Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts

18 November 2017

A Book and a Movie


For my post today, I'm making two recommendations: one for a novel I recently read and one for a movie I recently watched. Neither one is a traditional mystery, but both qualify as mysteries since they're both suspense/thriller stories in which crimes are central to the plots. In fact, murders are central to the plots.

The first is Fierce Kingdom, a 2017 novel by Gin Phillips. I think one reason I so enjoyed this book is that I'd heard nothing about it beforehand. I happened to be in a bookstore, noticed the cover, read the inside jacket copy, and bought it. That kind of thing doesn't always work out well for me, but this time it did.

Fierce Kingdom is about a woman and her small son who are visiting a local zoo and are caught up in a killing rampage by (at first) unseen shooters. It's almost closing time, the place is shutting down and night's approaching, and the mother and child find themselves alone and fending for themselves until the outside world can find out what's going on and intervene.

Another thing I liked about this book is that--like a long-ago movie favorite of mine called Wait Until Dark--the characters here know something the killers don't: the mother and child are frequent visitors to the zoo and are familiar with its grounds, even its nooks and crannies. This inside information of course comes in handy as the drama unfolds.

Needless to say, this reader became quickly invested in these two characters, and there were some seriously tense scenes. I loved every minute, and I'm now on the lookout for more novels by Ms. Phillips.

The other welcome surprise I discovered recently was the movie No Escape (2015), with Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. (Not to be confused with the 1994 No Escape with Ray Liotta, though I liked that one too.) This is a story of a businessman (Wilson) who has accepted a job position in a third-world country and is in the process of moving there along with his wife and two young daughters. While in a hotel the family (and Brosnan, a fellow traveler who comes to their aid) suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bloody revolution where Americans are being rounded up and executed on the spot. I should mention here that I've never been a big fan of Owen Wilson . . . until now. I was impressed with his performance in this film, along with that of Brosnan and of Wilson's character's wife, played by Lake Bell.

For the writers among you, the script is especially good, and the story moves at a fast pace, with plenty of action and some breathtakingly scary scenes--in some cases because the story (like Fierce Kingdom) involves children in jeopardy and parents' overwhelming love for those children, which is a sure-fire generator of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension. Or at least the biting of my nails and the edge of my seat. I mean, I really, really wanted these kids to come out okay, and almost everyone in both the book and the movie seemed to be trying to catch these families and kill them. And yes, I know, it was just fiction--but it was good fiction, so it felt real.

Part of my enjoyment of No Escape was probably due to the fact that I could relate to it, in a way. My IBM travels took me to some far-flung locations, and immediately after one of those trips (to the Philippines), I sat here at home in my recliner and watched a machine-gun-blazing coup take place just outside the Manila hotel where I'd stayed only a couple of weeks earlier. In our screwed-up world, violent uprisings like this do happen, popping up out of nowhere, and it's easy to believe that it could happen someplace at the same time an unsuspecting American family arrives there to start a new life.

So that's my report. Was this the best book I've ever read or the best film I've ever seen? No. Have they won any earth-shaking awards? Not that I know about (although Fierce Kingdom is still recent enough that it might). But I do know they were both interesting and entertaining and thoroughly satisfying. At least to me.

Have any of you read this novel or watched this movie? If so, I'd like to hear your opinions.


As of this writing, Fierce Kingdom is still prominently displayed in bookstores and No Escape is still available for streaming via Netflix. Give 'em a try.

11 August 2017

A Review Can Be a Plum, or It Can Be the Pits...


Thomas Pluck
by Thomas Pluck

I just ate a flavor grenade.

At least that's what it's branded. It's a pluot. What's a pluot, you may ask? A hybrid of a plum and an apricot, of course. I would say the "flavor" part is a bit of false advertising. It wasn't a fragmentation or thermite explosion of flavor. But thankfully, it didn't taste like a grenade. It was good. But good isn't good enough, is it?

We need a flavor grenade, not a plum.

I like plums.

William Carlos Williams, the poet who elegized Paterson and lived in Rutherford, where he told us of the importance of the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens, also wrote of plums with a beautiful simplicity. He did not say "I'm sorry I ate the flavor grenade that were in the ice box and you were probably saving for later, they were delicious and so cold." Plum was enough.

