Sunday, 28 March 2010

Movie Review: Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Back in 1970, this must have seemed like a good idea: infuse modern anti-war cultural elements into a World War II movie to appeal to the hippie and flower-child audience of the day.

Hence Donald Sutherland as Oddball (indeed) is a laid-back, seemingly perpetually stoned tank commander. The rag-tag soldiers under his command are doing all they can to sit-out the war, living in a tent compound that can only be described as a hippie commune. In future Hollywood war films, characters like Sutherland and his anti-authoritarian crew make regular appearances in movies about the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. In the World War II setting of Kelly's Heroes, they are jarringly out of place. The main song of the movie, "Burning Bridges", is also straight out of the late 1960's and totally irrelevant to the World War II era.

Thankfully, Kelly's Heroes also offers Clint Eastwood as Private Kelly. Eastwood brings his typical restrained but tough persona to the war arena as the demoted Sergeant who, in the days after D-Day, stumbles onto the location of 14,000 bars of Nazi gold stored in the small town of Clermont, 30 miles behind enemy lines in France. He hatches a plan for a small force of disenchanted US soldiers to strike out on their own, defy orders, breakthrough the German lines and steal the gold from the bank where it is held. His reluctant companion is Big Joe, a Master Sergeant effectively brought to life by Telly Savalas.

As rumours of the gold spread, Kelly's small force unwittingly mushrooms into a full-fledged breakthrough of the German lines through which a large chunk of the allied army starts streaming in. What starts as a theft is transformed into a race to the bank before the American army unit arrives to liberate the town.

Kelly's Heroes is not trying to be serious, and it is does contain several memorable action sequences and some impressive explosions. Director Brian G. Hutton keeps the action moving and allows his stars time to stamp their personalities on proceedings. The final battle between Kelly's unit and the small armoured German force tasked with defending the bank is also well choreographed, with a nice blend of action and humour, and Hutton finds time to weave in a clever salute to Eastwood's Spaghetti Western roots.

Eastwood and Savalas are capably supported by a colourful cast that includes Don Rickles as a supply sergeant, and Carroll O'Connor as the General who spots the opportunity to exploit the gap created by Kelly's expedition.

Kelly's Heroes would have a made quite a solid comic-oriented war movie; the artificial imposition of a 1960's ethos unfortunately both undermines and unhinges the film. Oddball is not just the name of Sutherland's character -- it's an apt description of the movie itself.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

CD Review: Painkiller, by Judas Priest (1990)

After a decade in the doldrums, Judas Priest are suddenly reborn with an album of outstanding high quality. For a band formed in 1969 and with a first record released in 1974, Painkiller is nothing short of remarkable.

It is no coincidence that Scott Travis joined the band on drums for the creation of the album. Finally, Judas Priest found themselves with a heavy metal drummer worthy of the name. His booming, crushing drum sound propels Painkiller towards heights that the band had never achieved before. It is absolutely no accident that the first two tracks, Painkiller and Hell Patrol, both open with massive drum intros. Imagine an artillery barrage that levels -- no, scorches -- the terrain before the tanks and soldiers move into battle: that's what Travis achieves at the front end of this album.

Also no coincidence that Priest discarded the unfortunately bland producer Tom Allom for this recording. Chris Tsangarides takes over behind the controls, and re-invents the band with a much deeper, fuller and more menacing sound.

The lead guitar work on Painkiller is several notches above the material that Judas Priest wallowed in for most of the 1980's. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton all of a sudden have a focus and sharpness that was often so elusive. The solos carry a melody and integrate perfectly with the songs.

Rob Halford, in his farewell appearance with Priest before his departure to pursue other projects, never sounded better. He stays within control and makes good use of both his low range and trademark high pitch.

There is a maturity, darkness and dangerous power on Painkiller that leaves not just the Priest of the 1980's behind, but all of the metal of the 80's in the rearview mirror. In many ways, Painkiller is the bridge between the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the Death Metal sound that was to emerge from Europe in the latter part of the 1990's. If anything, Painkiller was an album a few years ahead of its time.

The title track, Painkiller, is probably among metal's most perfect compositions, ever. An outstanding epic, it combines barely-in-control speed with over-the-top power without ever losing the laser focus on the chilling end-of-the-world demon at the center of the song. It is a measure of the band's sudden progress and maturity that Halford takes no less than 5 long and dangerous seconds to deliver the line "" as the centrepiece of the song's manic chorus while the band produces absolute carnage at breakneck speed behind him on each occasion.

