Wicked Ways by Lisa Jackson and Nancy Bush

Wicked Ways by Lisa Jackson and Nancy Bush




Pros: pretty much nothing

Cons: pretty much everything

Bleh.  Just not a good book.  Not good at all.

I’m talking about Wicked Ways, part of the Wicked series by Lisa Jackson and Nancy Bush.  This is the first book in the series that I’ve read, so I really can’t comment on the series as a whole.  But this book was definitely not one I’d recommend.

Meet Elizabeth.  Adopted, so she’s never known her biological family.  But she’s always had weird feelings – an ability to see danger right before it actually happens.  And, lately, people she’s wished harm to have ended up dead.  Like the police officer with a bad attitude who gave her a ticket and was extra-nasty to boot.  And her husband.  And a few others.  People who’ve pissed her off to the point where she wishes them gone. Then, suddenly, they find themselves dead.

Meet Ravina.  Elizabeth’s biological cousin.  Has never met Elizabeth but has a “feeling” that Elizabeth might be in danger.  So she takes off on a trek to find her cousin and warn her.

There you have it – the plot – such as it is.  Not my favorite type of plot, but I would have been Ok with it, if the characters had been at all likeable or interesting.

But instead we have two leading ladies I could do without.  Elizabeth is a scared, whining, weak individual.  Does she really believe she can “wish” people dead?  I mean, c’mon — really, truly believe it?  She spends her time hanging out with “friends” who are obnoxious and pushy.  Even Elizabeth doesn’t seem to like them very much, but she hangs with them anyway.  Why?  Because Elizabeth can’t say “no”.  Ever.  This also explains why her daughter is a Brat.  With a capital B.

Then there’s Ravinia.  In her own way, just as annoying as Elizabeth.  But in her case, we’re told of her “less than traditional” upbringing, so at least we can understand why she’s a little “off”.

Add in some paranormal events, some horrid insight into the “bad guy’s” thoughts, a ridiculous and inappropriate romance angle and a “big reveal” at the end that makes very little sense, and you have a book that’s best left on the shelf.

Like I said, I can’t comment on the rest of the series, but Wicked Ways gets a major thumb down from me.

Also by Lisa Jackson:
Almost Dead
Never Die Alone
The Night Before
Wicked Game

‘Skin Trade’ is a slave to tedium

Skin Trade



Pros: A couple of decent action moments

Cons: Mostly a wash considering the talent involved

It used to be that one could expect to get their money’s worth when they saw a flick that boasts the likes of Dolph Lundgren, Michael Jai White, Tony Jaa, and Ron Perlman; for good measure there is even a cameo by Peter Weller. Sadly, all of these elements end up being a wash thanks to some uninspired fight choreography and an almost complete lack of urgency in the film’s pacing.

Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa play Nick and Tony, law enforcers from opposite sides of the world running parallel investigations against notorious human trafficker, Victor Dragovic (Ron Perlman– looking like lethargy itself), who eventually find themselves partnered up after a rocky Martial Arts Meet Cute.

A Martial Arts Meet Cute, you say? Allow me to explain.

After successfully arresting Dragovic, Nick’s is left for dead in an ambush that killed his family. He is conveniently given information about what the authorities intend to do next, and he follows them to Thailand  to mete out his own form of justice.

Nick’s FBI buddy, Reed (Michael Jai White) has been working with Dragovic and frames Nick for the murder of Tony’s partner in order to distract Tony. I assume this will make Reed’s sabotaging the case easier. Spoiler: it’s not. In spite of all this, Nick is so single minded in his focus that following him doesn’t hinder efforts to find Dragovic at all. In fact, once Nick gets to Thailand it’s all too easy for any and everyone to run into something or someone around every corner that is absolutely essential to moving the plot forward than dragging it out in a belabored fashion.

