Book Reviews: Los Angeles, Russia, and small town mysteries

Did everyone in the magnificent City of Beautiful Angels enjoy those last few days of cloudiness and one rain shower? I sure did, as I am already dreading this coming week of 90 degrees.

When’s the last time you saw a paparazzo as a hero? Yeah, me neither, though I hesitate to use that word for him; let’s go with protagonist instead. This is a far-reaching—timewise, anyway—story about a photojournalist who burned out on shooting the ugly things in life—I can totally relate, the same thing happened to me—and reinvents himself as a celeb stalker. . . and don’t ask me if I can relate to that, because I can’t, not even close. A not-at-all-concealed expy of Princess Diana’s death leads to blackmail, which takes him into the orbit of a Hollywood star. . . at which point things change dramatically, leading into whole different genre, the chase/escape spy thriller.
At first you’re not even sure if he’s a paparazzo or an assassin, which I think is a statement by the author, considering how he wrote that part so ambiguously. And it wasn’t till Channing Tatum and Robin Williams’ death were mentioned that I knew it was present-day and not completely written as the past. I did like the settings, though, from Paris to Brazil to Germany but mostly Los Angeles; it always makes me smile when a place I know well is mentioned, such as Pepperdine University in Malibu.
It’s an intriguing choice to have the lead character be such an anti-hero from the very start, since it was difficult to muster any empathy for him. Thankfully his actions, even while doing the most despicable of photography jobs, do redeem him enough to sustain the rest of the book. And isn’t it the point of a story to see personal growth in the characters, especially the protagonist? Well done.
And I will always be grateful to anyone that can educate me on something I knew nothing about but immediately grabs my interest, in this case German dueling clubs.
So if you have intense distaste for photographic leeches like I do—I frequently say that comparing a paparazzo to a real photographer is like comparing a porn star to an Oscar-winning actress—I advise you to stick with it, you’ll be rewarded by the end. If you like the ‘razzis or don’t care either way, then just relax and enjoy it.

Guy dies and leaves his house to a cousin he didn’t like, along with a puzzle that he knows the cousin won’t be able to resist. Small-town secrets and an inevitable psycho complicate things.
I’ll be blunt: it’s just incredibly hard to enjoy a book with no, or incredibly few, likeable characters. Probably the nicest was the gas station attendant, and how often has anyone said that? Except for him and Debbie—no, not even her—everyone in this story is an asshole; Debbie, while in general being nice, does the most despicable thing of all. Even the librarian’s a bit of a jerk. The best moment for me was when the lead’s sister comes right out and calls him an asshole, and all he does is laugh it off, saying she’s right. By that point I didn’t need to be told.
From the start there was nothing outright suspenseful going on—except a dad rat—yet it was still giving me the wiggins. The plot itself is Machiavellian, if somewhat convoluted, though I’d have to say pretty much everyone got what they deserved. The thing that most annoyed me is that despite being injured and having terrible things happen to his sister, the protagonist—like above, no way am I calling him the hero, even more so here—didn’t change at all, continued being a world-class asshole. I don’t require redemption, but I can’t help but wonder what the point of the book was when the characters don’t grow.

