Archive for August, 2008

Summer television recap

With Labor Day approaching, it’s time for a summer television recap. I don’t go much for reality programs like Survivor or Big Brother. Neither do the dancing shows or the contests like Project Runway hold any appeal. That said I do like Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List, though others don’t find her funny at all. This season wasn’t as good as previous ones, although there were some emotional moments such as her building of a school library in Mexico and her visit to Walter Reed Hospital and Rehab Center outside Washington, DC. The best part of the show is seeing the unusual gigs she accepts: being MC at a Furry convention (big, hairy gay men), or being the entertainment on a plane to Australia or for a group on a private island. Life as a comedian, especially hers, is just weird. It’s also interesting to see the effort she puts into creating her show, how she tries to learn about her audience beforehand to tailor her material accordingly, how she struggles at times to make the elusive connection between her sense of humor and the collective room’s funny bone, and how personally she takes it when she fails. The behind-the-scenes look at her personal life, her elderly mom, and her assistants is also fascinating.

USA network is still the place for summer scripted programming. On the Emmy-winning show Monk, Tony Shaloub and Traylor Howard continue to be an intriguing pair and the show’s writers perfectly blend humor and complex mysteries while putting the former police detective in uncomfortable situations which amplify his long list of neuroses, though they could make better use of the San Francisco setting. The death of Stanley Kamel, who played Monk’s therapist, could have been a devastating blow, but Hector Elizondo has stepped in quite well and will only get better with time.

The other USA show worth noting is Burn Notice with fellow UMass alumnus Jeffrey Donovan in the lead role as a spy abandoned by his covert agency (given a burn notice) and stranded in Miami. As he attempts to discover the reasons for and the people behind his change of status, he uses his spy skills to rescue people in trouble (imagine a combination of McGyver and the 1985-89 CBS series The Equalizer) with the assistance of an ex-girlfriend, played by one of my favorites, Gabrielle Anwar, and an ex-Navy Seal colleague, played by Bruce Campbell. Last year’s surprise hit, The Starter Wife, starring another favorite, Debra Messing, returns in October, probably delayed due to last year’s writer’s strike.

But the best show on television this summer was Carrier on PBS. This ten-part series documents life on board the USS Nimitz air craft carrier during its 2005 deployment from San Diego to Iraq and back. The film crew was given unbelievable access throughout the ship and interviewed hundreds of Navy and Marine personnel, from the Strike Group commander, Rear Admiral Peter H. Daly, to the guys who dispose of the trash. This is definitely not a propaganda piece for recruiters as many of the negative aspects of life in the armed forces were presented: the frustration with the daily monotony, the agony of the harsh discipline, the sadness and anger at being separated from family and loved ones, the uncertainty of the value of orders from superiors and the mission in general. But these are balanced by the descriptions of the respect everyone shows for hard work, the camaraderie felt between crew members, and the acknowledgement by many, especially the young men and women new to the service, that if they had stayed in civilian life, they would be in dead-end jobs, in prison, or worse. Religion on board ship, the presence of women on a predominantly-male combat vessel, shore leaves in Muslim countries, differences between officer’s privileges and responsibilities and those of lower ranked crew members and the difficulties of returning home after the isolation and separation from families are all dealt with over the course of the ten hours. The show has finished airing, but the equally impressive web site has lots of additional information about the ship and how the show was produced. Definitely check out the scout diary in which the directors describe their first visits to the ship in order to prepare bringing 17 filmmakers on board for six months of shooting.


This Night’s Foul Work

This Night’s Foul Work by Fred Vargas. Two years ago I read Vargas’ Have Mercy on us all and liked it so much I put on my Best Books of the Year list. Her newest title featuring the contemporary French police commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is just as compelling. You’ll read for a while, finish a chapter, look up at the clock and realize much more time has gone by than you thought. You’ll remember all the other things you should be doing and then decide they aren’t really that important and continue on into the next chapter. Adamsberg is one of those slow-paced detectives whose ability to find connections from seemingly unrelated clues makes it appear to others that he grabs solutions out of thin air. He is happiest taking long walks or spending time by himself, but relies heavily on the other 26 members of the Serious Crime Squad he supervises. Each member of the team has their own expertise that comes into play in solving the multiple murders in the current book. In addition, a new lieutenant has joined the department, disrupting its delicate balance and bringing with him Adamsberg’s childhood secret.

