Review: The Cold Dish

The Cold Dish
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This took me a long time to read and that’s life’s fault, not the book’s. I point this out because I didn’t get to dive in and immerse like I like to do with a book, especially a new author I’ve never read before. So my recollection of it will probably be patchy as well.

I asked for this one at the library after a friend sent this to a different friend of mine (they don’t know each other) as part of one of those book-giving pyramid scheme things. The giver is a prolific reader, though The Cold Dish is a genre I didn’t think he read. Anyway, now I know two people I can talk about the book with. If it ever comes up.

The book starts of in a light vein and I expected it to be kind of comical, even when the bad stuff starts happening. The main character is white and has a good relationship with Native Americans in his town, a relationship filled with good-natured ribbing and friendly insults. But then the true genre of the book kicks in– it’s not a comic novel, or even a western, but straight-up crime fiction. We’re talking detective work, blood splatter analysis, ballistics; and that’s all fine and good.

There’s also some Indian (his word) spiritualism, which isn’t my cup of tea, bordering on magic realism (bordering, but not crossing) which is really not my cup of tea. So much so that I’m not sure I’m going to read any more books in the Walt Longmire series. The surprise ending was a decent surprise, and Craig Johnson ties it all up with a satisfying bow.

But I didn’t fall in love with it. Like I said, I took longer to read the book than I like to, so maybe that’s it, and maybe when I get through some other stuff I’ll give ‘er another try.

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Review: Illidan

Illidan by William King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just finished the audio book. Audio books aren’t my thing, but this format was the one available from my public library, and ever since I started running my max-level characters through legacy raids, I’ve been getting that lore-nerd itch. And Patrick Beja raved about both the book and its audio version on The Instance (“The World of Warcraft podcast (so you don’t have to)”) so I decided to try and plow through.

You know what else isn’t my bag? This kind of writing. And I freely admit that that’s a reflection on me, not on the book’s value or it’s fans. I’m talking about that “fantasy genre” language, that pseudo-medieval way of speaking: “I would see you in chains, betrayer.” Why do people have to shout their intentions before a sword fight? “Today you die, fool!”

Anyway, now that I’ve alienated audio-books lovers and fantasy fans, let me at least praise the story. I half-expected this to read like one of those movie novelizations that were popular back in the 80s. But credit where credit’s due: you get more than just a retelling if Illidan’s fall at the Black Temple from the end of Burning Crusade. You get a lot of lore that jibes with experiences in Legion, and the author does an excellent job of fleshing out what it means to become a demon hunter. I am certain I won’t be the only person who says that Vendel was my favorite character in the book, and I am excited to see if we get to have him in-game at some point.

Least favorite character: Maiv. I get that she’s supposed to kind of BE Illidan: consumed by her mission, willing to make sacrifices, than forced to make even larger sacrifices than she ever intended, and then finally left empty when her mission is complete. But still. What a stubborn, self-important, hard-ass.

As for Illidan himself: damn. I don’t want to give away too much… but I get it now, how lore nerds can’t rely on just paying attention in-game if they want to know everything. I guess I have more audio-books in my future. Maybe I’ll get used to the fantasy-ese they’re all written in. I think it might even be worth it.

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Review: A Drop of the Hard Stuff

A Drop of the Hard Stuff
A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The last of the Scudder novels, unless Block decides to write another. Goes without saying, right? But what we’ve got here is another flash-back novel, in much the same way that When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes was a flashback novel written the series ended.

Hard to follow? Let me try again. Eight million Ways to Die was written to be the final Matthew Scudder mystery, the one where he gives up drinking. From what I’ve heard, Block didn’t think his main character was an alcoholic until Matt decided all by himself to get sober. But then Block went and wrote another book about Scudder, and since alcohol was part of his character, he had to set it in the past.

And really, if you read Hope to Die and All the Flowers are Dying, that’s as good an ending to the series as you can get… but, again, Block went and wrote one more Scudder novel. And since the post-Eight Million Scudder is a recovering alcoholic, it makes sense that he’d have to make that prominent for Scudder, and hence the flashback.

This is all theory and speculation on my part. The point is: we’re either going to get an even newer Matt in the next few years, or we’ll get more flashback Scudders… or we won’t get any more at all. Goes without saying, right?

