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PJG has commented on (3) products.

Promises in Death by J. D. Robb
Promises in Death

PJG, April 2, 2009

Promises in Death is the latest installment in this excellent series. This time Eve on is the trail of a cop killer. The murder hits close to home because the victim is the lover of Medical Examiner Morris. There is plenty of tension and plot momentum as Eve relentlessly pursues the killer, but there are also the great vignettes that we have come to enjoy as Robb brings back the supporting characters we have grown to love (who were so sadly lacking in the previous installment).

All in all a very solid addition to an excellent series. Robb manages to keep the series alive and, with only a couple of exceptions, these characters don't get stale. Can't wait until the next one.
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Drood by Dan Simmons

PJG, March 30, 2009

(2.5 Stars) While preparing a review for this book, I was reminded of the familiar observation that dogs and their masters often resemble each other.

This observation can be applied just as well when comparing Drood to its Narrator.

Although the title suggests differently, Drood is not so much a tale of Charles Dickens or the enigmatic Drood (who makes an excellent first appearance in the early pages); instead it is a story of complete and utter excess - all kinds of excess. In fact, an excess of excess. It seems that all of the Seven Deadly Sins have more than ample representation in this one single volume. I cannot think of one primary character in the book whose excesses are not explored and I find it to be the one theme that binds this overlong story together.

While the excesses of both Dickens and Drood (and all the other characters) have their places in the story, its primary focus is upon the Narrator, Wilkie Collins, whose gradual descent into madness, moral decay and complete degradation, is described in unrelenting and, yes, excessive detail. His voice as Narrator is at first quite interesting as he plays Watkins to Charles Dickens' Sherlock. As we come to know Collins, we appreciate his literary mind, powers of observation and skills in recounting events; and we are happy to follow the story through his eyes - at least at first.

But his is a mind embedded in a quivering mound of weak flesh born of unhealthy appetites. Collins' terrible gout (which he fully recognizes as a byproduct of his unhealthy lifestyle and lack of discipline) can only be assuaged by copious amounts of laudanum; a drug that gives him more than a helping hand in his mental deterioration, which, like everything else in Drood, is depicted in rather excruciating (and tedious) detail. Indeed, excess defines Collins' existence...his enormous appetite for food, wine and drugs finds its match in his so-called "love life"; for Collins is not satisfied with just one mistress - oh no - he has two. And his laudanum consumption? Well, it seems to be a source of real pride to him that he consumes in one dose an amount that would be fatal to anyone else. However, the capstone of his excess lies in his intense envy of his friend, Charles Dickens, which proves to be the straw that breaks Collins' back and precipitates the tortured avenues he embarks upon.

The entire novel becomes an accounting of Collins' slide down his own slippery slope, a slope that he almost throws himself into, madly and chillingly embracing each step of degradation from one to the next. Anyone who wants a grinding, unrelenting accounting of the quote "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" will find more than enough grist for that mill in this book.

Getting back to the dog and master observation, the book itself is the mirror image of its Narrator. It is impossible to tell which is the dog and which is the master because they are snarled up in each other, both getting in the way of the other. The book itself suffers from a severe case of gout and excess; its numerous pages filled with the bloat of too many details, meandering plot threads, unnecessary elaborations, tedious sidebars and so on...and on...and on.

Now, I love Dan Simmons' writing and his books and I also love very long books in which I can immerse myself, but a book has to have momentum - and this book, sadly, does not. By the time you get to the "twist", you really don't care anymore. What you really want is for the book to come to an end so that you don't have to spend any more time with any of these characters. Instead of intriguing you, they have bored you and you are ready to pull the (book)covers over them.

