review: the red tower

Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham (2018)

Here’s what you need to know. If you are a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by A. Conan Doyle, then you should read this book. If your only experience with Holmes and Watson is through television or film, then you should read this book. If you think Holmes is the main character of these stories, well…you’ll have to have a little patience. There is a whole lot to like about Mark A. Latham’s latest contribution to the Sherlock Holmes collection of books currently being published by Titan Books. Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower is just the fourth book of the year to get a five-star rating from me. I loved this book and couldn’t have asked the author to do anything more, and one of the best parts is that I had no idea what the solution to the puzzle was until I got to the very end of the book. The Red Tower is a great read, and though it’s not currently available from my local library, it was worth every single dollar from my book budget. Continue reading

review: come a little bit closer

Come a Little Bit Closer by Bella Andre (2013)

Come a Little Bit Closer is the seventh book in Bella Andre’s featuring the Sullivans (specifically, the San Francisco Sullivans) and tells the story of Smith Sullivan, mega-movie star and the woman he falls in love with Valentina Landon.  The Sullivan books don’t have to be read in order, but they are certainly more enjoyable when you do.  Case in point: one of the supporting characters in this book and Valentina’s sister, Tatiana Sullivan, will return in the tenth book of the series, Just to Be With You.  That book makes several mentions to the movie that Smith is producing, directing and starring in during this book, Gravity.  Another kind of easter egg is that at the close of this book, there’s a reference to the Maverick Group, which is a nod to another of Andre’s series that she co-authors with Jennifer Skully.  To recap then, you can completely read these books in any order and you can skip books if you don’t they will appeal to you.  On a personal note, I’ve skipped books three and eight, but read all of the others in the San Francisco and Seattle Sullivans series.

There are three watchwords around which much of the thematic content of the book revolves–close, closer, and gravity.  Not going to spoil that for you, but if you do pick the book up, make sure to pay attention to Andre’s use of those words in particular.  It gives a lot of insight into Smith and Valentina’s needs and their relationships with each other and their families.  As alluded to above, the story finds Smith starting the first day of production on a film where he wrote the screenplay himself and is producing, directing and acting in the film.  It is a major turning point in his career, and he is intent upon not losing his focus at such a crucial moment.  And yet, he can’t help but be distracted by his co-star’s sister, Valentina Landon.  As Tatiana’s business manager, she will be on the set everyday, and finding a way to ignore his attraction is part of his internal struggle.  The love story between Smith and Valentina takes place against the backdrop of a film in production, and it’s no coincidence that the film is also a love story, where the male protagonist bares many similarities to Smith, his creator.  One aspect of the novel that makes this book stand out among the other books in this series is that Andre plays with the narrative structure, showing the scenes that are being filmed by narrating the events so that readers can follow the parallel story.  She does this by showing it through Valentina’s point-of-view, though it’s not necessarily true to how we would absorb it if we were watching the actors play out the scene.  All we would see is the dialogue, the characters’ body language, the background; we wouldn’t have privy to the characters’ inner thoughts or the back story, but because Valentina has read the script, in a way she is our interpreter, our narrator, filling in the gaps between the dialogue..

Throughout the series, Smith Sullivan makes brief appearances, and there are times when his absence makes him a presence in the other books.  Consequently, it really is a delight to finally read his story, and as is sometimes the case in a series where one character’s story is long-awaited, I’m glad to report that I wasn’t at all disappointed with him or his story.  Smith’s character is a fully developed and realized character at the end of the story, and though perhaps he doesn’t go through as much of a change as other protagonists, there are bits and pieces that demonstrate that falling in love with Valentina has pushed him into unfamiliar territory and into behavior that is wholly uncharacteristic of him.  In some ways, he is your cliche character who is in some way famous (here an actor, but Andre has already given us this trope with in Marcus and Nicola’s story, Ryan and Vicki’s story and will use it again in Mia and Ford’s story). He doesn’t ever think he will be loved for who he really is beneath the fame and celebrity.  He has millions of adoring fans but none of them really knows who he is.  While that is the case, Smith is unique enough to hold your attention.

