Monday, November 28, 2016

mon cher poirot

After my recent Alex Cross-athon, I felt I needed a palate cleanser. And what better, than to re-read some old favorites, by the grande dame of mystery herself, Agatha Christie? I first discovered Christie when I was about 10 or 11, prowling through my mother's bookcases for something to read. I guess I had exhausted whatever I had taken home from the Bookmobile - probably Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins or a collection of folktales. The first Christie I read was The Moving Finger. I still have my mom's paperback, with its lurid purple cover illustration.

I almost chose that book to read, but decided that what I really needed, the perfect antidote to the oh-so-imperfect character of Alex Cross, was the detective par excellence, the little Belgian, Hercule Poirot. Although Christie reportedly grew to loathe her most famous creation, I loved Poirot at first read. From his sartorial elegance, his love of symmetry and order, and his amazing "little grey cells," Poirot had me enthralled. Christie's books, if you read between the lines, are full of sex and greed and, well, evil. Poirot, as much as he lives his life with precision and fine food and wine and aperitifs, is never blind to such base human emotions and desires. He travels in fancy circles, but he is always able to treat everyone, no matter what their station in life, equally - especially when it comes to considering them as a suspect in a murder.

Agatha Christie's novels are a time capsule. There are aspects that stand out as strange and inappropriate today - the discussions of class, the role of women in society, Christie's own personal prejudices - she really doesn't seem to like Italians. But she also gives us a glimpse into the mores and habits of a time gone by. And there is a lot to be enjoyed: a time when people dressed for dinner and travel, writing letters, having few but essential, possessions. One can learn some great forgotten or little-used words while reading Christie: baize, malachite, galoshes, jackanapes, valise. It's also fun to read such English phrases as "trunk call," "games mistress," and "dressing gown."

Poirot and his little grey cells were on fine display in these four books I have read recently:

Evil Under the Sun, 1941 - Poirot wants a relaxing holiday on England's Devon coast, but soon observes that some of his fellow hotel guests are involved in a love triangle that could prove dangerous for one of the participants - namely a flirtatious and callous beauty named Arlena Marshall.

Funerals are Fatal, 1953 - Richard Abernethie, a wealthy man, has died, and his family has gathered for his funeral. At the reading of his will his eccentric sister Cora blurts out, "But he was murdered, wasn't he?" When Cora turns up dead soon after, Hercule Poirot must investigate whether her murder was a cause and effect. Christie could be quite brutal in her books, as Cora is killed with the multiple strikes of an axe, a la the parents of Lizzie Borden. One of my favorite Poirots, the group of suspects, Richard and Cora's relatives, are some of the most entertaining and well-drawn in Christies' mysteries.

Murder in the Calais Coach (Murder on the Orient Express), 1934 - One of Christie's most famous and ingenious puzzles, this book finds Poirot on the famed and luxurious Orient Express. The train and its elegance is described beautifully, but the reader can't get lost in the details of the train, as almost as soon as it leaves the station a murder takes place in the middle of the night, in the compartment next-door to Poirot (!), while the train is trapped, caught in a blizzard. The ultimate "locked room mystery," the book is great to read for a first time, or re-read and see how Christie plants all the clues to her creative solution.

Cards on the Table, 1936 - In this clever book Christie pits four sleuths vs. four presumed murderers. The mysterious Mr Shaitana sets up a strange (and of course dangerous) dinner party. He invites Poirot, his friend Colonel Race, and mystery author (and Christie stand-in) Ariadne Oliver to join him on Team Sleuth. The other four guests are Dr Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, explorer Major Despard, and a young woman named Anne Meredith. During dinner Shaitana talks about murder and its various methods. After the meal they divide into two groups to play bridge. At the end of the night Poirot and Race discover that Shaitana is dead - stabbed with his own ornamental knife. The book uses the game of bridge as a clue to each suspect's personality, and the detectives split up, along with Superintendent Battle, and each focus on one suspect to determine if they were, as Shaitana suspected, "successful murderers," in their past.

