Monday, March 17, 2014

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Five out of five stars

The Sins of the Fathers would be a solid four stars from me on any day. I'm giving it five because it's the first book in what I've always believed to be the best P.I. series that anyone's ever done, if not the best crime fiction series that anyone's ever done. The Matthew Scudder saga now runs to seventeen books and a large number of short stories, and it's hard to think of any other writer who has done a series consisting of this many books over this many years while maintaining this standard of excellence. And for as many times as I've read this book by now, and for as well as I know the story, it's always a treat to pick it up and read it all over again.

In particular, the first chapter is excellent. In a lean, crisp thirteen pages, Block not only sets up the mystery to be resolved but provides a brilliant introduction to the character of Matthew Scudder. Although the character will continue to grow and develop over the course of the series, the first chapter essentially tells you everything you would ever need to know about the man.

Scudder is an ex-cop who left the force for very personal reasons. He now works as an unlicensed P.I. Clients don't hire him in any traditional sense, but occasionally he does a favor for someone and they show their appreciation by giving him monetary gifts.

In this case, the someone is a businessman from upstate New York named Cale Hanniford. A few days earlier, Hanniford's daughter, Wendy, had been savagely murdered in the apartment she shared with a young man named Richard Vanderpoel. Minutes after the killing, Vanderpoel was found covered in the victim's blood, exposing himself and shouting obscenities in the street in front of the apartment. The police arrested him and less than forty-eight hours later, the young man hanged himself in his cell.

The police have closed the case and Hanniford accepts their obvious conclusion that Vanderpoel killed his daughter. But he wants to know why. Hanniford and Wendy had been estranged for several years and he knows nothing of her life during that period. He now knows that she was living in an expensive apartment with no visible means of support, which suggests the obvious to everyone involved. Still, no matter how sordid the details, Hanniford wants Matt to dig into Wendy's life so that he will know how she came to such a tragic end.

Scudder accepts the job and begins investigating in his usual methodical way, turning up one thing after another, asking one question after another, and in the process learning things about both Wendy and Vanderpoel that no parent might ever want to know.

The story is spare and lean--there's not a wasted word, and it draws you inexorably into the lives of all the characters, but especially into that of Matthew Scudder. It's a haunting and intoxicating introduction that sets the stage for all of the great books and stories to follow.

Pop Went My Weasel!

Wishful DrinkingWishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like most boys popping wood for the first time in the late '70s and early '80s, I had a "healthy" interest in Princess Leia Carrie Fisher.


Later in life, whenever I've seen one of her books on the shelves, I'd think about possibly reading it, out of interest for what she might have to say regarding those iconic Star Wars movies. I even gave a little shit about what she's been up to since then. Call it a passing fancy, one that I've passed up time and again for year upon year, right up until recently when I found the audiobook version of Wishful Drinking at the library. It was free, I had it in hand and yet still I hesitated and would not have bothered with it except that it is quite short. I wish I'd put it back on the shelf.

Three hours of listening to anyone famous and privileged talking about their problems is three hours too long. Add to that Fisher's tendency to shout, as if saying it louder makes it funnier. I blame "Laugh In"-era Goldie Hawn for this.

Negatives aside, Fisher's humor is one of the book's saving graces. She's gone beyond the "woe is me" stage, attained the "let's get our skeletons out of the closet" stage, and she handles it with laughter.

However, it's a sense of humor that is as dark as the undertones and somewhat depressing subject matter of the entire book. From start to finish, nearly everything within Wishful Drinking is about her struggles with depression, mental illness and substance abuse. It's a hard-knock life. Fisher's taken her knocks and here they are all laid out for you to read. I'm not sure I would recommend it.

Short Murders

Murder in the Mews (Hercule Poirot #18)Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That odd, little foreigner with the strange mustache description Hercule Poirot is at it again!

In Murder in the Mews, a collection of shorts, Poirot's razor-sharp mind is pitted against such stumpers as a suicide/murder conundrum, a deadly love triangle, and a case of important papers gone missing.

Originally four short stories were published under this title, which was called Dead Man's Mirror here in the States. My version only included three stories: Murder in the Mews, Triangle at Rhodes, and The Incredible Theft.

The title story is the most intriguing and most well developed. The remaining two were quite enjoyable, if a bit quick and just a tad perfunctory…just a tad, mind you.

Poirot, that charming if arrogant sleuth, is clever as ever in unearthing the truth, an absolute pleasure to observe in action. Christie's plotting was relatively tight with an occasionally smart twist or two. Her characters are serviceable as always, though few really stood out as some have in her other stories. All in all, if you're already an Agatha Christie fan, you won't go wrong with Murder in the Mews.

My Life as a White Trash Zombie

My Life as a White Trash Zombie
Diana Rowland
DAW 2011

Reviewed by Carol
 ★   ★   ★   1/2

Braaaains. Hungry for braaaaains. Brains NOW!

At least, that's the call of the American Zombie, genus and species unknown (human? bacteria? virus?) Rowland does something unusual in My Life by creating a protagonist who undergoes a traumatic experience and gradually realizes she's one of the living dead. Even though she feels almost normal. Except for those pesky cravings. And that body odor. A fan of the genre in general, I couldn't resist giving this a try after seeing how many of my friends enjoyed it. Thanks, friends!

Angel is a young woman who wakes up in the local emergency room. Her last memory was of a violent, bloody car wreck, but the nurse tells her it was a drug overdose. It seems she must be right, since there isn't a scratch on Angel, even though vividly recalls a gash across her abdomen and her femur bone sticking out. After a brief police interview, she's discharged to her home with a pile of clothes, a six-pack of coffee-mochas and a note telling her to report to a new job at the coroner's office the next day. Home is an old trailer she shares with her alcoholic dad. Although she takes one of her secret stash of pills to help her calm down and sleep, she soon discovers pills aren't working. When she shows up at the coroner's office the next day, things start to get even more interesting, especially her fascination with brains during an autopsy.

Narrative is done first person, giving insight into Angel's discoveries as well as her self-deceptions. Language is well done, keeping in tone with her drop-out status yet not so simple in structure or vocabulary that it became boring.

Angel's characterization is well done, initially capturing the tone of an immature, hopeless young person embarking on a journey to self-discovery and greater self-confidence. The people surrounding her were less developed, but I felt it was consistent with Angel meeting a wide variety of new people, reacting to them with old assumptions, and gradually realizing they were more complex as well. I found myself rooting for her, surprisingly emotionally engaged for a book I had expected to be a easy-breezy read.

It's a solid three and a half stars. A fast read, with unexpected plotting and surprisingly touching human drama. Recommended for all zombie fans.