Monday, July 26, 2010

Skip the book, take in the market instead!

Ruth Rendell has always been one of my favorite authors. I'd wait anxiously for the newest release from her, whether it was from the Inspector Wexford series, or one of her "one off" novels. I recently read The Monster in the Box, which she has said will be the last Wexford novel. I love the characters in the Wexford books, and I've enjoyed keeping up with their lives throughout the 22 novels featuring the characters. However, I did feel that the last few Wexford novels were just not up to the standards of the earlier books. Rendell did keep the events current, dealing with such topics as infertility, modern day slavery and so on, but I felt the later novels were stretching the bounds of credulity a bit too much to be enjoyable.

I was therefore pleased to find out that she'd released a new non-series book, Portobello. I waited and waited and waited for the book to become available in the U.S. She is such a popular writer, I reasoned, surely it will be on sale here soon. Last May, when I was in London, I went into a bookstore and actually held the coveted book in my hands. I thumbed through it lovingly, skimming the text and carried it around for a while, fully intending to buy it. By the time I got ready to leave the bookstore, though, I had already grabbed more books than I could comfortably handle, and I was worried about paying surcharges for overweight luggage. Thinking again that surely the book would be released in the US soon, I reluctantly culled it from my stack of purchases.

Fast forward a year: still no Portobello release in the US! According to the US amazon.com, there's no scheduled release date. I honestly don't understand it. Still, I'm not one to let a little thing like not being able to buy the book stop me, so I began to scour WorldCat for libraries in the US who might be so kind as to lend me the book. I would like to offer a grateful shout out to the kind folks at the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, who came through with the book on Interlibrary Loan. You guys are stars!!!

So, after all that, on to the book. This one is really of more interest than usual to an anglophile such as myself due to the setting alone. The events in the novel take place around the Portobello Road area of London. There are plenty of descriptions not only of the famous market, but also of the pubs and neighborhoods (both good and bad) in the area.

The novel really centers around three characters, and how their lives intersect. First we have Eugene Wren, an art dealer who is living an upper-class life with his doctor fiancee, Ella. Next, we have Ella's patient Joel Roseman, who is slowly sinking into mental illness. Finally, there is the young burglar Lance, who has been reluctantly taken in by a distant relative into a crumbling, decrepit house.

The story begins with Joel being attacked (or more likely, having a panic attack and injuring himself) in the street. He is taken to hospital, but in the upheaval manages to lose an envelope containing 115 pounds. This envelope is found by Eugene. Since Eugene doesn't need the money from this sudden windfall, and since he's frequently seen "lost cat" posters in his neighborhood, he hits on the idea of posting fliers in the area saying he's found a sum of cash "between 90 and 160 pounds" and asking anyone who lost the money to contact him. Naturally, opportunistic Lance sees the notice and immediately decides to try his luck. He contacts Eugene, who asks Lance to come to his house to explain how much money he lost and where he lost it. Now, I know Eugene is supposed to be a somewhat trusting and naive soul, but it makes no sense at all that he wouldn't just ask the person over the phone how much he'd lost, rather than inviting him to his house. Once Lance arrives, he is immediately impressed by the vast art treasures on display in Eugene's house, and he instantly starts working on a plan to break in. He guesses the wrong amount of money for the lost loot, and is shown the door.

At the same time, Eugene has shown a propensity for addictive behavior. He has been able to overcome an addiction to alcohol, but is putting on weight. In an attempt to stop overeating, he begins to buy a new sugar-free candy, Chocorange. In another odd twist in the story, he becomes secretive and ashamed about the candy, hiding massive amounts in his house and inventing excuses to be alone so he can eat them. His hidden addiction nearly costs him everything, and it is inexplicable. Why is he so secretive and ashamed about eating some candy? It's not very believable . . .

Joel is extremely isolated, although he is financially well cared for as his executive father supports him. He becomes overly dependent on Ella, Eugene's fiance, when she visits him in the hospital to deliver the money Eugene found. He continues to call her to his house as his condition worsens. Ella attempts to get him to see therapists and gets carers in to stay with him, but he continues to deteriorate.

In the meantime, Lance is being threatened by the new man in his ex-girlfriend's life. Lance was living with the glamorous Gemma, but he punched her in the mouth when she asked him to get a job. She threw him out, and now Lance is informed he must come up with 1000 pounds to pay for the tooth Gemma lost when he punched her, or else. Lance uses his burglary skills to try to come up with the money. In the meantime, Gemma has come back around and is visiting Lance secretly at his new home with his great uncle. This is yet another twist in the story that doesn't ring true. Gemma is described as looking like Paris Hilton, or as if she just came off a catwalk and lives in an immaculate flat. Why in the world would she want to hook up with a smelly, unemployed, unmotivated man who had already abused her???

There is another unbelievable turn in the story when one of a pair of criminals attempts to convince his cohort in crime that they must go to the police and confess. Why didn't he just go to the police himself???


