Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Calico Joe by John Grisham

Baseball 1973, the National League won the All Star game. Teams tweaked their rosters for their run to the World Series. In John Grisham’s Calico Joe, the Cubs gave Joe Castle of Calico, Arkansas the nod.

Calico Joe came with a pedigree. His grandfather played for the Cleveland Indians, his father played for the Pirates. His brothers played for the Senators and the Phillies. The Cubs felt good about bringing him up. Joe rewrote the record books, and Cub fans visualized the World Series. Baseball pandemonium ruled the North Side of Chicago.

Eleven-year-old Paul Tracey became enamored with Joe. He listened to as many games as possible. He cut out articles from the paper and glued them in his scrapbook. Only one problem, Paul’s dad, Warren pitched for the Mets.

Warren was hard and Warren was mean. He wasn’t a good father. Warren ends Calico Joe’s career with a bean ball, a 98-mile per hour pitch to the head. Bam! Knocks the guy out, right in the eye.

In Calico Joe, Grisham writes a story depicting a slice of Americana. He gives us baseball at a point in time when baseball meant more than just money. Entwined in the story of baseball, we get family emotions, child abuse, adultery, cancer and death. We also get reconciliation and forgiveness.

Warren Tracey suffers with pancreatic cancer, one of the most painful and deadly forms. No one feels sorry for him. Grisham does a good job of vilifying the man, but maybe by the end you’ll feel differently. Maybe.

Paul tries to over come their differences, the neglect, the abuse, and the KOB (knock out by baseball). Paul wants to make things right, for Joe and baseball, not his dad. In the process, may be he does help his dad. You’re the reader, you decide.

Baseball books in general contain lots of statistics and trivia. This one has some trivia, but doesn’t overdo it. In the author’s note, Grisham admits that some of the facts have been changed to make the story flow better. Baseball aficionados will catch him on these. However, the basics are correct. It is Willie Mays last season. The Mets do make the World Series, and the Cubs are trying to catch them.

Much like baseball, this book pulls the emotional strings. At times you’re not sure if you love or hate the characters. Except for Joe, he’s perfect. It contains and revolves around baseball, but you don’t have to know baseball to enjoy Calico Joe.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Steampunk, Vampires, and Cherie Priest

So far I’ve read two books by Cherie Priest, and I’ve liked them both. Her distinctive literary voice resonates well with my tastes. She tends towards the strong female main characters in the supernatural/steampunk realm of fiction. She does it with out bashing men and the male readers. Her male characters are almost equally strong in their own way. In addition to here great characters, she keeps the text active, and doesn’t rely on a lot of narrative to tell the story.

Priest published her first book, Four and Twenty Blackbirds in 2005. It covers ghosts and magic. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it is on my list. I will let you know how it turns out.

She hit the big time with her steampunk novel, Boneshaker in 2009, part of the Clockwork Century group. This was my first read of hers, and I lost a night of sleep. I picked it up and read it straight through. This was also my first encounter with steampunk. I liked the book and the concept. Technology drives steampunk literature, and provides lots of alternative equipment. Boneshaker provides the reader with good characters, a decent story containing lots of action and tension. In addition to steampunk, it is an alternative history of Seattle during the Civil War. The three other books in the Clockwork Century group include Ganymede, Dreadnought and Clementine.

Priest’s latest creations Bloodshot and Hellbent give the reader a female vampire recovery specialist, Raylene Pendle. She helps people find lost or stolen items. Okay, so she steals things. She is also in the process of collecting a band of misfits to help her with her special collections.

I recently finished Hellbent. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it. Priest does a major switch from Boneshaker. Where Boneshaker treats the reader to a suspenseful quest and fairly serious story, Hellbent leans towards slapstick. I had to get my mind around the change, but once I did Hellbent really worked for me.

In Hellbent Priest created a cross between Robert Aspen’s Myth Inc fantasy series and John D. MacDonald’s, Travis McGee, salvage expert/recovery specialist. She incorporates Aspen’s humor and supernatural characters and McGee’s toughness and personality. McGee’s exploits often bordered on the unbelievable side. He carried so much extra metal from bullets and broken bones, he’d never be able to get through a TSA checkpoint. Raylene on the other hand is a vampire. She heals quickly no doctors needed. However, unlike Travis, you won’t find her basking in the sun on the deck of a boat in the Florida Keys.

Hellbent and Boneshaker held my attention and interest. They have great characters and a good story. Priest keeps the stories believable and stays true to the genre in which she is working. She has several non-related series going with three to four books each. I think, I’ll try Four and Twenty Blackbirds Next.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Haunted Guesthouse Mystery

A cozy ghost story sounds a bit like an oxymoron doesn’t it, but that is exactly what you get with E.J. Copperman’s “A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery” series. So far, readers can choose from two books, Night of the Living Deed and An Uninvited Ghost. A third story, Old Haunts will be released mid-February.