There are plenty of other excellent tracks on the album, particularly at the back-end, including Hell Patrol, Night Crawler, Between the Hammer and the Anvil, and One Shot at Glory. But make no mistake, great as these tracks area, they all live in the shadow of the Painkiller.


Rob Halford - Vocals
K. K. Downing - Guitar
Glenn Tipton - Guitar
Ian Hill - Bass
Scott Travis - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Painkiller - 10 *See video below*
2. Hell Patrol - 9
3. All Guns Blazing - 8
4. Leather Rebel - 7
5. Metal Meltdown - 7
6. Night Crawler - 9
7. Between the Hammer and the Anvil -10
8. A Touch of Evil - 10
9. Battle Hymn - n/a (short instrumental intro to Track 10)
10. One Shot At Glory - 10

Average: 8.89

Produced by Judas Priest and Chris Tsangarides.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Book Review: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (1939)

The Big Sleep is a richly textured, mind-bending detective novel that exudes a remarkably cool vibe. A good 80 years after it was written, it remain a gripping, super-charged thriller with a brilliant set of characters and a stunningly convoluted plot.

Add in pornography, blackmail, murder, gambling, gangsters, homosexual relationships, drugs, mental cases and sex addiction in a world where the rich and loose collide with the rough and tumble, and The Big Sleep just rocks.

At the middle of it all is private detective Philip Marlowe, narrating events in the first person with a sardonic eye for detail, picking up on the slightest glint in the eye, curl at the mouth and distant sound in the night. Every detail in The Big Sleep matters, and every seemingly irrelevant character and minute observation will thunder back to prominence.

Marlowe accepts an assignment from the dying millionaire General Sternwood. Carmen, one of the General's daughters, is being blackmailed, and Marlowe is asked to put an end to it.

In the meantime, Rusty Regan, the ex-criminal husband of Vivian, the General's other daughter, has disappeared. The General does not ask Marlow to find Regan, but for some reason, a lot of other people want to know if Marlowe is going to try anyway.

From this already complex starting point, events rapidly spiral pretty much out of control as the body count mounts, all manner of crooks, gunmen, sleazoids, thugs, and female companions show up, and Marlowe has his work cut out for him to stay one step ahead of the flying bullets and the police accusations that wherever he goes, dead bodies are inevitably left behind.

Writing in a smooth, silky style that effortlessly conveys the details of each location and character, Chandler just manages to maintain control of events, although one of the deaths famously remains somewhat unexplained. It just adds to the beautiful chaos; The Big Sleep is a timeless classic boasting in equal measures masterful writing and a brilliant story.

Published in paperback by Vintage.
231 pages.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 37.
The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

Movies: The Academy Gets It Wrong, Again

Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could not recognize true greatness when it stared them in the face. And this time, the greatness was in 3-D, no less.

For the Academy to vote for as The Hurt Locker as Best Picture ahead of Avatar demonstrates a straightforward lack of understanding of what defines greatness. It also demonstrates again that the Academy members are gullible enough to allow Oscar campaigns and a short-term perspective to completely cloud their judgment.

The Hurt Locker is a well-meaning but fairly routine war movie. Strip away the current context of the ongoing war in Iraq, and The Hurt Locker's significance as a movie fades into nothingness. Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, Full Metal Jacket, Hope and Glory, Born on the Fourth of July, Three Kings, Saving Private Ryan...modern war movies all, and a case (a very strong case, for some) can be made that these are all better movies than The Hurt Locker. None were selected as Best Picture.

On the other hand Avatar will be remembered for generations to come as the movie that redefined the art and the science of movie making. Not only will it be talked about as the most successful movie ever, it demonstrated what new 3-D technology is capable of, while creating an intricate new world unlike anything ever seen in the moves before, and effectively combining live acting with state of the art animation. Yes, the plot was corny and contrived in parts, but let's not enter that argument, since The Hurt Locker had no plot. And Avatar, at its essence, has either re-awakened or strengthened a message of environmental and native conservation without the preachiness of documentaries.

In other words, Avatar is a landmark film, that will stand the test of time. The Hurt Locker is, bluntly, not in the same league, and was not even the second best movie of the year; that honour goes to the thoughtful and understated Up In The Air.

Yes, the Oscars are the Academy's baby and they can choose to vote for whomever they want. It is just highly unfortunate that for such an influential industry and art-form, too many small minds who lack an understanding of the international and historical influence and scope of the movies get a vote.


