Archive for January, 2012

25
Jan
12

CBR4 #7: Crime at the 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.

23
Jan
12

CBR4 #6: Emergency! True Stories From The Nation’s ERs by Mark Brown

I work in a hospital. I’m not a medical professional, mind you. I am a mere officemonkey, making appointments, pushing papers, gathering information. But even from where I sit, I can still observe some of the patient interactions that go on. I’ve been on the phone with people who’ve yelled at me, burst into tears, chatted at me for more than half an hour, and a few 80 year old men who have flirted with me. I’ve been given gifts, and one time a woman chucked a clipboard at my head for no apparent reason. However, the department I work in isn’t an emergency area. We’re basically a M-F operation, and we usually close up shop around 6pm. I can’t imagine what it would be like to work in a place that is open 24 hours a day and deals with people suffering from life-threatening trauma.

Mark Brown’s book, Emergency!, is a compilation of short essays from emergency room personnel around the country. Some tales are a few pages long, some are just a few lines, but almost all of them are interesting. They’re not organized in any special way, though there are some that are grouped together. Some are funny, some are sad, and some are both. There is a chapter that is all stories from nurses, and one that is letters from a single doctor, explaining how he has ended up totally burnt out. It’s clear that working in an ER is an extremely stressful job (duh), but can also be quite rewarding. It’s not the insane drama that television makes it out to be, but it seems that there are nights when unbelievably weird things happen. The human factor makes every shift an adventure, even if it’s a “So THAT is the story you want me to believe about how that object ended up stuck in your butt?” adventure.

In general, I’d recommend this to people who work in the medical field, but anyone who likes stories of the human condition might enjoy it as well.

20
Jan
12

CBR4 #5: Haunted by James Herbert

I love a ghost story. I’m not especially picky about them, but I prefer those in which the ghost is a definable character rather than a mysterious evil force. While an anonymous angry spirit is certainly spooky, a specific vengeful ghost is much more interesting in my opinion.

James Herbert’s Haunted is such a ghost story, though the actual existence of the ghost is in question most of the way through. Protagonist David Ash works for a London supernatural society as a sort of ghost hunter. Mostly, he travels around and tries to debunk hauntings with science, equipment, and modern thought. He’s a notorious skeptic, even though he does work with people who do seem to have paranormal gifts.

When he gets invited out to Edbrook by the young Mariell siblings and their spinster aunt, he agrees to go without much thought. Since Ash believes very little in the spiritual realm, he doesn’t think he has much to worry about. Unfortunately, when he arrives, he finds that everything is just the slightest bit off-kilter. He isn’t sure whether the problem is with the house or with himself, but something is certainly wrong. The longer he stays, the more perilous circumstances become.

I liked the book quite a bit, and only partially figured out the twist ending. The character of David is fairly well-drawn, though the others are all a bit vague. However, the story is more about the plot, which churns along at a decent clip. All said, it’s not a bad book–definitely entertaining–but nothing special.

18
Jan
12

CBR4 #4: Dissecting Death by Dr. Frederick Zugibe

For some reason, I am really into forensics right now. It’s a shame that I am both poor at science and rather squeamish, because it seems like such a fascinating job. However, between having to know all that biology and having to deal with maggots on a fairly regular basis, I am sure it is not for me.

Dr. Zugibe, who penned this book, did an excellent job. He wrote the most widely used textbook in the field of forensics, so he is great at making this interesting but also extremely informative.

Before the mid-seventies or so, a town’s coroner wasn’t a medical professional, but someone elected to the position by being bright enough to manage the paperwork. Often they were lawyers or business owners, and they didn’t know anything about dealing with bodies. They could declare someone dead, but were unable to determine any causes that weren’t blatantly obvious. Later, these laypersons were slowly replaced with trained medical examiners–people who knew what they were looking at and why it mattered.

Zugibe’s book starts out with the basics — how dead bodies are found, and what happens to them once they are. He then goes on to describe various illustrative cases, explaining how each one was (or was not) solved using forensics.

The author has a solid, knowledgeable voice, and his tone is professorial but never dull or too dry. He’s obviously interested in both educating AND entertaining his reader. As far as books on this subject go, this is one of the better ones, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in forensic science.

12
Jan
12

CBR4 #3: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I did not want to read this book. I heard all the hype, and saw about a zillion people reading it on the train, but I resisted. I thought it was going to be badly written crap like the Twilight series (and I don’t want to hear it about the Twilight series…I did try to read them, but after ten pages in the first book, I felt myself developing a brain aneurysm from the terrible, terrible writing and had to stop.) You know, lame YA series for girls coated in unbelievable fantasy tropes and damsel-in-distress behavior. However, several ladies I trust seemed to enjoy it, as well as The Boyfriend, so when someone offered to loan me the first book I decided I might as well give it a chance.