So eventually Nick and Tony meet in an old grain warehouse, Tony ready to duel to the death and Nick willing to show a little mercy to prove he isn’t the killer he’s been set-up to be. The fight has more close-ups and medium shots than I was expecting. It rarely works to display the grace of Jaa, but the fights do serve Lundgren better. The close-ups serve to underscore Lundgren’s intimidating size, making the fight seem all the more intense and claustrophobic.

But I’m really searching hard to find positives. The direction doesn’t do the actors any justice. Violence is not an art that is lost on Lundgren, Jaa, or White and yet no one really takes advantage of the assembled talent. The shootouts are rote and I can’t help but feel like the action is mostly designed to obscure the fact that the talent is getting old. To be perfectly honest, the few elbows to the head, cartwheel kicks, broken limbs, throat stabbings, and other acts of violence that aren’t as well displayed as they could be aren’t going to do much to disabuse anyone of that notion.

In the end, I’m much more comfortable taking an alternate, more cynical approach. That the makers didn’t have much more to their vision beyond “let’s get a,b, and c together for a movie and see if the damn thing makes itself.” I was more than ready to enjoy this film and what I got stuck with was a movie that seemed thoroughly disinterested in carving an identity for itself out of the gifts it was given.

Betrayal In Death by J.D. Robb – starts out slow but steps it up

Betrayal In Death by J.D. Robb




Pros: ended up being an exciting story

Cons: a bit slow to get started

Betrayal In Death is the 12th book in J.D. Robb’s In Death series.  Set in the 2050’s, this series follows Lieutenant Eve Dallas in the NY Police Department.  In each book, she’s dragged into a case – usually a homicide or two – and with the help of her co-workers, friends, and ever-present husband Roarke, solves the cases, and saves the day.

In this case, the first victim is a chambermaid in a swanky hotel.  It’s weird – who would possibly want to hurt a young lady who doesn’t seem to have any backstory that would attract a killer.  As for the hotel where she works… Who’s the owner?  Roarke, of course.  After all, he’s a gazillionaire who owns half the real estate in the world, it seems.

Victim number two is another employee of Roarke’s.  Ah, a connection, at last.  Still, why would someone be targeting Roarke’s employees?  Worse, could he be the actual target?

Eve has her hands full, solving the cases, trying to keep Roarke safe, and getting in the middle of a squabble or two amongst her co-workers.

I enjoy this series, for the most part.  Eve is fascinating character.  Smart, amazing at her job, and funny (in her own cranky way).  The cast of surrounding characters rounds out the balance of humor and compassion.  I enjoy keeping up with their shenanigans, as their stories unfold.  In this book, for instance, we get a bit of an update on Trina, a woman who figures prominently in some of the other books.

As for the various cases, some are certainly better than others.  I admit that the case in this book started out a bit slow.  It seemed to take forever to figure out the connection among the victims in order to get a clue about who the bad guy is, and how to capture him.

But once it got going… I’d say the final third of the book… things really kicked up a notch.  Suddenly the story got exciting, and I even enjoyed a twist or two (and trust me, I’m not easy to surprise!)

I also love the way the Robb makes sure that the titles of the books are not wasted.  I.e., in this case, “Betrayal”.  Betrayal is a theme that runs rampant throughout the story.  In more ways than one, and in a way that isn’t directly black or white, but leaves a trail of grays for readers to consider.

Overall, a terrific book in the In Death series.  Give Betrayal In Death a read.


Other books in the In Death series

Born In Death
Celebrity In Death
Ceremony In Death
Concealed In Death
Devoted In Death
Divided In Death
Festive In Death
Glory In Death
Haunted In Death
Immortal In Death
Indulgence In Death
Innocent In Death
Interlude In Death
Judgment In Death
Midnight In Death
Missing In Death
Naked In Death
Obsession In Death
Origin In Death
Rapture In Death
Reunion In Death
Salvation In Death
Strangers In Death
Survivor In Death
Treachery In Death
Vengeance In Death
Visions In Death