The immediate case before the squad involves the death of two young men, suspected drug dealers, who have had their throats slashed. The new pathologist believes that the killer is a woman and the dirt under the victims’ fingernails leads to a complex mystery based on revenge. As the investigation flows along like a river, it occasionally gets sidetracked when the police make a poor assumption or reach a bad conclusion, but eventually all the many sub-plots come together. Still, the solution is a shocking surprise.

Vargas is a two-time winner of the Crime Writer’s Association award for best translated crime novel of the year (This Night’s Foul Work was nominated, but did not win). Critics complain that her plots can be unbelievable and that the characters are exaggerated and weird, but even her detractors find her combination of humor and suspense to be irresistible and powerfully addictive.

High Marks for Murder

High Marks for Murder by Rebecca Kent. The setting of a girl’s finishing school in rural England in the early 20th-century is not a bad location for this initial effort in a new series. There’s the potential for conflict between the headmistress and arrogant male members of the school board, between members of the all-female faculty whose opinions vary about the changing role of women in society, between students at a volatile age, and between the school staff members as would happen in any closely confined group. Although Kent does a good job of exploiting these conflicts, the core mystery is pathetically poor.

Meredith Llewellyn is the headmistress of Bellehaven Finishing School and becomes the lead investigator into the murder of Kathleen Duncan, one of her faculty members and close friend. The town constable dismisses Kathleen’s death on the school’s grounds as an accident, but Meredith and the local doctor suspect otherwise. Kathleen’s harsh criticism of students and staff provide several suspects for the case. Meredith is occasionally aided by two other faculty members, but her primary assistant is Kathleen’s ghost, who frequently appears, but only to Meredith, and vaguely points to potential clues. Eventually, Meredith successfully interprets one of these gestures and that one clue breaks open the case, but without evidence, she must convince the murderer to confess.

Meredith herself is not a bad character, but the use of a supernatural assistant is ridiculous, the solution to the crime lacked any complexity and the device of getting the killer to confess is one of my pet peeves. Hopefully, future episodes at Bellhaven will not include these faults. Like the young women attending classes at the finishing school, there is some potential here, but it needs considerable polishing.

The September Society

The September Society by Charles Finch. It would be easy to dismiss this two-book series as yet another featuring an amateur aristocrat sleuth in Victorian England (1866), but the quality of Finch’s writing makes these Charles Lenox adventures stand out above many others. Finch provides detailed scene descriptions without taking away from the action of the complex mysteries. The supporting characters: Graham, the butler, McConnell, the doctor, and Lady Jane Grey, the neighbor and beloved friend, provide elements of humor and romance to the stories that are usually positive contributions. Lenox’s hesitancy and shyness around Jane may seem like too abrupt a character change compared to his typically decisive investigative nature, but others may view it as a way of making Lenox a more-developed lead actor.

This second adventure finds Lenox returning to his university at Oxford to investigate a student’s disappearance. The clues eventually lead him to The September Society, a secretive club for officers who served in one specific battalion of Her Majesty’s army in India twenty years earlier. Lenox suspects that members of the club are behind the young man’s abduction, but struggles to find a motive. The action is split between London and Oxford and Finch uses his own knowledge as a student there to expand upon the history of the town and the many colleges that make up the community.

Despite my enjoyment of the mystery, I don’t think this tale is as strong as the Agatha Award-nominated first book, A Beautiful Blue Death. The plot gets a bit convoluted at the end with too many cases of hidden identities and red herrings. I also thought the romantic subplot was distracting and did not add to the story. I did like the addition of an apprentice detective. Based on the flurry of activity that happens after the case is solved, it appears that Lenox’s personal lifestyle will be undergoing major changes in the near future. It will be interesting to see how these changes affect his ability to continue as a detective.