Christie always plays fair with her readers, which becomes quite clear on a re-read. I have quite enjoyed this mini Christie vacation and feel that I can go ahead and read some other books on my to-read list - or maybe squeeze in a few more Poirots before the holidays.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

cross, cross, cross

As I stated earlier, I have been reading a lot of James Patterson lately. I have so much happening on the home front these days that these mostly mindless mysteries have been somewhat soothing. But I think I'm done for a while. I thought that the books solo-authored by Patterson would be less factory-like, but alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. As much as I liked the first novel featuring his African-American psychologist/detective Alex Cross, in the series, Along Came A Spider, the rest of the books in this series seem cookie-cutter and sooooooo receptive. We get it - Alex is torn between his sugary-sweet family life and his career chasing seriously gruesome serial killers - which he seems to love, because he spends way more time chasing sickos than going to school concerts. I may have checked my mind at the door a bit too much recently. Admittedly, I have been bouncing around in the chronology, based on whatever is available at the library, but I think if I want a cozy bedtime mystery read I'll go back to Agatha Christie from now on.

Here are the books (listed in published order) that I have been tearing through the last month or so:

Cat and Mouse - A sequel to Along Came a Spider of sorts, Alex is once again matching wits with serial killer Gary Soneji, but that's not enough. A really creepy dude who calls himself Mr. Smith is causing mayhem in Europe and the U.S.

Pop Goes the Weasel - A killer dubbed The Weasel is running wild in Southeast D.C. As he is chasing The Weasel Alex also grows closer to his girlfriend Christine, but that puts her in danger ...

Roses are Red - The Mastermind is orchestrating some deadly bank robberies and Alex must work with the FBI to catch him ... except this story is a to-be-continued ... (and must have really pissed off Patterson junkies when it first came out and they read the whole thing, which was really just a set-up for ...

Violets Are Blue - This is a truly terrible book. The Mastermind is still round, but so is a vampire cult of killers. The murders are even grosser than usual, and as always there is no reason or motivation for the heinous crimes. If Alex was my shrink, or detective, or police analyst, I'd fire him. He doesn't find clues, he trips over them.

The Big Bad Wolf - Alex has joined the FBI now, but his problems and modus operandi seem the same. This time the killer is "The Wolf", but don't expect Alex to solve anything. Again, just another set-up for the next book ...

London Bridges - This time Patterson teams up The Wolf with The Weasel to do their worst. Does anyone Alex investigate ever stay in prison?

I don't think there are enough shelves for all of his published books

Mary, Mary - This one was better-than-average, which made me wonder if someone else may have ghost-written the book. While on vacation with his family, Alex is pulled into a serial killer case in Los Angeles that seems to be targeting celebrity moms. Can't his kids and ancient grandma Nana Mama ever catch a break?

Cross Country - Another truly awful one. Alex travels to Africa, against everyone and anyone with a brain's advice, to chase down a brutal killer called the Tiger. He doesn't ever seem to solve his cases. He survives them, making consistently bad decisions at almost every step along the way, while those around him drop like flies.

Cross Fire - The Mastermind is back, putting Alex and his family in danger. Again.

Cross Justice - Alex travels to North Carolina to help his cousin, who has been accused of murder. But in order to solve that case he must also delve into his family's past and unearth some deep dark family secrets.

So ... that's it. I think I have read enough about the "Muhammed Ali look-alike" super detective Alex Cross. I do like how Patterson is pro-reading and my daughter seems to like his Middle School and I Funny kids-book series. So there's that.

Monday, October 17, 2016

doctor sleep and the lure of the sequel

While I was reading Doctor Sleep I was bouncing back and forth between my memories of the novel, written by Stephen King in 1977, and the movie adaptation by director Stanley Kubrick, from 1980. I suspect King may have had both in his mind as well. Although it is well-documented that King didn't love the film version, Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Jack Torrance was indelible, as were Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy and the Overlook Hotel itself. The sins of the father will play out in his gifted son.