What does this have to do with anything? Hyperbole is the standard response on the internet, on social media especially. You must love or hate everything, with a razor thin line of "meh" in between. It's okay to simply like something, especially a book. Though I've seen authors have meltdowns when someone, heaven help us if it's another author, give their book a 3 star review. That's still a passing grade, but to some it feels like a knife to the heart.

Personally I don't see a need to let someone know if I disliked a book enough to leave less than a 3. I rarely leave a rant. If it's a book that won't be hurt by my review and I feel strongly about it, I'll say why. But if it's just another author trying to get by, I don't see the need to fling my monkey excretions. I'm not a critic, and I don't want to be one. I want to write my stories. I get to write them, which makes me happy, and when a reader says they enjoyed it, I am even happier. This isn't a business for me, and I am tickled a thousand shades of fuchsia that this is the case.

Not everyone has the luxury of a day job. I have great respect for the full-time career writers, whether their spouse works or not. It ups the stakes. And my less than honest review policy--which boils down to, "if you don't have anything good to say, say nothing at all," is my acknowledgement of those stakes. Now, you do what you like. I'm not judging others, nor suggesting that my way is right or wrong. I'm sure someone will tell me.

This comes up because two of my favorite writers are going out of print. Ones I look up to, who when I was cutting my teeth on flash fiction, were the writers I hoped to be in ten years. After careful study of "overnight successes," I saw that on average, they put in seven to fourteen years in the granola mines toiling away before they were declared an "overnight success." So I gave myself ten years as a goal. I've been pecking away for nearly seven, so I'm on my way. But back to the writers who have been dropped, or whose books are going out of print for the crime of selling five to seven thousand copies. It's a tough row to hoe out there. I'm not going to make it tougher. I wish I could buy every novel my crime writing pals write, but I can't. I use the library, and I review on Goodreads and Big A when I like the book. And if it's not my cup of joe, I keep my mouth shut.

I won't write a dishonest review, so my sin for not leaving 1 and 2 star reviews is one of omission. As a former Catholic, I know those count, but aren't venal. I'm already doing a five to ten in purgatory when Grimmy comes calling, so add it to my jacket. I can do that time standing on my head. I won't say I've never written a bad review, I'm human. If you're on the gravy train and write a book that I think insults the reader by not being your best, I might leave my two cents. The champs can take a punch, get up, and keep swinging. The chumps whine to their "minions" online about it.

Which comes to the other side of hyperbole. A bad review isn't the end of the world. I've had a few that sting, from the kid who said my idea of blue collar comes from Bruce Springsteen--can I help that my dad was a construction worker and my ma was a hairdresser in New Jersey, buddy? or the one who thought the book with a sword on the cover is "awful bloody." Their opinions are theirs, and just as valid as mine. And as far as Bezos is concerned, their 2 or 3 stars are as good as any toward that magical 50, 100, 1000 count that supposedly brings angels singing from on high holding big royalty checks.

I try not to read reviews, really. But you have to take the good with the bad. If I'm gonna crow that Scott Montgomery called my book "James Lee Burke slammed into old-school Dennis Lehane... with a voice all its own" I have to acknowledge the blogger who was upset that Bad Boy Boogie wasn't short and sweet like Stark. The book wasn't for him, but it was for Mr M. (Thanks, Scott).

I know the two writers whose books are going out of print will find new homes at publishers who love their work like I do. They are pros, they write great books, and readers will find them. Who are they? You'll know when their next book comes out and I say how much I loved it. Because there's one duty we do have, as readers and writers, and that's to crow about what we love. If we don't, we have only ourselves to blame if it disappears.

It reminds me of the restaurant biz, where I used to be a food blogger. Whenever a great place shut down, people would say, "I loved that place! We used to go there all the time. Why'd they close?" Then I'd ask them for the last time they ate there. "Oh, uh, six months ago, maybe?"

Why'd they close? There's your answer.

22 August 2016

Good Reading


by Jan Grape

I'm like most writers– I read a lot. Sometimes it comes in spurts as time and energy prevail. I don't often write book reviews because most places want you to say at least one negative thing. I have a hard time doing that. First, if I don't care for the book, then I'm not going to write a review of it, Second, I know how hard a writer works to write the book and just because there might be something I don't like, that doesn't mean that someone else won't love it. With that said, I must mention two books to all of you. The first is Fool Me Once and the second is Home. Yes, both are by Harlan Coben. Both are quite different but, both are excellent books. I have to say I can see why Harlan is an international best seller.