Oh, and Drood? The character upon which the book is supposed to be based? He does make a few appearances, but, other than his initial appearance after the train crash (which is a perfect example of the fine and compelling writing skills Simmons possesses), alas, he is gradually crushed into pale nothingness under the sheer weight of the story and characters wrapped around him. It is ironic that the title character is the weakest and least interesting member of the cast. Yes, Drood is supposed to be elusive and enigmatic and his very existence is supposed to be always in question and doubt; however, even an idea or a belief can be perceived and portrayed as just as "real" as reality itself. Unfortunately, Drood fails to become either. He isn't even real enough to attain apparition status. Indeed, as you read Drood, you will find yourself forgetting the title character completely, and for me, this is the biggest failure of the book

What is so unfortunate is that there is an excellent story buried in all this muck and gout. A talented editor, by shaving off a good 300-350 pages, could have produced an intriguing book full of Victorian atmosphere combined with a tight storyline and an intense momentum, all of which would have swept the reader along right through to the end, at which time the reader would have released a great sigh of satisfaction.

Reading Drood is like over-indulging in a meal composed of the finest dishes and accompanied by the finest wines; instead of feeling fulfilled and satiated, one feels as if some Alka-Seltzer and a long nap are required in order to sleep off the inevitable soporific aftereffects.

For me, this book rates 2.5 Stars. Had it been put on the diet it so sorely needed, it would have rated 4 Stars.
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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog

PJG, March 29, 2009

(4.5 Stars) Reflect for a moment upon the hedgehog - that small, prickly, reclusive little creature. When feeling safe and secure, the quills of the hedgehog lie flat against its body, but when threatened in any way, this little animal quickly curls itself into a small ball, protecting its soft underbelly, bravely extending its sharp quills outward to ward off all that might threaten it. How elegant is nature.

So are we all like versions of the hedgehog; guarding our innermost thoughts and feelings, protecting our vulnerabilities behind an emotional armor of sharp little spines. For which one of us, after being hurt in some way, have not curled in upon ourselves, forming tight little balls, all quills standing firmly out, in order to protect ourselves from a future encounter? Only, sometimes for us (unlike the hedgehog), the fear of the past or the trepidation of the future keeps us curled in that tight little ball, warding off all who would trespass into our hearts - and make us care again.

This observation is exquisitely, yet so quietly, expressed as in Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". In contrast to other finely written books in which the prose flashes and sparkles like sharply etched facets of a brilliant diamond, the softly glowing quality of Barbery's prose more closely resembles that of a luminous pearl, quietly hidden within its oyster home. I found myself reading passages more than once, simply to experience the beauty, harmony and symmetry of those lines.

Like pearls within oysters, Renee and Paloma are the two protagonists and we come to know them through their journals, the only place where they open their minds and souls, pouring their thoughts and feelings into lines and lines of prose that only they will ever read. Although vastly different in age (Renee is 54 and Paloma is 12), they share two important similarities: 1) they have perfected the art of the "hedgehogdom", having both retreated inward into the vast richness of their intellects and 2) they have done this out of fear.

We can quickly pick up on Paloma's fear - although she would be the last to admit it as a fear. It is a fear of the mundane, the ordinary, and the commonness of adulthood. She isn't the first teenager who has looked upon adulthood as the time when one's life is essentially over and all that waits is some kind of gradual crumbling of mind and body. But she separates herself from the rest of the teenage crowd in her decision to end her life on her 13th birthday; unless, that is, something, someone or some series of events causes her to change her mind. She isn't exactly sure what that will be, but she feels she will know it if she finds it. Although hers is definitely an over-the-top decision (although she presents her case with seeming detached logic), we realize that such dramatic ruminations are very much a part of growing up. Paloma has a bright and inventive mind, and reading her journal pages is very entertaining, for they are filled with lively accounts of her thoughts and experiences. Some are quite humorous; others shine a light into the future and the sparkling young woman she will become (should she allow herself).

Renee's retreat from the world and the panic she experiences whenever she feels someone comes to close to guessing her "secret" (which is how intelligent and well read she is) is a puzzle. The reasons for her intensely guarded interior existence are harder to fathom, and its elusiveness can be distracting at times as we move through the world she has created on the head of a pin. Her retreat from life would seem to go beyond the grief of a loving husband taken from her and the loneliness of a child whose parents did not understand her. The pieces Renee allows us to see simply do not add up. We cannot put our finger upon what happened to make this particular hedgehog curl so tightly upon herself in the first place or why she has remained so barricaded against the outside world for so many years. We sense there is more to the story than she is willing to acknowledge - even to herself.