The grown-up Dan Torrance, a recovering alcoholic, just like dear old dad, now uses his ability to "shine" to help the dying cross over peacefully. He is contrasted with a young girl named Abra, who may shine even more strongly than young Dan ever did. Complicating matters are a bunch of creepy supernatural folks who seem to thrive on the energy of young shiners. Uh oh.

All of the literary links and in-jokes  relating to The Shining aside, the central compelling story of Dan's link to Abra, and their desire to use and understand their abilities while staying human is what really works in Doctor Sleep. King has always got people, and how they talk and interact. The spooky stuff is actually the least interesting aspect of this novel.

hogwarts ... you can't go home again?

The kid and I recently read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Hmmm ... I don't know what to say. I guess I can say that my daughter liked it better than I did. Initially it was wonderful to see favorite characters again — Harry, Ron, Hermione especially. There are even appearances by some folks you might not expect. I won't spoil it. But ... I just didn't buy it. This was not who I imagined Harry, Ron, Hermione to be as adults. There are so many problems.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child read more like fan fiction than Rowling. And it isn't exactly a "new Rowling," as advertised. It is the script of the play written by Jack Thorne, based on an original new story by Thorne, J.K. Rowling, and John Tiffany. The project has Rowling's blessing, so I guess I will have to go with that. But I never thought I'd read something more disappointing about Harry than Rowling's own lame epilogue in The Deathly Hallows. Oh well. She did actually she did write the screenplay for the upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. So, Potter fans, not all hope is lost.

along came another patterson book ...

My cousin is on a James Patterson rampage, and has been dragging me along, mostly willingly. I have had so many things going on my life recently, that a lightning fast mystery read is about all that I can handle. in fact, I think it is proving a bit therapeutic.

I can't blame my multiple Pattersons completely on my cousin, however. His books are not just a quick read, but also mostly fun, whether written on his lonesome or with one of his many collaborators. I just finished two, The Beach House, from 2003, which he wrote with Peter de Jonge, and his first Alex Cross novel, Along Came a Spider, which he wrote in 1992. They are different in structure. The more recent collabo-Pattersons that I have read have a definite format: super-short, concise chapters, heavy on dialog, and usually with a page-turning thrill or cliffhanger. The Beach House follows this structure to the letter. While I didn't always buy the convoluted action, particularly at the end of the book, I have to admit that the characters were compelling. The most interesting of the lot was actually the victim, Peter Mullen, who was sadly quickly introduced and then as quickly dispatched in the first few pages of the book. His brother Jack Mullen spends the rest of the book trying to unravel his brother's life and death among the rich and kinky of Montauk. Peter's life sounded fairly interesting, if a bit sordid, but The Beach House never really gives its readers enough information to care about its primary victim.

I never saw the film adaptation of Along Came A Spider, but I couldn't help but picture a young Morgan Freeman in the role of Alex Cross, the tough-talking but tender-hearted D.C. detective and psychologist. The book, the first in his Alex Cross series,  is a high-speed chase for a serial killer. Serial killers have become almost passé in books and film, but I will say that Patterson's glimpses into the mind of his antagonist, Gary Soneji, are unsettling. And the fact that his preferred victims are children helps bring the creep meter up even more. It was interesting racing around '90s D.C. with Cross and his partner Sampson, too. Some things have changed, and many haven't. There's also a romance for Cross thrown in, with a Secret Service agent named Jezzie Flannagan. Some of those scenes were less convincing, espcially for this ex-D.C.-er - I don't care what time of night or day it is, being able to speed around the Beltway at 100mph, on a super-fast motorcycle or not, seems frankly out of the realm of possibility. That quibble aside, I enjoyed the read and will no doubt check out Alex Cross and Patterson in future.

After reading a few of these co-authored books I had to look up how he runs his writing factory. It's pretty interesting.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

plumbing the future and the past for thrills

I read these two books in close succession to one another.

