Brand New at the Library!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Christmas caramel murder

Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke

Reviewed by Gerti

The latest offering from Joanne Fluke, starring her cooking-baking crime solver Hannah Swensen, is a little shorter than her fans may be used to. Oh, it still has the dozen odd recipes that are purportedly from Swensen’s Minnesota-based bakery, called “The Cookie Jar”. And it still has the requisite murder, generally of some evil outsider who has invaded the pleasant Midwestern paradise that is Lake Eden. It even has Swensen’s cat Moishe (thankfully now playing a smaller part in the stories!) and Hannah’s two competing boyfriends, Mike (the hunky cop) and Norman (the thoughtful dentist). What it doesn’t have is bang for your buck. There are only around 150 odd pages of real story here. If you take out the 3 - 6 pages taken up by each recipe, that’s barely a full-length novel.

While I love Fluke’s uncomplicated writing style – her words go down as smoothly as whipped cream on a Dunkin Donuts hot chocolate in the wintertime – I sense that this book was whipped up just as quickly in order to be fed to the Christmas book-buying public. Fluke has cooked up a mystery a year at least since she invented her curly-headed culinary crime solver, with varying degrees of success. Some mysteries fall as flat as a noise-affected soufflé. Others are as rich as a triple-chocolate brownie. I love the idea of combining cookbooks and mysteries, and have to confess that I have copied down and even tried some of the recipes she touts – with varying degrees of success.

But I resent an author is who writes a book solely for the money. Yes, I understand. Every writer has to make a living, and some probably make a better living than others. But I can still dislike it when mass-market authors like Joanne Fluke and Mary Higgins Clark fail to turn in a quality product because they are now writing holiday books to please their publishers. Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter have been doing it for years, getting together to write skinny little Christmas books that frankly aren’t worth reading. What’s next? Robin Cook writing a cutting-edge holiday medical mystery? “Coma at Christmastime”? Yes, it’s a bit of a rant, but I’m entitled. This practice is not fair to faithful readers.

Fluke has written a book that takes only a few hours to read, and maybe that’s a good thing at Christmas, when most people have cards to write and real cookies to bake. But if I had purchased this book, and not just borrowed it from the library, I would have felt ripped off. I see in the backcover blurb that they are now making movies on Hallmark Channel of Fluke’s foodie mysteries, and I’m hoping if she makes enough money out of that venture she’ll go back to writing her mysteries with more substance than fluff. None of her books are going to earn her the Nobel Prize in Literature, let’s face it. But this puny book would hardly get her an “A” for effort as a senior project in English class.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The cradle will fall.

The Cradle Will Fall by Mary Higgins Clark

Reviewed by Gerti

In “The Cradle Will Fall”, bestselling author Mary Higgins Clark has written yet another suspenseful tale heavy with psychological undertones. You start with the protagonist, county prosecutor Katie DeMaio. She married a judge who was older than she. But when he is diagnosed with cancer right after they return from their honeymoon, the honeymoon is over for them, literally. He dies soon after, and she is left grieving for him, alone in his beautiful, large, expensive house.

Besides the daddy issues which caused her to marry a man so much older, Katie has other psychological problems. She is terrified of hospitals, so after she is in a fender bender that lands her in Westlake Hospital, she’s not sure if she’s awake or dreaming when she sees a man loading a woman’s body into a car trunk. The man doing the body transfer certainly sees her, though, and her nightmare is just beginning. The villain of the piece is Dr. Edgar Highley, a man who has already disposed of several ex-wives. That night, however, it was a troublesome patient he was putting into the car. If medicine is his vocation, murder is his avocation. He married a British woman to get her title, but trouble at an English hospital sent him to the US after her untimely death. Here he meets another wealthy lady whom he charms (although the way Clark describes him in the book he doesn’t sound all that appealing!) Highley kills her for her money and house. One of her relatives is suspicious and vocal about it, but everyone thinks it’s sour grapes, since he was the rich woman’s heir before Highley came to town.

Katie has some gynecological problems. Highley is a highly regarded doctor in that field, and well, you can see where this is all going. She is scheduled to have him perform a procedure on her in his progressive clinic, but he’s determined to kill her for what she’s seen, even though she’s still putting her memories on the mysterious sighting together. One man who does see things clearly is Richard Carroll, the local medical examiner who has a crush on Katie. Katie’s sister is married to a doctor, so they all know each other socially. Oddly enough, the group even partied with the dead trunk lady, Vangie, and her husband, who is suspected in her death, because he’s a pilot and had been seeing a stewardess on the sly while his wife was trying to get pregnant thru in vitro at Highley’s clinic.

