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A. Ross (Washington, DC)

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Killed at the Whim of a Hat: A Jimm Juree Novel (Jimm Juree 1)
Killed at the Whim of a Hat: A Jimm Juree Novel (Jimm Juree 1)
by Colin Cotterill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Series Debut, 13 April 2013
I absolutely adore Cotterill's Laos-set "Dr. Siri" series, and have pressed it upon many friends with excellent results. When I saw he had a new series set in Thailand, I looked forward to it, having spent a very enjoyable several weeks there once. Unfortunately, I am sad to report that this first book in the new series is rather limp and I can't recommend it to anyone.

It revolves around a 30ish single woman and her wacky family and their misadventures as they sell the family business in Chang Mai and move to Chumpon province. This backwater province lies about halfway down the neck of the country, bordering the tip of Burma to the West, and the Gulf of Thailand to the East -- a far cry from the metropolitan hustle and bustle of the northern city of Chang Mai. As Jimm (the heroine) and her family try and make a go of the ramshackle resort they've bought, murder comes to town.

The problem is that neither the characters nor the plot are particularly interesting. Jimm is a nonstop whiner/grumbler and surrounding her with a cast of outsized characters doesn't make her any more fun to be around. There's her bodybuilder brother who serves as muscle when necessary, her dotty mother -- who may or may not be going senile, her reclusive gender-bending sister who stayed in Chang Mai and is a world-class hacker (very convenient, he?), a grumpy old grandfather who possesses hidden depths, and various others. But it all feels more like shtick than real-life people.

There are actually two murder storylines -- one of an abbot who was investigating the potential for adultery at the local temple, the other a decades-old murder of two people found in a buried VW camper van. The latter is kind of intriguing in a quirky way, but not enough to really make things fun. The former is the kind of murder plot I can't stand -- relying on a totally ridiculous motive and cartoonish villain who can only be uncovered with the skills of a convenient expert ally (the hacker "sister"). There is some good local Thai color here and there, but on the whole it's a very disappointing book.

Say Nice Things about Detroit
Say Nice Things about Detroit
by Scott Lasser
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £23.74

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Search and Gentrify, 21 Feb. 2013
I'm usually pretty generous when it comes to fiction that's explicitly trying evoke a city, especially if that city isn't New York. Unfortunately, this sappy love letter to Detroit just goes way too far in trying to resuscitate the city, and along the way invokes race in a way that is highly suspect. The plot revolves around David a 40-something lawyer who grew up outside Detroit, but has been living in Denver for the last twenty years or so. His mother's sliding into dementia, and his father asks him to come home for a visit. When doing so, he learns of the recent murder of his high-school girlfriend and her half-brother and meets up with her younger sister.

It doesn't take much prodding for him to ditch Colorado to try and make a fresh start in Detroit, especially since he's fleeing his own demons, which include the death of his son and the subsequent end of his marriage. Quick as a blink, he's trading his Audi in for an American-made car, buying a historic house in a black neighborhood, wooing his former girlfriend's sister, and helping out the wayward nephew of the dead half-brother. I'm not quite sure I've come across a redemption story that's trying to hit so many different targets at the same time, and the effect is cloying and false.

Make no mistake, David is not redeeming himself so much as rescuing others in blatant ways. He's rescuing his father from loneliness, the sister from a dead marriage, the nephew from his poor past choices (and the thugs after him), the dead half-brother's mother from her unsalable house, and on and on. It all starts to feel like the David fantasy hour, and nowhere is it more of a fantasy than the depiction of gentrification -- or to be precise, a white fantasy. Over and over, his choice to buy a home in a black neighborhood is questioned by everyone he meets, allowing him to occupy the virtuous colorblind moral high ground. The house even comes with a built in fantasy neighbor - a retired judge (picture a Field of Dreams era James Earl Jones) who accepts him and invites him over for dinner, goes to a Tigers game with him, etc.