Mood Over Matter in the Worthwhile but Messy LOST RIVER




Pros: Commanding visuals and overall weirdness make it fascinating for those with adventurous tastes Cons: Lacks a strong story and narrative; absolutely NOTHING like the typical Gosling movie

Featured prominently at 2015’s South by Southwest Film Festival after having premiered at Cannes in 2014, Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s debut effort as a director, has polarized audiences ever since, and it’s not difficult to see why. A vaguely futuristic (is this what America is going to be like in a few years???) and very dark tale about a single mother and her two sons who live in squalor in a section of America that’s clearly been passed over during any supposed economic recovery, Gosling’s film is about as far removed from the sort he typically acts in as can be imagined, reminding me of something Harmony Korine might make. That alone should tell you something about what to expect here: this would have positively no appeal to the rom-com crowd – or those who enjoy blockbuster films in general for that matter. iInstead, Lost River might just be the grimy and unsettling piece that fans of David Lynch’s peculiar brand of cinema have been looking for, an artistically satisfying, visually striking piece that’s as perplexing as it is clumsy. lost-river-01 Living in a dilapidated, graffiti-covered section of America (the film was made in Detroit – and it shows), single mother Billy is about to lose the rundown house she lives in with her two boys due to foreclosure. A particularly seedy banker gives her a potential way out however, offering her a job at a weirdo nightclub that he operates which caters to, well, specific tastes. Meanwhile, her teenage son named Bones is having troubles of his own – a vicious crimelord named Bully has put a stop to his copper-stripping operation, leaving him to fend for himself in an effort to make a few bucks. While talking to a female neighbor named Rat, Bones learns that a nearby reservoir hides the remnants of a town which was flooded during its construction, and eventually comes to believe that the flooded town may hold a sort of mystical power that can provide his family with the means they need to escape their troubling surroundings before it’s too late.

