Monthly Archives: August 2011

Book: “The Renegades,” by T. Jefferson Parker

“The Renegades,” published in 2009, is the second Charlie Hood novel from T. Jefferson Parker. The first was “LA Outlaws,” published in 2008 (and which I briefly reviewed in October 2009). That was the better book, thanks to the superbly drawn character of LA outlaw Allison Murrieta, a sympathetic bank robber with Robin-Hoodish leanings, who becomes a folk hero of sorts, as well as a Hood love interest.

Allison Murrieta plays a part in “The Renegades,” and in fact permeates the book. But I’m not going to say anything more about her. You need to read “LA Outlaws” first.

Hood is an LA deputy sheriff. “The Renegades” begins with Hood’s new partner, Terry Laws, getting machine-gunned on the street, with Hood watching (and spared, for some reason). Hood is enlisted to find the killer. Along the way, he encounters Laws’ previous partner, Draper.

Meanwhile, a second strand begins. Draper begins telling someone his story–about how he and Laws murdered two drug money-runners, set up another guy for the hit, and then arranged with the deadly cartel leader to take over the money-running route. And pocket about $7000 each, every week.

The reader hears all of this from Draper. Meanwhile, we watch Hood trying to figure things out, while we already know, pretty much, what happened. Parker keeps injecting chapters with Draper spilling more of his story, and then we return to Hood for a few chapters.

It’s quite an interesting structure. We get information from Draper at just the right time, no more than we need. Parker dribbles it out just right. Obviously, everything points to a showdown between Hood and Draper. But even then, surprises await.

Parker actually did something similar with “LA Outlaws.” Allison Murrietta’s parts are written in first-person (like the Draper chapters), while everything else is in third person.

I didn’t learn a great deal about Charlie Hood in this book. He’s still kind of ordinary to me, nothing distinguishing him particularly from protagonists of similar books. I prefer more distinct characters like Stone Barrington, Virgil Flowers, Alex Cross, or any Robert Parker hero. But T. Jefferson Parker’s superb plotting will keep me coming back, though not rushing back.

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Book: James Patterson’s “I, Alex Cross”

I, Alex Cross, is the 15th book in this mystery/crime series by James Patterson. He’s got a number of series out there, most written by other people under his brand name. But the Alex Cross books are what put him on the map. And except for the 14th installment, Cross Country, the Cross books are consistently good–the best books under the Patterson brand.

In this book, Cross is notified that a niece has been murdered. A little investigating shows that she’d been working as a prostitute. Other young girls have been disappearing, too. You always need a serial killer for Alex Cross.

Early on, we learn that the White House secret service is interested in these deaths, having learned that there is a connection–yet unknown–to the White House. So you’ve got two tracks going–the White House track, which is interested in cover-up and protecting the White House; and the Cross investigation.

Things end up pointing to a mansion which is home to an elite prostitution ring. And here, I’ll stop telling you what happens.

This isn’t the best Cross book (that would still be his first, Along Came a Spider), but it’s in the upper tier. Patterson redeemed himself after the miserable Cross Country. But I knew he would. He tried something new with that book, it didn’t work, and so he returned to the tried and true formula which makes me look forward to every new Alex Cross book.

On the home front, there’s Nana, always Nana. She’s something like 90 years old, and she suffers a stroke or something (I tend to skim over the home dramatics, since they do nothing to further the plot, which is my primary interest). Patterson apparently views Nana as one of his best character creations, considering all the attention she gets in his books. But I’ve grown weary of her.

Here’s to hoping Nana kicks the bucket in Number 16.

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The Amazing Johnny Seven

We lived in Huntington, Ind., until I was 9. We always had our own family Christmas, but the whole family would also go out to my grandparents’ farm outside of Van Wert, Ohio, about 60 miles away. Most, if not all, of our aunts and uncles and cousins on my Mom’s side (she had three siblings) would be there. And grandpa and grandma always gave us grandkids something neat.

One year, they got us male cousins weaponry. Serious toy weaponry. We’re talking Johnny Sevens, the awesomest toy gun in the history of toy guns.

I mean, just look at that picture. Is that cool, or what?

Only three of us–me, Mike, and Brad, the oldest male cousins–received Johnny Sevens. Because it took a man to carry these things (yes, we were still under 10 years old). The Johnny Sevens had seven different weapons. One was just a machine-gun rat-a-tat-a-tat. But the others all involved shooting projectiles. They didn’t fire these projectiles very hard–more like lobbing them. You couldn’t really hurt anyone with them. But the Johnny Seven was still an incredible piece of plastic technology.

