Posts Tagged ‘Mystery’

MOVIE: The Calling (2014)

August 29, 2014

callingI had a bunch of brainless stuff to get done this weekend, including addressing about 150 letters asking for donations to a charity auction I’m working on and knitting a baby sweater for same, so, to keep myself entertained, I rented a ton of movies and made myself spend nearly two full days on the couch gettin’ shit done.

This one, out in theaters today, apparently, but also available on demand from various streaming platforms, was a fairly decent choice for the job.  I needed movies that would be engaging, but not require all that much in terms of steady concentration.  A murder mystery seemed like the perfect choice.

Set in Canada, it’s about a Detective Inspector, Hazel Micallef (Sarandon), who is nearing the end of her career both because of her age and her steadily worsening drinking problem. One morning, she’s sent to do a wellness check on an elderly neighbor, and finds the woman dead in her kitchen, her mouth frozen in a horrific grimace.

When the coroner tells her the woman’s face was not only posed, but that it would’ve taken hours for the killer to get it to freeze the way it was, Hazel starts to suspect this was more than a routine murder.  Sure enough, a little digging turns up several other bodies, their faces staged with similar expressions.

Those expressions end up being the key to figuring out who the killer is and why he’s doing what he’s doing.  And while I admit that whole element was a bit on the far-fetched side, I definitely gotta give it props for being unique, which is kind of the case with this movie in general.  A lot of what happens in the story is pretty unbelievable, starting with a mother letting a complete stranger, who is incredibly creepy to boot, frankly, visit her sick daughter and give her a cup of tea made out of a bunch of weeds he keeps in his pocket. Yeah, right. At the same time, while the killer’s motive was hardly original, the path to its reveal had its moments.

Since this movie wasn’t out yet last weekend, renting it on demand ran me somewhere along the lines of $10.  I’d say it was probably worth about that much and no more, and it’s definitely not the kind of film you need to see on the big screen unless you feel strongly about patronizing movie theaters (which I do myself, but not strongly enough to want to pay two bucks more to see things like this in them — well, $12 bucks more, really, because: popcorn).  Waiting until it drops to more like $4 would be a reasonable move.

But it was nice to see Sarandon again, and man, does Ellen Burstyn ever look fantastic. (Why can’t I be Ellen Burstyn? Where have I gone wrong?)  Plus: Topher Grace, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, and who does a decent job here as the newbie detective on the squad.

Recommended, though nothing to get too excited about.  If you have a big envelope-stuffing project to work on, you could do worse!

[Prequeue at Netflix | Amazon Rent/Buy]

Genre: Mystery, Drama
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Gil Bellows, Ellen Burstyn,Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland, Christopher Heyerdahl



MOVIE: Sarah’s Key (2010)

January 6, 2014

70153543This thoughtful, heartbreaking film tells the story of two different people in two different times, their lives linked together by an apartment in Paris, France.

The first is a little girl named Sarah, a Jew living in France in 1942.  The second is a an American expat, Julia, married to a Frenchman, Frédéric, who has just inherited an apartment in Paris that belonged to his grandparents.

Julia is a journalist, and as the film opens, she’s been assigned by her magazine to do a feature on the infamous 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” of the Jews in France.  As she digs into the story, she finds her interest piqued further when she learns Frédéric’s grandparents had moved into that Paris apartment just a few weeks after the Roundup took place.

Struck by the coincidence, Julia begins to research the apartment, soon discovering that a Jewish family had lived there just before Frédéric’s family moved in — Sarah’s family.

Sarah’s story opens on the day of the Vel’ d’Hiv, when she is awakened by the sound of the French gendarmes pounding on her front door.  As her mother moves to open up, 10 year-old Sarah ushers her little brother, about 4 years old, into the closet, hands him a little container of water, and tells him not to move until she comes back for him.  She locks the closet, slips the key into her pocket, and dashes into the hallway before the policemen are any the wiser.  Sarah and her mother are whisked outside, where her father catches up to them, and the three are quickly taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a large cycling stadium where all the Jews are being held until they can be moved out en masse to internment camps.