James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge - Zoo

Zoo cover art
Patterson and friends' book are always a quick, fast, beach read, and Zoo was pretty entertaining in parts. Taking what humans have done to the world - pollution, deforestation, cell phone towers, etc. - and taking to the nth degree how all of that technology might affect the world's animal populations is a clever concept. But ... the overall book was a bit clunky. I felt like the some of the chapters might be out of order, and the main protagonist, Jackson Oz, and his ability to save the world (or not) didn't seem very plausible to me. Plus, he hooks up with a gorgeous and brilliant French scientist, Chloe, who in the latter part of the book is relegated to his baby mama while he runs off to high-level meetings with the heads of state. Really? The television series based on the book, which I just started to catch up with on Netflix, has done a much better job with Chloe all of its characters. There is supposed to be a Zoo sequel coming. Maybe if Patterson takes a cue from TV's Zoo I'll check it out.

Stephen King - 11.23.63

Stephen King, center, with 11.23.63 actor James Franco (L), and producer J.J. Abrams (R)
Stephen King's 11.23.63 was also a quick read, but a much more satisfying one. His characters and concept stayed with me days after I finished the behemoth of a book. King pulls out all the stops - time travel, political intrigue, and even romance. His protagonist, Jake Epping, is asked very early in the book, "What if you could go back in time and prevent President John F. Kennedy from being assassinated?" For many people who can remember that day, that world event still has sad echoes. King presents a time portal without too much complicated explanation -it's a way into a great story. Jake decides to do just that - and maybe right some other wrongs of the past along the way. He visits some familiar King territory - the town of Derry, Maine, in particular, the setting of his horror novel It. Some folks, like myself, may not be thrilled to find themselves back in the home town of Pennywise the clown. But Jake's main focus, and ultimate target is Lee Harvey Oswald. Will he be able to determine if Oswald acted alone, debunking future conspiracy theorists everywhere? It's a tense, gripping read, with a truly touching romance thrown in to boot. It's also a miniseries on Hulu, starring James Franco, so my viewing queue just got a little bit bigger.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

recent reads

I have been really busy with my own writing and art project this year, so haven't been posting regularly on my blog. But I did want to share some capsule book reviews of what I've been reading lately.

Agatha Christie, The Monogram Murders - billed as a "new" Hercule Poirot mystery, by British mystery author Sophie Hannah. It wasn't a bad read, but was it Poirot? For fans of Christie's most famous and famously fastidious detective, there were definite pleasant notes scored, with nods to his love of order and symmetry. Where the book fell flat for me was Poirot's "assistant" in the case, a young police officer named Catchpool, who seemed neither fit for the police force or for sharing Poirot's company. I didn't find the core mystery too compelling, either, I'm afraid. Hannah got permission from Christie's descendants to try her hand at Poirot, and apparently this book was successful enough to spawn a second, Closed Casket, which will be released in September. I will surely check it out from the library, but with expectations not too high.

The Murder House, by James Petterson (David Ellis) - a "collaboration," the book was a fast, if a bit disjointed, thriller. I usually like books that focus on a house as another character, especially a sinister one, so the title attracted me. It was actually the first book by the uber-prolific Patterson that I have read. The Murder House could have done with more house-centric scenes and less running around, but definitely the perfect beach read if you like this sort of thing.

I loved Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and finally got around to reading her first two novels:

Dark Places follows Libby Day in the past and present as she tries to cope with being the only surviving member of an infamous Satanic cult massacre that took the lives of her mother and two sisters. Libby's seven year-old witness testimony implicates her teenage brother, and twenty five years later she begins to question what she thinks she heard and saw. Flynn deftly portrays the rural poverty of the Midwest and the desperate and dark forces that drive people to murder. It was a great and gripping read and Libby was a complex and compelling character.

Sharp Objects followed another female character. Camille, a reporter who must delve into her past while investigating a series of murders that have taken place in her childhood town of Wind Gap, Missouri. Flynn skillfully takes the reader through Camille's past and present, with scattered clues relating to the current crimes, as well as factors contributing to Camille's personal history of self-harm. At times scary and heartbreaking, Flynn's first novel is a great read.