The next tier of male cousins were Stu (my brother) and Trent (Brad’s brother). They also received weaponry, something called a Monkey Gun (for reasons unknown to me). The Monkey Gun only did one thing–fire a yellow projectile. But it fired those things HARD. And if they hit you, they HURT.

We, of course, had pitched battles in Grandpa and Grandma’s big utility room in the back of the house. We older cousins would fire our Johnny Sevens at Stu and Trent, sending a missile in a leisurely lob. But coming back at us would be this yellow missile just screaming along, and when it connected, jeesh did it sting! The pipsqueaks definitely had the upper hand.

But still–we wouldn’t have traded our Johnny Sevens for anything. They were the coolest present ever from the coolest grandparents ever (at least until my own parents became grandparents).

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Memories of Living on the Cafeteria Fringe

I'll give you a hint: I'm in the front row.

I just read a review of “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” by Alexandra Robbins, in the New York Times Book Review. The book follows 7 “outsiders” from 7 different high schools, like the Band Geek, the New Girl, the Loner, the Gamer, the Nerd.

She describes them as the “cafeteria fringe,” the students sitting by themselves during lunch against the wall, or maybe even in the hallway, rather than carrying on with a group of friends at a table.

Robbins views many of the cafeteria fringe as nonconformists, as individualists, as free thinkers. She writes, “It is unacceptable that the system we rely on to develop children into well-adjusted, learned, cultured adults allows drones to dominate and increasingly devalues freethinkers.” She says kids may get bullied for being “different,” when it’s really only that they are self-aware, creative, think for themselves, resilient, passionate. They become outsiders. Interesting points.

Fortunately, it’s just for four years. Then they leave and make something significant of themselves, maybe.

Robbins also mentions an upcoming movie called “Revenge of the Jocks,” about high school athletes who, later in life, find themselves working for the nerds they abused in high school.

Celebrities like to brag about having been nerds, unpopular, during high school. I don’t always believe it, especially when it comes from people like Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie. But maybe that was the case. I can see Angelina Jolie–a very distinct, noncomforming personality–being an outsider.

I don’t figure on reading the book. But it took me back to my own high school years, which still have an unusual pull on me after 35 years.

My high school years were split in half–2 years in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., two years in Tulare, Calif., after our family entered the ministry. In Lake Havasu, I never thought about being an outsider. I had a great group of friends I hung out with, and I played on the basketball team. We had a regular table in the cafeteria.

But California was a real jolt. I basically went friendless for two years. I ate by myself in the courtyard as a junior, and was joined only by my brother Stu my senior year (he was a freshman then). I played one year of basketball, and two years of tennis (including team captain as a senior), so I had some entree into the jock world. But I was still a new guy in the school, and mostly a loner. I wasn’t picked on; being an athlete helps you avoid most of that. I just never had a “group” to hang out with.

There is absolutely nobody, beyond a couple of teachers (who are no doubt retired now), whom I would care to see from that high school. Nobody. But there are a number of people from Lake Havasu I would love to see again. And then there’s Huntington College, which brought me out of the desert and gave me treasured lifelong friends.

I don’t regret those two years of high school in California. I learned a lot about myself, and learned empathy for people on the social fringe. Besides, God wanted us in the ministry, so there was no choice about it–that was where God wanted me. Yes, I have scars, but they’ve mostly faded away, and I still wear them without regret.

And I suspect that some of those jocks and cheerleaders who dominated the tables in the cafeteria have not done much with their lives. At least, the carnal side of me hopes that’s the case.

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In Branson: Noah, the Musical

The Sight & Sound Theater in Branson

The Sight & Sound Theatre is, to me, the most impressive theatre in Branson, and that’s saying a lot (though I haven’t seen them all). It’s a massive building, with stone everywhere. Absolutely gorgeous. Biblical scenes fill the foyer areas. The theater was huge, and it was packed for the Tuesday afternoon performance of “Noah: The Musical,” which had been playing there since 2008.

The theater’s name is based on Matthew 13:16, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” They state their purpose as to “present the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sow the Word of God into the lives of our customers, guests, and fellow workers by visualizing and dramatizing the scriptures.”