When Sarah and her parents realize what’s happening — that they and about 13,000 other Jews (30% of them children) are about to be taken away forever, they panic.  But there’s nothing they can do; there’s no way to escape, no way to get the key to the closet to someone who can help.  A few days of astonishing hell later (no bathrooms, no food, no water, stifling temperatures — think the Superdome in New Orleans, Julia tells her colleagues, times a thousand), the family is moved to the French-run Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp.  The adults are soon separated from the children and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them are eventually killed.  The children stay behind a short while longer, before also being shipped off to their deaths.

But not Sarah.  Determined to get back to her brother before it’s too late, she and her new friend Rachel manage to charm one of the French guards into letting them slip under the wire.  When Rachel becomes extremely ill on their way back to the city, Sarah seeks help from a farmer and his wife, who offer to take them both in and protect them.  Despite being utterly exhausted, Sarah refuses to stay — she must get back to Paris, to her brother, and if they won’t take her there, she’ll go alone.

And so, they take her. And when they finally arrive, Sarah races up the stairs, pounds on the door, and is greeted by a little boy of about 12 years — Frédéric’s grandfather, it turns out.  She pushes past him, runs to the closet, unlocks it — and, well, you can imagine.

From there, the two stories weave together further as Julia becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Sarah.  She never showed up on any of the lists of Jews killed in WWII — but where is she?  What she eventually discovers about the rest of Sarah’s life is a powerful testament to the devastating long-term effects trauma and loss have on those who are left behind to live.

Despite the obviously depressing storyline of this film, it still somehow manages to end on a more-or-less optimistic note — a bittersweet ending to a very bitter tale.  Even when life doesn’t go on, life still goes on, after all — a family can heal. The truth can help.

The Vel’ d’Hiv round-up is something I had never heard much about until seeing this movie.  After looking into it more, I can understand why France would want to bury as deep as they could their shameful complicity with the Nazis, and their wholesale sending-to-slaughter of so many of their own (the Vel’ d’Hiv is just one of several similar events in France during the early days of the war, by the way).  Initially, I assumed this was a decision that had to have been based squarely in fear — France was already occupied by Germany 1942 and its people must have been terrified of where that occupation was leading, and too afraid not to cooperate.  But the more I read, the more it became clear that, at least at the state level, the French (Vichy) government didn’t mind too much the idea of packing off their Jews — from the elderly right down to the infant.  As long as I live, I will never understand things like this — and thank god for that.

This film was based on a novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, and as soon as I’ve recovered from seeing the movie, I’ll definitely be seeking out the book.  Highly recommended, though be prepared for a heavy experience — rare is the WWII movie that doesn’t provide one, I suppose.  It’s worth it.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Drama, Mystery, War
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot,  Aidan Quinn

Summer Reading 2013

August 30, 2013

As I mentioned in my recent review of the book Bold Spirit, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading this summer but haven’t gotten around to writing many reviews.  Figured I’d just hit them all in brief in a little round-up.  Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Controversial Religious Shelf

goingclearzealotGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (2012)

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013)

Both these books are absolutely fascinating.  And that’s all I have to say about THAT, aside from the fact I was a little disappointed that despite spending half his book talking about Paul Haggis, Lawrence Wright did not once mention Due South, Haggis’s greatest achievement.  Whatever, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist.

Craptacular Shelf (You knew there would be one)

deep stormDeep Storm by Lincoln Child (2007) – Scientists discover a stash of powerful alien weapons in the Mohorovičić discontinuity under the ocean!  In trying to get to it, lots of people die!

Utopia by Lincoln Child (2002) – Scientists discover that hackers getting into into the robot-programming system at a robot-controlled futuristic theme park can wreak a lot havoc!  In trying to stop it, lots of people die!

riptideRiptide by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – Dudes, pirate treasure hidden in a deep pit that is perpetually filled with water AND there’s also a monster and the computers go all wonkeroo!  BAM!  Lots of people die!

Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – AZTEC FUNGUS!  ET CETERA!

Look, I know it seems ridiculous. FOUR Lincoln Child/Douglas Preston novels in a row?  The thing is, I really enjoyed Deep Storm, which is essentially the book version of every good-bad disaster/sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen.  That got me started on the kick, and  once you’re reading super cheesy science fiction, it’s incredibly hard to stop.  Man, that was a fun book binge.  I might be through it now – but only for now.

Mystery Shelf

killroomsweetnessThe Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver (2013) – Lincoln Rhyme’s latest case.  A bit of a yawn, unless you are SUPER DUPER into bitching about how evil Obama’s drone program is.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009) – Nerd-girl solves a mystery.  A little too adorable for its own good.

Non-Fiction Other Stuff Shelf

cleanClean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy by David Sheff (2013) – Sheff’s first book, Beautiful Boy, is a book I still recommend to people (read my review) four years after reading it.  A memoir of his years  as the father of an addict, it not only laid out his personal agonies, but also delved deep into the science of addiction.  This book, his second, is less a memoir and more a handbook for parents.  It too covers some of the science of addiction, but it focuses predominantly on youth prevention, treatment, and recovery — how to talk to your kids about drugs, what to do if you think your kids are using drugs, how to help your kid after s/he’s been in treatment, etc.  Wise reading for all parents of youths, but not nearly as engaging for me as Beautiful Boy.

Sad, Party of Two Shelf

bookthiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006) – You know what’s weird about this novel?  It was apparently written for adults, and marketed thusly in Zusak’s country (Australia).  And then when it jumped the pond, or whatever the Aussies call that, it was repackaged as a book for young adults.  After having read it, I can only assume that’s because the American distributor reacted to it the same way I did, which was to think, “Man, I would’ve loved this book when I was 13.  NOW, on the other hand. . .”

Having read a number of novels set in Nazi Germany in WWII, not to mention seen a lot of truly devastating films about the Holocaust, it was hard to get into the more cutesy elements of this novel, which is narrated by Death, to unaffecting effect.  It’s about a little German girl, Liesel, whose family is hiding a Jewish man in their basement (Max). She steals books from the local mayor’s wife, with the help of her best pal Rudy, which is why she’s called the Book Thief by the author and his narrator.  It’s sort of a way to take control of her own losses, which are numerous, I would say. The kids are sweet and confused about the world around them and their feelings for people and each other, and lots of people die in horrible ways.  It’s enough to make a grown woman cry, really.  Only, despite a few flashes of brilliance here and there, I was pretty underwhelmed by both the story and the writing.  It’s sluggish and clumsy in many places, and it’s also very predictable (though I suppose you could argue that any book set in Nazi Germany is bound to be predictable, but whatever).  I read the whole thing, and I got a little teary at the end.  But it’s not one I’ll revisit or that I particularly recommend.  No plan to watch the movie.  I’ve seen enough.

unvanquishedThe Unvanquished by William Faulkner (1938) – This is a novel I’d read before (I’m pretty sure I’ve read all his novels before by now), but not since early college days and I had forgotten how great it was.  It’s the rare Faulkner novel actually set during the Civil War instead of after it, and also the rare Faulkner novel loaded up with humor as well (to specific effect, of course — the man’s not jovial for kicks).  This is an incredibly brilliant, moving story about two boys, one white boy and one black, raised together on a plantation and forced to grow up REAL FAST when the war begins.  “Men have been pacifists for every reason under the sun except to avoid danger and fighting,” one of the characters remarks.  Ain’t it the truth.  Man, whew.  So good.  It’s not a happy story, but it’s a joy to read nonetheless.

There are two other books I read this summer, but I’m going to do full reviews on them later.  Until then, hie thee to the library, and let me know if you come across anything great you want to recommend!