Rise of the Enemy
Who said spy stuff in Russia was over?
I knew going in that there was another book in the series before it, but lately I’ve read a few where that didn’t matter, so I didn’t worry about it much. There was enough told here to make me understand what had happened previously by chapter six, and even piqued my interest enough to want to go back to that one later.
There are two timelines interwoven: flashbacks to the recent past, where the spy is captured and tortured by the Russians, and the present, where he’s escaped and trying to find out just what the hell is going on. Soon enough they merge.
The spy’s background is reminiscent of David Morrell’s Brotherhood of the Rose, though without the twins thing. The plot reaches the point where he doesn’t know if he can trust even his father figure, and certainly not the people around him, so that us-against-the-world mentality takes over. A lot of the story, and some of the action, takes place on trains; having been on Russian trains, which aren’t as bad as third-world trains but not quite Amtrak—not counting the spiffy tourists ones between St. Pete and Moscow—it wasn’t that hard to imagine the particular setting, though I’m not sure how most readers would fare on that. More to that point, setting it in a city no one’s ever heard of—as I’ve said, I’ve traveled through Russia and have a degree in geography—could have worked but I don’t think did here, as most of the description was generic.
Still, overall this is a well-written one-man-against-the-world thriller. However. . .
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is obviously a sequel, and just as obviously I have not read the first one, so I don’t know how that ended. I can tell you that this ends in a cliffhanger, an obvious setup for you to buy the next one if you want to find out the real ending. Since it cuts off before paying off the story just read, in my opinion it’s a particularly egregious and strictly monetary move that irritates me no end and forces me to drop this from a 4 to a 3.


Book Reviews: Death, Science, Military Bases, and Sophie Tucker

Still a lot of free time, though it turns out I won’t need knee surgery. So I’m reading happier.
On with the show. . .


Lover Man

This is a first person mystery set in Noo Yawk, where a man with far too much time on his hands hears about his ex-lover’s death and wants to solve it before the police. Fair warning if you’re reading this in 2015: it is not set in the present; either this is written about the past, or more likely was written in the past and is being republished now. Don’t know much about baseball, but I’m pretty sure Gooden and Strawberry played quite a while ago.

The writing style is showcased from the very first sentence, which I enjoyed a lot. Not that the rest was bad, but it was such a good start there was no way it could stay at such a level. It’s always a good sign when a dog is a main character, and is quite the character. This book will particularly be enjoyed by jazz fans, which the main character is.

What he isn’t is very smart; over and over I had to keep from shouting at him for making the stupid move, particularly when it came to keeping things from the cops and going it alone, where he was much more likely to get beat up or killed. His motivation for doing so didn’t strike me as all that smart to begin with, and after dangerous people mess with him he doesn’t get the message, his ego taking over. Considering all he does for a living is manage his famous dog, I eventually grew to dislike him, wondering if he would end up in the hospital—can’t kill a first-person narrator, after all, unless you’re Richard Matheson—and I wasn’t bothered by the idea.

The ending in particular was confusing; the plot had taken so many turns, there’d been so many revelations and character twists, that even when I was told who was who and did what, I wasn’t sure what had happened. Ordinarily I would give this a 2, but the writing style warrants bumping it up to 3.



A Taste for Death

What starts as a typical murder mystery set in the Finger Lakes area is really something much deeper psychologically, with just about every character damaged in some way. Even the lead detective, born in France, suffers from amnesia that keeps him from remembering most of his childhood, possibly caused by alcoholism at an incredibly young age; his actions with his superior/psychologist/former lover show he’s self-destructive too, but that’s just the tip of this mentally abnormal iceberg.

The main plot involves the killing of a wine critic, with just about everyone a suspect, including his wife and teenaged son. As one would expect in this genre, there’s plenty of revelations about other characters that turn out to be red herrings, otherwise this would be a much shorter book. Some of the rhapsodic depictions of the vineyards brought memories of that movie A Walk in the Clouds to my mind, but the description of the lakes, particularly the hilarious sailing trip that makes the detective sick, were my favorite.

In the end the killer is not as expected, though there might have been enough bread crumbs if you were really paying attention. To my mind the book was too long, with large chunks taken up by insights into the detective’s past, his dreams/flashbacks; made me think it was setting up for sequels.



I am Sophie Tucker

Billed as “Forrest Gump of the first half of the 1900s,” Sophie Tucker is the huge star of the past you’ve never heard of. I certainly had no idea—even while reading this, till near the end—that Sophie Tucker had been real; since it was labeled a “fictional autobiography,” I had no reason to expect the protagonist wasn’t made up either. Later, looking at their website, I realized exactly what they meant: “This volume is 85% fact. The other 15% …who knows?”