Fool Me Once came out in March this year. It's a suspense thriller designed to keep you up all night and reading all the next day if you can't finish it in one sitting. The main character is a woman special-ops pilot named Maya. The woman is cool, collected under fire, intelligent but flawed like all good characters are. The story opens with Maya trying to get through her husband Joe's funeral. She buried Joe three days after his murder. Maya is barely holding herself together. Her two year old daughter, Lily, is too young to understand, but at the last moment Maya worries about what Joe's family might say and decides her to bring the child:

     Hi everyone, my husband was recently murdered. Do I bring my two year old daughter to the graveyard or leave her at home? Oh, and clothing suggestions? Thanks.

After the funeral and receiving line and all the sympathy and thank yous for coming and Joe's family finally leaving, Maya stands at the graveside staring at the hole, wondering what she should say to her husband. Her friend, Eileen, who has been entertaining Lily, persuades Maya back into her car and heads home. Once there, Eileen says, "I've been meaning to give you something."

It's a nanny cam that looks like a digital frame. "The maid Isabella has been with Joe's family for years. Why do you think I need a nanny cam?" "Because when it comes to your daughter, you don't trust any one." Maya has to admit that was true.

Maya has to come to terms with her husband's murder, with deep secrets in Joe's past and in her own past before she can come to terms with herself.




Home by Harlan Coben is due out September 20th. This book features Myron Bolitar, the sports agent investigator series character that started Coben on his way.

Two young boys were kidnapped from wealthy families who were friends. In fact, the boys, age six were playing together at the home of one of the boys. A ransom was demanded then nothing more was heard. No more calls with instructions to leave the ransom money. No photos or videos. Nothing, no trace, no bodies, just nothing.

Ten years pass and Myron hears from his old friend Win that one of the boys has surfaced in England. Win's nephew had been one of the boys taken. Is this Win's sister's sixteen year old son or is the son of the other family?

Where has the boy been for ten years? What does he know about the other boy? What memories does this teenager have of the ordeal and what will his life be from now on? What about the two sets of parents? How will each cope as they discover whose boy is this?

Once again, Harlan delivers on a story that keeps you turning pages and wondering about the true meaning of home.

I read the first Myron Bolitar book years ago.  It's awesome to see a writer continue to stretch his talents, grow and become famous. I know you will enjoy both books, so don't hesitate to put both on your wish list.  Both are from Dutton and are or will be available from your favorite mystery bookstore. Or any bookstore for that matter.

28 June 2013

Mother Hubbard has a Corpse in the Cupboard




And, evidently, when “Mother Hubbard” is a guy from India, those corpses can really start to pile up! 

A book review by Dixon Hill 

I read, once, that in the best mysteries the murdered body is usually discovered by page seven. Fran Rizer beats that count in Mother Hubbard has a Corpse in the Cupboard, when the first body is discovered on page three. The cupboard, where said corpse resides, is a pantry/storage room formed by canvas walls separating the kitchen space from the dining area in a county fair food-tent known as Mother Hubbard’s Beer Garden.

Calamine Lotion “Callie” Parrish (the series protagonist) has convinced her two friends – Jane and Rizzie — to join her for a ‘Ladies Day Out’ at the Jade County Fair, and naturally, the trio stops for a fair-food repast. But, a good time is not to be had by all, when Callie gets a troubling call on The Bat-Phone (er…I mean: on her bra-phone – I won’t explain more, except to say that James Brown has never made me laugh so hard!), and Jane literally stumbles over the corpse without knowing it.


How can someone UNKNOWINGLY stumble over a corpse? 

Well, Jane – Callie’s best friend since childhood – doesn’t see too well. In fact, she doesn’t see at all, as she was born without optic nerves. And, for those who don’t know: Jane earns her living as a phone sex operator and has only recently given up shoplifting. She’s also somehow become engaged to Callie’s brother, Frankie, (Even Callie isn’t sure how THAT happened!),and now Jane thinks she might be pregnant.