BOOK: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

April 24, 2013

gonegirlSeveral years ago, I read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, and wasn’t terribly impressed.  Never bothered checking out any of her other books until Gone Girl started popping up on everybody’s Best of 2012 lists.  Hey, maybe she got better?  Worth a shot, right?

Alas, I ended up having pretty much the same issues with this novel, inventive as it was, that I had with the previous one.  Creative thinking is great, but when your characters become so “creative” they cease to feel authentic and their actions cease to be even remotely comprehensible, from any angle of thought, you lose me. And so it was with the two main characters in this book, Nick and Amy Dunne.

The story starts out pretty fantastic — in fact, this novel was so thoroughly engaging over the first, say, 5/6ths, I had a hard time putting it down.  It’s told in alternating chapters by Nick and Amy, a married couple with two very different perspectives on their relationship.  Nick’s sections are set in the present, and tell the story of Amy’s disappearance on their wedding anniversary and the charges against him that follow.  Amy’s section begins as excerpts from her journal — from the months leading up to her disappearance — and switch to present time later in the book.  The more the two stories unfold, the less you realize you know about what’s truly going on.  And every twist that follows is surprising and exciting.

Until the end rolls around, anyway.  Then suddenly these two characters I felt like I’d FINALLY gotten a handle on, after the dizzying ups and downs of the story, both do something that makes absolutely ZERO sense for either of them.  No sense at all.  And that’s when I stopped being thrilled by the novel’s unpredictability and started being annoyed by it instead.

I can absolutely see why people loved this book — I loved it myself until the ending came around.  But when I get to the end of a novel and I end it feeling like I still have no idea who the main characters were, it leaves me feeling disconnected from the whole experience.  It’s not that I demand that every novel have characters I can relate to personally, or that every story have some kind of graspable “point.”  But a book in which I can’t get a handle in any way on the people involved, let alone connect to either of them, is not a book I can really engage with fully.  And that’s where Gone Girl kind of left me. . . gone.

Then again, everybody else I know absolutely ADORED this book.  So, it’s possible I should just shut up.  Do with this information what you will!  AS USUAL!

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BOOK: Pray for Silence by Linda Castillo (2010)

March 20, 2013

prayforsilenceThe first thing I always do when I’m on vacation somewhere is seek out the area’s best local bookstores.  While vacationing recently in Chelan, Washington, my husband and I poked our heads into Riverwalk Books, the area’s ONLY bookstore (as near as we could tell) and a very cool little shop right in the tiny downtown area.

I’d brought a couple of books with me on vacation, but I was having trouble getting into them and wanted something dumb and frivolous to dive into instead.  On a whim, I picked this one up — the second installment in Castillo’s mystery series set in Amish country, Ohio.  The protagonist of the series is a police detective named Kate Burkholder, who grew up Amish herself — something that sounded, from the book jacket, like it could be kind of intriguing and different.   According to the jacket, she also had a tumultuous relationship with an FBI guy, which sounded like it could be kind of . . . trite and done-to-death.  But I’m a sucker for stories about closed societies — nuns, Amish people, boarding schools, etc. — I find the psychology of those groups fascinating and they also often make for great settings for mysteries.  So, I plunked down my $12.99 or whatever (support your local bookstores!), and off we went to spend a week reading books and drinking wine (two things that go VERY well with Chelan, WA, I discovered)!

As this novel opens, Kate has been called out to the Plank residence, a small farm in Painter’s Mill where a family of Amish folks from another region had recently moved.  Reports of a murder called her out — but what she finds on the scene is much more horrifying than she was initially led to believe.  The entire family has been brutally slain, and while at first it looks like a murder-suicide perpetrated by the father, Kate quickly discovers the murderer seems instead to have been an outsider — possibly an “English” (non-Amish) boy the Plank’s 15 year-old daughter had recently been having a secret love affair with.

