Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Fuzzy Navel

Fuzzy Navel
by J.A. Konrath
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fifth of at least ten novels in the "Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels Mysteries," the vulnerable, funny, smart, 40-something Chicago police homicide detective shares narrating duties with a bunch of other characters, including the bad guys, in a complex yet completely entertaining experiment in point-of-view. The "complex" part becomes a major ingredient in the suspense that builds and recedes in huge waves as Jack and all the people she cares about find themselves held captive in her secluded, suburban home by a psychopathic killer who has escaped from a home for the criminally insane... and then, just when things seemingly couldn't get any worse, a trio of snipers opens fire on all of them, including the psycho, in a classic case of having one's work follow one home.

The psycho killer is a disfigured femme fatale named Alex, who blames Jack for destroying her life and interrupting her career of evil. Revenge is the only thing that has kept her functionally insane (because "sane" would be too much to hope for), and she intends to take her time making Jack, her mother, her fiance, her ex-cop partner, and a couple other innocent people suffer. She has just gotten started when "The Urban Hunting Club," T.U.H.C. for short, arrives with high-powered rifles and scopes and begins cutting the place up. This outfit is the target of an investigation involving the simultaneous assassination of three sex criminals - followed, at one of the crime scenes, by a bonus round of police officer slayings. Alliances shift, people get hurt, the lights get turned off and on, family secrets come out into view once and for all, and eventually the folks inside the house start bringing the mayhem back to the not-too-swifties outside.

Seriously, these guys aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer. Their antics would be funny if they didn't end up dead in a variety of truly gruesome ways. Meantime, Jack discovers the brother she never knew she had. She pushes herself to the limits of physical endurance, again and again. She experiences abject terror, disabling pain, and danger beyond belief. Plus, she's going to have trouble at work when everything settles down. Even up to the gripping end, however, her smart-mouthed narration ensures a stiff shot of belly-laugh humor is in the mix.

This review is based on an audiobook co-narrated by the husband-wife team of Susie Breck and Dick Hill on the Brilliance Audio label. Their voice characterizations made an all-day drive from Fort Wayne, Ind. to somewhere in central Missouri go by like nothing. I'll be looking for them on my next interstate trip, when I stop at a certain truck stop with a large shelf of audiobooks. Another Jack Daniels mystery, bartender, if you please.

Dirty Martini

Dirty Martini
by J.A. Konrath
Recommended Ages: 14+

Jack Daniels is a Chicago homicide detective. Her full name, for of course Jack is she, is Jacqueline; she got the Daniels bit from her ex-husband. Now a lieutenant with more than 20 years of experience, she's not as loose a cannon as you would expect of a Chicago cop with an alcoholic beverage for a name, especially one starring in a series of novels each named after a different adult beverage. (This is the fourth of at least ten books in the "Jack Daniels" mystery series.) She's just a smart cop who, more or less by chance, gets caught up in some scary cases, if this installment is any indication. She solves them with smart detective work; she survives sequences charged with unbelievable levels of suspense, while exhibiting the appropriate level of fear - including, once or twice, debilitating panic; and she narrates her adventures with a cool sense of humor. She is vulnerable, human, devoted to her mom and her accountant boyfriend (fiance?), loyal to her partner, street smart, and laugh-out-loud funny. And for some reason, this seems to make killers want to kill her.

The killer in this tale is a psychopath who uses an array of poisons as his method of committing mass murder. He calls himself the Chemist, sends notes to the police, and carries out a campaign of terror, starting by contaminating several delis and supermarkets with botulism toxin. He's supposedly doing it to extort $2 million out of the city, but Jack seems to be the only cop unconvinced that paying him off will stop the mayhem. Even while the city scrambles to comply with the Chemist's demands, he strikes closer and closer to home, at one point spraying a deadly toxin in Jack's face right inside the precinct. You haven't experienced suspense until you've been in Jack's shoes, holding your breath, trying to reach the nearest bathroom with your eyes closed before your Oxygen runs out or the stuff on your skin causes irreversible damage.

In separate attacks, the Chemist also strikes at Jack's partner and her fiance(??). He lays a fiendish trap that kills several cops, and from which Jack barely makes it out alive. He also arranges for Jack to deliver the ransom money in a way that guarantees he will get the money without being caught, while Jack will get her rear end kicked during a frantic dash across Chicago. But even after being paid, naturally, the killer's targets keep getting bigger, leading to an explosive climax and an equally exciting, excruciatingly personal confrontation between Jack and the dirtbag behind it all.

