Sunday, June 04, 2023

A LINE TO KILL by Anthony Horowitz

 


A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz is a 2021 continuation of the Horowitz-Hawthorne series of mysteries. I  had recently enjoyed the London theatre setting in his The Twist of A Knife and had seen of his televised contributions such as The Magpie Murders. Once again Horowitz is the real author and also appears in the book as the writer who is following ex-detective Daniel Horowitz around while he solves more cases.

 

In this outing the pair is invited to attend a literary festival to promote their next to be published novel. The event is to take place on the quaint little English channel island of Alderney. It is an interesting and exotic location that still bears the scars of being taken over by the Germans during WWII and I was a bit disappointed that more about this history might was not incorporated.    

 

Shortly after the pair arrive, the rich resident who has bankrolled the festival is murdered. He has also been at the center of an ongoing fight to put a new electrical line from France that will result in environmental and historical destruction in exchange for lower rates. This leaves motives a-plenty for island residents to consider murder and it is complicated by previously unknown connections to the victim from among the invited literary guests.

 

Alderney is such a peaceful place that there is no upper-level constabulary on the island to handle murder, so a pair of investigators must be dispatched from Guernsey to handle the case. Even though Hawthorne is no longer with Scotland Yard, the DI sent over gives semi-official carte blanche to him to work the case and work it he does.

 

With befuddled writer and hanger-on Horowitz doing little other than wondering how he might write a book about the case, I kept bogging down in the narrative. It takes a lot of pages to set up the opening scenes and even the second murder of the first victim’s wife isn't much help. The narrative begins to pick up a bit as w head for the conclusion, but the final twists are so complex that it takes a whole series of chapters to tie things up. Coincidences are a part of fiction as well as real life, but there are just too many in this one for me to swallow. I give it a 2 out of 5 and in a publishing world inundated with crime fiction, Horowitz’s output won't be on my "have-to-read pile" any longer.   

 

 

 

Sunday, May 28, 2023

THIS TENDER LAND by William Kent Krueger

 


 When Mr. Krueger appeared on a zoom interview last month I had never heard of him.  He cast himself as a “storyteller” and this 2019 novel is all of that and more. It is set in 1932 and gets its historical grounding from a host of atmospheric detail about the great depression, prohibition, and the persecution of native Americans.

The narrator is an older man who speaks through his twelve-year self. Odie and his slightly older brother, Albert, are the only two white boys at a Native American school where they are fed little, worked hard, and punished for any infraction. When Odie commits a serious crime, the two boys decide to flee. They are joined by a native American friend, Mose (who is physically strong but mute), and a little orphan girl named Emmy. Each of the four are alike in their search for some kind of anchor or home within a tender land that seems to change from bountiful to indiscriminately cruel with tornadic fury. 

The youngsters travel a sequence of rivers in a canoe with the goal of reaching a relative of Odie’s and Albert’s in St. Louis. The water journey takes on symbolic overtones by drawing on elements of both Mark Twain and Homer.  At each stop on their trek the vagabonds meet new friends or new enemies. And always the long arm of the law is never far behind. There are joyful sections when the group meets Sister Eve and her revivalist crusade or a remarkable Hooverville family with a young daughter, but the frightening sections are full of tension and violence.  Even though hope is always around the corner, I guarantee you that the twists at the end will keep you in surprise mode.  

 Although Kreuger is a plotter not a plodder, I would be remiss in not mentioning his evocative prose.  From a number of examples this one will suffice. “The sun, which was the color of a blood orange, hung nailed above the horizon, and long bars of red light came through the gaps in the old barn walls and lay on the brown dirt floor like little streams of hot lava.”

 Krueger lives in Minnesota and has also written a series of detective novels featuring a retired sheriff named Cork O’connor. I am going to check out one of those next. I give this stand-alone a strong 4.5 out of 5.   

 

Monday, May 08, 2023

Book Review THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS

 


According to the book jacket, Amy Meyerson teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California and her debut novel, The Bookshop of Yesterdays, is an auspicious one. If you aren’t a lover of bookstores, reading, and the theatre, you may not be as positive as I am, but this combination is a triple threat plus for anyone who is.  

 The main character is Miranda Brooks, who was named after Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  A passing familiarity with the play will deepen your experience with the book. The novel’s Miranda grows up on the west coast and then moves to the east coast. She teaches history at a private middle school and lives with a young gym teacher from the same school.  Her name seems to originate from an early close relationship with her uncle Billy, who owned a bookstore in Los Angeles called Prospero Books. He would often take the young Miranda there and gave her a love of books and reading. One of his teaching tools was to create complicated  literary scavenger hunts for her amusement. 