While there are plenty of bad events and a few deaths in the story, these things end up improving the lives of the people who survive. I just wish the way they got there had been a bit more realistic.
Final verdict for Portobello: Three Gherkins, for a great setting but ultimately peculiar and outlandish plot twists

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Trying to out-Slaughter Karin Slaughter

Let's get one thing straight here: Karin Slaughter is the queen of disturbed killer fiction. No matter how bizarre you make your killer, you just cannot compete with the lineup of weirdos and wackos that populate Grant County, GA. So don't even try. Unfortunately, no one gave this advice to Mo Hayder. Her novel Birdman is an attempt to "out-Slaughter" the reigning mistress of crime by having her victims dispatched in creatively gruesome (if not very believable) ways.

Oh please. While Karin Slaughter can make me squirm in my chair, this book just made me roll my eyes. Not only are the victims killed in a totally illogical and ridiculous manner, but the events take place largely in the lovely area of Greenwich. Call me Pollyanna, but I really don't want to hear about that beautiful site being overrun with strip clubs, junkies and mangled, dumped bodies. OK, so maybe Hayder's vision of Greenwich is closer to reality than mine. I'd prefer to keep my illusions intact, thanks very much!

The book opens with a whole pile of bodies being discovered in a wasteland area in Greenwich. When they are autopsied, many strange things are found. Some of the bodies are quickly identified as strippers and junkies, but some of the victims remain unidentified. Trying to sort out the mess is Detective Jack Caffery. Jack is something of a mess himself. He still lives in his boyhood home, which has many disturbing memories for him. When he was a child, his older brother disappeared after an argument. Jack is convinced that the next door neighbor (who still lives there) is responsible. The neighbor seems to delight in tormenting Jack in whatever way he can. Because Jack is obsessed with proving the neighbor's guilt, he really doesn't have much energy left over for personal relationships. His current girlfriend, Veronica, is pushing to make their relationship permanent, while Jack is looking for a way out. At the same time, he becomes somewhat chummy with one of the former strippers he interviews about the case.

The book does have a somewhat exciting ending, but 3 good pages out of a whole book don't amount to much. There is one huge illogical point in the murders, which I won't give away, but it was enough to ruin the story for me.
Final Verdict for Birdman: Two Gherkins, for a thrilling ending, but an unbelievable buildup to that point

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Nasty Nellie becomes nice

Perhaps I'm dating myself, but I grew up watching Laura, Mary, Ma, Pa and of course the horrible Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. Imagine my delight when I saw the book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, written by Alison Arngrim, none other than Nasty Nellie herself! It's been pretty quiet since Nellie married Percival and left Walnut Grove, so I was anxious to find out what she'd been up to . . . torturing small furry creatures, perhaps?

The book is really one of the best celebrity "tell-alls" that I've ever read. She starts off describing her somewhat eccentric parents and her unusual upbringing in Hollywood. Her parents were both in show business, her father as a manager and her mother as a well-known voice artist (she was the voice of Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost, among others). While sometimes the family finances were good, just as frequently they were not. This led to a lot of moving around and instability in young Alison's life. Still, this might not have been so terrible had not she been left alone, repeatedly, with her abusive older brother. In addition to abusing drugs, the brother sounds as if he had severe mental problems. Alison gives very frank and vivid details of his prolonged abuse of her. It really was physical and mental torture. The fact that she has come through it such a strong and upbeat person is really amazing!

Since her parents had showbiz connections, both she and her brother were often sent to auditions. She landed the part of Nellie when she was 11 years old. Much of the book deals with her experiences on the set, and boy, are they eye opening! It's very interesting to read about not only her fellow cast mates (more on them later!) but also about how things worked on the set. She is very good at describing her adventures in a hilarious, down-to-earth way. I was really surprised at the lack of safety precautions that were taken during the filming. I guess there weren't too many regulations back then! She describes being flung down a hill in a wheelchair (sans seat belt), thrown into a raging river, dunked in stagnant ponds, etc. with something like wonder that she came through unscathed. I'm sure none of those practices would be allowed using child actors today!

There's plenty of inside gossip about her co-stars. She has only warm and glowing things to say about Melissa Gilbert, who befriended her on the first day and has remained a close friend. Melissa Sue Anderson, on the other hand, was stand-offish and aloof then and still is, apparently. Something about those icy blue eyes would give that one away! Alison also has fond memories of Michael Landon, but she certainly doesn't try to hide his flaws. Many members of the crew also worked with some of Hollywood's biggest stars over the years, so there are some interesting tidbits thrown in here and there about people who weren't on the show, but who are household names.

Sadly, the biggest Little House mystery of all wasn't solved in this book. Mary, throughout the first years of the show, had lovely golden blond hair. Then she went blind, and her hair turned black. What was up with that??? We may never know. I guess some mysteries aren't meant to be solved.