Valentina is also a likeable, believable character and she is strong enough to stand up to Smith and say exactly what is on her mind but she also conventional in that beneath the strength there is vulnerability and a fragile need for love.  She is also conventional in her insistence that she will not date an actor, providing Andre with a built-in way of increasing the unresolved sexual tension.  Another concern in a series like this where Smith’s story was long-awaited is that the mate chosen by the beloved character isn’t close to who you would imagine him finding a happily ever after with.  Again, this is something that doesn’t happen and Valentina is definitely not a disappointment.  She easily becomes a character readers can fall in love with and who easily fits effortlessly into the Sullivan clan.

I’ve had this book on my to-read shelf for a long time, and honestly, I hadn’t started reading it for the very reasons listed above–I was worried I would be disappointed.  Instead, this was the perfect book for a Saturday when all I wanted was to spend the day on the couch getting lost in a good book.  Come a Little Bit Closer is actually my second-favorite book in the series, and the thing that makes that statement interesting to me is that Just to Be With You (the book featuring Tatiana Landon and Ian Sullivan) is by far my favorite book in the series.  Somehow, Bella Andre got it right with these two Sullivans and the sisters they fall for.  It didn’t all five stars when I rated it after reading it (the end seems to drag a bit) but it is definitely one of my recommended reads and gets a star next to it on my list of books read for the year, reminding me it was a favorite.  Give it a try.  If you like contemporary romance, I think you’ll enjoy it.

 

review: dead beat

Note: Dead Beat is the 7th book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you may want to look away now.

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)

There’s a tiny part of me that has been reluctant to post reviews for the books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Mostly because I don’t want to spoil plot points for new readers. Trust me, if you haven’t read the series from the beginning, avert your eyes and go and pick up Storm Front. I have been reading this series for a while now and I love it.  In fact, I credit this series with introducing me to all the goodness that urban fantasy has to offer, and I repeatedly recommend it to readers who are skeptical about the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole.  Yes, this series has as its protagonist a wizard, but it isn’t just about all that is supernatural and what goes bump in the night.

Harry Dresden – Wizard.  His beat is Chicago, and that’s another thing I like about this series. I happen to love Chicago, and I love all the references to places in the city that I have been to.  This particular novel has several scenes that take place at the Field Museum and the big skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex plays an important role in the end of the story. Here’s your basic plot summary that is hopefully free of spoilers.  Harry is summoned by Mavra, the Red Court vampire with whom he had an epic battle a couple of books ago.  Mavra wants to meet Harry at his grave—yes, Harry has his own grave, courtesy of some of his enemies as a reminder that they intend to put him in it post haste.  The inscription on the tombstone reads, “He died doing the right thing.”  Needless to say, it creeps Harry out, but he goes to meet Mavra anyway because she is threatening Karrin Murphy, head of Special Investigations for the Chicago PD and Harry’s friend.  Mavra demands that Harry bring her The Word of Kemmler in exchange for incriminating photos that could land Murphy in jail if turned over to the police.  Being the kind of guy Harry is, he is willing to do what he has to do to save Murphy.  Also typical of Harry, he has no idea what The Word of Kemmler is, but he’s going to find out, and as usual, it’s not going to be anything good.

Although Murphy is being threatened by Mavra, she’s actually absent for nearly the entirety of the novel, so Butcher has to surround Harry with old and new friends and enemies.  Queen Mab makes an appearance, as do Thomas and Bob, Billy and Georgia, and Gentleman Johnnie Marcone.  There’s also Harry’s new dog, Mouse, and even Morgan the Council Warden returns to Chicago.  Indeed, the people in Harry’s life are an important part of Harry’s evolution.  At the beginning of the series, Harry was the typical loner, isolated from the wizard community and not entirely fitting into the “human” world.  Over the course of the series, Harry has lost some people that he cared about, but he has also become part of a family.  Now more than ever before, Harry has a lot to lose, but that also means he has a lot to protect.  It’s not just Harry and his cat, Mister.  It’s Mouse, and Thomas, and Murphy, and Billy and Georgia, and even Bock–a bookstore owner who at one point in the novel tells Harry that he doesn’t want him coming into his store anymore because trouble always follows him.  It’s a horrible moment for Harry, and though he understands Bock’s request, it’s sad too because Harry thinks it’s no less than he deserves. This is all to say that the supporting characters that Butcher brings into the novel are wonderfully drawn and they do exactly what they are supposed to do—show us different parts of Harry’s character, the inner conflicts that he struggles with, and why he keeps going even when all odds are against him. Butcher surrounds Harry with people who care about him, believe in him, and help him to see the good inside of him.  They give him reason to hope and make the struggle worthwhile.