 

When Miranda was twelve years old, her mother and her uncle Billy had a strange falling out and Billy disappears from the young girl’s life. Sixteen years pass and then Uncle Billy dies and bequeaths Prospero Books to her. Miranda returns to the west coast for Billy’s funeral and discovers she has inherited a failing bookstore (What Indie is not on the verge of failing?) and a complicated literary scavenger hunt put together by her long absent uncle. From here on the book concentrates on Miranda’s attempts to save the bookstore from bankruptcy while trying to re-find a relationship with her mother, find a new life for herself, and unravel her uncle’s mysterious connection to her.

 

The clues are buried mostly in a group of classic novels. At one time or another you will join Miranda in searching the pages of Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Fear of Flying, and The Grapes of Wrath, to mention just a few. I picked up the solution to the mystery early on, but the enjoyment of the search itself kept me going. I’m even going to make a guess that the author may have planned for that to happen so that we could also enjoy the pearls of wisdom dropped along the way. Early on, one of Billy’s cryptic notes says, “Understanding prepares us for the future. Remember that. It’s the only way to make us safer.” Another early item had an even greater impact on me. I am currently engaged in writing a family history and dealing with some uncomfortable times. Miranda states firmly in the early pages that “Every family has its unspoken stories. Billy was ours.”  Toward the end I also loved a part when Miranda is recalling what her father once said about baseball. As you settle into the batter’s box you have to look the pitcher in the eye. This tells him you aren’t afraid. “Baseball is like the rest of life . . . You have to decide how you want to be.” She might also have said that most of life is a search.

 

You can read The Bookshop of Yesterdays as a coming of age story, a romance, a mystery, a loving literary feast, or maybe all of the above. I give it a 4.5 of five and encourage Ms. Meyerson to keep writing.

 

 


Sunday, April 23, 2023

"THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG" did

 

The Play That Goes Wrong DID!

 



 The Play That Goes Wrong, the latest offering of Theatre Cedar Rapids, had three problem areas: the script, the director, and the acting approach.  From the word go, as the audience arrives, we see the curtain up and trouble brewing. The set looks like it was done in a hurry by a meeting of the unskilled. Things are already falling off the walls and we haven't even started yet. This is followed by an overlong curtain speech that adds little to the show other than running time. Why this tedious pre-curtain ballet was necessary I do not know as the title and pre-show publicity already explicitly trumpets the content. We are treated to another curtain talk at the beginning of the second act.  Again unnecessary. 

 When the curtain finally does rise for real, this Brit developed show does give you what was advertised, which is a compendium of every possible miscue that could possibly occur in a live stage production and then some. Unfortunately, a great many of them are repeated more times and more broadly than necessary to get the requisite guffaw. That leaves some of the more original ideas in the show, such as a bit with exchanging a pen, with a notebook, with a glass and the quite fanciful tilting floor to be obscured by immersion in the obvious over-repetition of objects falling off walls, giant actor takes accompanied by loud music and light changes a la Phantom, or actors looking at a copy of the text or writing on their hands every time a line is lost. 

This is all accompanied by the practice of louder and larger is always better. Most of the actors could use a more controlled use of variety in vocal attack. This seems to have been advice expunged by the director when giving notes. The actors, also almost as a group, do not realize that lack of clear diction can foil intent.  Again I would fault the director, whose duty is not only to manage the action, but make sure that the dialogue is understood. Two other people attending the performance with me agreed that they were unable to understand a good deal of what was spoken. And this was not, as just noted, a problem of lack of volume in a large theatre. It may even been because of too much volume too much of the time. 

Shifting now to the script, I feel that the play overworks every cliché in the book. This work is not written with the sophistication of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, a classic in this genre, which presents actors desperately trying to do a good job in the midst of production chaos. I was never quite certain that these actors were trying to do that. They seemed to me to be celebrating their inadequacy even to the point of wagging a hand at us to ask for applause. If the writing is truly strong, the audience will respond and yes even applaud a well executed bit. If the writer, the actor, or the director feels insecure and resorts to telling you what response they want, it telegraphs a certain lack of confidence in the script and their own performance of it.

Another pitfall for the comic writer and director is the tendency to go back to the well too often with running gags. I must admit I start to groan not applaud after three or four returns to the same well. Farce can be maniacal in its plot devices, but it takes a most talented director and a highly talented cast to keep the subtle attachment to reality that makes it operate smoothly. One example from this show is John Zbankek’s butler, whose over-loud machine gun delivery combined with more than ten (I must admit to stopping counting at ten) memory lapses and consultation with his hand for his lines occurs. His performance wore thin in a hurry. Did he have the entire show written on his hand in tiny letters? Accents, as might be expected from an American cast, were also uneven. One performer, Aaron Pozdol I think, was playing some kind of Scotsman, but his diction was so garbled that neither I nor my companions had any idea of what his presence in the show was about for some time.

