Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hardly Knew Her: Stories / by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman's long entertained readers with her mystery novels featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan. Her loyal fans will be sure to enjoy her first published collection of short stories, brief, flighty episodes as inventive and sassy as the plots and entanglements she depicts in her novels. Initially, Lippman observes a versatile collection of women getting into all sorts of drama, schemes and mayhem; from murder-accessory babysitters, drug deals gone wrong and retiree-aged adult entertainers, even a high profile working girl who, in addition to her soccer mom commitments, is currently embroiled in a treacherous cat-and-mouse game involving a deathrow inmate.

The rest of the book follows similar, if slightly more pragmatic, suit. Stories focus on murders, scams, betrayals and fiendish plots all perpetrated by sly, world-savvy women eager to see wrongs righted, rights returned and scales evened. From sleek, classy career women to housewives and normal teenage girls; the characters all have a knack for getting themselves into scrapes involving some the criminal elements most detestable characters. Feminism is a clear, well-represented theme in this book in which women seek revenge on their male counterparts, either through devious underhanded dealings, clever manipulations and well-conceived acts of sudden violence. Lippman brings reality to her characters, most of which are sympathetic on at least one leve. Most maintain some type of integrity and endings to most of the tales are even-handed, characters and circumstances fitting tightly into each story's context.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

In the Heart of the Canyon / by Elizabeth Hyde

River rafting tour guide J.T. Maroney is about to embark on his 125th Grand Canyon trip leading an adventure excursion down the Colorado River. Along for the ride are two other guides--free-spirited Abo and beautiful, passionate Dixie--and a quirky jumble of strangers from all over the country. There's Peter, a 20-something Ohio native; the Compsons, a Salt Lake City couple with two constantly bickering boys; elderly couple the Frankels; middle-agers the Boyer-Brandts; stressed-out Susan and her morbidly obese daughter Amy; and a lonely Harvard Biology professor, Evelyn. After introductions and the precursory safety orientation, subplots and attitudes begin to emerge as the trip gets underway. The visibly cranky Compsons argue about anything and everything, Peter likes what he sees in Dixie, and Evelyn's nursing a broken heart over her late husband even as Ruth Frankel sees her own husband Lloyd slowly descending into full-blown alzheimers. Susan battles inner demons just as daughter Amy, who knows all too well about her problem, merely tries to take it day by day.

Confrontations pop up as the sun bears down and stress levels near the boiling point, allowing personal grudges to emerge as bitter squabbles begin threatening the entire trip. Hyde, author of The Abortionist's Daughter, tells a good group-dynamics story under the guise of adventure fiction. The novel succeeds as both a study of strangers striving toward a common goal and as a suspenseful drama filled with angst and humanity as the reader is swept along with the characters through the canyon and down the frequently dangerous river. Great scenic description and fully believable characters as well as a take-you-by-surprise ending make this story well worth the ride. (FIC HYDE)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Suite Francaise / by Irene Nemirovsky

A Russian immigrant living in France at the time of World War II, Irène Némirovsky had fled the bolsheviks in her homeland only to be persecuted by another totalitarian regime when the Nazis invaded Paris. A Jew by birth, Nemirovsky and her husband were apprehended in 1942 and deported to Auschwitz where she died at 39. Her manuscript, written in barely readable script and largely unorganized within several notebooks, was preserved by her two surviving daughters where the uncompleted work gathered dust for 60 years. It wasn't until 2003 that Nemirovsky's notes were discovered compiled into a novel whereupon it quickly became a French sensation and international bestseller.
Némirovsky's original plan for her book consisted of five novella-sized stories intended to be organized into one volume. Only two were completed at the time of her capture. The first, "Storm in June," follows a gaggle of Parisians during the initial exodus from the German-occupied capital. The people, once residents now refugees in their own homeland, plod through the streets, across fields and further southward into the countryside in largely disorganized fashion. The once-proud nation is far from patriotic and anything but noble. Their slow migratory procession away from the metropolis is filled with constant bickering, quarrels and petty disputes arising from lives interrupted and revulsion at their country's swift, cowardly surrender. Social status meant little even as more aristocratic types persisted with their pretentious manners, always feeling entitled to preferential treatment, and often just downright mean and selfish.
The second part describes a small village in 1940 where French girls, at a loss for other options, openly flirt with their German occupants who willingly reciprocate their affection. Though the situation incites fierce resentment among residents, little can be done it seems until a German officer is murdered, evidently done in by the patriotic indignation of one of the villagers. Certain the killer is a civilian harbored by the enemy, military police aggressively lay down the law, harshly infiltrating homes and individuals, exacting vicious tactics of coersion. The culminating outcome of the search which, in addition to rooting out the culprit, exposes several particularly passionate liasons between certain soldiers and mademoiselles, ultimately creating an inevitably paradoxical circumstance where war and love make strange bedfellows. Suite Francaise is a splendid "debut" novel by a genuinely gifted writer. Nemirovsky's first-hand account of a foreign occupation, written while it was taking place amid panic, confusion, chaos and conflict evokes an important and decidedly tumultuous time and place in history.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Another World / by Pat Barker

