Thursday, February 26, 2015

Star Island

Take Britney Spears's career profile and Lindsey Lohan's stage mother, remove all talent, and add an unwise mix of vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed, and stool softener.  That's how Carl Hiaasen introduces Cherry Pye, and her stunt double, Ann DeLusia.  As Cherry's mother sneaks the drug-addled starlet out through a service entrance, a particularly disreputable paparazzo snaps a photo of Ann being loaded into an ambulance - and discovers that the thrashing girl has brown, not green eyes.  Bang Abbot isn't your everyday sleazy photographer-for-hire, though - he's the recipient of a tainted Pulitzer Prize - so he's not going to settle for a photo of Cherry's double.  No, he's going to kidnap her and take enough pictures for a coffee table book to be published after Cherry's inevitable early death.

Except he kidnaps Ann, who a few days earlier was rescued from the wreck of her rental car by Skink (the former governor of Florida) so she can help him quash a shady real estate deal.  Oh, and Cherry's new bodyguard is a 6'10 ex-con with a weed-whacker where his left hand should be and who want to return to his previous job, shady real estate deals.  Star Island is classic Hiaasen - con men, an ineptly executed crime, improbable events (trust me, do not read how Bang Abbot won his Pulitzer in public unless you want to scare those around you), and weirdness that goes so far beyond the suspension of disbelief it's saved only by Hiaasen's whacked-out creativity.  Only Carl Hiaasen can surround a tight plot with the insanity of Cherry's mixers or Skink's idea of appropriate punishment and somehow make them fit.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Murder at Hazelmoor

I bought most of my Agatha Christies in the early 80s, some of them new and some used.  Murder at Hazelmoor fooled me - the spine is uncracked and it has early-80s cover art, but there's a stamp from The Book Swap on the inside cover.  It's also spent over 30 years on my shelf, unread - maybe I was more likely to file away the books I bought used.  In this case, I didn't miss much.  Murder at Hazelmoor is a middling locked-room Christie - a seance proclaims Captain Trevelyan's death and a few hours later, when Major Burnaby checks on is friend, Captain Trevelyan is dead.  The police settle on Trevelyan's nephew as the most likely culprit, and the young man's fiancĂ©e sets out to prove them wrong.  Cleverly plotted and diverting, but not particularly engrossing, it's a casual Christie - worth reading, but maybe not worth hunting for.

The Child's Child

I'm afraid that The Child's Child will be the last book Ruth Rendell writes under her Barbara Vine pseudonym.  It's not quite as good as The Birthday Present, but Rendell was in peak form for about two-thirds of the novel.  Perhaps it would have joined The Birthday Present and A Dark Adapted Eye among her best if it had been published as a novella.

I say that because The Child's Child feels like a novella with 85 pages of coincidence-laden framework extending the work to novel length.  Ph.D. candidate Grace Easton and her brother Andrew inherited a sprawling house on the outskirts of London from their grandmother.  Instead of selling it and  sharing the proceeds, they decide to divide the house and live together-but-not-together, and it works well until Andrew's partner James Derain moves in.  James's stability, never a sure thing, degerates when the two men witness the gay-bashing death of an acquaintance of theirs, and then a somewhat unbelievable series of events leads to Andrew and James moving out, leaving Grace, pregnant and working on a Ph.D dissertation analyzing the treatment of unwed mothers in 19th Century literature, alone in the suburban mansion.  One night, she reads the manuscript a family friend gave her.

The Child's Child couldn't be published when it was written in the 1950s.  Martin Greenwell based Maud Goodwin on a neighbor, a woman who'd gotten pregnant at 15 and who also happened to be James Derwin's great-grandmother.  Maude's brother John, who was gay at a time when it was illegal, "saved" Maude by moving away with her and pretending to be her husband.  One evening, John explained to Maude why he so willingly moved away with her, but she was a puritan-leaning as the family they'd left.  Long before John disappeared, Maude retreated into a icy shell, proud and protective of her daughter. There's not much of a mystery - we know John's fate, even if the police take several months to figure it out - but Rendell wrote a compelling story about a woman who trapped herself in a facade of respectability.  While I found the modern-day section of The Child's Child enjoyable, it really didn't add anything to the book.

The Carbon Age

I'm not sure what Eric Roston's goal was when he wrote The Carbon Age, but I suspect his editors pushed him to tie it to current concerns about global climate change and obesity.  Unfortunately, the highly technical tone of the rest of the book (among other things, he explains on a nuclear level how hydrogen creates all other elements) doesn't quite translate to a discussion of how what we need to survive can also harm us.  Perhaps if his style weren't so dry, he could have tied the two sections together.