Archive for December, 2008

The Joys of My Life

The Joys of My Life by Alys Clare. King Richard the Lion-Hearted is dead, but his mother, Queen Eleanor, worries that scandalous rumors will tarnish his legacy. Therefore, she commissions Abbess Helewise of Hawkenlye to build a chapel in memory of her son and Sir Josse d’Acquin, friend to the abbey, to secretly investigate one of the most heinous tales. His journey in search of the truth leads him to the cathedral at Chartres, where he crosses paths once again with his lover Joanna, priestess of the Mother Earth Goddess religion.

As with previous books, there is a fair amount of action, not much suspense to the mystery and way too much mysticism. However, Clare’s well-crafted descriptions come through as well. Thankfully, she concludes the book with a look into the future of all the characters, confirming that this indeed is the end of the series before she attempts another, also set in medieval times.

Oakland Hills

Oakland Hills by Erika Mailman. While searching for her historical mystery reviewed yesterday, I came across another of Mailman’s works which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of the city of Oakland. Entitled “Oakland Hills,” this work uses the extensive photo archives of the Oakland History Room at the Oakland Public Library to show how the neighborhoods of the city were developed in the early and mid 20th century. I was thrilled to see pictures of Montclair’s library (my first library), the Claremont Hotel and Mills College (locations where I used to work), and Woodminster Park and the Knowland Zoo (places we would visit). Mailman’s accompanying captions provide a wealth of detail about each location and image. I thoroughly enjoyed getting out my map and following along as each chapter investigated a new area. There is also a closing chapter showing the devastation from the 1991 fire that destroyed hundreds of homes.

Woman of Ill Fame

Woman of Ill Fame by Erika Mailman. There is a murder mystery that snakes its way through this story, but the bulk of this narrative is the normal life of its main character, Nora Simms. From the moment she arrives at San Francisco’s docks during the Gold Rush year of 1849, Nora struggles to establish herself as a successful prostitute. Having left her family in Boston behind, she begins in the lowest ramshackle cribs serving all manner of men, but has dreams of moving upwards into plusher parlour houses with more respectable clientele. As her own quest for wealth progresses over those first few months, she finds all manner of people from besotted suitors to hypocritical neighbors; skeptical landlords to hard-hearted madams. And hidden in the darkness is a killer of “soiled doves” who seems to have a personal connection to Nora.

Mailman, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes a local history newspaper column, does a wonderful job of presenting the gritty side of the Barbary Coast city that was still not quite civilized during its infancy and changing rapidly with the large influx of profit-seekers of all professions, including the oldest in the world. Written as a first-person account from Nora herself, the language is quite coarse at times and the depictions of the violence and sexual situations are vivid in their detail, but they add to the drama and tension of the story.

Historical mysteries frequently involve prostitutes as the victims of violence, but rarely do they play the part of detective. Roberta Gellis’ Magdalene la Batarde is a rare exception. The madam of an exclusive brothel in 12th-century London, she also conducts investigations for her landlord, the Bishop of Winchester. Although she does not earn her living on her back, Madeleine E. Robins’ main character Sarah Tolerance lives in a cottage behind a London house of pleasure run by her aunt during the reign of “Mad King George” in 1810. Both series are relatively short, but of high quality, especially Gellis’.

A Question of Death

A Question of Death by Kerry Greenwood. This collection of short stories featuring Greenwood’s 1920s Australian female sleuth, Phryne Fisher, is different from other compilations of this nature such as Peter Tremayne’s Whispers of the Dead (Sister Fidelma) or Ellis Peters’ A Rare Benedictine (Brother Cadfael) in that it includes illustrations (usually copies of those used on previous book jackets), recipes, and other Phyrne-related tidbits to separate each story. These are nice additions that add value. I was especially interested in the introductory essay by Greenwood on how she got started writing mysteries and how Phryne’s character was born.

Unfortunately, I still struggle to recommend this book to veteran Greenwood readers or to newcomers to the series because the short stories themselves are not that exceptional. The secondary characters like Phyrne’s companion/maid Dot are wasted in this format and newcomers won’t understand the special interrelationships that exist between them and the main heroine. Regular readers will be disappointed to see recycled plots such as a robbery from a safe in a University library (Death Before Wicket). This is one of those instances where it is far superior to start with the first book in the series (Cocaine Blues) as it lays the groundwork for all the stories that follow.