Yes, I know it sounds very convoluted, but it all makes sense when you read it. The usual amount of misdirection and red herrings are peppered into Clark’s plot, but it’s pretty clear (since Clark uses the voice inside Highley’s head to narrate some chapters) that the cops are on the wrong path when they pursue the mile-high club husband and the dead woman’s psychologist. All’s well in the end, but the crazy ride is worth the trip! I thoroughly enjoyed this book, except for the dead wife’s name – Vangie – which always sounded odd to me. (How do you even pronounce that? Why didn’t MHC just call her “Angie”? There’s a story in that…) Still, terrifically suspenseful writing, and worthy of a high place in Clark’s canon of mystery novels.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Darcys & the Bingleys: Pride and Prejudice continues (The Pride & Prejudice Continues Book 1) by [Altman, Marsha]

The Darcys & the Bingleys: Pride and Prejudice Continues by Marsha Altman

Reviewed by Gerti

No, I never expect that people writing novels based on the stories of famed English novelist Jane Austen will be as good as she was. That would be nearly impossible to achieve. But I do think at the very least that those who write about Austen’s characters – that panoply of creatures she invented in another century who have so captured the imaginations of fans worldwide – should remain true to the traits they had while Austen’s creations. To use an example from her works, to write a novel in which Mr. Darcy acts like Mr. Wickham would be wrong. It makes sense to everyone – Peter Pan does not act like Captain Hook, etc.

And I’m telling you that as an introduction because that’s why I did not originally like Marsha Altman’s novel, “The Darcys & the Bingleys: Pride and Prejudice Continues – A Tale of Two Gentlemen’s Marriages to Two Most Devoted Sisters”. I put it down several times, especially when Altman describes how Darcy and Bingley, two pretty decent fellows as far as Austen is concerned, spend their time giggling like school girls over the “Kama Sutra”. Apparently, Altman’s premise is that gentlemen would be so ignorant of sexual matters at the turn of the 19th century that they would have to resort to the salacious contents of that infamous sexual manual from the Indian Subcontinent.

Having Elizabeth and Jane equally sex-crazed is a step too far. The Lizzy Bennet fans know from “Pride and Prejudice” becomes virtually indistinguishable from her hormone-addled sister, Lydia, famous from the original novel for running away with a soldier, unconcerned about whether they get married or not. It really is such a departure from Austen’s version of the true nature of these characters that I cringe.

The cover blurb calls this business with the Kama Sutra “hilarious and sweet”. I find it to be neither. It’s actually awkward and ill-conceived, nearly uncomfortable to read, and borderline distasteful. Far better is the book’s handling of the courtship of Caroline Bingley, who despite being wooed by a fake Lord in search of her fortune, finally ends up with a shy but intelligent fellow who truly loves her. There is even some suspense in this part of the book, as a very pregnant Elizabeth and her father do some sleuthing in Scotland.

I don’t like the book and don’t recommend it. But I think if you’re a true Austen fan, and read a few of the “new books” about her characters every year, you can’t avoid it. But be advised – it’s like wanting to read “Romeo and Juliet” and picking up “The Adventures of Don Juan” instead. Austen purists won’t be happy with what Altman has done, but she has turned this into a franchise – 10 books now and counting (on Amazon) about the Darcy and Bingley families, of which this book is the first in the series. So I say, enjoy it if you will, but I’ll move on to other authors who treat Austen’s creatures in a more respectful manner.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Finding Colin Firth

Finding Colin Firth by Mia March
Reviewed by Gerti

I had never heard of author Mia March before picking up this book, "Finding Colin Firth", for the title.  But her raison d'etre becomes clear when you see that her previous work was called "The Meryl Streep Movie Club."  This is an author who wisely or wickedly want to get published, and to do that, she links her story to an actor with a legion of fans in order to get that fan base to purchase the book.

Why do you think she doesn't really love Colin Firth, you might ask?  The evidence is there in one of the early chapters, as one of the primary characters, Veronica Russo, quotes Colin Firth as peaking love words, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, to Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice."  The problem is, these works are not spoken in the film adaptation of the book starring Colin Firth.  Rather, they are spoken by Matthew MacFayden in a more recent version of Pride and Prejudice, and only a true Firth nerd would know that.  I knew that.  So on page 23, author March had already lost all credibility with me.  I was so mad, I couldn't read "Finding Colin Firth" again for weeks.