After I finished it, I checked out some of the media reviews and was shocked at how much praise it's gotten. Don't get me wrong, it's nicely paced and moves right along, and there's plenty of nice Detroit-specific detail, but the whole thing has the feel of a middle-age white divorcee's Hallmark movie. If you want an undemanding romantic story, this is a nice short one, but if you want the great Detroit fictional experience, stick with Middlesex or Elmore Leonard's Detroit-set crime capers.

London Falling (James Quill 1)
London Falling (James Quill 1)
by Paul Cornell
Edition: Paperback

29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars "London calling to the imitation zone", 21 Feb. 2013
Although I know there's a genre called urban fantasy/paranormal/supernatural, I haven't dipped my toes into it beyond a few examples that bleed over into the detective genre. As it happens, both of those were also first books in London-set series: Ben Aaronovich "Rivers of London" series (Midnight Riot / Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground) and Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series (Full Dark House, The Water Room, Seventy-Seven Clocks, etc.). The premise of those two earlier series is that there is a supernatural London that exists alongside our real present-day one, and that special police officers can act to police that world. This book takes that same exact line, as a handful of police form a special unit to take on a powerful supernatural serial killer.

But before that happens, the story opens in media res, with two undercover police detectives within the inner circle of London's gangster lord. There's a rather choppy and confusing opening 40 pages or so, in which their operation is about to be shut down if they can't come up with some concrete information. Then something dramatic occurs, and the undercover officers, their boss, and a police intelligence analyst are put together to figure out what happened. It still takes quite a while for their investigation to get going, and even when it does, the pacing is off and description of the supernatural world isn't always clear. The book might have benefited from a revision or stronger editorial hand on the first third. Eventually, it does start to smooth out and pick up momentum, and in the final fifty pages or so the plot really kicks in.

Unfortunately, although strong in atmosphere and horror elements, the book really falters in characterization. At the start of the story the three policemen seem somewhat interchangeable and it's hard to really form any proper picture of them. Eventually, I ended up viewing them more as types (the angry one, the gay one, the analytical one, the boss), rather than fully realized characters. That really took away from my ability to get drawn into their encounters with the supernatural, and is also why I doubt I'll bother reading any further books in the series. It's not that the book or story was bad per se, but without compelling characters to take you along, it's hard to care that much about rich atmosphere for its own sake. Definitely worth checking out if you're a reader with a strong interest in urban fantasy (or whatever you want to call it) or books set in London, but not one I'd recommend widely.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 11, 2014 10:35 PM BST

Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Joseph Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious Satire Hasn't Aged Well, 15 Feb. 2013
I've always been interested in reading this legendary book, just not 450-pages interested, so I was pleased when my book club selected it and I was "required" to read it. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the end, I was much less pleased. I found the book's much-vaunted humor to be tiresome in the extreme, the characters far too cartoonish for me to care when bad things happen, and the entire enterprise to be about twice as long as necessary. Which is not to say there weren't some things to like: the non-linear, non-chronological structure is kind of interesting at times (unlike some, I didn't find it confusing), the convoluted machinations of war profiteer Milo Minderbinder are kind of amusing, and the sly insertion of anachronistic elements to signal that the book is about Korea and not WWII, are all worth mentioning. But the book leans far too heavily on extended circular conversations that reminded me of nothing so much as a series of Abbot and Costello "Who's On First?" routines. To be fair, a number of my fellow book club members couldn't read these without audibly giggling, but I (and others) found them to be very painful going. And it may be that the book just hasn't aged well, or has been succeeded by so much tighter satire (M. A. S. H. for example) or ridiculous wars, that it just can't reliably have the subversive effect it must have at the time it was published. For military satire that's more contemporary, and to my mind at least, funny, try the excellent Gulf War farce Fobbit.