Though the crime scene was a little more brutal than I typically want to have to stomach from a frivolous mystery paperback (very vivid descriptions of tortured teenage girls is never really my favorite thing), for the most part, the first half of this book was decent.  Not terribly original, nothing too exciting, but it was moving along okay and the characters weren’t annoying.

Then we got to the scene in which Kate finds a damning piece of evidence at the local “make-out” park and promptly spends the next 150 pages NOT pursuing the lead.  When she found the evidence, which pointed SQUARELY at one of her suspects and made it 95% clear he was the doer, and then went and interviewed someone else instead, I thought to myself, “If it turns out that’s the guy who did it, this book is going right in the recycling bin.”

Well, consider it recycled (only, not really, of course, because I could never do that to a book).  Not only does that guy end up being The Guy, but even after acknowledging that the evidence she founds leads right to his front door, she STILL dicks around for the second half of the book, following much weaker leads, “forgetting” to go interview THE OBVIOUS SUSPECT, and talking about her stupid boyfriend problems.

Seriously.  No.  I’m sorry.  You can’t have your super-savvy detective protagonist find the evidence that proves the guilty man is guilty halfway through your mystery novel and then NOT DO ANYTHING with it.  That is a sign of weak thinking when it comes to crafting a plot line.  There was no legitimate reason for it — no purpose for the story other than to just fill it out to novel-length.  It almost felt like Castillo had organized the outline of her plot on a set of index cards and then accidentally gotten one of the last cards shuffled into the middle instead.  Bad, bad, bad.  NO.  No can do, lady.  NO. CAN. SRSLY. DO.

THAT SAID.  I did read the whole thing, and had it not been for that (major! huge!) flaw, I would’ve finished this book up thinking it wasn’t a bad choice for a vacation read.  Though the characters aren’t terribly original (tough female cop can’t keep a boyfriend because she’s closed off emotionally! Yawn. See: 95% of every tough female cop character EVER WRITTEN), I enjoyed all the stuff about the Amish and it’s clear Castillo knows that intriguing community well.  That alone made me pick up the first book in this series when I saw it on the library shelf last week — we’ll see if I can get myself to crack it open.  Fingers crossed the author kept her index cards in order this time around. . .

NOTE:  SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION BELOW!  Stay out unless you don’t care about the obvious clue and the identity of the killer!


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BOOK: 1222 by Anne Holt (2011)

October 18, 2012

One of my favorite sub-categories of the mystery genre is the “isolation” mystery, in which a group of people, small (dinner party) or large (private school), are trapped together somewhere when a murder takes place.  These are novels that typically involve puzzle-solving and sleuthing with limited resources, see, where either a professional (Poirot) or an amateur (Jessica Fletcher) has to solve the crime using good old-fashioned detecting instead of, say, DNA tests, fingerprints, and SWAT teams.

That’s why I was excited when I came across this Norwegian thriller, and why I greatly enjoyed it despite the fact its protagonist is extremely hard to like (sympathetically so, but also irrevocably so).

It opens with a train of about 200 passengers on their way across Norway to Oslo.  There’s a huge blizzard raging outside, and right as they pass into The Snowy NowhereTM, their train derails and crashes.  Luckily, only the conductor is killed.  Unluckily: BLIZZARD.   Only, luckily: nearby hotel!  But then, unluckily: MURDER!

Rescued quickly by the incredibly kind owners of the one and only hotel in the nearby small town of Finse (elev. 1222, hence the title), the crash survivors are initially grateful to be alive, warm, and fed.  But when it becomes clear they’ll be trapped there for days by the storm, tensions rise, fueled dramatically by the presence of a Muslim couple who act suspiciously, a group of armed guards protecting a mysterious guest on the top floor of the hotel, and a super right-wing TV personality who never shuts the hell up.