This review is based on the audiobook co-narrated by the self-directed, husband-wife team of Susie Breck and Dick Hill, on the Brilliance Audio label. I listened to it while driving from Kingdom City, Mo. to Fort Wayne, Ind., and it was really the ideal entertainment: full of laughs, generously sprinkled with passages of exquisite terror, and teeming with well-drawn characters brought convincingly to life by two actors who, at times, sounded like a full studio cast. The edition I bought concludes with an entertaining interview between Breck, Hill, and Konrath.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Going In Style

This is the poster for the 2017 movie starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin. I saw it a week or so ago as I write this (after leaving this post on "coming soon" mode during one of those weeks when there is no time, day or night, to do anything but work). Before I go into "Three Scenes that Made It For Me," my latest strategy for a highly successful movie review, I would like to take a moment to compare it to the 1979 of which it is a remake. Below, there's a still from the original Going In Style, starring (from left) George Burns, Lee Strasberg, and Art Carney as three geriatric buddies who decide to try a late entry into the career field of bank robbery. In their version, they get away with bags of cash in spite of their disguises being no more than three identical pairs of Groucho Marx glasses (you know, with the fake nose and mustache) - including one that broke and had to be held in place with one hand. One of the buddies promptly drops dead of a heart attack while they're celebrating their escape from the heist. A third one dies in his sleep not too long afterward, leaving one lonely old guy - I believe it was the George Burns character - to face the time when the police catch up. I seem to recall Burns' character had an adult son who became an accessory after the fact, hiding the money so the cops would never find it, or something like that.

It wasn't really a very funny comedy. But it was a much more honest movie than this happy-ending-fest, in which Morgan Freeman's character fakes us out with a serious illness (kidney disease, in his case) that looks like it's going to do to him what Lee Strasberg's heart did in the 1979 version. You probably remember Strasberg as Jewish mobster Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. He was a serious thesp, an acting guru to many of the leading "method" hams of the mid-20th century, but not a big-name movie star. How did he get top billing with George Burns and Art Carney? I'm guessing it was the fact his role called for serious acting ability but, knowing his character was going to die halfway in, there was no point casting a big star. Your first clue things were going to change up in the remake is the casting of Morgan Freeman (who, like Burns, has played God). Caine is no slouch, but I think most Americans would agree Freeman is the big box-office star in this picture. No way can you kill him off at the halfway mark, even with Caine carrying the point of view (mostly) and Arkin getting the romantic subplot (opposite Ann-Margret, who seems to be reprising the role she played opposite Jack Lemmon in "Grumpy Old Men").

All that aside, here are the three scenes that made the movie for me. First, I love the scene in which the police detective, played by blast-from-the-past Matt Dillon with a light touch of whatever it is that makes it fun to see him frustrated, walks into a diner where Caine has just realized the money launderer sitting across from him is also the bank robber who held him at gunpoint at the beginning of the movie. How the two of them escape without the cop realizing the laundered loot is right under his nose is simply amazing. I thought it could have been played for just a little more suspense, but it's still a highlight of the film.

Second, every scene involving the little girl who peeks under Freeman's mask during the big heist is downright breath-stopping. First, she starts to peel his mask off when he has a mild fainting fit during the robbery, and she is innocently concerned about his ability to breathe. Then, she shows up for a police line-up... whew!

Third, in spite of a cute scene in which the old guys try their shoplifting skills and end up in a ridiculous low-speed chase, the funniest moment in the movie for me was the three-way phone conversation between the principals, late at night, as Caine tries to convince Freeman and Arkin to rob the bank with him.

Among the notables in the cast are a very aged-looking Christopher Lloyd as a somewhat demented friend of the hero trio; a strangely sympathetic Peter Serafinowicz (whom I picture as more of a villain-type actor) as Caine's lowlife son-in-law, a comically wimpy white-collar lowlife played by Josh Pais of TV's "Ray Donovan," an earthy waitress played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Shia LeBoeuf's mother in "Holes," the wife of the bug's Edgar suit in "Men in Black," and Renée Zellweger's tapioca-making buddy in "New in Town"), and of course, Zach Braff of TV's "Scrubs" in the role of... director. Hmmm...

Magician's Gambit

Magician's Gambit
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the third novel of five in "The Belgariad," a diverse company of heroes continues its quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy that could have one of two endings - and the survival of not just one world, but of all worlds depends on which one version comes true. Seemingly at the heart of it is a stone of power that one of the servants of the evil god Torak has stolen from the throne room of a long-dormant line of kings, and that could be used to re-awaken the disfigured, comatose god. Somehow, getting it back depends on a cynical spy, a spoiled princess, a chivalrous (but giggly) knight, a man who can turn into a bear, a man who can hear horses' thoughts, a man who can walk through walls, a 7,000-year-old sorcerer and his bossy daughter, an ordinary blacksmith, and a boy named Garion who has only recently started to guess what he has to offer the questing group. Garion, we now know, is a full-fledged sorcerer, with the added advantage of having a mysterious voice in his head giving him instructions at crucial moments.