To be completely honest, Gosling’s story is very difficult to come to grips with while watching the film and his script is easily the worst element of the picture. Confused and plain messy, it seems to be a cut and paste collection of scenes more than a consistent or remotely coherent narrative, and the fact that so much of what is seen in Lost River was tackled in works by the likes of Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn, and others winds up being problematic – viewers well-versed in the dark side of cinema would have seen much of what’s here before. Hell, I could make an argument that Gosling’s picture very much resembles Refn’s Fear X, an intriguing little film which was universally misunderstood by critics and audiences to the point that it nearly ended the director’s career, or even Andrei Tarkovsky’s divisive Stalker. Like those pictures, Lost River is much more concerned with establishing a quietly creepy atmosphere than with giving the audience much in the way of answers or even a logical story arc. This ultimately means that many viewers will simply be baffled by this film – it’s just not at all designed for viewers with mainstream tastes. lost-river-official-stills-billy-04 Those willing to allow themselves to fall under the spell cast by the film are likely to enjoy Gosling’s effort quite a bit however. Photographed extraordinarily well by frequent Gasper Noé collaborator Benoît Debie, the film is plain gorgeous to look at, chock full of astounding and memorable visuals which include many repeated motifs which foreshadow events that happen later. Odd camera angles and vantage points are utilized extensively, a fact which only accentuates disorienting nature of the picture and heightens its level of eerieness. Since a large portion of this film takes place in underlit or flat-out dark environments, instances of vivid color are all the more arresting and eye-catching. Considering the way in which many of today’s directors relish shots of gore and bloodshed, I appreciated the fact that, although there are some scenes of intense violence, Gosling chooses to show the effects of the violence more than the act itself  – which actually makes these moments more shocking since a viewer’s imagination fills in the gaps. maxresdefault I thought the acting here was generally decent. Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks seems a bit overwhelmed playing Billy, appearing to be as confused in her portrayal as some viewers are likely to be with the film. Some of this is intentional and works in context, but I’m not entirely convinced that Hendricks knew where to go with the character at certain points – more the fault of the muddled script and unsure director than hers. Iain De Caestecker, playing her son Bones, is frankly given more to work with in the script and fares better in his performance. While Billy is left to go about her business, the film mainly focuses its attention on how Bones views and is affected by what’s going on around him and DeCaestecker is up to the task of relating the character’s fragile emotional state. Saoirse Ronan (playing Rat) provides about the only genuinely bright character in the piece, and though she comes across as a fairy-like being who guides Bones toward his destiny, it’s refreshing that the film didn’t go overboard with the inevitable romance between the two. As the villains, we have Matt Smith playing Bully and Ben Mendelsohn as the slimy and nefarious banker named Dave who makes the viewer’s skin crawl whenever he’s onscreen. Finally, former scream queen Barbara Steele appears as Rat’s comatose grandmother – it’s cool to see her here, but she’s wasted in a very minimal, thankless role. cdn.indiewire.com Boasting a wonderful, John Carpenter-like soundtrack from electronic producer Johnny Jewel, Lost River clearly positions Gosling as a director of note and is a more-than respectable first effort. The film has an almost uncomfortable air of desperation throughout, and is quite harrowing to watch at times. Still, it’s problematic in many respects particularly with regard to the script, indicative of a director’s ambition exceeding his actual ability at an early point in his career. Idiosyncratic and just plain weird, this is a ready-made cult film that will undoubtedly leave a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths – and may be downright shocking to those accustomed to seeing Gosling involved in more wholesome, mainstream entertainment. Personally, I liked this film but it seems tailor-made to suit my (admittedly outlandish) tastes. Though I’d certainly recommend Lost River to adventurous viewers looking for something unusual, those in the market for a sure-handed, purposeful piece may as well avoid it like the plague. lost-river-film-ryan-gosling 6/10 : Though not nearly as graphic as some films out there, the violence in this film is rather disturbing and the film as a whole is very unsettling. 7/10 : Generally pointless use of harsh four-letter profanity: almost seems like a case of having the language thrown in to secure an R-rating right off the bat. 4/10 : What it lacks in actual nudity or onscreen sex, the film tries to make up for in sleazy implications. 8/10 : A genuinely strange movie (and ready-made cult film) that would be an acquired taste – at best – for many. That said, I dug it. “Everybody’s looking for a better life somewhere…maybe you will find some, someday…”

Claymation Gone Horribly Wrong: BARBIE GETS SAD TOO


a.k.a. Barbie también puede estar triste


Pros: Outrageous and crude

Cons: In the end, it’s fairly pointless

Ever wonder what happens behind closed doors in the Barbie universe? Argentinian filmmaker Albertina Carri (yes, a female) lets the viewer behind that curtain in her Spanish-language 2002 short Barbie También Puede Estar Triste, most commonly known under the English-language title of Barbie Gets Sad Too. The film plays out as a sort of pornographic soap opera revolving around the characters of Barbie and Ken, the main two dolls in the well-known toy line.


While usually thought of as the perfect couple, Carri’s script places this pair into a sort of sex-obsessed melodrama in which hotshot businessman Ken fools around with every female in sight while his wife Barbie sits at home moping. After reaching her breaking point when she learns of Ken’s most recent tryst with a floozy named Arbie (virtually all the characters in the film are named after some variation of “Barbie” or “Ken”), Barbie seeks solace in the arms of the maid Teresa, who turns out to have some interesting romantic habits of her own since she shares her flat with a transsexual named Trabie and her bisexual butcher of a husband named Keno. In a world gone completely horny, will anything work out for the relatively “normal” Barbie?

Produced using stop-motion techniques and featuring manipulated, anatomically-correct figures topped with heads pulled off of Barbie dolls, Barbie Gets Sad Too is probably among the most crude and outrageous animated productions ever made – Ralph Bakshi’s controversial and frequently X-rated features from the ‘70s don’t got nothing on this short. Carri’s film packs in more jaw-dropping sex scenes than most any film imaginable this side of a Japanese pink film and is exceedingly graphic – and downright tasteless – to boot, this despite the fact that the action revolves around jerky manipulation of clay effigies. When a viewer witnesses a three-way between two males and a transsexual playing out to laid-back island music or a scene in which Ken violently assaults his girlfriend with a rubber phallus, one can only stare at the screen in disbelief. The short actually reminds me a bit of the very politically-incorrect pornography from the late ‘70s, and the prevalence of close up “action shots” makes the comparison with actual pornography all but inevitable.


