Penguin 60s

We have a few of the the mini editions Penguin issued for their sixtieth anniversary which are kicking around the house. In some ways their brevity works against them, as they only give a glimpse of an author, but lately they’ve been the perfect little reads for a busy time of year.

Rumpole and the Younger Generation is John Mortimer’s first story featuring the famous barrister from the Old Bailey. Though I recall my parents watching the DVD’s, this was my first meeting with him; I found it light and humorous. Horace Rumpole is one of the elder and more respected members, and supposedly up for consideration as Head of Chambers when his father-in-law retires, but his fellow lawyers are less than keen on his tendency to take assignments in criminal courts. (Personally I agree that these cases are much more interesting than property law or business taxes, but I’d always be leery of the discrepancies that seem to arrive between truth and fact.)

Rumpole has had a particularly successful history with the Timsons, a family of petty criminals, and is not surprised to be chosen to defend their son Jimmy on robbery and assault charges. He feels saddened, however, that young Jimmy seems obligated to carry on the tradition, and at the same time is questioning his own family’s legacy in the court of law. These philosophical bits provided a nice contrast to the humor. I also found that the courtroom scenes were credible and satisfying (and as a Perry Mason lover I have high standards). My only complaint is that the male-oriented humor wasn’t really my type, such as Rumpole and son referring to Mrs. Rumpole as She Who Must Be Obeyed. It’s not the title itself that bothered me, more just that it didn’t seem to be done with any affection.

The other volume I’ve read so far is Bon Voyage Mr. President and Other Stories, which contains four very different stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I read Love in the Time of Cholera two years ago, and I think I prefer him as a short story writer. The title story here is an interesting character study of the overthrown president of an unnamed Central or South American country, who in his old age in Geneva is down but not out. He is discovered by a young countryman and his wife who are initially out for money but come to deeply respect the man’s faded glory.

“Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” follows a man’s brief but unnoticed infatuation with his slumbering seatmate on a long flight. For some reason I always think traveling invites a sort of intimacy. “I Only Came to Use the Phone” is the chilling story of a woman who hitches a ride when her car breaks down and ends up in a place from which she cannot escape. The convincing reality of the situation made it all the more frightening.

“Light Is Like Water,” though only four pages, was perhaps my favorite for its sheer poetry. Two young boys in landlocked Madrid have “mastered the science of navigating on light,” and every week when their parents go to the movies they unscrew the lightbulbs from the lamps and sail around in a rowboat.

“They filled the apartment to a depth of two fathoms, dove like tame sharks under the furniture, including the beds, and salvaged from the bottom of the light things that had been lost in darkness for years.”

All four stories are from the larger collection Strange Pilgrims, which I’d recommend even if only for the last two. I appreciate him more after these than I did at the end of his much longer novel. There’s a reason he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Published in: on December 26, 2010 at 9:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Vampire Slayer, Part Two

I have to admit that as soon as I had a Barnes and Noble coupon not needed to buy a gift, I splurged on Nancy Drew The New Case Files #2. Amazon bills it as The Vampire’s Kiss, probably to match the cover, but the title that actually appears on the book is just Vampire Slayer Part Two.

In this sequel to Vampire Slayer Part One, Nancy is now locked inside Gregor’s mansion with a mysterious madwoman who believes he is a vampire and is trying to kill him. Meanwhile, though trapped outside and waiting for the police, Ned, Bess, and George have tapped into the security camera network and can only watch events unfold. Unfortunately, with no sound, they miss the revelation that Gregor suffers from porphyria rather than bat bites. This leads to quite a different interpretation of events.

How do I feel about this? I kept turning the pages, but this isn’t the Nancy Drew I love best. In fact, I felt that everyone was a little out of character, which is surprising because the authors are the same as for the old graphic novels. (This allows the nice touch of using details from previous books as a plot device.) The events outside with Nancy’s friends and the police are humorous because the reader has information they don’t, but also felt like filler. Ned has every reason for jealousy, but he allows it to consume him. Nancy, on the other hand, is completely faithful and completely clueless. Overall, between the Nancy/Ned tension and the Frank/Joe tension it really does feel like the old case files series!

In addition…SPOILER ALERT…there’s a big goof! On page 24 the narration refers to the stalker by name, a conclusion that Nancy definitely doesn’t reach until later. In fact, it’s a pretty big plot point. When I read it the first time I flipped back to see if I had missed her name given earlier, and later figured out it was a mistake. Knowing her name takes away a lot of the suspense for a reader with a sharp eye.

The story at times really stretched the bounds of plausibility for me. What I really wanted was a mystery, and instead it seems part comedy of errors and part science fiction. However, I’m still dying to know what happens next! I can’t believe I have to wait till March for Hardy Boys # 2 Break-Up! and August for Nancy Drew # 3 Together with the Hardy Boys!

