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Monday, January 30, 2017

Old school

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School by Jeff Kinney

Reviewed by Gerti

I always try to read my kids’ books to make sure they aren’t sending them a bad message in some way. But you really can’t read Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series expecting to find the same sort of inspirational, uplifting message you’d see in a Horatio Alger novel. There is nothing here about working hard, or saving your money. It’s not that sort of thing, nor was it ever intended to be. If anything, the books have terrible messages, like if you don’t want to do chores for your parents, be sure and do them poorly so they won’t ask again!

However, Kinney is good at writing comedy that middle-schoolers and younger will get. He conveys that comedy both in his writing, which is generally clever (although not instructive in a good way) and in his art. Greg Heffley is written as a typical boy, but drawn to look more like Homer Simpson, with his few standing hairs on top of his cartoon-esque head. But the drawings are part of the charm of this series, and “Old School” is a pretty typical offering.

Hapless hero Greg has to deal with any number of bad days here. His mother is on a kick to get the town to unplug, feeling that cell phones and modern technololgy are bad, hence the title. She wants everybody to go “old school”, and gets a group of people to spend their time reviving an old playground that has fallen to seed. Greg turns it into a comic adventure, when he and his study buddy Frew, and a reprobate assigned to do community service (a friend of his older brother’s, of course) escape the work detail, only to be tracked down by his mother’s cellphone technology. Ironic, no?

Even more fun is had thanks to the family’s pet pig (some of the funniest drawings in the book), a new potty training plan for Manny (Greg’s younger brother) that includes going without pants, and his grandfather’s decision to move into the Heffley’s hectic household due to economic conditions. Since Grandpa chooses Greg’s room to sleep in - the pig is in the guest room - Greg is grateful to get away to summer camp at Hardscrabble Farms. That’s where most of the comedy ensues, as Greg and a band of hard-luck campers are forced to endure conditions with Rowley’s father, Mr. Jefferson, as their chaperone.

It’s all pretty funny stuff, but none of it is edifying in any way. But perhaps that’s the way young boys like it. No kid will ever grow up to run a successful software startup thanks to the life lessons found in these books, but they are funny, and hopefully you’ve already taught your kids all the good manners and ethics they need, because they’re not gonna find any positive role models from the peers in this “Wimpy Kids” series. However, the blurb on the book’s back cover does mention that these books are “a big hit with reluctant readers”, and perhaps that’s the point. If your kids don’t like reading “real books”, at least the adventures of dysfunctional Greg and his friends will keep them from watching TV or playing video games for a few hours. And for parents, that at least is a small victory.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A royal night out

Movie review: The Royal Night Out 

Review by Gerti

The movie “A Royal Night Out” turns the Cinderella story on its head. Instead of being the story of ordinary little girls who want to be princesses, and have their wishes fulfilled, this is the story of two little princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, who wish very much for at least one night to be ordinary girls. And just like in the classic fairy tale, their wish comes true!

It all happened on the night the Allies claimed victory in Europe, when all of Great Britain was celebrating, and as opposed to standing on the balcony or looking out the windows of Buckingham Palace, the two teenaged girls beg their parents, King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, to go out among the people. Their mother refuses, but the King gives them permission. Their mother was known to be overly strict on many occasions, including the royal couple’s relationship with former King Edward VIII, who resigned because he was in love with unacceptable American divorcee Wallis Simpson. In this case, the Queen arranges for army chaperones for the girls, and expects them to attend a dead-boring party at the Ritz, attended by a lot of old peers. But they want to be with people their own age.

When the chaperones heads are turned by pretty girls at another party, they unwittingly allow the girls too much freedom. First Margaret sneaks out, then Elizabeth. They jump on different buses, and their long night on the town begins. Margaret of course gets hooked up with various military men, one of whom slips a mickey into her drink. Elizabeth tries to keep up and keep track of her younger and more irresponsible sibling, and in the process befriends a disenchanted naval pilot. The pair begin a friendship, and do things Elizabeth would not ordinarily do, like go into questionable clubs and dance together.

The story as told in this film is enchanting. The music is from the era, and among the best parts of the show. But the acting performances, by Sarah Gadon and Bel Powley as the two slumming sisters, are wonderful. Powley especially gives Margaret a lascivious naivete that is charming. Jack Reynor plays Jack, Elizabeth’s AWOL pilot, and he is both handsome and heart-warming as he tells the Princess Royal about staying with his dying friend, which led to his disenchantment with the war effort and the upper class. Rupert Everett is unrecognizable as the king, and Emily Watson plays a very stern and stubborn queen. This is a delightful story of the British royal family in the 1940s, at its most noble and its most human. I cried at various scenes, but found it hard to believe that someone who lives in a glorious palace could ever want to be “ordinary”, even for one night. The director does a great job of conveying the spirit of the 1940s with wonderful costumes, music and sets. This delightful piece of nostalgia and foiled romance provides magical entertainment for the whole family, with a great screenplay written by Trever de Silva and Kevin Hood.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Litigators by [Grisham, John]

The Litigators by John Grisham

Reviewed by Gerti

I’ve read a good number of John Grisham’s legal dramas. Some, like “The Last Juror”, are amazing. While not up to the absolute genius of that book, “The Litigators” still shows that Grisham could teach a master class in storytelling. His effortless writing is a joy to read, as is his story here of a lawyer at a prestigious firm in Chicago who snaps, gets very drunk, and takes a job with two ambulance chasers. Although Harvard educated, David Zinc is fed up with sitting in a windowless room and doing international bond fund litigation. So after a panic attack, he finds himself a job where he isn’t working 80 hours a week – at the boutique (read, small) firm of Finley & Figg.

Oscar Finley is tired – he’s tired of his wife, and of his dead-end career in law. He wants to get a divorce (and retire) but can’t seem to pull the trigger until the firm gets in way over its head, thanks to his partner, Wally Figg. Wally is a few years younger, and has no problem divorcing wives. In fact, he’s already divorced three or four, and is just about ready to slip into another marriage when he notices that his hooker-cum-girlfriend (can I even say that?) is only interested in the money that may result from a mass tort lawsuit that Wally has filed in federal court.

Thank God for David, who comes into the story a drunken bum but ends up the hero of the tale. When one partner has a heart attack and the other runs away to drink, abandoning him during a very public trial, David does the best he can to save the case, and the law firm’s reputation. His good heart shows through time and again, as he and his wife spend their down time dining with a down-on-their-luck immigrant family whose son has been brain-damaged because of lead poisoning from toy teeth. First David helps the family (and some of their other immigrant friends) get their overdue wages from a local builder who refused to pay them in a timely manner. He then goes after the irresponsible toy manufacturer which made the poison toy teeth and gets the family a settlement that enables them to take care of the poor child and pay off 100s of thousands of dollars in previous medical expenses.

Unlike some of Grisham’s other works where the protagonist is a rat, in “The Litigators”, you cheer for David, and even kind of like his hapless friends, Finley and Figg, as they exhibit very human weaknesses, before triumphing in the end. “The Litigators” has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, and does not resort to the bad writer’s trick of giving every longshot victory to the hero. All the “good guys” have some redeeming qualities, and the bad guys are bad enough to make readers “boo”. “The Litigators” was a delight to read from beginning to end, and I thoroughly enjoyed inhabiting the world of these fascinating characters for the two days it took me to finish the book. 

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.