Callie’s other BFF, Rizzie Profit, is “ Gullah and gorgeous.” Though she and her extended family hail from Surcie Island – a fictional member of the real “Sea Island” chain off the coast of South Carolina, perhaps loosely modeled after Saint Helena Island -- Rizzie owns the Gastric Gullah Grill in St. Mary, Callie’s mainland hometown. It’s there that Rizzie works with her grandmother, Maum, and her 14-year-old brother, Tyrone.

The bad news on the bra-phone is that Maum landed in the hospital with a heart condition and a broken hip. A worried Tyrone is at her side, but Maum is terrified as well as in and out of consciousness. The teen needs his older sister to lean on.

Exit Rizzie, to the hospital, while Jane and Callie wait for the cops. 







At this point, I’ll quit the play-by-play and level with you: 

As you may have guessed from my lead-in, it’s possible to read most of this book as a light-hearted romp through what some might call the Southern Mystery Chick Lit genre, but there’s a dark streak that runs straight down through the center of this one. And, if you don’t watch out, you just might find it jerking more than a few tears out of your eyes.

Ms. Rizer has done a marvelous job of balancing the dark with the light – in more ways than one. And, I can honestly say that I was laughing out loud by the end of the very first paragraph. But, that humor is offset by the poignant loss of a loved one in the book.

Until now, no “living” character who died within the confines of the series time-frame experienced a natural death. In fact, this is the first character who actually dies on the written page; all the others were killed off-stage and discovered later. Callie’s there for this passing, however.

No slouch at writing, Ms. Rizer took this opportunity to do what I can only call “an excellent job” of comparing Callie’s feelings of personal loss when such a close friend dies, and the feelings she deals with on a daily basis while working on the dead as a funeral parlor cosmetologist.

In fact, the comparison is quite stunning.

Which should come as no surprise 

Because long-time readers of the series should have noticed, by now, how much Callie, herself, is a walking dichotomy.

Okay, this isn't really Callie,
but she's evidently her understudy.
A southern pearl struggling to prove herself a full-grown woman, Callie is in her early thirties, yet she puts up a constant false-front. She wears lip gloss like a teenager, padded panties (to give her fanny a more-rounded shape) and an inflatable bra. She also constantly changes her hair color. It’s as if she’s restrained from maturity by some unknown emotional black hole that warps her behavior in childish directions, even as she yearns to throw off the last vestiges of her childhood. 

Not that she disliked her childhood; she clearly enjoyed it. And, she obviously loves her father, even though the guy is pretty overbearing (at least, that’s what I’d call a man who won’t let his thirty-something daughter drink a couple beers in front of him). Callie also puts up with a lot from her brothers, though she seldom has a bad word to say about any of them.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that she never explains what caused the dissolution of her marriage. All readers know is that Donnie, her ex-husband, did something “that made me divorce him” and that she “didn’t catch him doing the dirty on the dining room table like Stephanie Plum did her husband.”

We know she divorced Donnie and simultaneously quit her job as a kindergarten teacher to move back to her hometown and become a cosmetician at the local funeral home – an action she sums up by quipping that she traded a job working with five-year-olds who wouldn’t take naps or lie still, for one in which she works with dead people who don’t move.

Faithful readers know, of course, from previous books, that Donnie is a surgeon and Callie’s teaching job put him through med school, and that Donnie is an ass (he makes that clear though his own actions). But, on the subject of the catalyst for her divorce – this thing that Donnie did -- she is mute.

This silence, issuing from the normally gregarious Callie, is haunting. It hints at a maturity that’s usually missing from her light-hearted chatty persona, and tells a thoughtful reader that there are deeper waters running through this woman’s silent heart.

Callie is more than she reveals to us on the written page, except in those rare instances when she’s too concerned with other things to keep up the act. Then we catch a fleeting glimpse of a different person – one which Callie is sure to dismiss with some lighthearted comments a few pages later.

Her behavior in a tight spot, for instance, often belies her daily air-head pretension. In this book, when Callie realizes that the thing Jane stumbled over in Mother Hubbard’s is a body with a bullet hole in it, she quickly hands her car keys to Rizzie, directing her to drive her (Callie’s) mustang to the hospital to comfort her brother and grandmother. Then she contacts the police and calls a waiter over to explain the situation – all while trying to calm a near-hysterical Jane. Later, it becomes clear that she’s carefully orchestrated the situation in a manner that permitted Rizzie to take care of her personal emergency, while Jane and Callie remained at the beer tent so that responding police officers could interview the two of them.