In terms of the technique on display here, Barbie Gets Sad Too is down and dirty filmmaking at its most amateurish. While the actual manipulation of the dolls is handled in clever manner and the foul-mouthed voice acting is arguably the most humorous element of the production, the stop-motion animation overall seems to have been photographed at a relatively slow speed, leading to a very jerky sense of flow. Additionally, though the dolls themselves are decent in terms of their construction and the miniaturized “interiors” seen during the film are genuinely nifty, matte drawings used to depict the outside world are undeniably lousy, adding a level of sloppiness to the piece that gradually becomes bothersome.

If you have to ask, you’ll never know…

The biggest problem for me, however, was the fact that several amusing moments couldn’t disguise the fact that there didn’t seem to be much of a point to the short. It’s worth noting that Barbie Gets Sad Too is actually writer/director Carri’s second adult-oriented animated doll short, so maybe it would work better in the context of the first part, which I haven’t seen. Regardless, as would be expected from an individual episode of a soap opera, the story is never truly resolved. Even if no one is likely to get bored during the film’s scant 22-minute runtime, the program as a whole ultimately lacks substance, seeming to be a piece that’s outrageous just for the sake of being outrageous.

In the end, I’d call this a moderately enjoyable oddity that’s probably worth a look for the viewer out there who’s seen it all. Carri’s film is also something that seems to have been a bit ahead of its time – this is exactly the sort of thing that I could see becoming a viral hit in today’s internet-dominated cultural landscape, particularly among those who get a kick out of those “worst of the worst” type videos of the “Two Girls, One Cup” variety. Barbie Gets Sad Too is no masterpiece, but there’s undoubtedly a crowd out there who would find it of interest.

It’ll never be the same again…

Essentially unreleased, this underground film can be viewed in its entirety on the internet.

5/10 : Despite the fact that it deals with clay figures, this is definitively adult in terms of its themes and imagery.

8/10 : Plenty of spicy language, including strong crude dialogue and profanity.

10/10 : Intense, very graphic sexual situations though I can’t see much of anyone getting turned on by this.

10/10 : It’s no wonder that Mattel tried to have this film banned due to the “damage” it could wreak on their lineup of popular toys.

“Can’t you see that you’re sick?”

Nathan’s Run – Decent (if unrealistic) thriller

Nathan’s Run by John Gilstrap




Pros: exciting story

Cons: unrealistic portrayal of a child, extreme levels of violence

It’s a thriller.  But it’s a bit different from the typical book in the genre.

I’m referring to Nathan’s Run by John Gilstrap.  What makes it so different?  It’s about a twelve-year-old.

The premise is as simple as can be.  Nathan escapes from juvie after killing a guard, and is now on the run.  The police are hunting for him and more bodies will pile up before all is said and done.

Simple premise, right?

But trust me, it’s not as simple as it sounds.  Because while we read all about the hunt for Nathan from the point of view of the authorities, it’s the half of the story that’s told from Nathan’s point of view that will tug at your heart.  For we will know the real story.  And trust me, this is not black-and-white.  There are a lot of extenuating circumstances to consider.  And, if nothing else, Nathan’s Run will give its readers a thing or two to think about.

Gilstrap did some clever things. I loved the use of the nationally syndicated radio show to allow Nathan to have a voice to the public.  I enjoyed the legal situation facing the radio station, in terms of whether to give up its phone records or not.  And I very much enjoyed the back-story of the one policeman chasing Nathan who actually wants to consider all of the angles before jumping to any conclusions.