This is one of the most hilarious books I’ve ever read. Some of the jokes are obvious, but a lot of them come after a little bit of thinking, which makes it all the more fun when you do get it, a sense of accomplishment. Somehow the lady could make a funny about any topic, and was immensely self-deprecating, which of course helps to like her. There’s a chapter where the family had to stay in Great Britain a few weeks, and the famous person she meets there—who gets her mom out of jail by proving she didn’t kill the victim—is Arthur Conan Doyle. As much as I laughed at this reveal, I was mildly annoyed for not guessing it myself.

A look at the website shows there’s a documentary that goes along with this book making the rounds of film festivals right now, and I have to admit I’m intrigued to see it. . .



The Science of TV’s The Big Bang Theory: Explanations Even Penny Would Understand

I’m no scientist, but I did get surprisingly passable grades in those courses in high school and college. . . except biology (PLANT biology—don’t ask). I also know I’m way smarter than Penny, which I mention because of the subtitle, but some of these concepts were still too much, not as easy to grasp as the writer no doubt envisioned.

The great Isaac Asimov used to have a column where he would explain scientific ideas in a way that the general public could understand. Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene (as seen on the show) had books like this too, but they don’t have the writing elegance of Asimov. Neither does this guy, but he comes the closest, especially with his sense of humor. Even then, whereas Asimov comes off as a funny professor teaching a class, Dave Zobel (not to be confused with the tattoo artist if you google the name) is more of a guy chatting at a party, a geek trying to impress a girl perhaps. The style is therefore much more conversational, which probably helps in keeping the reader’s attention. For instance, Isaac Asimov would never have said “As for Raj, he also has a pair [of noise-cancelling headphones]. Despite what some people say.” Literally a low blow.

Like Asimov, who did columns on Shakespeare and Milton, this book includes not just science but also philosophy and psychology. I found the chapter on dimensions the easiest to follow, even before he got to Flatland, as I knew he ultimately would. There’s plenty of asides for interviews and slight tangents of the main topic, with recurring themes like “In what universe?” “,” “Ask an icon,” and “Out to lands beyond,” though it does seem silly to call up an “icon” like Tom Lehrer and only ask him how he feels about Sheldon singing his song “The Elements.” {Yes, I’m sure there was more to the interview, but that’s all we get.}

One of the points he repeatedly brings up concerns the building where Leonard and Sheldon live, not just its location but its architecture. Since I’ve been on Los Robles plenty of times I was certainly curious about this too. And because I live close by, it occurred to me I might take a shot at it, go over to Pasadena and look for the place where you can see City Hall and the mountains from that exact angle, though considering they live on the fourth floor, it would be tough so match from ground level. Then I got to the last chapter and found someone had already done that; I was secretly relieved.

Your mileage will of course vary on how much you learn from this, but I will say the writer makes it easy with his writing style, even if his explanations don’t quite light the bulb in my head. It’s particularly fun when he calls Sheldon on his mistakes, making me wish the fictional character could read this and I could watch his head explode. . .



Base Nation

This upcoming book about the vagrancies and ills of America’s overseas military bases starts in Guantanamo, where much has been heard about the prison, but not many know it’s also a regular base, so much like others that it has McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, etc. I remember a base in Qatar some years ago that reminded me of a Midwest American small town, but you don’t expect it in Cuba!

There are chapters on the environment, families living on base, profiteering, local workers—which as expected includes prostitution and slavery—and rape of fellow soldiers, both male and female, but mostly female. It’s shocking to hear how some women serving in Iraq died from dehydration because they were too scared to drink water and have to go to the latrine, where they knew they’d be raped.

It gets depressing quickly and doesn’t get any easier. (I’m speaking about the information, not the writing.) Toward the end I was lagging, hoping it would be over soon; if I had not been reading this for review I would not have finished it, and I certainly didn’t bother with the last 50 pages of notes. As concerning as it all is, as damning as all the evidence he includes is, there’s really only so much a reader can take. I realize there’s no other way to write/publish this—certainly not expecting him to throw in some jokes—but I do believe it’s a concern from a reader’s point of view.