When a clergyman is found dead in his room the next morning, the hotel owner gathers a few people together — people she’s marked as the emerging leaders of the group (a doctor, e.g.) — to tell them what happened and ask them what to do.  Hanne Wilhelmson overhears the conversation and despite her reluctance and misanthropy, she gets involved, quickly taking over the leadership role herself.  Why?  Because she’s a retired police detective (paralyzed from the waist down after a shooting on the job), so, of everyone on the scene, she’s the one with the mad skillz needed to save the day.  Hanne urges the group to keep the murder a secret until she can figure out what happened, but when more bodies appear, it soon becomes clear something vicious is going on, and any one of them could be next.

Wilhelmson is the unlikable protagonist of this novel I was alluding to earlier — she’s stuck-up, bitter, nasty, and obnoxiously pessimistic.  Granted, she has plenty of reasons to be, not the least of which is the fact she’s so effective at solving the murder at the hotel primarily because people talk openly right in front of her, assuming anybody in a wheelchair is a drooling moron.  So, while it’s easy to understand why she is the way she is, it’s still somewhat draining a personality to spend huge swaths of time with, I confess.

That said, this is an extremely entertaining thriller, and while I didn’t find the resolution of the mystery terribly surprisingly or compelling, the story itself was riveting from page one.  This is the eighth book in the Wilhelmson series by Anne Holt, and the first to be published in English, with more to follow soon.  I’ll definitely be picking up the next one, and will see if Hanne can charm me with time.


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BOOK: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore (2010)

July 30, 2012

This intriguing, entertaining mystery is two (two!  TWO!) Sherlock Holmes stories in one.  The first, set in 1800, launches when Arthur Conan Doyle kills off  England’s most beloved fictional character, the aforementioned great detective, and receives a letter bomb in response.  The second, set in the modern-day, is about Harold White, the newest (and youngest) inductee into the Baker Street Irregulars, the most exclusive and prestigious Sherlock Holmes fan club ever (“fan club” is a phrase the Irregulars would hate,  because the group clearly considers themselves to be Holmesian scholars, not fans, but they’re kinda dorks that way, so I’m sticking with it).

In the early story, author Conan Doyle manages to trace the letter bomb back to its maker, only to learn it was not, as he assumed, a Holmes fan trying to punish him for committing the murder of the century, but instead a young woman trying desperately to hire him to help solve the murders of two of her friends, both suffragettes.  Teaming up with his best pal Bram Stoker, Arthur vacillates between not wanting to help a woman whose method of asking for that help nearly blew his arm off, and being unable to resist the lure of demonstrating himself to be far superior to his creation.

As it turns out, Conan Doyle has quite an inferiority complex in regard to his fictional detective.  Since Holmes became so popular, Conan Doyle has absolutely loathed him, in large part because he only wrote the Sherlock stories to make enough money to write novels on subjects he was far more passionate about, only to find nobody was interested in reading them.  Living in the shadow of his own fictional character has been hell for Arthur, but, as Stoker keeps reminding him, he could never have created a detective so brilliant if he, Conan Doyle, were not so brilliant himself.  If anyone can solve the mystery of the murdered suffragettes, Stoker says, it’ll be the man who dreamed up the greatest detective the world has ever known.  (And here we learn Bram Stoker was the absolute master of playing off people’s inferiority complexes, probably because he had quite a huge one himself.)

Meanwhile, in the present day, Harold White is having the time of his life.  He’s at the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, having just been inducted into the group, something he’s wanted ever since he read his first Sherlock Holmes story as a kid.  Even more exciting, he’s just met THE Alex Cale in the hotel lobby, the most famous and widely published of all the Irregulars, and the man whose presentation the next day promises to blow the minds of every Holmes worshiper in the world.  Cale, you see, claims to have found the long-lost missing installment of Arthur Conan Doyle’s diary — the installment covering, obviously, the period we’re being told about in the alternating tale.  The diary holds the answer, all believe, to the question:  Why did Arthur Conan Doyle kill off Sherlock Holmes, only to resurrect him a short while later with what eventually became his most famous work, The Hound of the Baskervilles?  Something for Doyle changed dramatically after he pushed Holmes off a cliff — something huge enough to make him want to bring his beloved (to everyone but him) character back to life.