But this is not to say that the perfect – it’s not.  I felt that Nathan’s character was written more like a sixteen-year-old than a twelve-year-old.  Some of his thoughts and actions simply did not read like a child, but someone far wiser.  As a result, his journey felt more like a fantasy ride than an actual thriller.  If he wanted the story to ring of any truth at all, Gilstrap needed to make Nathan a bit older, or he needed to tone him down into more of a typical kid.

Finally, be forewarned – there is an extreme amount of graphic violence in this book. Despite being about a twelve-year-old, this book is NOT for kids.  Given the level of violence, it’s not even for some adults, quite frankly.

Still, Nathan’s Run is an exciting book, and I definitely wanted to know how it would all turn out.  Give it a try, but know going in what you’re in for.


TRUE SUPERNATURAL on Destination America Channel


Pros: Interesting subject matter

Cons: …oh, it’s another one of shows…

Midway through a third season of Mountain Monsters that’s proven to be the most absurd yet, the Destination America channel has unleashed a mostly straight-faced program dealing with mysteries and monsters that provides an alternate to watching supposed investigator “Wild Bill” Neff grill corn on the engine block in his Ford or explain his tendency to name his push mowers after American presidents. Though its name might indicate that it falls more in line with the many “Ghost Hunter” shows out there, True Supernatural has more in common with Science Channel’s The Unexplained Files since it seems to be more wide-reaching in its approach, tackling most any subject that exists outside the realms of normal explanation.

Gee…d’ya suppose they’re going to drag out that dead “Chupacabra” again at some point?

Featuring the usual assortment of reenactments, talking head interviews and a spattering of actual “evidence,” the series premiered on April 8, 2015 with an episode that covered a pair of stories, at least one of which should be very familiar to paranormal enthusiasts – the alien abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill. Occurring in 1961, this incident is regarded as the first of its kind, and the program does its part to provide a (relatively toned-down) crash course in the particulars of the case. The other point of focus for the debut episode is the so-called “Rocky Mountain Demon Wolf.” After years of anecdotal reports, many of which came from AmerIndians, a bizarre, hyena-like creature actually was shot and killed in the late 1800s. After being lost for decades, the preserved carcass of the creature was recently rediscovered, leading to renewed interest in trying to identify the beast.

you'd look like that too
You’d have that morose too if you’d been kidnapped by aliens….

Like many other modern Unsolved Mystery-type programs, a main idea of True Supernatural is to apply science to these enigmatic stories. In the case of the Hill abduction, this mainly involves DNA analysis of the dress that Betty was wearing when the alleged abduction occurred. Past examinations of the article have revealed strange, pink-colored stains in certain areas which were reportedly handled by the extraterrestrial beings, yet new scientific techniques may be able to provide new information and maybe even an explanation as to what actually occurred more than five decades ago. The carcass of the “demon wolf” is also subjected to expert analysis during the course of this episode, although a squabble over ownership of the specimen has hampered efforts to test the remains.

beast of gevaudan
The Beast of Gevaudan which terrorized France in the 1700s – could the “demon wolf” killed in the late 1800s be a similar, unknown creature?

While all this actual science sounds great – and believe you me, the narration throughout the program does its best to “sell” the potential bombshells that analysis could reveal, I don’t think I’m really giving anything away by revealing that nothing much comes out of any of the hoopla put forth in the show. As is standard with regard to this type of speculative documentary, a viewer is left with more questions than definitive answers once everything is said and done – which isn’t necessarily a bad call considering how willing some people are to declare that a conspiracy is going on if science doesn’t provide the answers that they are looking for. If True Supernatural finishes things off by not explaining everything, all possibilities still exist…which means that the believers out there can keep on believing.


