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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-03-08 19:02
A Deadly Thaw (Ward)
A Deadly Thaw: A Mystery (Inspector Francis Sadler) - Sarah Ward

I enjoyed Sarah Ward's first mystery novel, In Bitter Chill. This sequel was, for me, a bit of a sophomore slump, though I'm not giving up on her. My problem with this one was that the motivations of the principal characters in the mystery seemed to me far-fetched, and those of DC Connie Childs, who now appears to be established as the lead police protagonist, off-putting if not quite as incomprehensible when she lets herself fall into a sexual relationship with a married colleague.


For future reference, this is the story where a woman kills her lover, but goes to jail for the murder of her husband (having deliberately misidentified the body). The husband also turns up murdered years later. I had half of the solution fairly early on (I solved the identity of who brings gifts to the murdering woman's sister), but I had a wrong suspect in mind for the second murder, mainly because I didn't find the romance between him and the sister at all credible.


In the police station, there were some misunderstandings because the administrator couldn't let them know they were under internal investigation for past failings in dealing with victims of sexual assault - a depressingly timely theme, and very much relevant to the main plot too.


I'm sticking with DC Childs for a bit - I still find the writing solid and the situations imaginative. I'm hoping the third book int he series will also have rather more plausible motivation for the crimes, and rather less of poor interpersonal judgment on Connie's part.

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review 2018-01-23 22:29
Richard Burton: Prince of Players (Munn)
Richard Burton: Prince of Players - Michael Munn

This biography of Richard Burton is, I would guess, highly unreliable as to details. Although Michael Munn, the author, was indeed in the entertainment business in minor capacities, I very much doubt he had the kind of access to Burton himself (or to his circle) that would allow him to quote, apparently verbatim, whole stretches of actual conversation so very focused and illuminating about Burton's life. My suspicion that in fact Munn was paraphrasing cribbed versions of secondary sources was confirmed when I compared his account of an incident involving John Gielgud with Sheridan Morley's Gielgud biography, and discovered word-for word-borrowings but written as if told to the author directly by Burton (the tip-off was the idiosyncratic phrase "idiot boards"). That said, Munn does seem to have had some access to Burton (though not perhaps in the chummy way he claims), as well as to some of the more notorious gossips in Hollywood like Roddy McDowall. He also actually gives us a bibliography of sorts, though only a "selected" one; so I suspect he did his reading.


This, then, was a quick read with a hefty dose of salt, reliable for at least the bare outlines of Burton's career, and likely also a pretty good reflection of the gossip about Burton over the years. It's not a very happy tale. Indeed, given whatever illness of the mind (or brain) he was suffering from, as well as his lifelong alcoholism, what strikes me about Burton is not the brevity of his working life but the fact that he managed to get as much good work done as he did.


I was relieved to read that despite his reputation of having slept with every leading lady he had, Julie Andrews (who shared the stage with him in "Camelot") was notoriously proof against his boozy charms.


There's got to be at least one better biography out there, and I remember hearing that Burton's own diaries have been published, so I may come back to him at some point. I'm really far more interested in Peter O'Toole (upon the subject of whom this particular book was pretty light, though apparently they were quite good friends), but reading this book has at least revived in me the desire to go back and watch "Becket" again.

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review 2018-01-23 22:10
Cranford (Gaskell)
Cranford (Penguin Popular Classics) - Elizabeth Gaskell

"Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other's proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other's opinions ... but, somehow, good-will reigns among them to a considerable degree."


That passage from the first chapter of Cranford is actually a pretty good summation of what we learn about Miss Matty and her circle of friends in the succeeding set of linked stories (for a novel with an overarching plot this is not). The book is short (for a Victorian work!) easy and gently humorous, and it pokes fun at manners and mores that are far enough from today's that the already gentle satire bites not at all. Though in their little day-to-day exchanges, Mrs. Gaskell's characters can be horribly selfish and ignorant, yet without exception they have a core of goodness, and in the face of economic anxiety, which is the principal villain in this book without a villain, they do come together to support each other, even as they hedge their generosity around with a significant superfluity of social ridiculousness.