Cooperman is a pseudonym for an established author, but they are being tight lipped about whom he or she might be. On the other hand this means you are not taking a chance on a new author. This is not to say new authors are bad writers. I read lots of good new authors, but some folks are nervous about spending money on an unknown author. Don’t worry, I bought both these books, and I am very happy with them.

Supposedly, the author is from the Jersey Shore, and I believe it. The books have the right personality for the location. Most people judge Jersey based on Newark or the television program; big mistake. That is only a small microcosm of the state.

In Night of the Living Deed, recently divorced Alison Kirby and her daughter, Melissa purchase a large place and want to make it into a guesthouse. The previous resident, unhappy with the redecorating, smacks Alison with a paint can. Much to her consternation, Alison discovers she can now see and talk to ghosts – let the fun begin. The guesthouse contains two specters, the previous owner, Maxie, and the detective she hired, Paul. They were murdered, and need Alison’s help to find the killer.

The Guesthouse or the Ghosthouse received so much publicity during the first caper that Alison receives a number of requests from the living and the dead in An Uninvited Ghost. The living want to stay in a haunted house, and the dead want her to solve mysteries. The first one pays; the second one doesn’t. Alison must balance the two, but when one of her visitors dies, the two demands become one. For a bonus feature, a reality TV show will also be using the house. The mix creates some funny, yet deadly interactions.

Copperman plays loose with the ghost genre creating things as the story goes along, and breaking from accepted ghost theory. This may offend the traditionalist, who may consider Maxie and Paul poltergeists rather than ghosts since they can move objects. Cooperman also breaks from the tradition by making these stories more humor than horror. But it’s Copperman’s story, and ghost stories have a wide margin for writer’s prerogative. The stories work. They entertain, and I will be ready for Old Haunts in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts

We recently visited the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), close to Wayne State University in downtown Detroit. It would have been Diego Rivera’s 125th birthday. The Institute contains one of his most famous works, The Detroit Industry Murals.

Rivera’s known for his giant murals painted on the sides of buildings. The Detroit Mural, started in April of 1932, required eleven months to complete, and consisted of twenty-seven panels. Diego Rivera’s works can be defined in three M-words, Murals, Mexican, and Marxist. Many of the panels depict Mexican indigenous roots to its modern culture. In the other panels, he shows Detroit’s industry and technology and its association with the worker and management. His creations exhibit a Marxist underpinning.

Being that his works were completed in the 1930’s, and Marxism was an extremely dirty word in America at the time, controversy surrounded Rivera and his murals. Upon completion of his work in Detroit, the Rockefellers commissioned him to do a mural at Rockefeller Center entitled Man at the Crossroads. In this mural he placed a portrait of Vladimir Lenin attending a May Day parade. The Rockefellers ordered the mural destroyed.

The Ford family commissioned the Detroit Murals. When asked why they did not take offense to the murals, and have it destroyed, Edsel explained, you can hire an artist, but you shouldn’t control the artist’s freedom of expression. Thankfully, the Fords did not destroy this painting and the American public has access to Rivera’s talent.

In addition to the mural, the DIA houses a tremendous amount of other artistic materials. One of the special collections currently on exhibit is Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. This exhibit is running through February 2012, and requires an additional ticket. It includes 64 of Rembrandt’s drawings, paintings and prints portraying Jesus and events in the Bible.

Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000-2010 contains fifty contemporary photographs of Detroit’s urban prairies, a nice way of saying Detroit’s dilapidation. It shows her closed factories, abandoned schools and houses in a new light. This collection is very touching, and the talent fantastic. One would think it would be depressing, but it is actually uplifting. It shows Detroit’s desire to rise from the ashes and become the Paris of the Midwest once again.

The collection of European paintings is also wonderful. It contains works from Renoir, Monet, Degas, Rembrandt and Bellini. These are but a few of the masters on display. We only had three hours to tour the collection, and it was not enough to do it justice. Definitely give yourself more time.

As you are leaving the Institute, snap some pictures of Rodin’s, The Thinker. He is positioned out front, and reminds people that art is about the effect. If art doesn’t elicit a response from the viewer then it has failed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Audio CD Review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

This is a review of the audio CD, Neil Gaiman’s, Anansi Boys narrated by Lenny Henry. I laughed all the way through the first CD and the laughs kept coming. The recording runs about 10 hours, and it was published in 2005. Henry does a fantastic job of narrating the story.

Anansi Boys fits best in the fantasy genre, and tells the story of Fat Charlie Nancy. His father was a God, Anansi (Spider). In Caribbean and West African lore, Spider is the trickster similar to Coyote in Native American cultures. He annoys and bests the other Gods by making them look stupid. His powers come from his wit, music and humor. This story contains lots of humor.

Gaiman created outstanding colorful characters such as Fat Charlie’s father. Mr. Nancy is a flamboyant gentleman from the Islands. He wears a green fedora and yellow gloves. He particularly likes to sing and dance, but not work. Henry’s narration brings the characters to life.