The time has come when the group must finally take the quest to the enemy, and take the stone from them. To get there will mean crossing miles of hostile territory, including a barren desert crawling with soldiers of a king who is systematically killing everyone he doesn't think belongs inside his borders, and watched by the priests of a cult of human sacrifice. Chief among them is Ctuchik, an evil magician nearly as ageless as Garion's "grandfather" Belgarath. To take the stone out of his fist will involve not only battling a tremendous power, but in all probability, being drawn into his trap.

All the pieces seem to be on the board by the end of this pivotal, middle book in a series of chess-based titles - with Pawn of Prophecy and Queen of Sorcery before it, Castle of Wizardry and Enchanter's End Game after it. But clearly, getting the stone out of Ctuchik's clutches is only half the battle, and Garion cannot even begin to guess what is still in store for him. Meanwhile, we see him grow up a lot, beginning to accept his skills and as much of his destiny as he can be trusted to know. We see tantalizing hints of love blooming between him and the Imperial Princess Ce'Nedra, who also grows as a character - though there remains plenty of room for her to grow yet. We meet some new key characters, including a religious zealot who is tortured by impure thoughts, and a voluptuous woman who may be the last of her race. And, as in all the books in this series so far, we enjoy a rich flow of entertaining dialogue and a far-ranging exploration of diverse culture and geography in a world-building extravaganza that becomes real in one's imagination.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

214. A Silly Hymn About Pets

I'm a little ashamed even to be going here, but one of the ideas I had for another round of "useful hymns" was a hymn dealing with the problem I've seen several Christians struggle with - how to move on after the death of a pet. I decided the approach to take would be something like the following, though I'm only about 40-percent satisfied with how it turned out. There's an irreducible silliness about the whole subject, in my opinion. And I say this as someone who has seriously mourned the death of several pets. The last stanza has me especially worried, because it's the one that confronts the matter head-on, and it must somehow strike the right balance between a not-too-pedantic, but somewhat polemical admonishment and a tone of compassion and comfort - while, at the same time, not offering any comfort God's Word does not authorize in this case. Also, I didn't want it in any way to encourage the whole "blessing of the pets" craze, or the placing of "rainbow bridge" tracts in churches, both of which I consider abominable in more ways than I want to go into at this time. So, with apologies in advance for its shortcomings, here is:

A Hymn of Thanksgiving for Animal Friends
("God the Father, be our Stay")

Thank you, Lord, for furry friends,
And fanged, and finned, and feathered!
Though they live in tanks or pens,
Are harnessed, yoked, or tethered,
We but borrow from the wild
These gifts of Your creation;
With care and moderation,
We place them in their station.
Help us, then, with them be mild
And husband their well-being,
To all their comforts seeing,
From pain and terror freeing.
Should we as their god be styled,
Of this, Lord, make us worthy!

Thank you, Lord, for beasts that serve
On leash, or under saddle:
Guides that out of danger swerve,
Or guards no threat can rattle;
Friends that hunt, or search and save,
Some evil thing detecting
And innocents protecting,
But scant reward expecting.
Oh, that we were half as brave
And faithful in our labor,
Devoted to our neighbor,
Dependent on Your favor!
Of how rich a gift you gave
Through them, Lord, keep us mindful!

Thank You, Lord, for pets that cheer
Our hearts with sweet devotion,
Soothing sadness, calming fear,
And cooling hot emotion!
In their trusting, pleading eyes,
You try our hearts, to render
Unto the weaker member
Both faithful love and tender.
Who that feels their due, denies
Your mercy’s greatness, serving
Mankind, though undeserving,
Poor, weak, and inward-curving?
Through their fleeting, little lives,
Lord, lasting lessons teach us!