The Academy's choice of The Hurt Locker as Best Picture is a reminder of the truly terrible era between 1977 and 1998 when close to half of the Best Picture winners were overshadowed by better, more significant and in some cases great movies that did not win. Since 1999, the Best Picture winner had been a reasonably acceptable choice...until The Hurt Locker.

The more blatant examples of the Academy getting it wrong between 1977 and 1998:

1977: Annie Hall wins ahead of Star Wars.
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer wins ahead of Apocalypse Now.
1980: Ordinary People wins ahead of Raging Bull.
1981: Chariots of Fire wins ahead of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
1982: Gandhi wins ahead of E.T: The Extra Terrestrial.
1989: Driving Miss Daisy wins ahead of Born on the Fourth of July and Field of Dreams.
1990: Dances With Wolves wins ahead of Goodfellas.
1991: The Silence of the Lambs wins ahead of JFK.
1996: The English Patient wins ahead of Fargo.
1998: Shakespeare In Love wins ahead of Saving Private Ryan.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Movie Review: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

A classic World War II movie, The Dirty Dozen is among the best star-studded, action-packed accounts of fictional missions inspired by the global conflict.

Lee Marvin is the anti-authoritarian US Major Reisman, based in England in the days leading up to the D-Day Normandy invasion. He is tasked with a high-risk behind-enemy-lines-mission: train a unit composed of 12 convicts with sentences of death or long-term imprisonment around their neck; then attack and destroy a chateau in France popular as a retreat for high-ranking German army officers.

Most of the movie is occupied with Reisman training the dozen soldiers, almost all of whom are played by name actors and in some cases present or future stars: Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, and Jim Brown are all here.

Although Cassavetes and Bronson are given the most prominent roles, Sutherland, as the most intellectually challenged of the group, and Savalas, as a racist woman-hating religious nut, are the most memorable.

Director Robert Aldrich keeps the action moving with a straightforward and generally unobtrusive style, alternating scenes of the convicts clashing with Reisman during training with examples of their progression into a fighting unit. The training culminates in a lengthy war-game sequence where the dozen prove their resourcefulness and combat readiness.

The final 45 minutes of the relatively long 140 minute movie depict the actual raid itself, and of course nothing goes as planned. But the tension and action are continuous, and its a pleasant surprise that The Dirty Dozen, unlike most Hollywood fare, allows for a high number of casualties among the good guys. Perhaps this is penance for some pretty brutal killings that they engage in: one needs to be pretty hardened to cheer the extermination of women, albeit German wives and girlfriends, while trapped and cowering in a shelter.

Lee Marvin delivers one of the most famous and popular performances of his career as the renegade Major appropriately given control of the reins of the most renegade of missions. He manages to maintain a strong hold on the core of the film, despite the many other familiar faces and loud explosions swirling all around him.

The Dirty Dozen is not perfect by any means, but its a lot of fun, and it set the standard for many World War II movies that followed.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Book Review: The Last Templar, by Raymond Khoury (2005)

The Last Templar started life as a screenplay and developed into a novel; it certainly reads like a movie.

And that's a big part of the problem.

Author Raymond Khoury tackles the mystery of the ancient secret of the Templars, a brotherhood of knights who accumulated massive power and wealth during the Crusades. Did the Templars hold a secret that allowed them to blackmail the Church?

A bloody and epic museum robbery in modern day New York leads to a breathless adventure for an FBI agent and an archaeologist as they track down the robbers, the killers, and the mystery of the Templars' treasure.

It's a rip-roaring story, but whereas a 2-hour action movie can use time limitations and the need to entertain a captive audience as an excuse for some logic gaps, a 500 page novel simply cannot walk away from providing some pretty basic common sense.

If you really care to avoid all spoilers; stop reading. There are some tough questions ahead:

So how does a catholic priest end up being a cold-blooded murderous CIA agent? How does a tweedy and depressed professor plan and pull-off a daring and bloody horseback raid on the Metropolitan Museum? How does a mother abandon her 9 year old daughter and thrust herself into repeated deadly situations? And why does a taser gun shock result in one character being knocked out for hours, whereas another character is up and running within seconds? How exactly did that buried navigational gizmo identify the location of the shipwreck? Is having an airport x-ray of an ancient code-breaking machine really enough to actually build a fully functioning machine capable of decoding an ancient manuscript? Why do so many characters, from an assortment of FBI agents to clergymen in Rome, simply disappear in the second half of the book? And why do the bad guys always choose the least convenient, but most dramatic, moment to make their entrance?