There’s a lot happening in this book, but the part I want to focus on is something that happens near the end.  One of the characteristics of hardboiled detective fiction is that the detective finds himself in a situation where he faces temptation and is forced to cross a line that violates his personal code of ethics in order to save lives.  Harry finds himself in this very situation, and indeed crosses a line.  I have no doubt that it will be a choice that haunts him as the series continues.  It’s a combination of yielding to the temptation of power, doing what must be done to save lives, and having to live with the consequences.  Harry says several times in the novel that he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.  He doesn’t even think of himself as a good person, but now there’s the sense that he has absorbed just a little of the corruption and evil that he fights against. His soul bears a permanent scar that mirrors the physical scar on his hand. In this book, Harry is fundamentally changed on the inside.

With each new installment, Butcher succeeds in making Harry more complex and conflicted.  He forces readers to question the nature of heroism and the personal costs to the individual who would act heroically. Harry does not live in a black and white world, and because of that he cannot be wholly good and succeed in defeating evil.  If you like well-written, suspenseful action stories with strong characters, read the books in this series.  Harry Dresden might just become one of your favorite characters.

 

review: perfect

Note: If you watch Pretty Little Liars, the television series on ABC Family, I should say that I have only watched about 2/3 of the first season and that based upon what I have seen, the series diverges from the books.  So I have no idea if I will be spoiling the TV show with my review.  Fair warning!

Perfect by Sara Shepard (2007)

Do you know what I love? When an author is unafraid to make the worst possible thing happen to her characters and send them into full-crisis mode.  That is exactly what Sara Shepard has done in Perfect, book three of her Pretty Little Liars series.  A lot of the secrets that the main characters have been keeping explode in Perfect.  If you haven’t read the first two books in the series–Pretty Little Liars and Flawless–then you should look away now.  Here be spoilers.

I think some background and context would be helpful. This series follows the stories of four main characters–Hanna, Spencer, Aria, and Emily.  They are juniors at Rosewood Day prep school in Rosewood, Pennsylvania. The four girls were best friends when they were in seventh grade, pulled together by Alison (Ali) DiLaurentis, the queen bee.  Ali disappeared the summer before their eighth grade year, and in the first novel, her body is discovered.  Part of the mystery that drives the series (at least so far) is finding out who killed Ali.  But the other thing that drives the series is that Ali knew all of the girls’ secrets and tormented them before her disappearance–Hanna struggles with bulimia, Spencer has a habit of stealing her sister’s boyfriends and is obsessed with being the perfect student, Aria has kept the secret of her father’s infidelity from her mother and lusts after her English teacher, and Emily is a lesbian but is terrified of what will happen if she acts on her feelings.  At the start of the series, the girls have drifted apart and are no longer friends, but they are all tormented by texts and e-mails from “A” who knows all of their secrets and manipulates them into doing what he or she wants in exchange for keeping their secrets.  The girls have no idea who “A” is, and that’s also part of the mystery.  Caught up?