Of course, since this is a murder mystery, Cale is found dead the next morning.  And, also of course, since he’s found dead by Harold White and a bunch of other Holmes groupies, a band of Irregulars immediately decide they’re the only ones who will be able to solve the case, find the diary, and deliver it to the world.

This is a really entertaining novel, though I had some issues with the writing style.  I wasn’t surprised to learn the author was 28 and this was his first book — the writing is a bit on the over-flowery/over-done side.  (Hey, Graham, for your next one, repeat after me:  Less is Moore).  The Conan Doyle story wasn’t as riveting as I think it could’ve been either, but I found the modern-day part satisfying enough, and I enjoyed the historical elements, especially the friendship between Arthur and Bram, intriguing as well.  Overall, this was a great pick for a recent camping trip — the perfect book to devour lake-side, for sure, and a really fun idea for a story that I think many Sherlockians will enjoy.



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BOOK: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø (2011 US)

June 14, 2012

I recently walked by a local theater and saw a poster for a film called Headhunters that said it was based on a novel by Jo Nesbø.  That reminded me that I had a copy of another book by that author sitting in my to-read pile at home — this one, The Snowman.  As it turns out, the latter is part of a series featuring a gruff Norwegian detective named Harry Hole.  Having now read The Snowman, I’m happy to say I’m looking forward to reading all the others in the series too, plus Headhunters, which is a caper story stand-alone.  It’s always nice to come across a new author, especially one who has a bunch of books I can catch up on while waiting for new ones to come down the pipe.

This one, which is the eighth in the Harry Hole series but the first, I think, that was published in the US (yes?), finds Hole called into investigate a missing woman.  She just disappeared one night and her family hasn’t seen her since.  Strangely, in the front yard of their house, a snowman appeared out of nowhere around the same time as the disappearance.  It’s odd it’s wearing the woman’s favorite pink scarf, but entirely possible the neighbor kids built it and the woman dressed it up herself to join in the fun.  Everybody essentially ignores it . . . until another woman goes missing and another snowman is found, this time wearing the decapitated head of the latest victim.

Hole is soon teamed up with rookie detective Katrine Bratt, for whom the phrase “emotional issues” is revealed to be the understatement of the year (chicks, amiright?) (sigh).  Katrine becomes so determined to solve the case and stop the killings that she begins to go off the rails, first by strong-arming suspects into confessions before finally committing a heinous act of violence and becoming a suspect in the murders herself.

This is a well-written and entertaining thriller, and I greatly enjoyed the Norwegian setting too.  But don’t get me wrong — though I liked it and I want to read the others, this book is nothing spectacular.  Detectives like Harry Hole are a dime a dozen in mystery novels, and having the female lead be “attractive without trying,” yet an emotional disaster, is something that kind of makes me bananas in these sorts of stories as well.

But if you’re looking for a good “beach book,” you could do a lot worse than diving into this one.  Plus, the snowy setting will help keep you cool.  Enjoy your vacation!  Wish I were there!


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BOOK: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane (2010)

May 16, 2012

Lehane’s novel Gone, Baby, Gone, and the film based on it, was a gripping, tightly written story about two young private detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, hired to solve the case of a kidnapped 4 year-old girl named Amanda McCready.  During the investigation, Patrick and Angie discovered the girl’s mother, Helene, was just about the most unfit parent imaginable, and the novel ends in a wrenching finale in which Patrick has to decide whether to let the girl stay with her (much kinder) kidnappers, or go back to her (horrible, destructive) mother.  He chooses the latter, feeling it’s the most “right” thing, and this decision almost ends up costing him his relationship with Angie, who vehemently disagreed with the choice.