Pam and I had visited Branson five times over the past 11 years, but had never attended a production at Sight & Sound. Nor were we aware of their higher purpose. That, and the quality of “Noah,” were very pleasant surprises. The play was simply amazing! And since “Noah” concludes its run in Branson this year, I’m so very glad we saw it.

The first half of this 2.5 hour production begins with God speaking to Noah, telling him to build the ark. Noah then sets about doing it, over the next 120 years. Noah’s family is united in their mission. I usually think of the 3 brothers as scoundrels, thanks to their shenanigans after the Ark lands, but that’s not how they are portrayed here. It’s a good, God-fearing family living amidst a decadent society. Noah is a man totally sold out to God, without reserve.

The ark gradually rises, ending with a structure towering 40 feet above the stage.

The second half ends with the most delightful part–the animals coming two-by-two into the ark. I think there were around 60 live animals. Two goats would come running from the side of the stage and trot right up the ramp into the ark. Then two sheep, then someone leading two horses down the center aisle, then two dogs–on and on it went. Animals came down the aisles, and from the sides, and they knew exactly where to go–right up that ramp. It was the type of scene where you’re smiling with delight the whole time.

We didn’t get tickets until a few hours before the performance, and ended up sitting a ways back, in the upper section. But I’m glad we did, and would highly recommend that people sit in the upper section, or at least in the back of the lower section. Otherwise, you’ll miss the full affect.

Early in the second half, the full set was revealed, and my jaw dropped in wonder. The audience broke out in spontaneous applause. You just can’t believe what you’re seeing.

Then the special effects really kick in. When the rain pours down and thunder booms, you feel like it’s happening all around you. Swirling lights give the feeling of the ark actually rocking in the rising water.

Much of the music was rather average, and a lot of the dialogue was routine, if not sometimes boring. Yet, the overall production blew me away. I had goosebumps several times (like when God brought the promise of the rainbow). The play was unflinching in its evangelistic message, drawing to a fabulous climax pointing to the coming Savior. As if that’s not enough, a guy came out and gave a low-key altar call.

I was moved, I was astounded. This is the final year for “Noah: The Musical” in Branson. If you’re going this year, don’t miss it. A play based on Joseph (no, not the “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” Joseph) opens next spring. Whatever is playing at Sight & Sound when Pam and I go back in a few years, we’ll see it.

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Jeerk–A Rhythm Artist Group in Branson

“Jeerk” is five multi-talented young men from Sweden. They’ve performed all over the world. How they landed in Branson, I don’t know. But there they are, performing nearly every day from mid-March to the end of October. They were voted Best New Show in 2010. We attended their 10 am show on July 27.

They describe Jeerk as a “rhythm artist group.” Their show is a high-energy concoction of tap dancing, Stomp-like percussion, humor, and music.

At the core, they are tap dancers. When they need to recruit a new member, I imagine that the first thing they look for is superior tap dancing skills. The show opens with probably ten minutes of tap dancing. Much of their tap dancing includes the moves we’ve all seen before…and yet, it’s different, wrapped in an edgy package.

They come out dressed in very contemporary outfits resembling pajama pants with patches all over them, and modify that basic attire throughout the show. Each member takes a turn talking to the audience. All five guys have great personalities and senses of humor. They seem like a really fun bunch of guys.

While tap dancing is their core strength, the other is percussion. They can turn most any object into a percussion instrument. One song was done in the dark with metal cigarette lighters—flicking the flame, and snapping the metal hinged caps open and closed. They blew into bottles, banged on miscellaneous containers. One song found them all on stage with walkers—yes, the kind old people use to get around—banging them on the wood flood in unison. In another, after a video set-up, they all barged in through a side exit door wearing hockey gear and banged the sticks around.

It was all very creative and flawless in execution. I loved it.

They were also a very good rock band. One guy was a superb keyboardist, another a very good drummer, and another a kick-butt lead guitarist. They did several straight-up rock songs.

Jeerk is aimed at a younger demographic. My Dad went to this show, and he liked it…but didn’t love it. Mom just decided to stay in the hotel room. I know she wouldn’t have liked it. I, however, loved Jeerk and would gladly see it again.

Branson shows are known for their patriotism and Christian values. While the show was certainly wholesome in every way, there was no patriotic or Christian element (hey, these guys are from Sweden, remember). But if they had tried to inject these elements, it wouldn’t have fit. The show they presented was brilliant, and I left amazed at their creativity.

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