Update: I did send Papercutz an email about the spoiler mistake but never heard back.

Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Heat Wave

My whole family loves the TV show Castle on ABC. It has great characters, great plots, and great snappy dialogue. For anyone unfamiliar with the premise, the famous, self-centered mystery writer Richard Castle has been following NYPD Homicide detective Kate Beckett as research for his new book Heat Wave about detective Nikki Heat.

In a brilliant marketing push, ABC has actually published the book. It’s the same cover as seen in the show, and some scenes from the book are even referenced. I’ve been watching on Netflix, so I just read the book this month.

In the middle of a scorching summer, top-notch homicide detective Nikki Heat is assigned to investigate when a real estate tycoon falls to his death from a balcony. Is this suicide, or murder, and who might have benefited from the latter–his cool trophy wife, his competent bookkeeper, his striking mob workers, one of his exes, or a suspect not even on the radar? During the case Nikki has to contend not only with a hit man out for personal revenge against her, but also a forced sidekick in journalist Jameson Rook. He is sometimes a help, sometimes a hindrance, and always a mystery unto himself to her.

I’m somewhat torn about it. Heat Wave has all the elements that I love about the TV show, but it is definitely not the book Richard Castle would have written. Honestly, my guess is that the ghost writers were really just the Castle script writers.

Point number one: The book is basically a Castle episode. In addition to Beckett/Heat and Castle/Rook, the team includes a pair of inseparable detectives in Raley and Ochoa, who are ringers for Ryan and Esposito. (In a really annoying touch, they are frequently just referred to as “Roach.”) The plot is very good with lots of twists and is consistent with those from the show, albeit longer. Even the dialogue is the same sharp, witty banter that always makes me laugh.

Point number two: Other than plot and dialogue, the book is poorly written. On the show we are given the impression that Richard Castle is a very intelligent man who not only does his research but is a talented writer. His character has been nitpicky about grammar on more than one occasion. In Heat Wave, however, the prose is just clunky. Several times I had to stop and reread sentences to try and figure out what was going on. The author throws around slang and idioms in an attempt to make the book seem gritty and real, but instead it sounds forced. This contrast in quality between dialogue and description makes me put my money on script writers.

Point number three: Jameson Rook. We know Castle is egotistical, but he’s not an idiot. I doubt he would make a character so obviously based on himself, and then on top of that create romantic tension between Rook and the character based on the person with whom he himself has tension. I mean, really.

I did, however, really like getting to see the investigation unfold from the perspective of Nikki Heat, as the show centers more on Castle. It’s fun imagining how Beckett would have felt when reading the book, as she does in the show. Maybe impressed, probably annoyed, and definitely vulnerable.

Overall I really enjoyed the book as a supplement to the show, and will be reading the next installment, but because of the writing quality wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t a Castle fan. Even the print in the paperback version is almost unreadable.

Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Unrest Cure and Other Beastly Tales

“‘But hang it all, my dear fellow,’ said Blenkinthrope impatiently, ‘haven’t I just told you that nothing of a remarkable nature ever happens to me?’

‘Invent something,’ said Gorworth. Since winning a prize for excellence in Scriptural knowledge at a preparatory school he had felt licensed to be a little more unscrupulous than the circle he moved in. Much might surely be excused to one who in early life could give a list of seventeen trees mentioned in the Old Testament.”

I picked up this volume of Saki at a book sale last summer, and the short stories (often only a few pages), have been the perfect respite for a busy schedule. The Unrest Cure and Other Beastly Tales has 44 stories in total.

It’s hard to pick a single favorite, but the title story and the “The Open Window” were certainly among of them (click the link to read). I hadn’t even realized until Googling it right now that it is also one of his most known.

Most of his Saki’s stories have similar elements: middle and upper-class characters with few better things to do than gossip and entertain, and a frequent appearance of those who could be considered instigators. His recurring characters Clovis, Reginald, and Bertie all have a talent for fabricating or embellishing the truth at the drop of a hat, and delight in the discomfort of those they dislike. His observations and dialogue are witty deadpan.

The beastliness referred to in the title is both literal and metaphorical. Many of the stories involve real animals, but as “The Remoulding of Groby Lington” points out, we are not above animalistic tendencies ourselves. Social competition is a strong motivator, and often the pride that comes before a fall. This wicked humor runs throughout, so that we too are laughing at the follies of others and feeling superior.

Simon over at Stuck in a Book has often extolled these stories and also has a few posted in their completion, so head on over and take a look if you’re interested!

Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Papercutz’ New Case Files

Has it really been five years since Papercutz started the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Graphic Novels? After only about twenty volumes in each, they seem to have felt the need to revamp both series, now labeling them as The New Case Files. One of the benefits of this is supposed to be the larger size and lower cost. The writing is now much easier to read, but there are fewer pages. Instead, the stories will be continued into the next volume.