 All told some friends of the cast, like several folks around us, were slapping their knees and shouting encouragement, but others were sitting on their hands in stoic silence waiting for the silliness to end. I am willing to take account that the second performance of a show that was postponed for a week might have been just too giddy and might have seemed more under control later in the run, but I am still not ready to give this production more than a three out of five. Choose a better script, exert more directorial control, and pay attention to clarity as well as comic business and you will get a more professional  performance.

An apology:  (I look at plays in a more technical manner than most viewers. Because I have directed more than 100 of them, I look at a show in terms of would I like to direct it or would I do things differently if I had directed it or a similar piece. In this case I have directed a production of Noises Off by Michael Frayn. It is perhaps the very finest example of writing in this genre and I refer to it in my notice. All of this may have influenced by hyper critical attitude here and I do accept that many may have enjoyed this show more than I did. )

jim

4/20/23

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Book Note--THE LAST REMAINS by Elly Griffiths

 

Griffiths, Elly THE LAST REMAINS

 The author’s name was unfamiliar to me, but discovered she has written a Ruth Galloway series that is now up to 14 books. This is 15 and is right up to date with a Covid sub-plot. I also was informed that this was the final book in series and was tieing up a lot of loose ends from the earlier books. It might be pleasant to take a peek at some of them.

 

The book is set in Norfolk. Her heroine is Dr. Ruth Galloway, an archaeologist and teacher, at a state “Redbrick” university.  Her department is being closed down and her favorite squeeze is a homicide detective named Nelson.

 

A skeleton is discovered in a bricked-up space during the renovation of an old building and she is called in to help identify the remains. It turns out that the bones are fairly modern and there is evidence of fowl play. This brings the police into the picture. The remains are identified as a young archaeological student who disappeared some twenty years ago and the remainder of the book chronicles the complicated relationships that tie all the characters together.

 

There is a lot of talk of ancient idols, old Norfolk legends, and trips to an ancient mine. A pleasant read.  I give it a 3.5

 

 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Book Review Louise Penny A World of Curiosities



From one critic “Her eeriest novel yet.” 

 

Someone at our Grand Living reading group knew a person who claimed to read the last couple chapters of a book before deciding to read it. I don’t recommend that method, but there is no arguing that classic books and plays are re-experienced even when we know how they come out.  In the case of Louise Penny’s 18th Inspector Gamache book, I know of no harm that can come from looking at the author’s acknowledgements at the end. They say simply that she can’t put a finger on exactly where or when the ‘the major theme of ‘forgiveness’ emerged” in the book, but it did.  

The narrative begins with celebration and a party for two young female graduates of a Montreal engineering school. One of them was an abused child in one of Gamache’s early cases. The horrible sin that haunts both Gamache and his son-in-law, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, is that the mother had abused her children by selling their bodies as well as hers. How this early sin persists into the present and to a violent conclusion is the journey Penny takes you on.

The central nemesis in the story is thought to be locked in a prison, but has escaped to plan his revenge. Chief Inspector Gamache has his own dark doubts that he keeps in a locked basement storeroom containing his personal files of old cases. Penny extrapolates from this that everyone has secrets and they are kept in locked rooms. “Either in their home, or their head, or their heart.”  These secrets are deep, often dark, and not easily revealed to others. The irony is they fester as much in a psychotic killer as they do in a heroic detective and for each, some kind of forgiveness or at least understanding is seemingly out of reach.

All of the secrets are exposed to light, though in code, when a bricked-up room is found in the former psychologist and now bookstore owner’s old Three Pines house. Inside that room is a huge painting that contains “A World of Curiosities” or a set of clues to the mystery. Each little element or brick contains a piece of the whole. Penny, through Gamache, continues to remind the reader of the “folly of expectations” When there are multiple trails, it is easy to go down a wrong path or follow the deceptive hint put out by an enemy.

Most of the familiar Three Pines denizens who have appeared in the previous books return for brief stints, including Ruth and her duck Rosa, Gabri, the owner of the B and B, and Myrna the former psychologist and book store owner. Food, as always, is an important part of the book. It contains joy, comfort, and togetherness as it unifies all humanity.

This isn’t an easy read; it is just a good one. It is beautifully constructed and thematically complex. It digs into deeply held doubts and obsessions that in turn have fostered  unspeakable evils and dark arts. As Gamache comments toward the end of the book, he has met both good and evil and “had the scars to prove it.”

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Book Review

 


Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is a memoir based on some long recorded interviews by Stuart Stern and then compiled and further edited by David Rosenthal.

And thereby hangs the tale. Aside from some amusing comments about his education at Kenyon College and a few tidbits about his films, there is little to recommend here. Newman’s extended comments are interrupted constantly by little paragraph length blurbs by people who knew him or worked with him or married him. All of this results in a kind of choppy garbled narrative that does no service to Newman or his biographers. Give this one a pass. Barely one star.

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A LINE TO KILL by Anthony Horowitz

  A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz is a 2021 continuation of the Horowitz-Hawthorne series of mysteries. I  had recently enjoyed the Lond...