The Protest Games

Isn’t it ironic that with the Olympic Games being hosted by a government that suppresses dissent by its citizens and refused all demonstrations in designated areas, these Games have been filled with protests both large and small? It began with complaints about the use of lip-synching and computer graphics at the opening ceremonies and continued with charges of underage gymnasts, tennis players not regulating themselves in a gentlemanly manner, deliberate head hunting in baseball, and incorrect touch pad technology at the swimming venue. Then there were the racially insensitive poses by Spanish athletes. And a quick review of Olympic news stories also reveals protests in sailing, team handball and track and field. Finally, I’m not accusing anyone of steroid use, but the level of rage and antics at the wrestling, boxing, and taekwondo venues seemed to reach new heights. As Aaron Beard of the Associated Press correctly summarized in his column, “athletes are adding ‘gripe, fuss, complain’ to the Olympic motto of ‘swifter, higher, stronger.’” Some of the players and coaches have offered conciliatory comments after cooling off from the heat of the moment. Others have actually been vindicated through the appeals process. In the end, all this bickering seems infantile compared to the real world violence taking place with the Russian army in Georgia and Abkhazia, a mere 25 kilometers away from Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Golden Gate Mysteries

As I mentioned in my review of Anthony Flacco’s book, as a San Francisco Bay Area native, I have a keen interest in mysteries, especially historicals, set in the region. The best resource of information about these books is Randal Brandt’s site, Golden Gate Mysteries, a “comprehensive bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Brandt is a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley and by using multiple sources, including the Don Herron Collection of Mystery and Detective Stories housed at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, he has compiled over 1,500 titles of interest. These include my favorites: the Sister Carol Anne O’Marie series featuring a seventy-five-year-old nun investigating current day crimes, Laurie King’s Locked Rooms featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, and Dianne Day’s all too short series with Fremont Jones surviving the 1906 quake.

The arrangement is quite simple with entries listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name and multiple books by the same author listed chronologically. Each entry includes basic publication information and there are many helpful, short plot summaries. Books are not limited to the “City by the Bay,” but include settings in the nine regional counties “along with many other real and imagined Bay Area communities.”

Of special interest is the “Extras” page, which includes a geographic index, a special bibliography for books appearing before Dashiell Hammett’s famous novel The Maltese Falcon in 1930, a selection of stories specifically related to the 1906 earthquake, and books with movie tie-ins.

The Hidden Man

The Hidden Man by Anthony Flacco. Sometimes you know right away that a book just isn’t right for you. Twenty pages into Flacco’s mystery set in 1915 San Francisco and featuring homicide detective Randall Blackburn and his adopted children, Shane and Vignette Nightingale, I was ready to put it down and return to the medieval world. However, as a Bay Area native, I am continually searching for HM stories set in the region, so I continued and discovered a plot that wasn’t half bad. Blackburn is pressured by his captain into acting as bodyguard for J.D. Duncan, the brilliant mesmerist. Duncan is the showcase act of the Pan-Pacific International Exposition, the grand event reintroducing the city to the world after the 1906 earthquake and fires. Duncan is a paranoid drug addict fighting Alzheimer’s disease, but his fears are not unfounded as there is a non-descript man trailing his every move and seeking his downfall. However, the subplot involving the power struggle between Vignette and Blackburn’s fiancée was uninteresting and did little to move the story or characters forward.

Whenever possible, I try to read a series from its beginning. Despite the fact that this is only the second book in the series, I felt lost as to the background of the principal characters and their interrelationships. Perhaps reading the first book would have helped, especially if it explained how Blackburn’s manipulative fiancée entered the scene. The major failing here is something I’ve written about in the past. I hate it when authors extensively describe their characters’ internal thoughts and self-analysis and this book is full of just that type of non-action. Finally, I believe Flacco made an honest effort to capture the city scene, but the limited number of locations used in the plot hampered his success.

On the positive side, Flacco adds an interesting essay on the nature of historical fiction as an addendum to the book and I was most impressed with the cover design by Henry Sene Yee.

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