And so on.

The Last Templar is not helped by characters that are hybrids of some of the worst action movie cliches. No kidding: the characters range from the senior FBI man who's just about to retire and who really did not need this case (really!); to the obscenity-spewing henchman in gambling debt trouble; to the FBI agent haunted by the suicide of his Dad; to the beautiful archaeologist single mom who is apparently brilliant, but who displays remarkable lack of judgment in abandoning her daughter, repeatedly lying to the man she is falling in love with, and trusting an admitted murderer.

Sure, The Last Templar is fast-paced, exciting and an undeniable page-turner. Just don't engage in any critical thinking, ask any difficult questions, or expect anything in the form of originality.

Published in paperback by Signet.
523 pages.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 36.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Book Review: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

San Francisco private detective Sam Spade finds himself embroiled in a complex plot to steal a priceless ancient artifact known as the Maltese Falcon. This jewel-encrusted bird statue is being pursued by a most colourful assortment of thieves: the beautiful but conniving Brigid O'Shaughnessy; the relentless fatman appropriately named Gutman; the heavily perfumed and feminine Joel Cairo; and Wilmer Cook, the ruthless young assassin with a fondness for large guns.

Spade is dragged into the plot by O'Shaughnessy, whose initial approach to Spade immediately results in two dead bodies and the police crawling all over Spade to find out what they can pin on him.

The Maltese Falcon is a hugely influential book, setting the stage for Raymond Chandler's more fully baked novels featuring Philip Marlowe, and stimulating a couple of decades worth of hard boiled detective movies from Hollywood.

It is difficult to separate Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel from the 1941 film adaptation, starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade and directed by John Huston. The movie is as close to a verbatim filming of the book as adaptations get, with the advantage of visually bringing the characters to life using a terrific cast. It is almost impossible to read the book without the mind's eye replaying the movie.

The book is characterized by a straightforward third-person narrative style that is surprisingly dry. Hammett's writing is certainly not fluid. His descriptive text is choppy and somewhat repetitive. He has an endless and somewhat irritating fascination with eyes, often describing the changing of a character's eyes several times within one exchange of dialogue. Characters regularly behave with exaggerated emotion, if not outright irrationality.

It is almost as though Hammett is writing a movie screenplay, where larger than life becomes normal as complex events are compressed into 90 minutes, rather than a novel, which requires a more relaxed pace and better delving into characters' thoughts and motivations.

But The Maltese Falcon does shine in bringing to life a clutch of memorable characters: Sam Spade as a sleazy detective just slightly less crooked than the low-lifes around him; Gutman as the bulbous fatman on a worldwide quest for treasure; Cairo as the effeminate thief out of his league among the more violent gangsters around him; and Wilmer as the young triggerman who feuds with Spade physically and psychologically throughout the book.

The one character that doesn't work neither in the book nor the movie is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, whose transparent lying and over-emotional melodrama should have gotten her killed within minutes in the world that Hammett creates for her.

For all its faults, The Maltese Falcon is a cornerstone of the modern detective story, where nothing is what it seems and characters' intentions are deliciously separated only by barely perceptible degrees of grey.

Published in paperback by Vintage.
217 pages.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 35.
The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games: 10 Great Moments

The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games were a shining moment for Canada in general and for Vancouver in particular.

Canada's 14 Golds were the most ever by any country at the Winter Olympics. In total, Canada's 27 medals were the country's best ever performance at the Winter games. Canada's athletes won with grace and humility, and gave the country plenty of reasons to celebrate both the hosting of the event and the sporting achievements.

For the country, these Olympics redefined Canadian national pride. Canada renewed its own image of itself, as a country that will always be polite but that can now aim for and achieve victory, and also a country that can be openly proud and exuberant when needed.

And Vancouver took another giant stride towards global recognition as a world-class city. Vancouver has now moved on from just being a great place to live with terrific scenery and a moderate climate -- it's now also a city that has the capacity to host and celebrate a successful world-scale event, and capable of throwing one heck of a party.