Perfect has a wonderful epigraph: “Look and you will find it–what is unsought will go undetected” — Sophocles.  It sets the stage for the whole novel, which revolves around the puzzle of a video that Aria took of the five girls one night before Ali’s disappearance.  “A” taunts all of the girls, telling them that Ali’s killer is right there in front of them, all they have to do is look, and by the end of the novel, the girls think they know the identity of Ali’s killer and “A”.  But for a while, this is just a subplot because, well, these girls do have lives to live.  Hanna’s friendship with her best friend, Mona, is on shaky ground.  It’s Mona’s birthday, and a series of events leads to the fateful night of the party, where Hanna is brought to an emotional crisis and comforted by a new male character (Lucas) that I hope will be sticking around for a while.  Meanwhile, Spencer’s parents have decided that perhaps it would be good for her to see a therapist.  During one of the sessions, the doctor hypnotizes Spencer, and she realizes that she has blocked out parts of the night that Ali disappeared.  These memories begin to come back to her as the novel unfolds until she, too, reaches a moment of climax where she fears that she may have played some part in Ali’s disappearance.  And, remember that essay of Melissa’s Spencer stole and turned in as her own in Flawless?  Well, her economics teacher nominated the essay for a national award, bringing Spencer all kinds of unwanted attention and fresh anxiety about her plagiarism being exposed.  Like Hanna, Spencer wants to appear flawless and perfect, but she’s anything but.  While that’s happening, Emily keeps going back and forth about her relationship with Maya.  Then, just when it seems like she has accepted her attraction to Maya and wants to be with her, “A” outs Emily’s relationship to everyone at a swim meet, including Emily’s parents, who threaten to send Emily to live in Iowa if she doesn’t go through a program that is intended to “rehab” her back into heterosexuality.  Finally, things have gotten bad for Aria in this novel.  Her mother throws her out of the house and so she goes to live with her new boyfriend Sean’s family, but then Ezra decides he wants to try again, only that doesn’t really end well either. There’s a moment where Aria has nowhere to go, not even home.  Throughout and in more ways than one, Shepard plays with the plot of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Aria’s AP English class is reading, and it’s kind of brilliant.

I try to keep these reviews to 1000 words and I’m almost out of space, but if you’re at all interested in what you’ve read here, pick up the first book in this series and give it a read.  I feel like I’m consuming these books and I’m totally okay with that.  The next book, Unbelievable, is already on my bookshelf. What I love about this series is that the characters are well-developed and there are so many social issues in play–sexuality, family dynamics, the pressures on young adults to succeed academically and in sports, the secrets we keep and why we keep them, the meaning of friendship, eating disorders, the social dynamics of high school, and even the behavior of “A” can be read as bullying.   Plus they are just fun to read and because the point-of-view of each chapter switches so that we get the story from a different girl’s point-of-view, I’m totally pulled into the lives of all four characters and can’t wait to see what will happen next.

review: the sea of monsters

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (2006)

The Sea of Monsters is the second book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (following The Lightning Thief).  I think this series belongs to the “middle grade” genre of children’s literature, but don’t let that put you off.  Adult readers will enjoy this book, too, and if you are a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden files, I think you will really like this series.

Because this is the second book in a series, some background is necessary.  Percy Jackson learns that he is half-god, half-human (a demigod, a half-blood, a hero).  In The Lightning Thief, a satyr named Grover finds Percy and takes him to Camp Half-Blood and Chiron, the centaur who is effectively the Camp Director.  The camp has twelve cabins, one for the children of each Greek god on Olympus.  Children who have been claimed by their parents live in their assigned cabin with their half-siblings, while children who haven’t been claimed live in Hermes’ cabin until their parentage becomes known.  When Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood, his parent is unknown, but eventually he is claimed by Poseidon.  This is good, but it also complicates matters for Percy and results in another layer of isolation—Poseidon is one of the “Big Three” gods (along with Zeus and Hades) and together they made a pact after World War II not to sire any more children.  Percy’s existence demonstrates that Poseidon broke the pact, but further still, Percy is the only child of Poseidon at camp.  This means that he lives in the Poseidon cabin all alone, and he has to learn what special abilities he has on his own.  Percy’s other best friend is Annabeth, a daughter of Athena.  She is smart and knowledgeable, and she has also been appointed by Chiron as a kind of protector for Percy, who could possibly be the child named in a prophecy that has yet to be revealed to us as readers.