I read this on a plane flight and it went down quickly and smoothly, with smiles and just a bit of sentiment - like a cup of tea with an old friend.

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review 2018-01-11 22:46
So, Anyway... (Cleese)
So, Anyway... - John Cleese

As part of his narrative schtick in this memoir, John Cleese occasionally engages in exasperated expostulations to his imagined readers, in response to imaginary comments or criticisms from them. In one of those passages, he accuses us of not really being interested in the serious passages of his life, but instead wanting just to have a good laugh. Guilty as charged, Mr. Cleese, guilty as charged. And I'm happy to say that Cleese's whimsical prose and tongue-in-cheek exaggeration frequently delivers that good laugh.


Cleese concentrates almost entirely on his childhood, his school and university days, and his early career in stage and TV comedy, culminating with the coming together of the Monty Python troupe. There is one additional chapter about the reunion stage show decades later (apparently a highly gratifying experience). This imbalance implies either that he considers the later part of his life (including the Fawlty Towers period) not worth chronicling, or else that he thinks there's another book in it.


Cleese comes across as extremely, almost painfully self-aware, but of course he deflects from anything really painful with humour. He is very careful not to criticize those around him. Some of the tensions come through anyway; he admits that the Python group was essentially two entirely separate writing teams - Cleese & Chapman on the one hand, and Idle, Jones & Palin on the other. Other than a fairly mild description of arguing with Terry Jones (accompanied by protestations that it was all beneficial creative tension), Cleese does not dwell on any discord, far less sling mud. One suspects the same is true of his descriptions of family.


I very much enjoyed this, and suspect that most other John Cleese aficionados will too unless they have unrealistic expectations for lots of depth or lots of dirt. I hope he writes volume 2.

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review 2018-01-02 13:40
Children of Wisdom trilogy (Stephanie Erickson)
The Children of Wisdom Trilogy - Stephanie Erickson

Well that's about four hours of my life I won't get back, but since it was four hours spent on a plane, they were counted as lost anyway. This 3-chaptered novel (because that's what it is - the cliffhangers at the ends of parts 1 & 2 are even more egregious than is usual in a fantasy series) is set within a cosmology that includes elements of Greek mythology (notably the 3 Fates) merged with a version of Christianity, heavily filtered through American pop culture. God is a remote bureaucrat along the lines of "Heaven Can Wait" (or "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"), whence we also get the plot point of the too-early death. This God runs what appears to be a sort of human-processing shop, in an area of the heavens behind a third gate between those of Heaven and Hell. Purgatory, which we would expect to be that third gate, is disused (to say it's "in limbo" would just confuse everybody... ) and instead rather illogically housed within Hell, chiefly for the narrative convenience of allowing the principal characters to have Hellish adventures on their way to and from the Halloween castle shackled dungeon.

I don't mind cosmological fantasy, but this one is really not all that well thought through, and that makes the final trial and fate of the ultimate (human) villain a bit risible to me, I'm afraid. You will not convince this atheist that complete extinction, which is what she is doomed to, is worse than an infinity of the tortures of Hell, which would presumably be her "normal" fate. This is all the more uncomfortable when juxtaposed against her actual sin, which is going to extremes to preserve life in a suffering child who should be humanely allowed to die.

This was (I believe) a free Kindle offering, and I sometimes wonder with these things whether I should, instead of criticism, apply the much more generous standards of fan-fiction non-criticism, since it's essentially "gift literature."  But I do wish this author's kind, non-critical editors had explained to her that "opaque" does not mean "transparent". Worse, the error appears in both the first and the final book, so it was allowed to slide even after the first part was published.

Two stars as opposed to one, merely because, although the control of tone was iffy, the spelling and grammar were generally correct, and despite the occasional howler like "opaque", the only major objection I had to the diction was careless repetition of the same descriptive word within the same passage without any rhetorical justification.

You get what you pay for.

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