Thank you, Lord, at last, for grief
Felt at our darlings’ dying;
May it strengthen our belief,
On Your pure word relying!
Let no answers to unknowns
Use heartache to mislead us;
Nor let our sorrow cheat us
Of what You died to deed us.
Though we have no certain stones
On which to stay our weeping,
We leave, Lord, in Your keeping
Our creature-friends, now sleeping.
Let Your vow to raise our bones
Suffice to give us comfort!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thrift Store Book Buys

Yesterday, I took advantage of some comp time the old salt mines owed me and punched out of work early. Then I walked across the town square to pay a utility bill at City Hall. On my way back, I ducked into a thrift shop to get out of the driving rain and cold, stiff wind. I found my way back to the book shelves, where there were paperbacks on sale for 35 cents each. I made quite a haul for less than $2.50, plus tax. Here are the seven books I took home:
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  • The American by Henry James
  • So Big by Edna Ferber
  • A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
  • Ice Station by Matt Reilly
All of these are books I have never read, but have reckoned I probably should someday. (Well, except the last one; that's just for entertainment.) Here's my chance!

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Boss Baby

Sorry to have been so slow finishing this review (and those of two books I read around the same time), but we had a busy week at the newspaper for which I write, including a local election, and any given day during the last week I've had either no energy or no time to spare. It's been about a week since I saw the 20th Century Fox animated film The Boss Baby. But I think can still fulfill my current movie-reviewing objective of recalling the three moments that made this movie for me.

It's a cute, funny, warm-and-cuddly adventure featuring an imaginative seven-year-old boy whose jealousy of the love his parents are giving his newborn baby brother turns into suspicion when he catches the new baby chairing a meeting of local babies, planning some kind of corporate espionage against the company hero boy's parents work for - Puppy Co. Eventually, the siblings call a truce and agree to work together to halt a fiendish plot to use high-tech puppies to squeeze babies out of grown-ups' hearts, so the undercover executive baby can get back to his office at Baby Corp and little Tim can have his parents back. The upper management baby is voiced by Alec Baldwin. The boys' parents are played by Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow. The villainous Francis Francis, CEO of Puppy Co., is played by Steve Buscemi, and Tobey Maguire narrates as grown-up Tim.

So, Moment #1: A madcap chase scene in the backyard, as Tim tries to deliver to his parents an audio cassette(?!) proving what the babies are up to, and the babies give chase. The stunts, explosions, and hairsbreadth escapes are hilariously over-the-top, but the five-second bit that makes it is when the parents look out the window and see Tim hanging onto the rear bumper of the boss baby's car-shaped walker as it rolls slowly across the lawn. This glimpse of the reality behind the kids' flights of imagination is simultaneously the weirdest and the funniest thing about an altogether weird and funny movie.

Moment #2: Tim accuses the boss baby of stealing the song his parents wrote for him - actually "Blackbird" by the Beatles - but completely misses the reference when the baby sarcastically retorts, "So, your parents are John Lennon and Paul McCartney?" Later, however, Tim sings the same song to the baby, who at the time is lapsing into pure babyishness, to coax him off a rocket that's about to blast off (long story). Kinda puts a lump in your throat.

Moment #3: There are some gags in the movie that only adults will get. Probably the one with the best payoff is the baby, who I repeat has Alec Baldwin's voice, saying, "Cookies are for closers."

It take a lot, these days, to get me to travel the distance to the nearest, or second-nearest, movie theater and to lay out the amount of money a movie ticket and a small popcorn costs. Moments like these are essential to making me feel it was worth the trip. There were other movies I could have seen, including a King Kong reboot, a live-action Beauty and the Beast. I guess the question this review raises is: What does the fact that I chose an animated movie about a suit-wearing baby voiced by Alec "coffee is for closers" Baldwin say about me?


by Candice Fox
Recommended Ages: 15+

In this opening novel of what has become (so far) the "Archer and Bennett" trilogy, Sydney homicide detective Frank Bennett immediately notices something about his new partner, the beautiful Eden Archer, that makes him want to dig deeper and find out more. By the time they solve their first mystery together, the impulse has led him into a bond of blood with a woman whose brilliance at detecting sociopathic killers stems from being one herself.

Not only is she one, but so is her detective brother Eric, who if anything is even more dangerous - to bad guys, to anyone who gets too close to the secret he and Eden share, and most of all to Frank. As he gets closer to being able to prove the siblings are moonlighting as murderers, hunting bad guys the justice system can't stop and making them disappear forever, Frank finds himself closer to becoming another of their not-quite-innocent victims. Meantime, he also gets too close to a victim who escaped the serial killer he and Eden are after. This sicko, by the way, has developed a gruesome procedure for sparing transplant patients a long time on the waiting list, provided they aren't picky about how the organs were procured.