Fat Charlie has gone through life with the foregone conclusion that if anything bad can happen, it will. Because of this, he carries a conservative outlook on life, and hates to draw attention to himself. The slightest disturbance brings on a bout of embarrassment, and his father proved superior at causing embarrassment. Given all that, he is fairly happy with a good job and planning his wedding. Then his father dies.

Even in death, Mr. Nancy embarrassed Fat Charlie. He died while singing Karaoke. He fell off the stage face first into the large bosom of a blond from the Midwest on vacation in South Florida. While my description sounds mild, Gaiman’s rendition will have you crying tears of laughter.

Gaiman’s humor is not the humorous fantasy puns of Robert Asprin’s Myth adventure series or Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. Gaiman pokes fun at society, greed and people’s foibles. I’m sure my fellow commuters thought I was deranged as I set in traffic laughing.

At his father’s funeral Fat Charlie learns about his brother, Spider, a demigod. Fat Charlie doesn’t really believe in this God stuff nor does he believe he has a brother. A short while later Spider, trickster, enters Charlie’s life, and the troubles begin. Spider skates through life, and doesn’t think or care about others. Spider’s only concern is being happy. He doesn’t even care about his brother.

Anansi Boys contains romance, ghosts, murder, mayhem and West African folklore. Neil Gaiman packs his story with lots of humorous situations, and enjoyable characters. Don’t miss this one.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review and Analysis: Agatha Christie, Hallowe’en Party

Most people prefer to read current books and best sellers. I tend to look for new authors and old authors. When reading an old author, it is important to realize the time context in which the author existed.

Agatha Christie (1890-1976) writes English mystery novels. Towards the end of her career, she dealt with the social changes of the 1960s. In Hallowe’en Party (1969), she writes about a world undergoing challenges to the social norms especially towards children. She dislikes the suggestion that children commit crimes mostly out of boredom, and their lack of respect towards other people. At the same time, an increase in sexual crimes against children horrifies her. She also touches on the sexual revolution engulfing society with a brief discussion on lesbianism.

Hallowe’en Party tells the story of a young adolescent, Joyce, murdered at a Halloween Party in a small English town. At this party, they still did things like bobbing for apples, and playing parlor games. Somebody drowned poor Joyce in a pail of water used for the apples.

Everyone in the town assumes it was a random act of violence, perhaps a sexual deviant. After all, they lurk behind every bush since the law doesn’t adequately punish them.

By this point in Christie’s career, she has a stable of characters to choose from. In this book, she calls on Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver. Both her characters are aging, but still at the top of their game. Poirot is Belgian, and a bit of a dandy with patent leather shoes, derby, cane and waxed mustache. Ariadne is a famous mystery author with a Finnish detective. You may think Agatha has written herself into the story.

The duo team up to bring justice for poor Joyce, but not before her younger brother joins her on the River Styx. The story has many twists and turns to lead our sleuths astray. Is a random act of meanness? Has a pedophile run amok? Could it be money or love?

Like all Christie’s books, Hallowe’en Party is entertaining. Consider it forty-year-old cozy mystery book. It’s light and fun with a bit of social commentary.  It is not a spooky book with ghosts and goblins, but it does have several murders, and a couple of villains.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Haunted Halloween

Fall celebrations meet us on every corner. The sun’s shifted on the horizon, and the days grow shorter. Temperatures grow cooler.  Many baseball teams have closed the clubhouse until next year. Halloween looms around the corner. For the next couple of weeks the blog will cover scary books and fall festivals.

Let’s start with a book review of Haunted Halloween Stories: 13 Chilling Read-aloud Tales by Jo-Anne Christensen.  She wrote it for the YA audience. Haunted Halloween provides entertaining haunted stories good for telling orally at parties and sleepovers with the lights turned low. Turn off the electronics, and enjoy some face-to-face social activity.

Camp Wannapoopoo will appeal to young boys. Marty, now thirty-seven, entertains us with a story about a ghost he encountered at camp as a youth. This story also deals with the trending topic of bullying, and holds a few good lessons.

Molly Goodacre haunts the general store. Molly has been murdered, and she’s trying to apologize to her friend. She desires to explain events leading up to her death. Christensen wrote this story for an older audience than Camp Wannapoopoo.

Ever had a run of bad luck, wish you could get rid of it. Even tempted to pass it along to someone else, just so long as it didn’t affect you any more. In The Tip bad luck flows from one person to another via an artifact. Christensen weaves a story of vagaries of life, and how much success or failure depends on luck.

People are willing to pay lots of money to attend addiction spas to stop smoking.  Sharon caught help with her smoking addiction by vacationing at Bertie’s B &B. She got the smoke scared out of her in One Sure Way to Quit.

Even ghosts like to take a vacation at the beach. Read this humorous tale about a ghostly realtor that caters to the dead in the Presence. You’ll enjoy this ghost story told from a different viewpoint.

Haunted Halloween Stories contains a collection of stories good for sharing at a gathering of 10 to 15 year-olds. Published in 2003, and about 200 pages, this book is fun and enjoyable.

Photos and text by Bruce G. Smith