Archive for January, 2009

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre. One of my favorite collections of short stories is by Jeffrey Archer and entitled A Twist in the Tale in which each story ends with a sudden change of perspective. About two-thirds of the way through John le Carre’s latest spy thriller, I was really hoping that there would be a fantastic twist and the end which would warrant sloughing through the first three hundred pages. The final pages do provide a dramatic conclusion, but still I would rate the book overall as a disappointment.

A young Muslim man named Issa escapes from a Turkish prison and makes his way to Hamburg, Germany where he stands to inherit an enormous sum if he can prove his identity. Issa is assisted by Annabel, a civil rights lawyer who helps strangers with the vast immigration bureaucracy and by Tommy Brue, the elderly chief executive of a failing British bank which has held Issa’s father’s deposits since the fall of the Communist empire. Arrayed against this unlikely trio are the combined forces of the German, British and American espionage monitors whose paranoia in the post-9/11 environment lead them to believe that a rich, devout Muslim like Issa may have dangerous uses for his windfall.

Le Carre spends considerable time developing characters with depth, whether it is the lonely banker trapped by his father’s actions from decades past and drowning in a loveless marriage or the irascible German field captain fighting against his superiors and the political machine that keeps him from generating a usable network of contacts. However, the pace of the book slows down midway through and the ending, though spectacular, is also rather abrupt.

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Mad about the Boy?

Mad about the Boy? By Dolores Gordon-Smith. Sometimes when reading a book, your mind can easily translate the words on the page into vibrant images and it’s as if you’re watching a film in your head. Such is the case with this second entry in the series featuring 1920s mystery author and amateur sleuth Jack Haldean. Unfortunately, the film in my head was certainly not Oscar-worthy, but was instead an overly melodramatic, black-and-white, B-level creation with one-dimensional characters and banal dialogue. It even included a soundtrack that with sinister music whenever the murderer made an appearance, such was the obvious nature of the crime. The publisher might as well have put little red flags on each page whenever a clue was revealed.

Haldean is celebrating his aunt and uncle’s silver wedding anniversary at their English country estate and helping his friend, Arthur Stanton, recover from a case of shell shock developed during the Great War. Stanton’s situation only worsens as he is involved in a love triangle with Isabelle, Haldean’s cousin, and Malcolm Smith-Fennimore, a famous race car driver. It reaches its nadir when he is found standing over the murdered body of one of the party guests who also has mysterious ties with the Russian revolutionaries. Haldean and Isabelle work together to clear Stanton’s name and reveal the truth.

Given the plethora of other options, fans of this time period should skip this series entirely. Instead, I would recommend Rhys Bowen’s Lady Georgiana books, the early books in Barbara Cleverly’s excellent Joe Sandilands series, Carola Dunn’s light-hearted Daisy Darymple mysteries, Ron Goulart’s even more amusing Groucho Marx tales, and Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher Australian adventures.

The Prophecy of Death

The Prophecy of Death by Michael Jecks. The author of this long-running series has attempted to breathe new life into the books by bringing his main characters, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and his friend Bailiff Simon Puttock, closer to the intrigues surrounding the royal throne. The English King Edward II is a weak ruler, corrupted by his lover, Sir Hugh le Despenser and estranged from his wife, Queen Isabella, sister to the French King Charles IV. Although this change in setting from the wilds of Devon to the political mazes at Winchester has created new opportunities for storylines, Baldwin’s relatively low status among the nobles and his self-proclaimed discomfort in their presence has weakened his ability as the lead actor in the story. Instead, much more time is spent describing the actions of the king, his advisors and his adversaries and the mysteries Baldwin and Simon are investigating become secondary plotlines as the books tilt more towards historical fiction.

In the current tale, a precious vial of anointing oil has been stolen from Christ Church Priory in Canterbury and all the major players see its recovery as a way of obtaining influence with the king. Baldwin and Simon are asked to investigate the theft and the related murders and threatened with dire consequences if they fail. Jecks introduces young Edward of Windsor, the Earl of Chester and first-born son of King Edward II, as another principal player in the country’s power games. Despite being not yet a teenager at the time of the story, he displays intelligence, cunning and ruthlessness one would expect of a much older man.

Readers interested in well-written stories taking place during a time of great turmoil, deceptions and revenge will enjoy Jecks’ work, but long-time fans of the series may be wondering if it’s time for Baldwin to fulfill his desire for a quiet retirement on his small country estate with his family.

Morality Play

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth. The most disappointing thing about this stand-alone mystery is that it isn’t the beginning of a series of books. The idea of an outsider joining a traveling troupe of players in rural medieval England is one I’ve read before in Margaret Frazer’s Joliffe series, but thankfully in this case Unsworth does not submit his readers to sleep-inducing pages of internal contemplation by the main character. Instead, he focuses his attention on the action making for a much faster paced and more enjoyable story. Nicholas Barber is a twenty-three-year-old priest who leaves his position at Lincoln Cathedral in shame after breaking his vows. In desperation he joins with a small band, replacing one of the group that has died suddenly, as they journey to Durham to perform at the Christmas festivities there. All seems normal when they stop in a small village to bury their fellow thespian in hallowed ground and to earn a few pennies for their journey. But when their master-player decides that they must depart from their normal roster of morality plays and create a new drama based on a recent local murder, they become embroiled in events darker than they had planned. In gathering information to flesh out their new characters and dialog, the players discover that the evidence points away from the convicted girl awaiting execution and towards other more powerful members of the community. In the same way that Frank Tallis uses music as a way to describe 1900 Vienna and Cora Harrison uses flowers to capture the lushness of 1500 Ireland, Unsworth uses the complicated hand gestures which pass as unspoken communication between players on stage to bring readers closer to the characters and the setting. Unsworth also does an excellent job of keeping readers as disoriented as the actors. Although the ending is not a complete surprise, one never knows for certain how the situation will turn with each new piece of the puzzle.