Book Reviews: War, Worrying, Seattle, and Star Trek

Last time it was a sprained ankle that kept me at home reading all day (websurfing not included). This time it’s a possible torn knee ligament that’s got me zooming through my booklist. I don’t think this is what people mean when they say “I wish I had more time to read.”

Yesterday is Dead
Former reporter now detective leaves San Francisco for his old hometown of Seattle to help an old buddy who thinks he’s in danger. Then his ex-wife shows up, and he meets a Bohemian painter who wants him to do more than pose nude. . . why must life be so complicated? he sighs.
As it turns out, this is another old novel now being re-released, I assume for the first time in electronic form. As someone who’s spent a lot of time in Seattle, there were some niggling moments of wondering, but when you have the hero be a veteran of the Korean War it’s pretty obvious. Another note later about Hong Kong about to be handed over to the Chinese confirms this took place in the late 90s. On the other hand, for once, this doesn’t really get in the way of the story, which is a pretty good if not great hard-boiled detective novel of the kind I used to devour years ago. 4/5

Star Trek: New Visions Volume 2
As often happens with these comic books/graphic novels/painty stories, this is a collection of previous releases. . . except this isn’t as much of a painty thing as the others. I remember the old photobooks, some of them Star Trek, taken right from the episodes, but in this circumstance the “art” is actual photographic faces or bodies of the characters badly added to background drawings. I didn’t find this visual Frankenstein appealing, especially since the body positions at times look somewhat unnatural.
On to the stories. The first one, involving quite a number of guest characters from the original series, is frankly horrible. In addition to reading like a bad fan fic with pictures, it begins with the character speaking aloud to himself, even when around other people, instead of the more traditional thought bubbles. Considering in later stories this is not present, it makes the mistake all the more glaring, but really, there was nothing that could have saved this story. 1/5
The second story is a callback to Captain Pike’s Enterprise, and brings back Number 1. It also makes great use of Scotty, and though in the end the story was rather bland, it was magnitudes better than the first. 3/5
Thirdly is a short piece about Spock’s former fiancée, dedicated to her actress, who recently passed. Too short to really opinionate.
Lastly is a sequel to the Doomsday Machine, picking up right where that left off. Like the second it’s not really much of a story, barely more than an idea, with too much of a coincidence at the end of three million years to make it anywhere near believable. 2/5.
In the end this was quite disappointing, even if got better after the disastrous start. Not-so-simple math tells me it all comes out to a 2/5.

The Worrier’s Guide to Life
Hilarity starts right away with fetuses worrying about their looks and body types, including pierogi, broken slinky, and badly drawn dolphin. Then there’s the ye olde video games like Harpsichord Hero and William Burke, Tomb Raider. And I’d give anything to meet the Un-Tattooed lady, pierced ears or not.
A lot more hits than misses, even for a guy who had no idea why some female things were funny. So I’d imagine it would be even funnier to women, especially those who would identify with the author, if not admit it. Though it isn’t too obvious, I surmised she was British from a few of the drawings. I also surmised that this might be a weekly, or even daily, comic-strip-like deal, and a little research proved it was, so you can continue to enjoy it after devouring this quick read, as I will. 5/5

History of War in 100 Battles
Despite how relatively short each chapter is, it takes a while to read through. And this isn’t like most books of its kind where half of it is taken up by notes and bibliography.
With my preferences it was obvious “Deception” was going to be my favorite par—Trojan Horse, anyone?—and it was. Overall there were two types of occurrences that made me enjoy this: finding out about battles I was unaware of, and reading a new version, sometimes with a completely different take, of those I did know. The author must be commended for including not just the ancient world, such as Greece and Egypt, but something as out of the box as the fall of Tenochtitlan to the Spanish in the 1500s. A must read for fans of history who know that war isn’t always won by superior numbers. 5/5