Twelve years later, Angie and Patrick are married with a toddler when Patrick gets a call from Amanda’s aunt Beatrice again.  Amanda, now 16, has disappeared again, and Patrick, feeling responsible for so dramatically changing the course of her life over a decade ago, agrees to take the case.  Angie, now a stay-home mother, eagerly joins in, desperate for something interesting to do, and the two quickly learn Amanda has actually turned out fairly well — she’s a straight-A student headed for college, despite her rotten mother, but she’s also a precociously “tough” girl.  A girl who takes adult-sized risks and is loaded with courage.  The kind of girl who goes to the mat for something she thinks is right, regardless of the consequences to herself.

That’s how she ends up entangled with the Molodavian mob, trying to do the right thing, and once Patrick and Angie discover what’s going on, the story runs a fairly familiar course — they find and follow a bunch of clues, they locate Amanda, they almost get killed, Bubba is adorable, etc. etc.

What makes this novel entertaining, despite its predictable path, are the delightful, engaging characters (you can tell from the writing how much Lehane loves Patrick and Angie, for one thing) and the powerful descriptive writing, which is loaded with Patrick’s irony and zingers yet still manages to create a world, and a mystery, that seem completely plausible.

The end of this installment in the Kenzie/Gennaro series suggests the end of the series itself, though one never knows.  Fans of Lehane’s other books (in the series or not) will definitely want to pick this one up, and I think it would also be an entertaining choice for those whose only experience with Lehane is through the films based on his work (like Gone, Baby, Gone or Shutter Island (in the case of the latter, by the way, the book was WAY better than the movie)).  If you walked out of GBG wondering what was going to happen to Amanda, in other words, you’ll find the answer here.  I think you’ll be pleased.


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BOOK: The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper (2009)

April 5, 2012

Patrick Rush is a single father who was recently demoted at his newspaper job from well-respected book reviewer to writer of a frivolous column called “The Couch Potato,” all about painfully inane reality TV shows with exclamatory names like, Falling From Buildings! and Animals That Kill!

Miserable at work, and grieving the still-fresh death of his wife, he decides it’s time he look into pursuing one of the goals of his youth — writing a novel.  To that end, he joins a writing group he sees advertised in the local paper.  Each group member spends a week writing something — anything — and then they meet to read their work aloud and get feedback from the others.  After a few weeks spent struggling to get even the most banal prose down on paper, though, Patrick decides his life just hasn’t been interesting enough. He has nothing to say, because nothing has ever happened to him.  The old adage “write what you know” only works if you know something, he decides.

Thankfully, nobody else in the group is producing anything good either, so Patrick continues to coast through each meeting, mostly hanging around out of curiosity for his fellow failed would-bes.

Then he hears chapter one of Angela’s story, and everything begins to shift.

Angela is a young, pretty woman whose story is strange, scary, and engrossing.  It’s about a little girl stalked by a killer she describes only as “a terrible man who does terrible things,” and later dubs “the Sandman.”  As Angela tells more and more of the tale, Patrick notices  parallels between what she’s writing and recent crimes reported in the news.  Just as he’s begun to suspect her story is more autobiographical than fictitious, members of the group start disappearing — some found dead, others simply vanishing into thin air.  Patrick, obsessed with both Angela and the Sandman, becomes convinced one of the group’s members, a big, ugly guy who writes disturbing stories about killing animals, is the Sandman, and when someone starts following him and then Angela herself disappears, Patrick realizes his life has not only gotten interesting enough to turn into a book, the book it’s turned into is “a bloody page-turner.”

This is a pretty entertaining little thriller, with an interesting running theme about the nature of stories and storytelling.  By the end of the novel, it’s hard to tell how much of the story we’re hearing, narrated by Patrick, is actually true, and how much is simply a fictionalized version of his life — not necessarily fictionalized on purpose.  This is a common issue with memoirs, after all; no memoir is ever pure truth, right?  Can we ever look at our life objectively enough to report only facts?  And, maybe more importantly, should we even try?

The writing here isn’t anything special — it’s well-enough crafted but not stand-out —  but the story was suspenseful enough to make me want to look for more by the author.  (Anybody read anything else by Pyper?)  Definitely recommended if you’re in the mood for a dark little mystery.


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