The latter part of the book deals with Alison's life after the show ended. After the death of her co-star and good friend Steve Tracy due to AIDS in the 1980s, she became a tireless volunteer with AIDS organizations. Through that work, she also became involved in Protect, an organization that works to strengthen child abuse laws in California and throughout the US.

I am really a big fan of Alison Arngrim after reading this book. She tells her story with courage and humor. I hope there are more books in the pipeline!

Final verdict for Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: Five Gherkins, for being a funny and fond visit with a childhood icon!

Friday, July 9, 2010

But sometimes a grumble is necessary!

I was once again drawn in at the local secondhand bookstore by an interesting-looking book with a British connection. In Mustn't Grumble by Joe Bennett, the author (a British born ex-pat living in New Zealand) decides to travel around Britain following the same path H.V. Morton took years earlier and documented in his book In Search of England.

Of course, I would be interested in any book about travel in Britain, but I was especially seduced (and you'd think by now I would have learned my lesson) by all the glowing blurbs on the cover. Among them: "Extremely funny," "A very funny book," A brilliant wit," and "A funny and poignant portrait of Bennett's homeland."

{sigh} I don't know, after seeing all that emphasis on humor, wouldn't you open the book with the expectation that there might be the odd chuckle to be had among the pages??? Maybe the likes of Bill Bryson and J. Maarten Troost have unreasonably raised my expectations in regard to humorous travel books. Suffice it to say, there was nary a giggle to be found in this dreary travel tome.

The author has acquaintances scattered around Britain that he visits throughout his trip, which I'm sure was all very nice for him, but his narratives of the encounters don't exactly make for exciting reading for the uninvolved observer. He's also inordinately fond of recounting his drunken exploits -- both old and new. Why he thinks anyone would care is a question that's never answered.

Perhaps if I had been familiar with the Morton book I would have enjoyed this one more, as the author is continually comparing Morton's descriptions of towns with what he encounters some 80 years later. As it was, I found Bennett's descriptions of his day to day travels exceedingly dull. His main observations seem to be that no one will pick up hitch-hikers in Britain anymore, and that the British are extremely fearful of apparently widespread and random, out-of-control violence that plagues everyone who dares to step outside their homes.

So I'm not sure if all the authors of the raving blurbs on the cover of the book read a different one than I did, or if maybe they needed some wildly inaccurate blurbs for their own book covers. At any rate, I found nothing humorous and very little of interest in this book. I really MUST grumble about being misled yet again!

Final Verdict for Mustn't Grumble: One Gherkin, for some descriptions of unfamiliar areas of Britain, but overall a gloomy and unamusing read

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Innocent or guilty?


While many people who wind up in prison claim to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of, there are undoubtedly some who are unjustly imprisoned. The innocence or guilt of one woman forms the story of the film The Sculptress, based on the novel of the same name by Minette Walter.


Overweight Olive lives at home with her parents and beautiful sister Amber. One day the police are called to the home to find Olive covered in blood, and her mother and Amber dismembered in the kitchen. Since Olive is the only unharmed person present, she is arrested. She soon confesses to the crime and is sent to prison, where she earns the nickname "The Sculptress" because of the way the bodies were cut up. Funny, I didn't think artists routinely worked with meat cleavers and blood, but I guess that is the artistic temperament for you!

Enter Rosalind Leigh, an author who is commissioned to write a book about Olive and the murders. Rosalind is somewhat damaged herself, having recently endured the death of her young daughter. Because her husband was drinking at the time of the accident which killer their daughter, Rosalind has broken off her relationship with him. She's just starting to get on with her life when she gets the assignment to interview Olive.

Rosalind's first meeting with Olive in prison is uncomfortable. Olive is a hulking, unsmiling presence, and she is less than forthcoming when answering Rosalind's questions. Not even sure she wants to write the book, Rosalind nevertheless finds herself becoming intrigued with the case. As part of her research, she interviews the first policeman on the case. Hal Hawksley was so traumatized by the sight that greeted him in the kitchen that he left the police force and opened a pub. But strange things are happening at the pub, too . . .

As Rosalind digs deeper into the case, Olive becomes more of a sympathetic character. Rosalind begins to wonder, could Olive actually be innocent? There are certainly other possible suspects: Olive's father, a shifty neighbor, or and enemy of the lovely but sadistic Amber. As she attempts to investigate the case, Rosalind is convinced that Olive's confession was given in order to protect someone and that the police didn't do a thorough investigation.

At the same time, Olive is shifty-eyed and secretive. She tells sad stories only to deny them later. Is she truly innocent, or a master manipulator? Evidence is shown for both sides. And just who is her lawyer in cahoots with? And what does it all have to do with the many "accidents" that befall Hal's pub?

The interconnected events are eventually explained, although not all questions are answered. I know we were supposed to be left somewhat in the dark at the end of the story, but all of Olive's back and forth stories ended up leaving me more confused than conflicted!

Final verdict for The Sculptress: Three gherkins, for being a suspenseful, if somewhat unsatisfying mystery