Because of their fears - and because curled up hedgehogs aren't very mobile - Renee and Paloma are observers, not participators. They watch, absorb and reflect. But underneath their quite considerable intellect, and all their protestations that keeping to themselves is the perfect state of being for them, they sense that all is not what it should be. In spite of their vast interior resources (books, music, poetry, philosophy, etc.), they understand that theirs is a limited world. In Paloma's case, she views the world as something disappointing in its limitations, a world in which she does not feel there is a point to joining; and therein lays the basis for her decision to end it all at the ripe old age of 13. Renee, as befits a quietly intelligent woman who has experienced some of life's quiet joys and her fair share of poignant sorrows has decided that she has had enough of those kinds of experiences, thank you very much, and she has firmly shut the door upon them. Hers is a deliberate, conscious decision to turn her back upon the outside world and furnish the interiors of her solitary existence with the vast resources of knowledge, beauty and wonder which can be found everywhere - if one but has the discernment (and the willingness to stand still enough) to detect it.

Which makes their blossoming (precipitated by the arrival of a new tenant) all the more of a quietly joyous awakening. It is deeply moving to watch these two prickly, elegant little hedgehogs gradually uncurl, lower their quills and take a cautious look around.

Throughout this lovely book, we are treated to a lyrically expressed ode to the "greatness of the small", an appreciation for the tiniest of things which, in and of themselves, can represent so much beauty - a steaming cup of jasmine tea, a beautifully rendered still life, the lovely, delicate strains of a piano motif. All small, all exquisite.

How disappointing then, to encounter an ending that feels stilted, contrived and inharmonious with the rest of the book. It is almost as if the book is the physical expression of Paloma's fear: an ultimate slide into the mundane, the ordinary. Throughout the book, we have been wafted effortlessly higher and higher, floating upon the luminous prose, gentle, delicately drawn characters and the greatness of the small - that is, until the last pages of the book when our magic carpet drops us to the ground with a disconcerting thud. It feels as if the ending of another book has somehow found its way into this one.

Other reviewers have described the ending as bittersweet. I did not find it to be so. I found it disappointing. Not because of the sudden sorrow introduced, but rather the loss of the glowing pearl this book represented. It loses its magic by employing an ending that, against the beautiful backdrop of the rest of the book, seems elementary, pedestrian and jarringly artificial, plunging the book from the sublime to the shallow. The plunge is all the greater when considering the heights to which this unassuming, luminous, glowing little book floated so effortlessly and yes, elegantly.

For me, this book cried out for a non-ending of sorts - an ending as delicate, uncertain and elusive as the rest of it. The beginning of a blossoming, an awakening, the tentative beginnings of a small, prickly hedgehog just beginning, very slowly and very carefully, uncurling, just a little at a time. Had we left our little hedgehogs in that magical instance of tentative awakening, what a perfect ending that would have been. Instead, the door is crudely slammed shut.

Alas, this gem of a little book, this journey of the interior, this delicate little hedgehog, deserved better.

Still, I urge you to pick up a copy of this book and experience it for yourself.

If you are the kind of reader who loves to underline or highlight beautiful, evocative passages, you will find, as you look back through the pages, that you will have underlined more sentences than otherwise. The writing is that beautiful, that lyrical, that much of a work of art in and of itself. You get the feeling that Ms. Barbery could write an essay on the yellow pages and you'd still be reaching for your pencil...or rereading certain passages just to savor them once more before you turn the page. Perhaps with a cup of tea close at hand.

Read the book for all of its considerable beauty, imagery and meaning. For me it was a richly rewarding experience. If you find the ending to be poignant and bittersweet, so much the better for you; if you do not, don't allow that to detract from your appreciation of this exquisitely-told story.
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