First, I read Nancy Drew Vampire Slayer. Even though I own all the Nancy Drew graphic novels I am way behind; I enjoyed the ones I’ve read so far, however. This volume has a pretty similar feel. It’s the same authors/illustrator, and the same tone. The only difference is the supposed supernatural element, which any good Nancy Drew fan knows to question. Here the girls stumble across a mysterious, pale young man who shudders at sunlight, and believes Nancy can help him with his deep secret. George and Bess, however, are convinced that Gregor Coffin must be a vampire, and Ned is jealous that Nancy is pulling away from him (just like the Files series). It almost feels a little bit like Nancy is Christine in Phantom of the Opera.

My only complaint with this Nancy Drew graphic novel is true for the Hardy Boys as well: the story has many contemporary elements that I’m afraid may date it quickly, and not just the cell phones. The vampire suspicion is prefaced by Bess and George’s obsession with with the “DieLite” series, while in Crawling with Zombies the Hardy Boys are investigating dangerous “zombie crawl” flash mobs. One of the chapters is even called “Their Chemical Romance,” a play on the band name. On the other hand, these are elements that kids will be interested in reading about. They, rather than collectors like myself, are the true target audience.

To be honest, the main reason I read the Hardy Boys volume is because the plot will eventually tie in with the case Nancy is investigating. I’ve never been able to get on board with the changes the Undercover Brothers series made, and seeing everything drawn just brought the point home. The hip and modern “Aunt Trudy” seems a far cry from the gruff exterior of the original Aunt Gertrude. Chet looks a little bit like a loser, too, and I miss Iola and Callie and the rest of the gang. I suppose Frank’s interest in Belinda Conrad means we probably won’t see them again.

As the back cover promises, “clearly this isn’t your father’s Hardy Boys!” Just as with the Case Files of the 80’s, the authors hope to shake things up by starting the new series with a death. They are also setting the stage for a brotherly split over irreconcilable differences, a plot device which is about as fresh as Ned’s jealousy.

Again, these are my opinions as someone who has spent years reading Nancy and the Hardys in almost every incarnation, and I can’t help making comparisons.


I also picked up two of the latest Clue Crew books for a song, because they are nice 15-minute grading breaks. The plot of Camp Creepy seemed way too implausible and disjointed, with Hannah acting very out of character. Cat Burglar Caper was pretty good, though, and Chief McGinnis even gave the case to Nancy to try and figure out. It’s nice to see him having confidence in her abilities

<a href=”″>Crawling with Zombies</a><img src=”; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />
Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 8:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Sherwood Ring

I can’t quite recall what first drew me to The Sherwood Ring when I was at the October book sale. The title seemed to promise adventure, while the cover featured colonial costumes, and I recognized Elizabeth Marie Pope as the author of Newbery Honor book The Perilous Gard. Then I read the description, and immediately knew I would love this book.

Newly orphaned Peggy Grahame is caught off-guard when she first arrives at her family’s ancestral estate. Her eccentric uncle Enos drives away her only new acquaintance, Pat, a handsome British scholar, then leaves Peggy to fend for herself. But she is not alone. The house is full of mysteries–and ghosts. Soon Peggy becomes involved with the spirits of her own Colonial ancestors and witnesses the unfolding of a centuries-old romance against a backdrop of spies and intrigue and of battles plotted and foiled. History has never been so exciting!

Ghosts, the Revolutionary War, and an old-fashioned romance? Those are three of my favorite fictional elements, and the mystery/espionage mixed in only made a great book better. I think I was smiling the entire time while I was reading. I enjoyed this book so much, and if I had known about it at a younger age it probably would have been read several times by now.

Technically this is a children’s book, but it doesn’t read like one. Though Peggy is referred to by her uncle as a child, she seems to be at least 16, and the eighteenth-century characters are certainly old enough to be in the army and get engaged. I would put the intended audience as about on par with Mabel Esther Allan’s young adult books, in that the plots are basically romantic suspense but the characters are young enough to be interesting to a teen audience.

The book was originally written in 1958, and even the modern-day scenes have a sort of wholesomeness about them that you don’t always seem to find in current books; I could sense it even before I looked back at the copyright page. My only complaint is that we didn’t seem to see enough of the contemporary side of the story until the end. I was definitely caught up in the escapades of Peaceable Sherwood, but I wished Peggy had been less of a frame tale. For a while she seems to function mainly as a response and reflection of events in the past. For example, all her actual visits to Mrs. Dykemann’s boarding house are pretty much skipped over except for a mention, but could have helped round out the story a bit more.

I’m a little ashamed to say that I never actually read The Perilous Gard; I had acquired several used Newbery books all at once but was already starting to move to adult books. I believe it’s set a little earlier, during 16th-century England, but still seems to promise adventure and fantastic elements.  I’ll be keeping it in mind for next time I’m in the mood for good historical fiction.

Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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