Known for her thought provoking literary novels, author and historian Pat Barker is a skilled writer and a worthy craftsman of historical and contemporary fiction, her Regeneration trilogy--three historical stories concentrated in the World War I era--garnering critical acclaim. Another World examines the contrasting lives of a modern blended family and the father of the clan's 101-year-old grandfather, a World War I veteran living out his last days.
Nick and Fran have been married for 3 years, each previously divorced with one child--Nick the father of 14-year-old Miranda, Fran the mother of 11-year-old Gareth--and having had a third child, toddler Jasper, just recently between them. While it hasn't been easy with both Nick and Fran working hard on the job and at home, Gareth and Miranda constantly at odds, Jasper needing round-the-clock attention, etc., things malinger on in the haphazard way of families everywhere, sparse outings and family togetherness given a priority just as the more pressing issues swallow up time, energy and resources.
Meanwhile across town, Nick's very elderly grandfather Geordie, who's outlived both of Nick's parents, spends his last days remembering a very long life which has spanned the entire twentieth century. Geordie may seem old and a bit senile but he's still with it enough to remember his early boyhood in the late Victorian era, the formidable way of life in the rough blue-collar mining town of Newcastle, his youth alongside peers in the trenches during the first World War and, most of all, his terrifying experience on the battlefield of the Somme where he witnessed the grisly death of his younger brother.
Barker really is a unique talent, subtly remarkable in the way she fabricates a story, her prose at once elegant and engaging yet reverberating poignancy and authenticity through piercing observations. Entirely different worlds are portrayed through Geordie's steadily decaying body, his century of thoughts, feelings, events and relationships revealed through a solitary repose, a milieu well contrasted by Nick and Fran's more conventionalized balancing act which includes son Gareth's violent outbursts and a new baby on the way. Each generation forms its own distinct realm, possesses its own misunderstood dimensions. But even as the boundaries of time and age are reiterated, strange similarities bind families and people together. Because, as Barker is so apt to unveil, each individual is merely a continuation of all the generations of their ancestors, their lives a collective embodiment of the world then and now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rachel Simon has been writing since she was a child, and presently makes a living from her writing and public speaking. This is her second memoir. The first was “Riding the Bus with my Sister”, which is about her mentally challenged sister, Beth. That book relates how Rachel built a relationship with Beth by giving up her own life (temporarily) to share her sister’s total commitment to riding busses as a way of life. It was made into a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” television movie in 2005.
Ms. Simon is a “chatty writer”, and is not hesitant to “spill the beans” at any moment, which means she describes what’s going on but at the same time is directing your attention to her personal gut reaction to events. The memoir relates how she and her husband “build” a home together. They actually “renovate” the home her husband bought some years ago when they were in the midst of a split, but the renovation is so extensive it amounts to a “rebuilding” of the inside. Her husband is an architect, and his design is perfect in mirroring their individual and communal spirits (although a lot has to be given up to stay in the projected budget.) By the time the renovation is over, you know all about Ms. Simon’s relationships with all of her family, and all of her friends (at least the meaningful ones). Ms. Simon is Jewish but not a believer, and her husband is a Zen enthusiast. Both of their spiritual resources come up dry on occasion, but sober yet positive realism helps them get through conflict, along with healthy doses of humility. There’s a lot of detail in the emotionally inventory-taking, but the narrative manages to carry the weight without becoming maudlin or moribund. What’s important in the end is to notice things enough so you can stop and experience an art installation (Detroit airport’s lighted tunnel) and say hello to a stranger who’s special (How the author met her husband).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Fiction By Texas Authors