The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen (Cook's Illustrated Cookbooks)
The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen (Cook's Illustrated Cookbooks)
by America's Test Kitchen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £26.14

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Massive Book Packed with Good (But Hard to Find) Info, 15 Feb. 2013
I'm probably not the target audience for this richly-detailed mashup of textbook and cookbook, in that I don't watch cooking shows, am a capable but largely indifferent cook, and was terrible at high school science. Actually, maybe that last part does make me a likely reader, since the whole point of this massively detailed book is to explain the science of what happens in the kitchen to the layperson. The book is organized around teaching the reader fifty "concepts" ranging from the obvious (for example, #1: Gentle Heat Prevents Overcooking, #14: Grind Meat at Home for Tender Burgers, etc.) to the less so (for example, #31: Slicing Changes Garlic and Onion Flavor, #44 Vodka Makes Pie Dough Easy). I'd say about a third of these are relevant to the kind of cooking I do, but I don't make my own bread, do a lot baking, or eat red meat or pork, so your utility will likely be much higher.

Each of the fifty concepts is a few pages of sciencey writing with the kind of diagrams I could never parse in high-school chemistry, followed by a bunch of related recipes (there are about 400 in the book), mixed with various test kitchen experiments, and lots of "Practical Science" sidebars. I actually found the latter to be the most interesting (and digestible) parts of the book, but a chacun son goût. Consider the following random sentence from Concept 31: "Onions glean their intense flavor and acrid odor from sulfur-containing substances similar to allicin, called thiosulfinates, which are created when the same enzyme allinase interacts with an odorless sulfur-containing amino acid, similar to the one in garlic, released when the onion's cell's are ruptured." That's all well and good, but too technical for me.

Although the book is packed with great information, it can just be a little hard to find. For example, interspersed among the fifty concepts are one-page "101" pages, such as "Salt 101" or "Eggs 101," which talk about the different varieties of the ingredient, how to use, store, etc. These are great, except that they're hard to find -- ditto for an good appendix on kitchen equipment. I think I would have preferred the book without the recipes, which really add a lot of bulk and an extra layer of content to sort though. I suspect a more linear structure would have made the material much more accessible. All that said, this is a great book for anyone who's into the science of cooking, or just likes cooking and science and hasn't ever considered the two together.

The Disapparation of James
The Disapparation of James
by Anne Ursu
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.33

4.0 out of 5 stars Gut-Wrenching Glimpse at the Psychology of Loss, 23 Jan. 2013
The disappearance or death of a child is quite literally a parent's worst nightmare, and there are countless thrillers revolving around such scenarios. Here, Ursu takes that nightmare and twists it just enough so that the focus is not on the hunt for the missing child, but on the effect on the parents and family. It's a clever way into the topic that neatly sidesteps the procedural plot points that dominate thrillers about the same topic, and allow for a much richer exploration of the psychology of such an event.

The Woodrow family is at the circus for their 7-year-old daughter Greta's birthday and their possibly developmentally disabled 5-year-old son, James, is fidgety and withdrawn until the appearance of Mike the Clown. All of a sudden, the normally shy James perks up and even volunteers to be part of a trick. However, the clown's disappearing act becomes all too real when the Woodrow's son vanishes in a puff of smoke, and no one, not the clown, the cops, or the parents have the remotest understanding of how it happened, or where's he gone. Each family member copes with the loss in their own way (mother sinks into near-catatonic depression, father has wild rages, and Greta creates a rich tale about where her brother has gone), and while these are somewhat obvious reactions, they are vividly and realistically rendered (it should come as no surprise that the least obvious coping mechanism of the three, Greta's story, is the most interesting).

The obvious message of the book is that no matter how closely we watch and guard over our children, we ultimately have only the illusion of control over what happens to them. In the case of this story, the fates can literally spirit them away. This is the kind of theme that I'm not sure I would have found interesting in any way prior to becoming a parent, but now that I am, strikes me with intensity. A thought-provoking read, especially for parents.