I’m so glad I did. Each year, two teenagers from each of the twelve “districts” must compete in “The Hunger Games,” a bloody battle to the death that is mandatory viewing for everyone in the nation. This particular year, Katniss Everdeen ends up as one of the twenty-four competitors, representing District 12, the poorest and weakest district. Along with Katniss is the baker’s son, Peeta Mellark. I hate to give away more plot, but it’s a bit like Battle Royale meets Stephen King’s “The Long Walk“.

The character of Katniss is great, and has a very distinctive voice. (Oddly, the character reminds me very much of Ree Dolly, the main character in Winter’s Bone–a hard girl, mature beyond her years, scratching out a living in Appalachian country, trying to take care of the family herself because her father is gone and her mother is useless. The funny thing is, Jennifer Lawrence, who played Ree in the film version of Winter’s Bone will be playing Katniss in The Hunger Games movie.) Katniss is torn between her feelings of self-preservation, her desire to rebel against “The Capitol,” and curious new emotions with regard to Peeta. Katniss soon realizes that nothing is what she first thought, and that The Hunger Games are dangerous in ways she never could have imagined.

I loved this book–I really enjoy stories of survival, and having a tough, interesting heroine is definitely a plus. The secondary characters were for the most part well-drawn, though obviously many of the lesser Games competitors were merely caricatures. On the whole, I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoyed any of the books/films mentioned above, or for anyone who likes fiction with a strong female lead.

11
Jan
12

CBR4 #2: Cross Fire by James Patterson

This is James Patterson’s 17th Alex Cross mystery. Now, I haven’t read all of them — I think I’ve only read the first two or three — but I seem to recall that the ones I read were considerably better than this.

Detective Alex Cross finds himself chasing down a pair of deadly snipers while trying to plan his wedding. AND there’s a killer carving mathematical equations in the foreheads of his victims! AND his youngest child’s unreliable mother is giving him stress. AND his arch nemesis–serial killer Kyle Craig–has returned!

It’s frankly a lot going on, and most of it is a lot less exciting than it sounds. Kyle Craig reveals his plan very early, so there is no suspense at all for the audience. The two murderers are left mostly unexplained, and one (the more interesting one, actually) is pretty much used as a plot point and then immediately discarded. Alex’s home drama churns but goes nowhere and changes nothing. Maybe this was a book designed only to lead up to the next chapter of Alex Cross’s saga, but it didn’t feel like it was leading up to anything (the main plots tied up pretty neatly at the end). Instead, it just felt slapdash and unfinished.

Maybe if I’d invested sixteen books worth of effort into this series I’d be more interested. As it was, I was mostly bored and disappointed. I knew I had serious problems with the tale when I found myself rooting for Kyle Craig, hoping he’d perhaps bump off two or three of Cross’s dull, poorly fleshed out family members. Actually, if he’d murdered everyone except Nana Mama, Cross’s sassy grandma, I would have been totally psyched.

Recommended only for those who are Alex Cross completists.

06
Jan
12

CBR4 #1: Whom the Gods Love by Kate Ross

So 2011 is over, and I missed my goal of the elusive “Double Cannonball” by five books. Still, 99 books read and reviewed in a year is really pretty impressive. And Cannonball Read IV has already started (more information here) so here’s another opportunity for me to beat my personal best. 104 in 2012!

The first book of the new year is the third book in Kate Ross’s Julian Kestral series. With each book I get a little sadder, since I know there are only four books…meaning that the series will end soon. That’s tough to handle, because these are SO GOOD. They’re everything I look for in a mystery novel, and I could read about Julian Kestral for at least twenty more books. (Kate Ross is dead, and Dan Brown plows forward…life is obviously NOT FAIR.)

In this story, 1830s English dandy Julian is contacted by the father of Alexander Falkland, a young man who travelled in Julian’s high class social circle. Alexander has been brutally murdered in his own home during a party he was hosting, and the authorities have no idea why or by whom. His father Malcolm Falkland has heard of Julian’s past adventures and engages him to help solve the mystery. As Kestral begins to dig, it becomes quickly apparent that nothing about Alexander Falkland (or the people who surrounded him) is as it first seemed. It will take all of Julian’s cleverness (as well as help from his loyal manservant Dipper) to come up with the answers.

Once again, Kate Ross has written a story that is both entertaining and believable. The twists in the plot are tough to guess but easy to follow. None of them come out of nowhere, and all the clues can be seen clearly in retrospect. The characters are also wonderful–this book delves a bit into Julian’s enigmatic past, and gives a new perspective on his character and motivations. There were also some clever ties to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice which I didn’t necessarily notice at first, but found intriguing once I recognized them.

I would obviously recommend this series, though one definitely needs to read them in order to avoid missing out.