Code Name: Infamy
From the beginning it’s obvious that this is not the first of the series, as the main characters are deposited in this story as though the audience is already familiar with them. In general this didn’t have much of an effect, though at the start it made for a little rough going. . . yet I’m sure fans of the series would be annoyed if there was a bunch of exposition they’d already heard, so it cuts both ways.
This is a story of a crazy Nazi general who can’t accept the failure of WWII and goes to the Japanese to help him get his revenge on the US before Japan goes under as well. The heroes are OSS agents whom, as mentioned above, seem to have been through adventures before, considering their rapport. It’s obvious that the author is a aeronautics buff even before reading his bio-blurb at the end, as we have plenty of fliers here, including early aircraft-carrier-based planes. There’s a new submarine as well, not to mention nukes.
The best parts involved the personal moments of the heroes, from the carrier pilot having doubts about his ability, or will to continue fighting, to one of the OSS officers meeting a prostitute in Chile and instantly falling in love, to their little hot tub party on Iwo Jima. They made up for the awkward feeling at the beginning of how I’m supposed to already know these people.
3.5 rounded up to 4/5


Book Reviews: Joss Whedon, Bruges, Orange County, and Spin

It’s the eclectic mix in the title that really sells it. . .

Joss Whedon
This biography was up for book of the year in this category, which is a bit of a surprise, not because it isn’t good enough, but because it has the same irreverent style as its namesake.
If you’re reading this because you’re a fan of the man—I think he’d like that rhyme—you will not be disappointed. There’s plenty of background on his growing-up years, his time in college where he learned about filmmaking, and his early years with his father in Hollywood. But where it really takes off, as should be expected, is with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, first his disappointment at how the movie was taken out of his control, then Buffy’s triumphant return, this time on TV. For those who are not particularly fans of his yet reading this anyway, there’s plenty of interesting tidbits from his time in Hollywood, all the way to Much Ado About Nothing and the preproduction of the semi-sequel to that blockbuster that is The Avengers, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There’s just a touch about this family life, a few mentions without being intrusive; since I’m not a person who follows such things, I didn’t even know he had kids.
And just because there’s nowhere else for me to put this, I’m gonna say right now that, after binging on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for about a month, what I thought the first time is confirmed: the best moment of the whole series is “Buffy Summers, Class Protector.”
5/5 (Or as Faith would say, “Five by five.”)

The Juan Doe Murders
After one chapter of this Noreen Ayres mystery I knew this was going to be rough and realistic—at least I wrote a note to that effect—but in the end it wasn’t nearly as gory as that beginning crime scene. And there’s quite a few more murders to investigate, in the not-usual-dead-body areas of Orange County, California.
I was well into the second chapter before realizing—or more likely being told—that the first-person protagonist is a woman, and it didn’t help that she was often referred to as Brandon, which is actually her surname. The twist here is that she’s not a detective, but rather a crime-scene specialist, though in no way does this come across like an episode of CSI. As one might expect from the title, the dead bodies are Hispanic, which leads to a somewhat different take than might be otherwise anticipated.
Halfway through her lover dies. . . or not. . . or maybe. This would have been a useless plotline, except that his son is part of the investigation. At the end she admits she didn’t do anything to really help the investigation, the violent ending having taken away the necessity of arrests and trials.
It wasn’t till I was reading the author blurb at the end that I found out this was the third in a series, but since it never occurred to me, that must mean it can be easily read without the others.