Riders to the Midnight Sun
Riders to the Midnight Sun
by Marc Llewellyn
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Moderately Interesting Post-Soviet Cycling Travelogue, 23 Jan. 2013
I've always loved travelogues, but ever since having children, my own ability and means to travel internationally has been severely curtailed, and so I've avoided reading them on the theory that I'll get jealous. However, I've made a vow to give the armchair travel a chance again this year and see what happens, and in that spirit, I picked this off my shelf from where it has been lingering for several years. There are lots of different kind of travelogues, and this one fits into the category I call "the personal challenge", which generally involves traveling from point A to point B via an unconventional mode of transport. In this instance, we meet Welsh journalist Llewellyn circa 1996 as he seems to be in the midst of an early mid-life crisis -- he's 30 and wants to have a grand adventure before it's too late. Spurred by the stories of his grandfather's trip to the Soviet arctic port of Murmansk during World War II, he decides that since others have already written about bicycling across Russia from west to east, he'll write the first book about doing it south to north.

His girlfriend Rohan decides to join him, and after assembling a dubious pair of cheap Korean kit bicycles, shoddy shoes, and some beat up camping gear, they set out to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, where they start their journey. Since this takes place only a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they are well-received novelties as they makes their way across the Crimea, Ukraine, and Belarus, enjoying what meager hospitality (mainly, vodka) the locals have to offer. However, once they arrive at the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the mood changes, and the trip grows steadily more unpleasant until they cross back over into Russia. For the most part, the narrative follows the template of recounting trials and tribulations of the road, some potted history of areas of interest they pass through, and vignettes involving colorful characters they encounter along the way. This is mostly interesting and amusing, although he periodically drifts into cheesy bromides about the proper way to be a traveler as opposed to a tourist, such as "The real traveler is active, not passive. He moves around but actively reflects on life and what is happening to him and lives each moment as it arrives." Ugh.

Llewellyn writes from the perspective of someone who came of age during the Cold War, and engages in a number of conversations revolving around nuclear destruction. He also has a particular interest in seeing nuclear plants and marveling at how decrepit and unsafe they are. One of the main dramatic arcs of the trip is whether or not his girlfriend is pregnant, and to what extent this lark of a trip is exposing her to all manner of nuclear and other toxic waste. This is an unusual element that adds interest to what is otherwise, an interesting, but traditional travelogue. Worth reading by anyone with an interest in intrepid cycling journeys and the immediate post-Soviet era (see also Between the Hammer and the Sickle and Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia).

The Odds
The Odds
by Kathleen George
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.13

4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling Procedural Series Debut, 20 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The Odds (Paperback)
This first book in the Detective Colleen Greer series is a winning multi-perspective crime procedural. At the center of the story is a family of four children (ages 7-12), who've been abandoned by their flaky stepmother. As they try and survive without anyone discovering they are on their own, their paths cross with that of an ex-con who's being hunted by some nasty local drug dealers. Meanwhile, Det. Greer gets involved in investigating a related murder, while struggling with her conflicting feelings toward her (married) boss, who's undergoing chemo, and her partner on the force, who has just gotten separated. The debut does a nice job of giving enough information about every character to orient the reader, while not making a big song and dance about presenting everyone's full backstory. Much of the backstories do emerge throughout the book, but this never feels like an awkward info-dump, it's all part of the plot. The balance of the personal lives with the crime story brings to mind The Wire, although the emphasis is much more on the kids and cops than on the criminals. The one area the book didn't really shine was in the setting -- it takes place in Pittsburgh's North Side neighborhood, but there's not a lot of sense of place to be had. The minor quibble aside, this is highly recommended for those who like crime procedurals. One could also make the argument that the family of kids are completely unrealistically mature and responsible, but if you can suspend disbelief in that area, they become totally compelling. I'll definitely be seeking out the next in the series to read!

by Tobias Hill
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Atmosphere, So-So Story, 20 Jan. 2013
This review is from: Underground (Paperback)
I picked this up while visiting London probably 10+ years ago, largely based on its outstanding cover design and it's lingered on my shelves unread until last week. Like the cover, it's richly atmospheric and claustrophobic, but to call it a "thriller" (as the jacket copy does), is somewhat misleading. The book revolves around Casimir, a Polish immigrant who has been living in London for about eight years. The chapters alternate between the story of his present life working in the London Underground as a kind of tunnel and infrastructure inspector, and the story of his childhood in Poland. It's intimated that something happened in his childhood in the 1960s that led him to leave Poland completely behind, sending remittances to support his father, whom he will never forgive for some mysterious transgression.