The story opens on Percy’s last day of seventh grade.  He has made it through the entire school year without getting expelled or into any serious trouble, and he’s looking forward to rejoining his friends at Camp Half-Blood on the following day, and spending the summer there.  At breakfast, though, his mother hints that all things are not right at camp, and that maybe it isn’t safe there for Percy.  While in gym class near the end of the day, Percy is attacked by giants.  Through the help of his new friend Tyson and the well-timed arrival of Annabeth, Percy manages to survive and escape with his life.  As the trio flees Percy’s school and travels to Camp Half-Blood, Annabeth fills Percy in on what has been happening at camp in his absence.  Thalia’s tree, which holds the spirit of Thalia, a daughter of Zeus, has been poisoned; consequently, the borders of the camp that prevent mortals and monsters from entering camp are eroding.  When the three arrive at Camp Half-Blood, they find Clarisse leading the campers against the latest monster threat—brass bulls.  The bulls are defeated and Percy learns what else has changed at Camp Half-Blood: Chiron has been fired because of suspicions that he was the one who poisoned the tree, and Tantalus, the new activities director, shows little interest in the campers’ welfare.  Another surprise for Percy is learning that Tyson—the homeless boy he grudgingly befriended during the school year—is in fact a Cyclops. Annabeth reveals to Percy that Cyclopes are the children of one god in particular—Poseidon—thus making Tyson Percy’s half-brother.  Percy is upset by this news because Cyclopes are looked upon with disgust by the half-bloods, and his friendship and now family tie to Tyson makes Percy the outsider once again.  He’s conflicted throughout the story because he wants to defend Tyson, who has saved his life on more than one occasion, but he also wants to deny that they are related and put as much distance between them as possible.  As Percy says himself, he’s not only embarrassed by Tyson, but ashamed of him, too.  This inner conflict is one that he struggles with until the end of the story.  Finally, there’s Grover, who left on a quest at the end of The Lightning Thief.  At the beginning of The Sea of Monsters, he establishes a mental link with Percy so that they can communicate in Percy’s dreams.  Grover has been captured by Polythemus (a Cyclops) and is being held on an island in the Sea of Monsters.  Grover also reveals that the Golden Fleece is on the island.  These three story lines—the peril of Camp Half- Blood, the need to rescue Grover, and the revelation of the location of the Golden Fleece—set up the adventure that Percy, Annabeth, Tyson, and Clarisse (daughter of Ares) will follow for the rest of the book. 

This is one of my recommended books.  This book weaves together the quest story, the adventure story, and the coming of age story, and while doing that it gives us the inner conflicts of a thirteen-year-old kid and wonderful character development.  The first-person narrative style lets us identify with Percy while also seeing the errors in his ways so that we are thrilled when he grows from his experiences. Yes, the novel relies upon the conventions of the genre—isolated hero, intelligent female friend, the old and wise mentor, the shadowy villain in the background and the one that does his bidding—but it’s not predictable, even when we are familiar with the myths that are retold and reworked within the story. The book is successful because it tells a story that readers of all ages can connect with, and isn’t that what makes a good book? The series is successful because it makes me want to read the next installment.  Give this series a try and then give it to a child to read. I think you’ll be glad that you did. 

 

 

 

review: the talented mr. ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

I’m not exactly sure what my expectations were before I started reading The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, and I haven’t seen the 1999 film version with Matt Damon and Jude Law, so I didn’t already “know” the story.   What I can say is that I am glad I have discovered Patricia Highsmith and whatever my expectations were, I wasn’t disappointed.

