Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The Big Four

The Big Four
The Big Four by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poirot and Hastings take on a global crime syndicate in this adventure, which is pretty different from their usual milieu of inheritance murders and society thefts. It’s too big a narrative for these two, and the strain does show a bit.

Suspending one’s disbelief can only go so far. Poirot seems to be not just an analytical genius, but positively omniscient here, as well as ridiculously wealthy; Hastings is somehow both cleverer and dumber than usual.

That being said, I’m pretty sure that Ian Fleming borrowed some of these plot points for his James Bond novels: super-villains out to conquer the world; a master of disguise; a hideout inside a hollowed-out mountain; an atomic threat to global security.

Overall, I’d say this was not Poirot’s finest adventure.

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Review: The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe 1944-45

The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe 1944-45
The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe 1944-45 by Tony Rennell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Forget “Hogan’s Heroes,” forget “The Great Escape”: the real story of what Allied POWs endured has seldom been heard until now. The Last Escape is a fascinating and chilling read which tells of the forced marches and terrible conditions suffered by Allied prisoners in the last days of the war.

The authors, one of whom is a former POW of the Iraq War, display remarkable sensitivity in the handling of the former prisoners’ stories and present them in a compellingly readable way. Maps and appendices help to put the events into context.

It’s heartbreaking to read some of these stories, and one can only imagine the strength of the men who have to live with the memories of these times. The Last Escape also serves as a sobering reminder that we have to do better by the brave few who are willing to fight this country’s wars.

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Review: Brandy and Bullets

Brandy and Bullets
Brandy and Bullets by Jessica Fletcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this installment of the “Murder, She Wrote” tie-in novel series, Jessica Fletcher finds out that an ultra-exclusive writers’ retreat that has opened in her hometown of Cabot Cove may not be the creative haven it claims to be.

This novel eventually takes a pretty wild turn, but if you’ve already suspended your belief this far, it’s a fun enough ride. My favorite thing about these novels are the playful shout-outs that Jessica’s “ghostwriter,” Donald Bain, sometimes makes to those members of the reading audience who may know a bit about him. In this novel, one of Jessica’s friends is mentioned to have written Western novels under a pseudonym, which Bain himself has done in the past (as J.D. Hardin.)

As always, if you like this character, you’ll probably like Brandy and Bullets.

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Review: Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A look at some of the “difficult men” (showrunners and writers) who have brought their own difficult male characters to life in shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” Provides a chronology of shows in what is often called the “Third Golden Age of television,” from their antecedents in the work of Cannell and Bochco to today’s basic-cable and premium-cable sagas.

Highly recommended for those interested in the study of television and/or television writing.

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Review: Poirot Investigates

Poirot Investigates
Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of short stories featuring everyone’s favorite rotund Belgian detective, narrated as always by the amiable but clueless Captain Hastings. The Poirot of the stories and novels is enough of a different character, and details of these stories different enough in their original form, that it is well worth the time to read these even if you’ve seen the TV versions.

My favorites of this collection are “The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim” and “The Chocolate Box,” both of which show off different aspects of Poirot’s personality. Highly recommended.

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Review: The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond
The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond by Simon Winder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thoroughly enjoyable book that is at once a memoir, a cultural history of Britain from the Second World War through the 1970s, and a meditation on the troubling nature of being a James Bond fan in modern times. Written and released prior to the Bond reboot represented by the Daniel Craig films, The Man Who Saved Britain describes James Bond as simultaneously a pernicious fantasy of the racist, imperialist right-wing and a figure of comfort who helped postwar Britain manage its inevitable decline as the Empire crumbled from beneath it.

The Man Who Saved Britain is particularly beguiling because of the author’s humorous voice and his willingness to examine the “disturbing world” of thoughtless racism, sexual sadism, and excessive consumerism that James Bond lives in throughout the novels and especially in the films. Winder ties together some of Bond’s influences (the adventure novels of H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Sax Rohmer, Eric Ambler, and the “Biggles” novels of Captain W.E. Johns); the bleakness and despair of postwar Britain; and perhaps the odd tastes of Ian Fleming himself. Bond is at once a suave ladies’ man and a merciless killer; a loyal civil servant and a member of the cultural elite; an aspirational fantasy and a man who can truly belong nowhere on Earth.

My only regret is that this book isn’t longer; I would love to know what Winder thinks of the modern Bond films and their diminished villains, their Bond who gets really hurt and requires lengthy recuperation time, as well as psychological tests administered by a female M. Highly recommended for anyone who loves James Bond and/or cultural histories.

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Review: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember when the movie “Chicago” came out, but I had no idea it was based on a true story. In 1924 Chicago, there seemed to be a sudden glut of murderesses in the Cook County jail, befuddling juries composed entirely of men. Young woman reporters, whether “sob sisters” or hard-boiled gals walking the crime beat, tried their luck at getting close to the murderesses and their families to land an all-important scoop.

One of these “girl reporters,” Maurine Watkins, was a shy girl from a good Christian home who’d thrown over her classical studies for a chance at life in the big city. Watkins worked her way up from the fashion and society beat with her incisive, biting stories designed to vilify the young female murderers and bring attention to their crimes. After a pair of high-profile acquittals, Watkins wrote “Chicago” to satirize the celebrity-wild times, and it was a success she could never again attain.

This was a light, interesting read, and much recommended to anyone who enjoyed “Chicago” or is interested in the 1920s.

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