Monday, March 26, 2007

"Jack and Jill" by James Patterson

Despite the title, this is no children's nursery rhyme.

This story has nasty violence, several murders, and, as usual with Patterson, a lot of twists and turns that keep you guessing.

Actually, there are two main plots here. Either one probably could have been the basis for a novel on its own.

One of the main storylines involves the murders of some children at the school one of Alex Cross's children attends. These incidents are very disturbing for the local schoolchildren and their parents. Cross would like to investigate the case, but has to do so with some of his colleagues on his own time. His main job, according to his superiors, is to work with the F.B.I. on another case.

The other case Cross is assigned to is an attempt to track down and apprehend a couple of killers who have been murdering high-profile people in Washington. A politician is one of the first victims, then a media celebrity.

But the killers are playing a kind of game. They leave little notes at the crime scenes, in the form of poems, like sick, twisted nursery rhymes. They call themselves Jack and Jill. And they send messages to the secret service, suggesting they've got something really big planned.

The secret service is concerned that the something big might be a presidential assassination attempt.

As the novel continues, Cross pushes himself hard, trying to solve both cases, with help from some friends.

And then there comes a time when the president decides he can't hide away all the time, that he must continue with his work and make public appearances, despite the risk.

This book has all of Patterson's trademarks in an Alex Cross novel. Intense, fast pacing, short chapters almost all of which deliver another punch, a violent but irresistible plot - it's all here. I enjoyed it as much as the other Alex Cross novels I've read, so if you're a fan of the series, you'll probably like this well enough.

And then there comes a point when it becomes clear that Jack and Jill might have some inside help. Certainly, they have knowledge of how certain things work within the White house. That adds a scary twist.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel was that it delved into situations where the line between good and bad becomes blurred. It turns out that some of the white house staff suspect that one of Jack or Jill might be one of their own, gone wrong. They think it could be an assassin who works for the government, but has turned against them. The fact that such people exist isn't too hard to belive. The fact that such people are required is disturbing, and raises a lot of ethical question. Now, this novel's main purpose isn't to debate that issue in depth, but I felt that this part of the story gave it a worthwhile theme.

*** Spoiler Warning ***

The only criticisms I had, which I've also seen a few other reviewers make, are that Patterson suggests the two cases might be connected, but no particular connection is ever revealed. I wouldn't have minded having the two parallel plots, but to suggest a connection and not deliver one made me feel a little let down, like something I'd been anticipating never arrived.

And, there were some things that made it seem hard to believe Jack and Jill would get away with their crimes, especially some incidents that occur in very public settings. The odds of somebody seeing something, following them, and getting a strong clue seemed a bit high, for killers who keep slipping away from the authorities so well.

Still, it's a good, exciting read - Patterson knows how to entertain his audience; indeed, he's a master of pacing and plotting. You won't be bored for a minute.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"When London Walked in Terror" by Tom A. Cullen (True Crime)

I picked up a paperback copy of this last weekend, when I was in Toronto.

It's about the Jack the Ripper case.

For those of you who may not know, this is a case that remains officially unsolved to this day. Or, if it was solved, those who know the truth never made it publicly known. The case occurred in London, England, in 1888, mainly in an area called Whitechapel. Several prostitutes were murdered, and in some cases mutilated. Or, more accurately, some were more severely mutilated than others.

These details are not pleasant - this isn't a story for people with weak stomachs.

It's non-fiction, but some of the descriptions are written more like scenes from a novel, bringing these events vividly to life in the reader's imagination. I like that, it makes reading about real events more interesting and entertaining than a dry recitation of facts and figures.

Now, I've done a bit of net-surfing, and found out since reading this that there are many other books about the Ripper murders. This one is regarded as a pretty good primer on the basic facts of the case, although there are other, more detailed publications that are considered more definitive among "Ripperologists."

I wonder if there are any other serial murderers with specific "ologies" named after them?

Anyway, I felt that this book served its purpose well. It describes a lot of the known facts of the case, and covers some of the debatable points, making it clear what is known versus what is uncertain. There are many things about the case that are uncertain - there are five victims generally considered to have been murdered by the same person, while other deaths may have been the result of other killers or "copycats."

The book also discusses several of the suspects. Many theories have been put forth about who the Ripper really was. And there is some evidence that some kind of cover-up might have occurred, since after a particularly brutal murder and mutilation, the killings stopped by so did the police investigation.

Whitechapel was a poor area of London, filled with people literally living hand-to-mouth day by day, desperately trying to scrape together enough money for a bed for the night. But, many people think the Ripper must have been someone who knew the area, but probably didn't live there, because people living in the area typically slept in shared accommodations. The Ripper must have had a private room somewhere to disappear to and dispose of evidence.

Near the end of the book, the author presents some details of the life of one suspect, who may have been the Ripper - but, that's just one theory, and we'll probably never know the truth.

All in all, this was a good read, and a good primer on the case, I'd never really read any books about Jack the Ripper before. But, it's not a pleasant or happy story, don't read this if you can't stomach the descriptions of the killings and mutilations.

My New Blog

I'm in a book club at my place of work, and we have a discussion group in our e-mail system. I used to regularly post reviews there on books I've read. There was only one problem. I couldn't always discuss certain aspects of the books I wanted to talk about, if they dealt explicitly with religion, sex, or other topics that might not be very appropriate for the workplace.

So, this is my new blog where I'll post my thoughts on things I've read.

Now, there's a reason why I like writing out my thoughts on books I read. To me, it's a worthwhile exercise because it makes me think about what I've read, articulate what's good about a book, and remember it in detail. And since I'm not just a reader, but an aspiring writer, too, I feel there's value in doing this.

I know some people disagree with me, and say that published writers don't have time to write book reviews. That may be true, but it's not like I spend all day doing this, I can usually write up my thoughts on something I've read in about half an hour or so.

Anyway, I'll give this a try and see how it goes.