The story follows Tom Ripley, a twenty-three year old man basically living in poverty in New York City. Tom is homeless, jobless, and practically friendless.  He’s an orphan who was raised by his father’s sister, but they do not have a good relationship and Tom does not like her.  She sends him checks for strange dollar amounts, and though Tom despises the crumbs that she sends him, he is also financially dependent on them.  Tom is a small-time con artist, and at the beginning of the story he is engaged in IRS tax fraud.  He’s paranoid that his petty crimes will be discovered, as evidenced on the first page, where he notices a man following him.  He wonders if the police have come to arrest him, but the man introduces himself as Herbert Greenleaf.  Mr. Greenleaf has been told that Tom and his son, Dickie, were friends prior to his son leaving the States and travelling abroad in Europe.  It is upon this friendship that Mr. Greenleaf eventually comes to ask Tom if he will go to Italy, where Dickie is currently living, and convince him to come home.  Dickie’s father owns a boat-building company and his mother is suffering from leukemia.  Dickie’s father wants his son to come home, take his place in the company as the heir-apparent, and live a “normal” life rather than the life of an expatriate artist.  Tom ultimately agrees to try to help Mr. Greenleaf and travels to Italy.  The first meeting between Tom and Dickie is awkward because they weren’t really good friends to begin with. Also, Dickie has developed a close relationship with Marge Sherwood, another American expatriate.  Tom likes and admires Dickie and wants to be his friend.  Tom looks a lot like Dickie—they are the same height and just about the same weight.  They have the same color hair and facial features.  Tom could be Dickie’s doppelganger.  Indeed, this is one of the tropes Highsmith’s novel turns upon—Tom as Dickie’s dark double who slowly begins to unravel then rewrite Dickie Greenleaf’s life.

Highsmith has crafted a wonderful anti-hero in Tom Ripley.  Tom is indeed talented—he adapts quickly, has a capacity for languages, is a consummate observer, is good with numbers, and can employ logic and reason even in the most stressful situations.  Tom went to New York because he wanted to be an actor.  That dream wasn’t realized in the States, but the life he lives in Italy gives him the opportunity to become an actor and perform for his imagined audiences.  It is perhaps the constant drive to perform that causes his thing with mirrors.  Yes, Tom Ripley has a thing with mirrors.  You can’t help picking up on this as you read the first few chapters (and I wonder if this is something the film develops).  He is always checking himself out in a mirror, looking at his clothes, his facial expression, the carriage of his body.  Along with being able to play different roles as necessary, Tom can invent plausible stories (read: lies) for the police and for others in his life as necessary; Tom believes that they are true and because of this, he is able to convince others that what he is saying is true.  No one ever seems to call Tom on any of his lies.  The other thing about Tom is that he has, until arriving in Italy, lived on the fringes and margins of society. Financial stability isn’t something he’s ever known, and one of the statements the novel is making is that the structure of society alienates and isolates men like Tom Ripley and forces them to extreme measures.  Thus, Tom views his actions as being done out of necessity, and this adds complexity to his character because as readers, we have enough distance from Tom that we don’t completely identify with him but not so much distance that we can’t sympathize with him.  Is Tom Ripley a sociopathic anti-hero? Absolutely, but that only makes him more interesting.  I’ve read statements that Tom Ripley is one of the great anti-heroes in literature and I completely agree with that statement.  He may be amoral and his actions are unconscionable, and yet…he frustrates attempts to fully condemn him, and I think that says more about me as a reader than anything else.

Though the focus of the novel remains primarily upon Tom, the character of Marge Sherwood draws my attention, too.  As a supporting character, Marge is obviously intended to be a source of conflict and antagonism for Tom.  She is also intended to highlight certain aspects of Tom’s character and thereby increase his complexity and reveal his motives.  I wonder, though, if Marge was intended to be somewhat autobiographical, too.  She is an American woman living in Europe and writing a book, and from what I know of Highsmith’s biography, she likely had similar experiences.  Marge exists on the margins of the novel; on the one hand, she’s an example of the growing opportunities available to women (like Dickie, she is travelling abroad and living alone in Europe while engaging in a form of artistic expression she hopes to turn into a career) but on the other hand, she is completely deceived by Tom. Again, she’s not the main character of the story but her placement in the novel intrigues me and makes me wonder what Highsmith might have been trying to say through her character.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I definitely recommend it to readers who like suspense, tension, and well-drawn characters in their fiction.