Still in the mood for s thriller, I picked up The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, at the library, and was not disappointed. The story follows a trio of female protagonists, who may or may not be reliable narrators: Rachel, Anna, and Megan. Rachel, an alcoholic who is still obsessed with her ex-husband Tom, sees a woman and a man from her window seat on the commuter train to London and proceeds to weave a fantasy narrative about their lives. This story begins to interweave with an actual case of missing woman and Rachel's own sad history with her ex. A twisted and turning but ultimately very satisfying mystery thriller. Highly recommended.

I also read another highly fictionalized account of the life of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Monroe Confidential, by Lena Pepitone, who worked as her maid while Marilyn was living in New York and married to Arthur Miller. Since Pepitone had very limited English (she was originally from Naples), the book, which came out in 1979, has been widely criticized for its supposed veracity. Pepitone reproduces long conversations with the star, which, years after her death, would have been hard for the most fluent speaker of English to recall. Even knowing that it is mostly balderdash, it is undeniably a fun, if trashy, read, with the dropping of many famous names from Marilyn's orbit, including Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio.

Monday, January 11, 2016

the artist who fell to earth

I am in shock this morning to hear that one of the icons of my youth is gone. He did a little bit of everything - music, movies, painting - and did it well. RIP David Bowie, you will be missed. Here is an old post of mine with a memory of my "meeting" the golden man.

golden years

I've been thinking about why I blog lately. Mostly, because I want to share something that happens in the world and put my own spin on it. But maybe it's also a way to tell little stories from the past that might reflect on the present.

I upload current and not-so-current songs onto my iPhone and then shuffle through my taste in music, past and present, while I walk through town. A song can bring me right back to a particular time in my life, as music can do. Golden Years popped up in rotation the other day and zap - I was right back in high school gym class. For some reason the teachers decided we should be "dancing" instead of playing volleyball, so there we all were, learning a line-dance move to David Bowie.

That memory brought back another Bowie reference from my past, when I was an art student in NYC. I was heading to MoMA, hellbent on seeing Jasper John's Flagpainting. MoMA was undergoing a renovation and all the "greatest hits" were in the basement. I was so focused on my mission, that I barely noticed the other folks who stepped on the elevator to view the collection.

As we headed down, I heard two girls giggling in the corner of the elevator. I finally turned to see what was their problem, and there, looking straight ahead was David Bowie, wearing a shiny gold jacket, his hair the exact matching color of his jacket. He glowed.

As the doors opened, he exited and everyone followed him out of the elevator and followed him from painting to painting, staring in excitement, awe, and embarrassment. Except me. I went in the other direction, trying to find Jasper Johns. After a few stops at some other favorites, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I was staring at Broadway Boogie Woogie, and David Bowie, who was in an adjacent gallery, appeared to be staring at me.

No way.

I moved on to an Ellsworth Kelley. So did Bowie, to Broadway Boogie Woogie, casually glancing over. Hmmm. This happened at a few more paintings and then wait - finally - there was Jasper Johns!

I headed over to the Flag, happy to reach my elusive quarry. A few moments later, someone was standing very close, on my left side, practically leaning into me. I don't have to tell you who. I looked up at him in disbelief and he just smiled. I stood there for a while, trying to pay some attention to the Johns, but I seemed to have lost interest in the painting. I started to feel uncomfortable. His crowd of admirers had disappeared. The hunted was now the hunter. And I got to taste , for a moment, what it must be like to be hounded.

I pretty much had my fill of art at that point, and ducked out of the gallery. As I sat on the subway home, writing down the event in my notebook (like I'd ever forget it), I wondered why he had chosen me to follow, and why I hadn't been able to say anything to him. Mostly, I guess, because I didn't have much to say - "You're David Bowie?" Not too impressive.

When I got home I looked in the mirror and saw that there were three streaks of different colored oil paint in my hair - alizarin crimson, pthalo green and cerulean blue. A clue! I had been in such a rush to get to the museum directly from painting class, to go after my target, as it were, I had never noticed the paint in my hair.

A little paint, a little stalking, a fun little memory.