The Devil is a Lie / by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Talented local author Billingsley has published her latest, very entertaining novel about a Houston woman who wins the $8 million Texas lottery. Nina Lawson couldn’t be more surprised when her winning ticket is called; or more overwhelmed as family, friends and even her fiancé start clamoring for her attention.
Amigoland: A Novel / by Oscar Casares
Casares wonderfully characterizes his own South Texas homeland in this, his brilliant debut novel. Elderly Don Fidencio lives his days in a nursing home called Amigoland, pondering his past, his estranged family members and when he can sneak his next cigarette.
The Color of Lightning / by Paulette Jiles
Author of the wildly successful and bestselling Stormy Weather, Jiles depicts the lone star state in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. The story follows freed slave Britt Johnson on an adventurous journey across the wild and untamed Texas frontier.
Smooth Talking Stranger / Lisa Kleypas
Kleypas was born and raised in Southeast Texas and is evidently very familiar with the region and culture. Her latest contemporary romance novel is set in Houston where journalist Ella Varner is the very definition of Miss Independent. But that all changes when she meets the rich and ritzy Jack Travis.
Rhino Ranch: A Novel / by Larry McMurtry
McMurtry concludes his Duane Moore saga in the place where it began—the small west Texas town of Thalia which he first introduced in his 1966 novel The Last Picture Show. Devoted fans of the Thalia novels will recognized McMurtry's skilled characterization of the easygoing but thoughtful Duane whose outlook on life is one of a kind.
Roses / by Leila Meacham
San Antonio author Meacham’s sweeping family saga examines a small East Texas town through the entirety of the 20th century, describing three successive generations of one family as they live, love, work, laugh and die.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Reader / by Bernhard Schlink

Post World War II Germany was both a pivotal time and place; the country ravaged by war, its population decimated, its people torn and relationships severed. In Berlin, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is on his way home from school one day when he suddenly falls ill, collapsing on the side of the street and awakening later to find himself in the company of his rescuer, a beautiful woman named Hannah Schmitz. Despite the fact that she's a war widow twice his age, Hannah and Michael are soon entangled into a passionate love affair, the two forming an almost ethereal bond, sharing their lives, secrets, pasts and most intimate of intimacies. It lasts three months until the day Hannah inexplicably disappears, vanishing without a trace.

It is ten years before they meet again. When Michael does once again finally see his beloved--who he’s only been obsessing about every day for the last decade--he is a law student at the university and Hannah is in court, standing trial for an unspeakable crime Michael was never aware of. Only now, as the trial progresses, does Michael realize the terrible secret Hannah has been guarding all these years, a secret she has up to now considered too shameful to tell anyone, even Michael. Schlink, a former judge turned full-time author who lives in Berlin, has crafted a breathtaking tale of love, passion and coming of age. An Oprah Book Club book and bestseller following its release in Germany in 1995, The Reader is a compelling read, “ensnaring both the heart and mind”* with its moving tale about a young man's confrontation with love and the loss of innocence.
*L.A. Times Book Review

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Kisser / by Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods’ “Stone Barrington” novels have long entertained readers, the author’s depiction of the gallant, dashing New York City lawyer becoming a fixture on bookshelves and bestseller lists. Woods’ latest sets the protagonist among the usual assortment of females, each of whom, in addition to intimate entanglements with Stone, are always good for some variety of mischief, trouble and misadventure.