From 17 days filled with memories, here are 10 great moments from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, from the perspective of a long-time Vancouver resident:

10. Bilodeau Wins Canada's First Home Gold

The moment that all of Canada was waiting for happened on Sunday February 14, Day 3 of the Olympics. Alex Bilodeau claimed the Gold medal in the moguls, and thus became the first Canadian to win a Gold medal in Canada. At the previous Canadian Olympics held in Montreal (1976) and Calgary (1988), Canad had been kept off the top step of the podium.

9. Joannie Rochette Wins Figure Skating Bronze

Rochette's mother flew from Quebec to Vancouver to watch her daughter compete at the Olympics -- and tragically died of a heart attack soon after arrival. Rochette won the hearts of the world by pulling herself together, competing elegantly, and claiming the Bronze.

8. Canadian Men Win the 5000m Relay in Short Track Skating

The Canadian men used guts, strength, stamina, and an unexpected strategy to win a thrilling race, fractions of a second ahead of South Korea and the US.

7. Sidney Crosby Scores Overtime Hockey Winner

In a moment that will forever be remembered by Canadian hockey fans, Crosby fired home Canada's overtime winner, converting Jerome Iginla's feed past US goalie Ryan Miller at 7:40 of the overtime period. The US had tied the game with a last gasp equalizer, causing what mercifully proved to be temporary agony across Canada, but effectively setting the stage for Crosby to heroically ensure that Canada won the Gold medal in memorable fashion.

6. Vancouver's Downtown Party

There has rarely been a party like this, at any Olympics. For 17 days, pedestrians took over many downtown Vancouver streets and turned the core of the City into a family-oriented party central. LiveCity venues offered entertainment, concerts and big-screen viewing, long but good natured line-ups formed at all downtown attractions, and street entertainers kept many intersections closed due to crowds. With Vancouverites embracing transit like never before and leaving cars at home, it was a demonstration of what happens when happy crowds take over the streets.

5. Maelle Ricker Wins the Snowboard Cross

Was there a cooler Gold medal winner at these Olympics? Local girl Ricker, 31 years old, grew up snowboarding the Cypress and Whistler mountains, suffered heartbreak and a concussion at the 2006 Turin games, and simply obliterated the field in the 2010 Final to claim the Gold. She then exuded the humble coolness of a winner wondering exactly what all the fuss was about, while modestly enjoying the attention anyway. Watch for a spike in the name Maelle among newborn girls in British Columbia.

4. Hamelin Wins 500m Short Track Skating Gold -- and St.-Gelais Watches!

The thrilling race ended with Canada's Charles Hamelin skating almost sideways and off-balance across the finish line in first place, with carnage behind him as skaters toppled and collided in a mad scramble for the medals. Even more thrilling was Marianne St.-Gelais, Hamelin's girlfriend and a medallist herself, watching from the stands, jumping up and down for the entire race, cheering wildly, and finally bounding down the stairs, over the barriers, and into the arms of the jubilant Hamelin.

3. Virtue and Moir win Ice Dancing Gold

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were simply flawless -- and breathtaking -- performing under pressure in the Free Dance, to solidify their lead and claim the Gold medal. Virtue is 20 and Moir is 22. They have been skating together since they were children, and they are the youngest couple ever to win the Ice Dancing Gold medal. Young, confidant and leading from the front -- they represented Canada's spirit at the games.

2. The Clown Fixes the Cauldron

Perfectly combining a grand spectacle with Canada's ability to laugh at itself, the closing ceremony started with a clown emerging with a shower of sparks from below the ground at BC Place stadium, connecting a large cable, and pulling the fourth arm of the Olympic flame into place. The stubborn hydraulic arm had embarrassingly refused to cooperate during the opening ceremony.

1. The Crowd Sings Oh Canada! at the Men's Curling Final

It was the final frame of a rather uneventful Final game in the men's curling tournament. Canada's Kevin Martins team was never in trouble during the game against Norway, en route to another Gold medal for the host country. But in the final frame, the game was interrupted when the crowd broke out into a quiet rendition of Oh Canada! All the curlers on both teams paused and respectfully listened to the impromptu anthem, and the emotion on their faces was clear. It was the moment that captured perfectly what these games were about. Fun, emotion, and quiet pride in a job very well done.

Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951)

Imagine taking up residence inside the turbulent head of a teenager.

In The Catcher in the Rye, reclusive author J.D. Salinger takes us on a compelling journey into the mind of Holden Caulfield, a teenager about to drop out from yet another high school. Caulfield guides us through a series of encounters as he quits his school in Pennsylvania and journeys back to his home in New York.