Finally, I forced myself to pick it up again and finish it.  So about the story and characters, yes, it is a pleasant read because of the charming tale of Veronica Russo, her magical pies, and her long-lost daughter, Bea.  Bea Crane is in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, trying to track down her birth mother and learn her story.  Firths is in Maine filming a movie.  Other characters in the book, including writer Gemma Hendricks, are introduced to the glory of Firth by watching all his movies (and there are a lot of them!) which I suspect is what this author did when her editor (or agent) suggested she write a book with Firth's name in the title.

But in the plot, Gemma is writing a story about a home of unwed mother in town, and both Veronica and Bea are connected to that place, since Veronica gave birth to Bea in the parking lot 22 years before.  There are other characters--Bea has a pseudo-romance with a charming producer from the film crew, and tutors another crew member's sister on "To Kill a Mockingbird" (of course, since this author seems determined to make her fortune on iconic things).  Veronica teaches a pie-making class in town and there is a love interest/conflict for her there, too; one of her students is a high school friend of the guy who got her pregnant in the first place, and then denied the baby.

The narration shifts from one of the 3 main female characters to the other (sometimes irritating), as they deal with issues surrounding pregnancy, having kids, and mother/daughter relationships.  But the male characters are like whipped cream on pies; the women decide whether they want them in their lives or not.  I would have enjoyed this book more if I felt the author wasn't just using Colin Firth and my love for him (and Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice") in order to sell books.  march's ignorance about him made me angry and sad, and tainted the book for me, even though her writing is clever and honest.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The wonderful, horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl

2-disc documentary review of: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl directed by Roy MillerReviewed by Gerti

I can't help but compare famed German film maker, Leni Riefenstahl with the protagonist of the recent movie, "Woman in Gold."  Both are strong women, both had to live through WWII and changes their respective countries went through as a result of the war, including the political and social upheaval that came about before and after it.  However, Maria Altmann in WIG was Jewish, so her story included emigrating to the US.  In contrast, Leni Riefenstahl was an actress and director who knew German leader Adolf Hitler, and as such, her life's work is surrounded by criticism and controversy.

While writer/director Roy Muller calls this a documentary, it is not an impartial one, showing a real agenda on his part.  It doesn't deal at all with LR's childhood or early days in Berlin, beginning only when she was an actress starring in mountain climbing movies for her mentor and lover, director Arnold Fanck.   It doesn't even discuss her nude work in other movies, as Muller seems determined to get to her film for the 1934 Nazi party congress as quickly as possible.  As a result, most of the 3 hours is spent discussing LR's work on "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia", a look at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Her cinematic innovations are amazing, and both of those black and white movies look modern and dynamic today, although shot eight decades ago.  Riefenstahl puts cameras in places (like up flagpoles) no one had ever thought of before, and used moving camera work with an amazing number of angles, totally changing the way sports were filmed.  Of course, the move she made about the Nazi congress in Nuremberg looks stirring and monumental as well, hence the critiques that continue to dog her reputation, even after her death.  I've recently watched both movies, and I believe her when she says that even when TOTW was finally edited, the clearest message she heard was one of renewal and peace.  It's not naive on her part, for Hitler speaks often of peace, and only in hindsight are his intentions for seizing control of the German nation clear.

The second disc is made up of Riefenstahl's time after WWII, and includes her fascination with African culture and undersea photography.  It seems a waste of time to me to dwell on these at length, as she didn't make movies out of either topic, despite shooting endless reels of film.  It is only her movies that are most worthy of discussion.  For those who haven't seen TOTW or Olympia, the scenes Muller chose to share here are representative of Riefenstahl's artistic prowess.  But most revealing are the many hours of interviews, as it shows LR to be a feisty subject and eternal filmmaker, even when in front of the lens.  She directs Muller regarding how she should be framed for shots, with the mountains in the background, etc.  This is a reasonable overview of a great, but controversial artist.  Contains enough nudity, though, to make it inappropriate for younger viewers.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The wall

Movie review, The Wall by Julian Poelsler
Reviewed by Gerti

When you think of "The Wall," most likely you think of the album and movie by the British rock band, Pink Floyd.  That's probably why so few people, myself included, have heard of this brilliant post-apocalyptic film of the same name, main in 2013 by Austrian director, Julian Poesler.  It is based on a book by Marlen Haushofer, and stars the unknown-to-me actress Martina Gedeck, who is onscreen almost the whole time.

