Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Round-Up #8 (Bumper edition)

Hi there. As always, there are lots of books to read, films to see, things to experience and so little time. So let me humbly share with you some of the things I have come across recently that I think are worth your while . . . or not.

Book review: A Sherlock Holmes Double-Bill: The Tangled Skein Vs. The Italian Secretary

Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of sleuth extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes revolutionized detective fiction and continues to do so to this day. I doubt there is a single writer of crime or detective fiction who hasn't read some or all of the work of Doyle and has been influenced by it, by the clinical attention to detail, the strong sense of atmosphere, the sharp dialogue, and above all, the sense of fun.
Although Doyle had retired Holmes a long while before the author's own death, writers continue to churn out patsiches; some are good, some are bad and some are brilliant. The Tangled Skein and The Italian Secretary fall somewhere between good and brilliant.

The Tangled Skein focuses on Sherlock Holmes facing the lord of the undead himself, Dracula. And although the premise sounds ludicrous and could even be considered an insult to Doyle's work, the resulting book is neither. Author and Holmes expert David Stuart Davies captures Doyle's tone and style almost perfectly and weaves a tale full of action and mood. It is a well-told tale that stays true to the mythos and features dialogue that could have been written by the master himself. Where the book falters a bit is in the mystery aspect. In trying to combine the mythologies of both Doyle and Bram Stoker's work, Davies veers more towards the plotting style of Stoker, with more action than intrigue. Although that makes it a rousing thriller , full of atmosphere and foreboding, it also makes it a not very good mystery. But there is an added bonus here. Davies ingeniously adds the very neat twist of making this story a direct sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Something that avid Holmes readers will find delightful. I did.

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr is another attempt to write a story that makes Holmes face supernatural foes. Although this story leans closer to Doyle's style of plotting, Carr's writing style doesn't wholly succeed in capturing Doyle's own. Nonetheless, this is a splendid mystery, very well told and which features a couple of nice tricks up its sleeves that will please Holmes aficionados. And any Holmes story that features the elusive Mycroft in a starring role is bound to be interesting!

So which novel is the winner? Both. Both are entertaining, well-written tales that pay respect to Doyle's work. Don't miss them.

Book review: Stealing Shadows

With this novel Kay Hooper has managed to do something near impossible to do these days. Take a tired, almost dead concept and turn it into something that is, well, wholly absorbing. Although I had read some of her previous work and found it entertaining if unmemorable, Stealing Shadows transformed me into a fan. The story, which focuses on a psychic's struggle against a brutal serial killer targeting women in a small town, and the psychic's attempt to catch him before he destroys her sanity, is nothing new. It has been done hundreds of times before in literature and film with varying degrees of success. But Hooper manages to turn the cliched concept into a novel that is intriguing, atmospheric and , above all, compelling. With her fluid style, sense of place and mastery of atmosphere and plotting, Hooper writes a book that is sure to please fans of good, fast-paced mysteries with a touch of the paranormal. The only caveat: the utterly unnecessary epilogue.

Although this is the start of a loosely connected series of books, this works marvelously well as a stand-alone story. Highly recommended.

Film review: Terminator Salvation

With Terminator 3: Rise of the machines, I thought the franchise was driven to the ground, killed and its corpse left rotting. I was wrong, but not entirely.

Terminator Salvation
is not an easy film to review for two reasons. Firstly, it features one of my favorite actors, Christian Bale, whose performance in the film ranges from being on Auto-Pilot to heartfelt. Go figure. Secondly, for two thirds of the film I felt it was a lifeless, dramatically limp movie that favors noisy effects and quick hyper-kinetic cutting over good, old filmmaking. Then it went and changed on me with an explosive climax, that throws everything but the kitchen sink, but which forced me to admit that it mostly redeems the mediocrity that preceded it. Why? Because the climax stays true to the original Terminator and features a couple of scenes that, I must say, are riveting. So is it worth seeing? If you are a fan of the Terminator franchise, and if you can overlook mostly mediocre performances (and the abysmal previous movie), then yes, see it.

Extra! This week's Extra! selection is the The Star Group by Christopher Pike. It is an entertaining, sleek sci-fi mystery that was ahead of its time when it was released more than a decade ago, and still feels relatively fresh today. And despite the workman-like writing and it being a YA novel, it still packs a number of clever, original ideas in under two hundred pages and leaves you wanting a sequel. Enough said.

So until next time, keep browsing those shelves.