Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Guest blog - Reflex by Dick Francis

I thought that I had read all of the mysteries written by Dick Francis. However, I picked up a novel at the local thrift store for only 50 cents and soon discovered that it was a new story to me.

Reflex has all of the elements of a Francis novel. Philip Nore is a jump jockey as Francis was in his own life. That makes him medium height but still constantly watching his weight so that he is not too heavy to ride. Steeplechase jockeys ride on courses about two miles long and encounter ditches, fences and hedges along the way. In all of the Francis novels I have read, steeplechasing is described as a dangerous sport. It is not uncommon for rider and horse to come down after misjudging a gate and subsequently be trodden on by the horses following. This by itself makes for a tough hero well acquainted with pain. Usually in a Dick Francis mystery the ability to endure pain pays off because each hero is at some point beaten by the bad guys. However, unlike a few writers I have read, Francis always has a satisfactory ending. And I am definitely addicted to the just if not legal ending for a mystery.

In this story the death of a photographer happens before the story opens. It is not until you are well into the novel that it becomes apparent that the death was not an accident. Philip Nore becomes entangled in clues left behind by the photographer and soon finds himself in danger. Of course, there is a sprinkling of romance as well. This is an older novel written when I think that Francis was at the height of his career. Definitely an enjoyable tale.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Guest blog – 13 For Luck

A few evenings ago, I found myself waiting for my husband who was in a meeting. Reading a collection of thirteen short stories by Agatha Christie was the perfect way to pass the time. My battered paperback copy of 13 For Luck was published by Dell in 1968. The spine says that it sold for 50 cents. It is probably still available at your local library or perhaps at a used book store. I think that it is only available as a used book. Agatha Christie’s books featuring Poirot or Miss Marple keep turning up in new publications at the local bookstore. However, this group of stories features problem solvers that many Christie fans might not have heard about before.

Not too surprisingly there are 13 stories in this collection. Several of them feature Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Tuppence and Tommy Beresford have one story while Christopher Parker Pyne and the invisible Mr. Harley Quin have two each. Inspector Evans seems to have appeared in one short story only.

I think this is a great little collection of stories. Each detective is introduced in a short paragraph or two on the page before the first story. In about 20 pages each of the mysteries is presented and resolved by one of Christie’s brilliant solvers. Good short mysteries and perfect for sitting in the doctor’s office or waiting for half an hour for someone to finish a meeting. However, be forewarned, once you have read one, you will want to finish all of the stories. And probably go check out an Agatha Christie that you haven’t read for a few years. I recommend the Tommy and Tuppence stories. They haven’t been on television recently so they might feel completely new even to an old fan like me.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Oscar is overweight, a sci-fi aficionado, and a sucker for beautiful—and not so beautiful—women. Not too surprisingly, he lacks the “mojo” emanating from all his Dominican relatives and neighbors and suffers because of his quirks.

Oscar's ups and downs are detailed in Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The novel jumps between Oscar's life and those of his older sister, Lola, and mother, Beli. Though they live in New Jersey, their fates are inextricably tied to the Dominican Republic and their ancestors there.

I was not overly drawn to or sympathetic with either Oscar or Beli. The only family member I truly cared about, was interested in, and related to was Lola, a loyal, loving, and patient sister.

In fact, perhaps the most intriguing and involving character in the novel is the Dominican Republic itself. Using mostly footnotes, Diaz explains the tragic politics in the DR's not-so-distant past. To my shame, I knew very little, if anything, about the area and had never even heard of the despot Trujillo before reading the novel. Oscar Wao gives an enlightening yet entertaining education on DR history and left me with a desire to research (and verify) more about these historical events.

Diaz has a casual writing style. The narrator relates Oscar's tale in a conversational, and thus often vulgar, tone. I found the storytelling comfortable and inviting (like listening to one of my male colleagues), but some readers may be turned off by a free use of profanity and sexuality.

Oscar Wao is an absorbing novel. Though I certainly would not have declared it the best book of the year, it is a good read for anyone interested in contemporary literature or Caribbean history.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Guest Blog - Bad Luck and Trouble

In Bad Luck and Trouble, it is through a deposit into his bank account that Jack Reacher finds out that one of his ex-army colleagues wants to speak to him. When he meets with Neagley, he discovers that one of the special team of investigators that they belonged to has been murdered. Together with two other former MPs, Reacher and Neagley set out to discover who was responsible for their friend’s horrible death. Unfortunately, they discover that he was not alone. In fact, he was not the first of their friends to be thrown alive out of a helicopter at 3000 feet.

In the end, the four friends discover the treachery that led to the deaths of their old friends. The build up to the story seemed a bit slow to me, but the novel has a fast action and violent finish. When Reacher meets up with the men who killed his friends, he discovers that revenge holds little satisfaction. There is no way to compensate for the loss of those you love. Nothing can bring them back.

Despite the fact that Reacher regrets the passage of time without seeing his old friends, it seems likely that he is not going to schedule time with his remaining friends any time soon. I wonder where Lee Child will place him in his next novel.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Guest Blog - One Shot

Lee Child does not write cozy English mysteries and Jack Reacher is not a conventional hero. He is an ex-military police officer who has left the army and convention behind. After living a life regulated by Army rules, Reacher has chosen a life of wandering. He not only doesn’t own a home, he doesn’t own a suitcase. When the clothes he is wearing become dirty or torn, he simply purchases new ones and discards the old. He puts his clothes under the mattress at night so that they will look pressed in the morning.

This unconventional hero does have qualities that make him larger than life. He is a smart and meticulous investigator. He has an uncanny sense of survival. Despite the clothes under the mattress and the disposable razors, Reacher has appeal.

One Shot begins with a sniper shooting five people as they leave their office building after work. Everything leads the investigators to a former US Army sniper. When arrested, James Barr says little in his defense. He asks the DA to “Get Reacher for me.” In Miami Reacher hears about the slayings and immediately gets on a bus headed for Indiana and what looks like an open and shut case.

I could hardly put down the book. Life just kept getting in the way of reading the next chapter. Now that I have finished the book, I am not really sure whether Child is a good writer or not. Was it just the action? Was it the plot? Was I attracted to the characters? It is pretty obvious that no one from this novel is going to make it into the next book I read by Child. After all, Reacher just got on another bus and headed for a different city.

One Shot had a very satisfying if violent ending. Reacher found the bad guys and rescued the innocent victims. There was a sense of justice that brought me satisfaction. I am looking forward to reading another of his mysteries and meeting Jack Reacher again. Even if he is wearing the same clothes he had on three days ago.