She even exerts a thought-out limited influence, in order to keep the crime scene from being disturbed before investigators arrive. These are the actions of a quick, orderly and intelligent mind, yet they’re performed by a woman who seems compelled to pretend that she’s a bubble-head concerned with little more than personal appearance.

This is what makes me suspect Callie’s hiding something from us, for some reason. I can’t help thinking that this hidden reason deals in some way with that thing Donnie did. Whether or not it’s a direct cause and effect relationship, it seems apparent that there’s some relation between her break with Donnie and the emotional insecurity that drives her to wear an inflatable bra and act in childish ways.

Or, perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps, as she claims, Callie’s just trying to make her outside resemble the maturity within, but is stymied by a body that looks as if it belongs to a girl just past puberty. Maybe she’s one of those unfortunate people who suddenly seem to physically jump in age from 16 to 47 almost overnight – though the change is often tacked up to hard living and loneliness, by the person’s peers.

But, we readers (or, at least, I) don’t want to see this happen to Callie. Instead, we want her to meet a man who will tell her – to borrow a phrase from Bridget Jones's Diary – “I like you … just as you are,” while unsnapping that silly bra and sliding her out of those padded panties for the last time.

Not that Callie has to be “rescued” by a man. We just want to see her snap out of it. This is part of the series allure: I want Callie to realize she doesn’t need to pretend to be somebody she’s not – that she’s a smart, industrious, and pretty terrific young woman. And, if her dad and brothers can’t handle that fact, it’s not her problem. They’re the ones who need to find a way to deal with it.

I can’t help thinking that when Callie realizes this, she’ll finally be the full-grown woman she’s striving to become – both inside and out. Beating my hands on my thighs while I read the books, wanting to tell her that’s the answer, wanting to help her quit this whipsaw effect between adolescence and adulthood, that’s what drives me crazy about the Callie character.

Yet, in some strange way, this personal fallible is also what brings Callie’s character to life.

And, if I’m fully honest: It’s also what makes me love her.

Not that there isn't a satisfying mystery here … 

 … all I’s dotted and T’s crossed by the end of the book. Rizer proves her mettle by presenting us with such a gripping story of personal loss, as a loved one fades slowly away, yet she never lets this overpower or derail the mystery. A difficult feat, but one she handles with a hand so deft I sometimes found myself laughing through misty eyes, as I tried to weigh the suspects:

 Jetendre “J.T.” Patel: He’s the Mother Hubbard concession owner, who was born in India and immigrated as a child with his parents. He met Callie after she discovered the corpse, but it’s her body he’s thinking of. Or, is it?

 Nila and Nina: Identical twin spinsters, one of whom has finally succumbed to old age. The survivor wants to be sure she and her dead sister are coifed and dressed identically for the viewing and funeral—complete with a costume change between the two events.

When a mysterious man arrives, claiming to have been an old flame of the dead woman, but begins dating the living one, Callie’s suspicions are raised, particularly after she learns that the funeral director from the twins’ hometown wants to know why the dead sister is being buried by an out-of-town firm.

As the book progresses, with no visible ties between the murder victims, another question looms large: Who defaced caskets at the mortuary where Callie works, keeps smoking cigarettes out front of Callie’s place late at night, and riles her normally placid dog, Big Boy, until the angry Great Dane lights out after the culprit only to return with his tail between his legs?

When a second murder victim turns up, the evidence strongly points at Rizzie’s brother, Tyrone. And, while Callie’s friend, Sheriff Wayne Harmon, wants to give the teenager a break, the local lawman’s sympathy is checked by concerns that it seems the boy has fallen in with the wrong gang – and by the fact that the boy, who’s a crack shot, claims to have thrown away his hunting rifle, which is the same caliber as the murder weapon.

But, if Tyrone is the perp, why was the family van torched in the hospital parking lot?

Callie fans needn't fear: Their favorite inflatable-bra detective is on the case!
Fran Rizer (center) at a reading with "Callie" and "Jane"
Mother Hubbard has a Corpse in the Cupboard is published by Bella Rosa Books.  It is available in trade paperback at bookstores and Amazon, as well as on NOOK and Kindle.  I highly recommend it.

See you in two weeks!
--Dix