It tells the story of a woman, played by Gedeck, who accompanies an elderly couple to their hunting cabin in the upper Austrian alps.  The pair decide upon arriving to walk down to the nearest village, but when they fail to arrive that evening, their companion simply thinks they were too tired to return by foot the same day.  By the next morning, however, she fears the worst for them, and rushed down the path they took that afternoon to try and find them, in case one has suffered a heart attack or some other injury.  She takes with her the couple's dog, Lynx, who the day before had curiously refused to accompany them.

What she finds is that an invisible wall, clear as a window, cuts her off from the rest of humanity.  She feels along its length like a mime, and eventually tries driving the couple's Mercedes into it.  The car crashes; the wall is that strong.  She spends much of the early film trying to test its limits in size and strength, seeing if she can go down the other side of the mountain to get past it, but she cannot.  She and Lynx are trapped, but trapped in such a paradise, that it seems as though loneliness is her only enemy.

Over time, she and Lynx meet a pregnant cow, who has a calf and keep them supplied with milk.  Their party of survivors grows larger when a stray cat turns up in a terrible rainstorm.  That cat also has a kitten, but things turn out badly for both young animals.  As the months and years go by, you see the woman's life through her diary written on the reverse sides of calendars she finds at the cabin.  She narrates her story for the viewer, an impressive one of hope and despair, fear, and ultimately survival.

The story and the movie are uniquely Austrian.  Breathtaking Alpine scenes are shown to the most beautiful violin music, in contrast to the harsh, insipid rock 'n'roll the older couple played on their way to the cabin.  The woman has deep and poignant thought about the meaning of life, the relationship of man to nature, and her relationship to her animal companions.  In this apocalypse, she learns to plant and harvest food, caring for her small group and interacting with the other animals of the forest.  She regards herself as a "one off", sole survivor in a world without other humans, until one day something terrible happens.  

The movie is a love letter to the Alps, and a deep conversation about what it means to be human, for good or evil.  It is haunting and spectacular all at once.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Roseland Poster

Movie Review: Roseland a film by James Ivory

Reviewed by Gerti

This Merchant/Ivory production from 1977 is a bit of an anomaly. It has nothing to do with India, and nothing to do with England! Helena Bonham Carter is not even in it! That’s what “Roseland” is not. But what it is, is a lovely series of three vignettes about the ladies who frequent a New York dance hall by that romantic name. Like the name, the place is old-fashioned, almost a locale stuck in time.

The first vignette “The Waltz” is about May, an older lady who is a remarkable dancer, and very well looking for her age. But partners soon tire of her because every word out of her mouth is about her late husband Ed, and what a fabulous person he was. She is at first upset when the vulgar Stan wants to partner her in a waltz, until she sees a remarkable thing as they whisk past a mirror. Reflected there is an image of her husband and herself as young people, dancing. But this vision only appears when she dances past the mirror with Stan. Of course, her overwhelming love for her dead spouse forces her to seek Stan out, until finally she realizes the nature of the apparition. Her dead husband is telling her he’s picked out the man who will make her happy in the present, and that is Stan.

The second vignette stars famed actor Christopher Walken as a slick male dancer at the Roseland Ballroom named Russel who has sold his soul, if not his body, to a wealthy older woman named Pauline. The segment captures the events between Pauline’s two birthdays. At the first, she has introduced a recently-divorced friend named Marilyn to the dance hall. Russel takes an instant shine to the younger woman, their romance watched carefully by his dance teacher, Cleo. Although Pauline seems oblivious to developments between Russel and her friend, the couple finally decide to live together on the sly, with Marilyn paying for Russel’s dance lessons so he can become a star. Of course, when Pauline gives Russel an expensive gold watch after he takes care of her during a short illness, her money trumps any love he may feel for the now crushed Marilyn. “The Hustle” is more like a mini-film called “Dancehall Gigolo.”

The final vignette, and the most heart-breaking one for me is called “The Peabody”, which despite years of watching Dancing with the Stars I’d never known was a dance move. In it, Rosa, a woman from Vienna, sets out to win the dance competition with her frequent partner Arthur. He is a terrible dancer, and Rosa looks terrible, with garish, poorly applied makeup. But Arthur loves her for her spirit, as when they’re not dancing, she tells him all her dreams of singing opera, even though she’s a cook who sings covers of throaty Marlene Dietrich songs. Arthur proposes, but Rosa is too much of a fool to accept him, and admits she’s never even been to his home. When his health suffers, she complains about having to visit him at the hospital to the ladies room attendant. In the final scene, the thrilling young MC asks her to dance the Peabody, and like so many others who’ve danced it, she falls into a death swoon. It’s a very sentimental end to this Ruth Prawer Jhabvala screenplay.