I Killed

I Killed: true stories of the road from America’s top comics compiled by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff. “Make me laugh!” “Entertain me!” That’s been the unrelenting demand from audiences throughout time and across cultures. Although today’s jesters need not fear for their heads if their jokes fall flat in front of royalty, as these stories from over 200 practitioners of stand-up show, they can still worry about their physical safety as well as their psychological balance. I love watching comics on television doing their acts, but I realize it is a much sanitized version of what happens every night at hundreds of clubs around the country. This book presents the raw images and the unfiltered language of life on the road. From before there were comedy clubs, through their heyday and up to current times comics have been scrounging for meals, putting down hecklers, nailing groupies and waitresses, and wrangling with owners and managers over getting paid. Not all these anecdotes are funny, but they do present a broad and realistic view of the business. Many of the stories are similar, but if you do get bored after the first fifty or so entries, I recommend skipping ahead to the last ten pages where the tales of performing for troops overseas, subbing for Johnny Carson, traveling with family and working a funeral are the most poignant of the book.

For a look at a different sector of American comedy business, check out Rob Long’s fictionalized tales of being a sitcom writer in Hollywood. Also, PBS is currently running a six-hour miniseries on American comedy called Make Em Laugh with interviews of hundreds of the best in the business.

The Little Book that Beats the Market

The Little Book that Beats the Market by Joel Greenblatt. When reviewing any investment book, it is important, yet difficult, to separate one’s analysis of the proposed financial plan from that of the presentation of said plan by the author. Persuasive writing requires that one engage and draw the reader’s attention right away and Greenblatt does a fine job of this by introducing us to one of his son’s sixth grade classmates on his way to future entrepreneur glory by selling a simple product for a huge margin. He then expands this folksy anecdote into a full-fledged hypothetical situation from which he can explain several basic financial concepts and the two core components of his “magic formula” for beating the market: earnings yield and return on capital. A second tenet of persuasive writing is to get your audience inclined to your point of view ahead of time by informing them about what you’re going to tell them, then present your case, and then reinforce your arguments by telling it to them again. Up to this point (through Chapter 5), Greenblatt uses a simple writing style that will work for both beginning and advanced investors with clear summaries at the end of each section. He also successfully avoids overwhelming his audience with mathematical calculations. However, it all starts to fall apart when it comes time to proving that his formula is better than all others. The volume of numbers per page increases significantly as does the financial jargon. The writing style that was appealing early on now comes off as condescending at times. And he does a poor job of addressing another tenet of persuasive writing: anticipate your opponents’ arguments and address them completely. When presenting a plan of action in book form, there is no interactive dialog between reader and author. We can’t ask the writer to stop and expand upon a point, explain something more clearly or answer our concerns. The author must predict where his plan might be attacked and present evidence that refutes those arguments. Greenblatt barely touches on why investors should select a portfolio of thirty stocks instead of ten or fifty and he leaves it until a second, short appendix to even mention transaction costs and taxation issues. He never addresses why the two variables in his formula should have equal weighting nor under what circumstances the formula might not succeed. He also doesn’t discuss how large a stake an investor needs to have accumulated before beginning to implement this plan. As I said earlier, I point these problems out not to attack the formula itself, but to show that the presentation within those 150 pages could have been better.

A Plague of Angels

A Plague of Angels by P.F. Chisholm. Many years ago I read one of Patricia Finney’s Elizabethan historical novels and enjoyed it a great deal. I was not aware she also wrote historical mysteries under the name P.F Chisholm until I wandered around some at Library Thing. Although the author’s web site indicates that a new title in this series is forthcoming, it has been ten years since Plague of Angels was published as the fourth, and most recent, installment in the Sir Robert Carey line. In this adventure, the political infighting that was a hallmark of Elizabeth’s advisors has taken a nasty turn. Both Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, Carey’s father, and Vice Chamberlain Thomas Heneage vie for the Queen’s attention and wish to be her most trusted confidante. Hunsdon’s elder son Edmund has disappeared and the Chamberlain fears that Heneage will use whatever scandal Edmund’s gotten himself into as blackmail material against the entire family. Therefore, he has summoned Robert back to London from his retreat in Scotland to investigate. Carey has brought with him his trusted Sergeant Dodd, his valet Barnabus and Barnabus’ nephew Simon. Whereas Dodd has rarely ventured outside Scotland and views the London metropolis as another planet, Barnabus and Simon are both natives, knowledgeable of the city’s treasures and dangers. The mystery surrounding Edmund’s disappearance is very slow to unfold, but in the interim readers are entertained by Dodd’s fish-out-of-water situation, both relating to the city and to the maze-like political scene filled with spies in every household and by Carey’s own familial squabbles and problems with creditors. Finney/Chishom does a fine job of capturing London’s atmosphere and the court scene and Heneage and his associates prove to be formidable villains. I think beginning the series would give readers a better sense of how Carey and his crew, especially Dodd, formed their alliances.


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