A successful reader of this book will have a strong stomach, buffered against the grisly discoveries in store for the cops, as they chase a mad medico whose devotion to Darwin provides a rationale for many of his crimes. They must also have a strong heart, able to take being broken by the pain in store for the imperfect yet sympathetic main character. And they should also have a nimble mind, as the point of view shifts occasionally to that of the killer (the guy doing the organ transplants, that is), and also regularly flashes back to Eric and Eden's upbringing by the organized crime fixer whose nickname gives the book its title. No stranger to killing himself, it is ultimately Hades' heartbreak one feels, as he raises two orphans left on his doorstep by one of their parents' killers, and loves them even though he knows what they will someday become. It is a book that provokes thought about the line between justice and vengeance. It even tries - not entirely without success - for a little sympathy with at least one of the Archer siblings, as she struggles to master her own demons while fighting demons at large.

This is the debut novel of an Australian writer whose name has lately been appearing, in smaller and less-bold type, below that of crime writer James Patterson - one of those authors who, like Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, etc., have such successful brand-names that they can afford to shelter less-successful talents under them. Why Candice Fox would need to do this is a question that mystifies me. She won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for best first novel with this book - an honor bestowed annually by the Crime Writers Association of Australia, approximately the down-under equivalent of the Edgar Awards in the U.S. Its sequel Eden won a Ned Kelly for best novel the next year, and the third book in the series, Fall, was short-listed for the same award in 2016. Even in translation into U.S. English (ha, ha), I see nothing lacking in Fox's talent writing crime thrillers, certainly not such that she should be relegated to a footnote on the cover under marquee-sized bold capitals spelling out "James Patterson." I say this with no malice toward the American author, of whose work I have yet to read one page. I just think the author who actually did most of the work should get most of the credit, and if they truly co-wrote it, they should get equal credit. Also, I think this author - I mean Candice Fox - is good enough to have her own best-selling brand.

The Song of Glory and Ghost

The Song of Glory and Ghost
by N.D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the second book of the "Outlaws of Time" series, Sam Miracle - a boy destined to kill a time-walking villain named the Vulture, or El Buitre, before he destroys the whole world - finds himself playing second fiddle to his former sidekick, a girl named Glory. They've been caught in a blighted branch of time, following a disaster that turned the Seattle area into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, since their only ticket out - the time-traveling priest Father Tiempo, or the boy Peter who is meant to grow up to be him - is being targeted for John Connor-style termination by being erased from history, practically at the moment of his birth. Armed, at first, with only an hourglass that can create bubbles of faster or slower time, Glory must learn how to move forward and backward in time so Sam can end this, before the Vulture ends him.

Meantime, Glory, Sam, his sister Millie, and their group of "Lost Boys" have gotten crosswise with a gang whose leader, nicknamed Leviathan, and his daughter Samra have been brought up on a series of comic books depicting Sam as a traitor and a villain who must be stopped at all costs. It isn't hard to believe, when you see the kid with snakes for arms draw and shoot pistols with both hands, with deadly speed and accuracy, aided by Glory, whose growing ability to manipulate time actually enables them to ride a motorcycle, sidecar and all, across the surface of Puget Sound. But even bigger obstacles lie before them than Levi's gang, thanks to the Vulture's pact with a pair of ancient Mesoamerican demons and an army of skin-walkers - basically, undead people who have gained the ability to transform into werebeasts by murdering their own families.

So, this is a really out-there, strange, original, action-packed piece of young-adult science fiction/fantasy/adventure, populated by cosmic beings and paranormal mosnters, exploring previously uncharted hazards of time travel, and occasionally drop into speeches that hint at a triune deity moving mysteriously in the background. I think I have compared N.D. Wilson's youth fiction with that of C.S. Lewis in a previous review. The comparison this book brought to mind was to Madeleine L'Engle in such books as A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. Maybe this is a consequence of the point-of-view character more often being Glory in this book, and the hero-girl type being more open to listening to characters like the Ghost (whom I'm afraid to try describing) rhapsodize about the spiritual side of things. With Sam at the center, the focus was more on the immediate dilemma of what to do and, at times, trying to pull together his confused memories of what he had already done. Perhaps unfortunately, Glory's step forward means the narrative cake is more thickly frosted with metaphysical talkiness. But without taking away any of the hard-hitting action and danger that livened up the first book in the series, it gives more thoughtful readers, especially Christian families, material to consider and discuss.

My review of this sequel to The Legend of Sam Miracle is based on a pre-publication proof copy. The book is scheduled to be released April 18, 2017. Wilson is also the author of several children's picture books, including some fictions based on Bible stories; the "100 Cupboards" trilogy and its upcoming prequel The Door Before (coming out June 27, 2017); the "Ashtown Burials" trilogy; Leepike Ridge; and Boys of Blur.