Another area in which True Supernatural is quite similar to other programs of this sort is in its choice of subject matter. Browsing a brief list of future episodes, it seems like the producers have chosen to cover a nice variety of topics, alternating between stories about genuine mysteries and ones dealing with unknown creatures such as Bigfoot. Considering how popular monster/cryptozoology shows have been in recent years, this seems like a good call, but I’m forced to again go back to a point I’ve made before: how many times can these programs cover the same sorts of material? Is there honestly anything new to be added to these arguments…or perhaps I should ask whether additional scientific testing will reveal anything earth-shattering. In covering the same topics that have been explored elsewhere, True Supernatural, like many shows before it, seems mostly to be recycling material, which doesn’t much make for ground-breaking television as far as I’m concerned.


What is somewhat new is this program’s format: instead of using the usual investigative report format in which the show is broken down into separate segments, True Supernatural presents both stories covered in its episodes concurrently. This does mix up the (very tiresome) formula one might expect in a show of this nature, but I don’t think it’s an especially effective way to relate information. The debut episode seemed a bit awkward as it randomly switched back and forth between its topics, and I also found that the omnipresent narration was extremely repetitive, apparently designed specifically for viewers made brain-dead through exposure to too much awful reality television. To be completely honest, this program drags significantly and seems almost entirely to be composed of material that’s little more than glorified filler. Once the background information into the Hill case and demon wolf was presented, the episode proceeded to repeat information ad nauseum in an attempt to build anticipation for a “big reveal” moment that simply didn’t materialize nor actually provide any new information. The question then becomes why anyone would waste an hour watching a show that could easily cram its information and arguments into about a fifteen minute block.

Cue the Bigfoot episode now for maximum tie-in value!

If anything has been proven over the years since In Search Of…, it’s that so-called “paranormal television” provides a reliable – and increasingly easy – way to get butts in the seat. Hell, even if most of these shows are complete bunk and aren’t at all what I would label as being good television, I can’t help but be fascinated by the subjects they cover. In the end then, I suppose that True Supernatural provides a viewer with exactly what he would want from a show of this nature. It’s not a great series by a long shot and almost certainly won’t solve any longstanding mysteries as it goes along, but there’s no doubt it would appeal to curious viewers.


Jury Double by Edward Stewart – great premise, disappointing story

Jury Double by Edward Stewart




Pros: exciting premise

Cons: turned out to be a real disappointment

A bit of a convoluted mess, quite frankly.

I’m talking about Jury Double by Edward Stewart.

Reading the back cover, I was intrigued.  A pair of identical twin sisters.  One convinces the other to take her place on jury duty.  I was expecting an exciting story about the consequences that sometimes occur as a result of a seemingly simple decision.  In this case, I thought there would be huge ramifications in store for the sisters.

Instead, what we got was a mess of a story, that wasn’t all that exciting.  Sure, the switcheroo had its consequences.  But that was a very small part of the story.  The rest of the story unfolded without anything to do with the jury switch.  In other words, the very premise that hooked me ended up being of very little consequence to the story.

You’ve got a cult-leader bad guy.  Accused of a terrorist-style bombing, and murdering an elderly couple.  You’ve got the cult-leader’s devoted follower – someone who is easily manipulated into doing the bad guy’s bidding.  And you’ve got a court trial that appears to be run by a bunch of clowns.  Neither the prosecutor nor the defense council seem to have an ounce of professionalism.  And, of course, you’ve got the twins.  One serving on the jury, and the other – well – she’s got an agenda of her own.  Let’s just say there’s a reason why she wanted her sister to take her place.

But then you have some really dumb things going on.  The worst was sister Kyra.  The one who was supposed to be on jury duty.  If you’re going to switch places with your sister then don’t show up – as yourself – all over town.  Don’t be seen.  Or, if you must be seen, then at least pretend to be your sister.  Otherwise, how long will it take before someone notices that you’re in two places at once?

Then there’s Anne – the sister who’s serving on the jury – she’s actually pretty smart.  She manages to outsmart the legal system time and time again.  Supposedly under guard while sequestered for the trial, she sure manages to flout the rules!  Now I’ve never been sequestered, but I imagine there’s a bit more security surrounding the jurors than what Edward Stewart would have us believe in this book!