Although the entire book takes place over no more than four days, it is a rich and exhausting journey. The book is primarily a vehicle for Caulfield to provide his impressions of the people who populate his life, and through those descriptions, the struggles of a teenager awkwardly attempting to make the transition to adulthood are crystallized.

Caulfield describes his interaction with current and former roommates, current and former classmates, current and former teachers, a group of nuns, a prostitute and her pimp, party girls, a date, a girl he had a crush on, and finally, his younger sister. There are numerous colourful secondary characters, and Caulfield wastes no opportunity to provide his opinion on everyone and anyone that he marginally interacts with.

There is enough going on in Caulfield's mind to fill several thick psychiatric volumes. Clearly depressed, dismissive and quick to express hate, anger and frustration, not to mention an outright liar (often very humorously so), he also displays remarkable maturity, tenderness, caring, sensitivity and self-awareness. Caulfield's complex personality is a rich treasure in which readers will find a lot to admire, love, hate, and identify with, and this is what has made this book a timeless classic.

Written in the first person as an almost uninterrupted narrative, the blunt language must have been shocking at the time of publication. Although the shock is long gone, today the book's language is both descriptive and wildly entertaining.

Peppering Caulfield's language with quick, desperate repetition as a method of emphasis, and a strong tendency to generalize and stereotype as only teenagers can, Salinger comes up with some brilliant, cutting and funny prose. It is genuinely difficult to put the book down, and once Holden Caulfield enters the life of the reader, he never really leaves.

After a touching encounter between Caulfield and his 10-year old sister, The Catcher in the Rye ends with a understated sting in the tale that tangentially hints at where and why Caulfield is recounting his story. It is a fitting ending to a most complex and stimulating book.

Published in softcover by Little, Brown.
214 pages.

Ace Black Book Review No. 34.
The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Book Review: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (2002)

Susie Salmon, a 14 year-old from suburban Pennsylvania, is raped and murdered by her neighbour. From heaven, she narrates the story of her family.

A young dead girl narrating the events of her murder, her past, and how her family copes with her death is a clever and interesting plot device which helps launch The Lovely Bones with a flourish. But beyond this initial boost, Alice Sebold's book quickly descends into a mundane and relatively trashy melodrama.

Sebold is aching to re-create some of the magic dust effortlessly sprinkled by To Kill A Mockingbird, which makes a brief early appearance in The Lovely Bones. The parallels are sometimes obvious: the young girl as a narrator; the dangerous house on the way to the local school; the evolving sibling relationship; the grandparent who moves into the house; the many neighbours with their own stories; and the attempt to recreate a wistful backwards look to a different era, this time the early 1970's.

Not much of this works in The Lovely Bones. The characters are either one-dimensional to the point of transparency, or undergo transformations that are never explained. We have Lindsey, Susie's sister, somehow transforming from a cold-hearted young teen who shuts out the world after her sister's death, to a burglar who breaks into the home of the murderer, to a well-adjusted young woman enjoying life with her boyfriend. This boyfriend and his brother, motorcycle riding teenage boys, have no adult guidance but seem to do no wrong and behave impeccably throughout.

Susie's father, an accountant, endlessly mourns his loss, lusts after an exotic neighbour, and suddenly goes all Rambo with a baseball bat attack that backfires on him. He goes back to endlessly mourning for the rest of the book. Susie's mother wants to move on with life, so she has an affair and ditches her entire family. Hey, what mother would not abandon her two remaining kids when their sister has just been butchered?

There is also a chapter that crosses the line from the mystical to the farcical, with Susie taking over the body of one her classmates for a lovers' escapade. It's the reunion scene in the movie Ghost taken to the extremes of physical gratification for the must-have generation.

It is all immature and simply unbelievable behaviour of the type typically seen on TV shows that aim for the lowest common denominator at the expense of logic.

But The Lovely Bones is most exasperating in its endless descriptive passages that incessantly interrupt every single event. No character can walk across the room, and no two people can have a conversation, without the intervention of three or more long interruptive, long winded descriptive paragraphs of often meaningless tripe, usually attempting to dredge up and colour pictures of past irrelevant incidents. This is padding for the sake of padding, a literary device overused to the point of exhaustion.

The Lovely Bones could have been an interesting and thought provoking heaven-and-earth tale; instead, it turns into simplistic and mostly insipid nonsense.

Published in paperback by Back Bay Books.
328 pages.

All Ace Black Book Reviews are here.

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