From Bruges with Love
I got fooled again; like a couple of previous books, I expected this mystery by Pieter Aspe to be new, but as it turned out this is merely the first English translation of a book first published in 1997. You wouldn’t think it would make that much of a difference, but it is at times jarring, such as a clue being found in a Betamax box, which was obsolete even then to the character, but you surely wouldn’t find one nowadays outside of a museum.
These Dutch—or Flemish—names make it difficult to keep track of; some “sound” the same when you read quickly, and for some strange reason it’s worse than German. As for the plot, there are some tangents that end up going nowhere, but since that’s common in police work it’s not too bad. There’s a final plot twist that doesn’t change much, other than the fate of a couple of characters. There is one subplot involving a young policewoman that didn’t seem worth putting in, other than to save her ass at the end.
But as someone who’s been to Bruges and enjoyed it, I was more than a little disappointed at the complete lack of description of the amazing places that draw tourists; there’s quite a bit on local restaurants and everyday places, which is as expected, but I don’t believe the word “canal” was used even once. A reason for that might be the few scenes that featured tourists, all of which have the main character exhibiting contemptuous thoughts toward them. On the other hand, this story seems to be far from the first in a long line, so maybe all that was covered before.

If you ever watched those press monkeys on TV and wondered what they really meant by all those long phrases of meaningless gibberish, this is the book for you. More funny than really educational, the book is in dictionary format, most of it spin-to-English, though there is a much smaller part that’s English-to-spin at the “end.” By far the best parts are the examples, like in the spelling bee when you say “use it I a sentence.” The new terms are substituted for their more usual counterparts in familiar clichés, some of which become incredibly hilarious. But despite the last half being just notes, it was still a long tough read, not at all what I expected. This dropped its grade a point.


Poetry Tuesday: The Message of King Sakis

And the Legend of the Twelve Dreams He Had in One Night
Anonymous Serbo-Croatian, 12th Century

I saw a gold pillar from earth to heaven.

I saw a dark towel
hanging from heaven to earth.

I saw three boiling kettles:
one of oil, one of butter, and one of water,
and oil boiled over into butter,
and butter into water
but the water boiled all by itself.

I saw an old mare with her colt,
and a black eagle pulling grass by its roots
and laying it down before the mare
while the colt neighed.

I saw a bitch lying on a dunghill
while the puppies barked from her womb.

I saw many monks soaked in pitch
wailing because they can’t get out.

I saw a beautiful horse
grazing with two heads
one in front, one in the back.

I saw precious stones, pearls, and royal wreaths
scattered over the whole kingdom,
but fire came down from heaven
and scorched everything into ashes.

I saw the rich giving workers either
gold or silver or rice,
but when they asked for their own reward,
no one was left.

I saw evil-faced rocks descending
from the sky
and walking all over the earth.

I saw three maidens in a mowed field
bearing wreaths of sunlight on their heads
and sweet-smelling flowers in their hands.

I saw men with slits for eyes,
cruel fingernails, and hair that rose up,
and these were the devil’s servants.


Top 15 Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler songs

In keeping with the weirdest top lists I can possibly come up with, and in honor of buying my ticket to see Mark Knopfler in concert this summer, here’s my list of favorite songs from both his solo and Dire Straits days.

15 Sons of Scotland (Shot at Glory)
Who else could make Scottish soccer interesting? (Don’t answer that!)

14 Your Latest Trick
That amazing sax sells it. . .

13 Skateaway
I can picture Rollergirl so well. . .

12 Going Home (Local Hero)
Hardly anyone remembers this movie for anything but this song. . .

11 Private Investigations
Film noir music. . . I think that genre–if there are enough examples to call it a genre–was invented here.

10 Portobello Belle
I think I saw this girl at the famous market once. . .

9 Boom Like That
If you hate McDonald’s, this is the song for you.

8 Once Upon a Time–Storybook Love (Princess Bride)
You love the movie, you love the song. . . now you know who does it.

7 Sultans of Swing
“When he gets up under the lights to play his thing. . .”

6 Romeo and Juliet
Make sure you get the fingersnaps in the right place.

5 Brothers in Arms
Ah, that guitar outro. . .

4 Silvertown Blues
This is how all songs should be crafted. . .

3 Telegraph Road
14 minutes of sheer awesome

2 Tunnel of Love
When’s the last time a guitar solo broke your heart?

1 Sailing to Philadelphia
Even without James Taylor this song would be the most amazing tune ever. . .