything, will they be able to discover that what begins at the crossing ends at the cross?”

Yes, I had somehow gotten myself involved with contemporary Christian literature by mistake. “Well,” I figured, “too late to do anything about this now. Might as well read the book. The premise is still fairly interesting.” As it turns out, this was not a bad book at all. It was just not a good book for me.

The characters are all right, though it’s a little tough when the introduction to one of the protagonists (Casio, the former-football-player-turned-cop) begins with him raping and beating the crap out of his girlfriend. Apparently, his experiences back on the bus have led to a life of untamed rage (though I found myself wondering if perhaps some of his rage was due to having been named after a cheap brand of plastic keyboard). Claudia, the other main character, is also a wreck–the teacher killed had been her best friend, and she knows some secrets about the possible motive. Her husband Vic, the assistant DA, opens the case to try and bring Claudia peace, but finds that his help is just making everything worse. Luckily, he is understanding of her issues, because he is almost too perfect to be true. Narration is also provided by BJ, the teacher who died. The shifting perspectives actually work pretty well, and provide a variety of ways to look at the story.

The story itself is all right, though there are many diversions from the heart of the mystery, instead focusing on Claudia’s relationships with Vic and God, and also on Casio’s relationship with his girlfriend Hannah. I often found myself bored with Claudia and her philosophical and theological tangents. The author tried to bring in some other issues, including her relationship with her pastor father and critical mother, but I found those mostly distracting. Another problem was that the stakes for the characters never got very high. The plot plodded along as Vic and Casio investigate the old case, but really no one is ever in danger, and aside from possible closure, there is no real drive to solve this murder. The only real shock in the whole novel doesn’t even have anything to do with the murder. Personally, I didn’t find “Will Claudia be able to reconnect with her husband AND God?” to be a particularly pressing motivation to keep reading.

As I said, I am sure there are people who would enjoy this book. It is well-written, and the characters were for the most part reasonably realistic and interesting. However, my lack of interest in the Christian aspect of the story served as a major turn off for me.

02
Sep
11

CR3 #72: Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre

(This book was graciously sent to me for free by W.W. Norton & Co. via Goodreads.com. I think they’re going to wish they’d sent it to someone else.)

I hated Catcher in the Rye. I know it’s supposed to be some kind of iconic book about about teenage angst or something, but to me Holden Caulfield was just sort of a whiny twit who created most of his problems himself. Boohooo! My parents don’t understand me and my lack of effort is resulting in poor school performance and OMG SOMETIMES ADULTS LIE ABOUT THINGS! I tell you this because Lights Out in Wonderland is like all the worst things about Catcher in the Rye combined with a book Chuck Palahniuk might write after a serious head injury.

Gabriel Brockwell is twenty-five. He comes from an upper-class British family, and at the beginning of the book, finds himself in rehab. Deeply unsatisfied with his life, he decides that the best solution is to kill himself. However, before he does that, he feels that he should have at least one brilliant party first. From there, he travels around the globe, inadvertently fucking things up for almost everyone he meets. In between, he whines about how his daddy wasn’t nice to him and his job was unfulfilling, and how people liked his friends more than they like him (unsurprising, really.) He has no direction in life! Things have not turned out the way he hoped/expected! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

The writing was not terrible — there were some interesting descriptions along the way. However, it was often repetitive, but not in an interesting, witty, Palahniuk-type way, but in a repetitive way. Not to mention the mind-numbing, self-indulgent, and wholly unnecessary footnotes. YOU ARE NOT DAVID FOSTER WALLACE.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who might enjoy this book. I am just not one of them.