Wanted on DVD

Wanted on DVD. I used to think that the car flip in James Bond’s “The Man with the Golden Gun” was the best car scene ever (at the 5:15 mark in this clip), but the stunt in the opening chase of this film takes your breath away, even if it was probably computer assisted. The rest of the movie, however, does not reach those same heights. Wesley (James McAvoy) is recruited from his drab life into a fraternity of assassins and trained by Fox (Angelina Jolie) and Sloan (Morgan Freeman) in the hopes that he will eventually be skilled enough to kill a rogue agent. There are plenty of twists along the way and lots of action and other stunts, but the violence is a bit too graphic (according to imdb, the Australian version is “softer” with fewer close ups of the gunshot wounds) and the sound levels are way off with the music too loud and the dialogue too soft. The DVD offers no special features, which was very disappointing as well.

A Dead Man in Barcelona

A Dead Man in Barcelona by Michael Pearce. I am a huge fan of Pearce’s work overall, but one of the criticisms that frequently gets mentioned about his books, that they are formulaic and somewhat repetitive, certainly holds true in the fifth Sandor Seymour adventure. Formulaic adventures are not necessarily a bad thing if they are also entertaining, but in this case, the similarities between this title and its predecessor makes reading both redundant. The mystery itself is almost identical to that found in the previous book, set in Tangier. There are the usual political red herrings and false paths, but once again in the end a rather simple motive to the murder of an Englishman in the Spanish port is revealed.

Pearce does his usual fine job of setting the scene with Barcelona’s wide avenues and colorful characters including Catalonian Nationalists, Spanish bureaucrats, an anarchist or two and a few smugglers. Also of interest is the recurring character of Chantale de Lissac, half-Morrocan, half-French, and the love interest for Seymour. The pair hope to use this second stretch of time together in the romantic city to help them decide if a more permanent relationship should be formed. If the two marry, it will be interesting to see what happens to Chantale when Seymour is given assignments in the eastern Mediterranean in the future.

Get Smart on DVD

Get Smart on DVD. This spy-comedy featuring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway in the roles made famous by Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in the 1960s television series is entertaining, but is only half successful in achieving its goal. Surprisingly, the movie does a better job of being an adventure film than being funny. There are plenty of action scenes involving planes, trains, car chases and foot pursuits. The traditional spy activities, such as skydiving and competitive ballroom dancing are also on display. The plot lacks suspense, but moves along quite well, though no one would compare it to the Bourne series. It is not a remake of the television series since is set in the modern day world, where the Cold War has ended. CONTROL, the anti-terrorist group, has been officially dismantled, but continues as a black ops organization battling CHAOS, an evil group intent on destroying the world. However, it is also not a continuation of the series since we find Carell’s character, Maxwell Smart, still working as an analyst and trying to be promoted to a field agent. Circumstances in the film bring Smart and Agent 99 (Hathaway) together on an assignment for the first time.

The film fails to generate many laughs however. Carell does well in recreating Smart, the sometimes bumbling, sometimes brilliant CONTROL Agent 86 and his straight-faced style of comedy is a perfect match for this role. At times though, he is too accomplished with his marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat skills, much more so than Maxwell’s previous incarnation. It is Smart’s ineptitude and reliance on Agent 99’s skills to get out of precarious situations that usually provide the most laughs, but they are not present here. Hathaway’s delivery lacks the necessary subtlety which lets the audience share in the jokes. The only time I laughed out loud was when she kicked an opponent in the head while handcuffed for saying she was not feminine enough.

Fans of the television show will not be disappointed as there are several references, and a few cameos, related to series. Overall, the movie has some moments, but not enough of them. The producers attempted something different by incorporating outtakes and deleted scenes directly into a second version of the entire film on DVD called Comedy Optimization Mode. An interesting concept, but since I lacked the patience and desire to watch the movie a second time, it didn’t work for me. I would have preferred the traditional gag reel, which in other Carell movies has been quite good.


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