In the present, he lives in a nearly empty room more akin to jail cell than a home, and keeps entirely to himself, with no friends or even acquaintances to speak of. However, when someone pushes a woman under a train, he takes an interest, an interest that leads him into the path of a beguiling homeless woman who may be living in the Underground, and might be insane. The story of these two desperate souls trying to connect at some level with each other feels a little too self-conscious, sort of like an indie film that's trying a bit too hard to milk the theme of beauty/love in a grim world. However, the depiction of the physical space of the Underground is captivating -- even as I struggled at times to orient myself, the feeling of the place oozes from the pages.

Meanwhile, the storyline of his childhood in Poland has a number of memorable scenes, but feels very much of a type of "growing up behind the Iron Curtain" tale. There's the childhood romance, a secret cave in the woods, a fall through the ice, a drunken father who is a smuggler/speculator, the unstable mother, the dark secrets lurking in the ashes of World War II. It's all well-told, and provides a stark contrast with the present-day chapters, but they do sit uneasily next to each other. I suppose in the end, I left feeling that the author did an excellent job of creating vivid settings and evoking mood, but the storytelling itself wasn't too my taste.

The Killer Volume 1: v. 1
The Killer Volume 1: v. 1
by Luc Jacamon
Edition: Hardcover

2.0 out of 5 stars Trying Too Hard to be Icy Cool, 19 Jan. 2013
This acclaimed French graphic novel takes on a familiar figure in popular culture, the hit man, and attempts to tell a story from entirely within his perspective. Unfortunately, while the art is top notch, with the kind of beautiful, classic detail, lettering, and coloring I've come to expect from European comics, the story itself is rather weak. We meet the hit man in Paris as he waits for a target, one of what he hopes will be one of his final jobs before he has enough money to retire to his villa in Venezuela. As he waits, his mind drifts to his past, and we learn of his background (solidly middle class) how he got started on such a career path, and where it's led him. However, being inside the mind of a psychopath (or sociopath if you prefer), just isn't very interesting. The hit man has no use for other people (other than women for the obvious), completely cut himself off from his family, and generally has zero empathy at all. As he waits, he starts to crack up and question the point of his life.

Ah yes, shocking, I know -- a French crime story that veers sharply into existentialism. Without having studied the matter, I assume the existential themes in American noir fiction and film explain why it's been historically so well-received in France and recycled into French crime storytelling. Here, the hit man gives long rambling interior monologues about the hypocrisy of humanity, listing genocide after genocide from human history to make his point. Don't get me wrong, there is some action, as he is tailed after one messy job and has to deal with a French cop, and then figure out why his last job didn't go so well. But it's kind of paint-by-numbers betrayal 101, so don't read it for the story. The art is the reason to pick up this book, as artist Jacamon moves effortlessly between the cluttered details of a grimy Paris, to the lush details of the Venezuelan jungle (this unusual setting is perhaps due to the writer's childhood in the Caribbean), and the jet-set details of an Alpine ski resort, changing palettes to match the mood.

Ultimately, the book is a disappointment -- it's trying way too hard to be cool, and it just isn't. The interior narration gets old, as the protagonist has nothing interesting to say, and is ultimately, insane. I guess if I were 12, I might find it awesome, but there's just not a whole lot there for adults. (Note: Matz is a pen name for the Alexis Nolent, who has written several other acclaimed comics, and has also worked on video games like Price of Persia and Splinter Cell, and to a certain degree, the storytelling here has the same cause-and-effect limitations of many video games. Hopefully future volumes in the series will be a bit more nuanced and complex.)

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