Bachelor attorney and consummate ladies’ man Stone Barrington is out at his favorite Manhattan restaurant, Elaine’s, when he meets the stunning Carrie Cox, an aspiring actress just arrived in the city from down south. Unbeknownst to Stone however, in addition to her stage ambitions Carrie is also fleeing her problematic, abusive ex-husband who soon arrives in town to wreak havoc on Stone and Carrie’s budding romance. Eager and able to help with Carrie’s rather messy legal situation, Stone works his lawyer-magic, craftily extending his own authority to (and beyond) the ‘legal’ limit. But further issues need Stone's attention also and more than just a little drama is sure to be just around the corner, literally. A slew of other damsels in distress are in need of Stone's one-of-a-kind charm and legal gusto. Many, if not all, he's helped out before. To start with there’s high-profile heiress Hildy Parsons whose currently being blackmailed by a con artist, and fellow attorney Tiffany Baldwin is up to her neck in some strange dealings going on with her current case, a “federal nightmare”. Also, former fling and cultural connoisseur Rita Gammage is in need of some serious legal aid in order to keep her high-end art gallery going. All in all it’s just another day at the office for Stone followed by another adventurous night on the town. Woods 17th Stone Barrington is compelling if only for the colorful situations the author depicts his protagonist in, Stone managing to get into and (almost always) find a way out of multiple boisterous, sexy adventures.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (DVD) 1992 / a Francis Ford Coppola film; starring Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves and Sadie Frost

Following the dismal reaction and perceived failure of the his third Godfather movie, Francis Ford Coppola, the executive visionary behind numerous print-to-screen masterpieces in addition to Puzo's "Godfather" saga--namely S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (Apocalypse Now)--decided to embark on a more personally endearing project. The veteran director felt it was time to make the movie about the classic novel he once "felt was his", Bram Stoker's 1897 horror classic Dracula. It was a book which both captivated and enthralled a young Coppola, reading it first as a boy, becoming enchanted by the legendary figure of the count and subsequently re-reading it numerous times over.

Coppola's painstakingly cultivated film adaptation, a labor of love largely budgeted with his own money and orchestrated through his personal production company, was never considered a financial or cinematic success. Critics complained the film was visually excessive, too operatic, that the narrative lacked continuity and the "highly eroticised" content deprived the story of dramatic authenticity. Yet the film was and remains deeply compelling in its own alluring, unique, and eerily provocative way. The production quality makes the movie. With every scene done the old fashioned way, inside a studio with savvy retro-mode production techniques and highly innovative set detail enhancing the aesthetic element, the film was able to extrapolate on Coppola's meticulously conceived ideas (The backgrounds, wardrobe, visuals and sound all exquisitely illumined the story and ultimately won it 3 Oscars for best effects, makeup and costumes).

A captivatingly haunting score combined with the perceptively original take on the protagonist instantly entrance the viewer, the beginning of the film tracing the origin and well-known legend of the real Count Dracula, an actual 15th century Romanian Prince known as Vlad Dracul II, or Vlad the Impaler, during a Turkish invasion. The proceeding account of epic erases many pre-existing notions associated with both the story and the vampire figure--no Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or any of the more traditional-looking Draculas come to mind. Nor do any contemporary vampire associations erect themselves in what was clearly the original intent of Coppola who wished to remain faithful to the story but broaden the horizons of both the interpretation and adaptation of the tale. True to the novel, the count is at once creepy and sinister, a multi-dimensional entity able to morph into various odd, shapeshifting forms: young and old human, wolf, mist, predatory beast, vermin, etc. But while every bit as monstrous as his silver screen predecessors, the villain's circumstances warrant a further assessment of his situation. Here Dracula's seen as a doomed figure, almost a tragic hero cruelly deprived of a true existence. The essence of the horror he emanates has as much to do with the irreversible eternality of his status as the menacing, physically terrifying creature he evokes.

While narratively the the film strives to magnify the passionate emotional union between the count and Mina Harker (in an admittedly very sensual manner), the real object seems to be to enhance the ambience of the story's gothic aura. It works. Aesthetically, the picture really is a visual feast; it's impossible to remain unmoved by its creative substance, imaginative designs and surrealist approach. And while the acting is nothing spectacular (outside of Tom Waits notable supporting role as Renfield), it's serviceable enough to establish the project as a complete and thoroughly fascinating production, convincing and original on more than one level. (DVD DRACULA)