In the end, there’s a messy, convoluted story that eventually comes through.  But, honestly, I just didn’t care anymore.  I was really intrigued to read about the jury-switch, and that turned out to be a minor part of the story.  And the rest of the story just bored me.  Skip Jury Double.


Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe




Pros: engaging African children’s story

Cons: none for what it is

At the start of Chike and the River, the eleven-year-old title character moves from the Igbo Umuofia (Achebe’s native town and the site of his breakthrough 1958 novel Things Fall Apart) to the city of Onitsha on the Niger River, living with his uncle and going to an English-language school. Though his mother warned him to stay away from the river, Chike becomes obsessed with riding a ferry back and forth across the Niger (Asaba is on the other side, not notably different from Onitsha to Chike), before a bridge renders the ferry obsolete. The problem is not the boy who does not know how to swim fearing drowning, but lack of the three-pence each way for passage on the ferry. “Chike was so anxious to find the money for his trip across the river that he very nearly went into bad ways.” –

 Before he achieves his goal, which leads directly to new terror on a lorry he chose as a safe place to seep, Chike fords a stream with water up to his chest, learns to ride a bicycle, learns to play football (soccer), and observes some shady urban characters.

Achebe wrote the book for his daughter when she was learning to read (ca. 1966; it was published in South Africa, but not in the US until 2011) because she was assigned nothing not written by and about white people. It does not seem to have occurred to Achebe that to fashion something for his daughter with “characters just like her, living lives just like hers” might have related more easily to a female African character than to a male one. The male focus of his other fiction written before the catastrophic Biafra secession war recurs here.

The novella was written for a pre-teen about a pre-teen, but it has some of the same conflicts (albeit with a happier ending) as Things Fall Apart: social change in Nigeria (which became independent in 1960 and has not been well-governed as one kleptocracy has succeeded another (“black stooges” for the old masters in Achebe’s words) and Biafaran secession in 1967 was brutally suppressed). Achebe-chinua

The book includes a forerunner (by long-distance snail-mail) of young Nigerians trying to scam naïve foreigners. The American edition has mostly red and black woodblock-like illustrations by Edel Rodriguez. (His cover caught my eye in the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum. I thought I had read all Achebe’s novels and was surprised to see a 2011 one — which was really a 1966 children’s book —, so I was right that I had read all his novels, plus a collection of stories).


Neo-noir/paranoid East Texas thriller

Cold in July (2014)



Pros: cast  Cons: plausibility

“Cold in July” (2014, directed by horror-movie director Jim Mickle from a Joe R. Lansdale novel set in1989 in East Texas (but not filmed there) is puzzling in several ways. Genre is one: it’s a sort of detective story, eventually including a PI, and sort of a horror movie, but I would class it as a pulpy neo-noir at the paranoid thriller end of the noir perspective (with some black humor). A lot of it takes place at night and official conspiracy is at the center of the movie.

The motivations of the protagonist, Richard Dane (played by Michael C. Hall with none of the self-confidence of Dexter Morgan), puzzle me and the movie fails to deliver an explanation of the set-up, what Richard sought to find out.

It is difficult to discuss the movie without plot-spoiling, so I’ll just say that the other two male characters (in their order of appearance)—Russell, played by a laconic Sam Shepard and Jim Bob played by Don Johnson—are also very good. The main female role, Ann Dane (played by Vinessa Shaw) is underwritten: mostly a nag with some moments of fear.

There is some very graphic violence and the frustration of plot holes and implausibility. The local police (headed by screenwriter Nick Damici as Ray Price) might perhaps do what they are shown doing, but there would need to be some reason and none is provided by Damici’s screenplay, which Lansdale (in a Q&A included as a bonus feature) says stuck closely to his novel, more so than he had expected.


I’m surprised that Johnson did not  get an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. His character recurs in other Lansdale novels, so there may be sequels with Johnson?