For me, reading my way through these books over the last three months, it has been an education. Character and plot, mostly, but also setting and mood. The Matthew Scudder series is the complete package, and given Block’s unparalleled talents (not to mention productivity) he delivers more than he needs to. I don’t know that I’ll be re-reading these books again (I’m not one much for that sort of thing) but then again, I just might: you can never get too much education. And if Block, and Scudder, have spoiled me for lesser books about lesser characters, I guess that’s just the way things go sometimes.

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Review: Philida

Philida by André Brink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book I probably would not have read if I’d merely come across it, but plowed through anyway since it was Booker longlist nominee. I suppose that’s why we make lists and force ourselves, sometimes: to get outside our comfort zone. I don’t know if I can say I “enjoyed” the book, for who can say they enjoy slavery? Nevertheless, I can see why people praise Brink.

It got me to thinking about slavery. About how we say that slavery is evil, but those same people who were treated as if they were less than human beings, are, in our minds today, still a faceless mass, bodies that died on ships or screamed under the lash, a tragic period in our history that we are ashamed of.. And aren’t some of us proud of that shame, and how hard we work to make amends?

But it’s not about us. It’s the individuals, like Philida, with a unique story. And so this is NOT, after all, a novel about slavery. It’s about a woman who struggles to find her place in the world, to live with what’s been done to her and to live with what’s she’s done to herself. Her existence isn’t simply binary, she’s not just enslaved or free, she’s a force of wills, someone who yearns, in her own way.

And so the issue of slavery can’t be “solved” by calling it evil and then making amends. The only thing we can do, really is to listen to this stories, listen to these individuals tells about who they are.

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Review: The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room
The Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is going to be one hell of a mess of a review. Short version: go read The Elephant in the Room. Jon Ronson is always worth reading.

Now, let’s see. I was in between books. I was not at home, and therefore could not download a book from the library onto one of my “authorized readers.” But, Amazon made me create a Prime account in order for me to do something with Twitch (free for 30 days, and my wife has Prime already, so that’ll be cancelled in a few weeks). So I took a look at that new Prime Reading thing, and there was a “Kindle Single” by Jon Ronson. And it was about Trump. And it was super brand-spanking new. I had a flight to catch, so I downloaded it.

That’s more information than you need in a “review,” but maybe also more information than you’re going to get out of Elephant. I didn’t learn anything, except that there’s this guy called Alex Jones who herds the nutjobs in America, and he’s driving those doggies to Trump ranch.

And THAT’s a terrible piece of writing I just threw at you in the last paragraph, and not at all indicative how very readable and enjoyable Ronson’s writing is. I was being sincere when I said, above, “Jon Ronson is always worth reading.” Even if you end up paying two bucks for what reads like an over-long character piece that couldn’t find a reputable magazine to get published in.

Ronson writes about weird people without being judgmental, but also without championing them; but I have no doubt his books are picked up and read by snarky hipsters like myself who smugly chortle at these outsiders, outliers, outcasts… I called them “nutjobs” above, and that’s my word, not Ronson’s.

Trump’s a nutjob, and so is Alex Jones, and his handler, Roger Stone. But you already knew that. Read Elephant anyway.

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Review: All the Flowers Are Dying

All the Flowers Are Dying
All the Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is Scudder 16 out of 17 but maybe it should be 15.5. In my review of 15, Hope to Die, I said that it wasn’t a Matthew Scudder novel as much as it was about the bad guy. What I didn’t mention was that the bad guy is not brought to justice. This novel, All the Flowers are Dying, has the same bad guy therefor, and I’m still not going to tell you if he’s brought to justice at the end.

But you read A Ticket to the Boneyard, right? Well, you also read A Long Line of Dead Men, I bet. So that should keep you guessing.

I don’t know much what else to say about Flowers that I didn’t say about Hope. Honestly, they could have been bound into a single tome. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the hard-core, up-to-date Scudder fan who finished Hope when it came out in 2001 and then had to wait four year before Flowers hit the bookstore and finished the story. Then again, such fans maybe even started way back in 1976 with the first novel, and patience isn’t a problem for them.

Ironically, in this novel, it’s not just Scudder who coasts on his descriptions from previous books, but the bad guy too. What I mean is, in as much as the bad guy’s crimes were hard to swallow in Hope, they’re back story for Flowers. So this is a true sequel. A true sequel, and 16th in a series… Block sure does know how to wring a good creation for all it’s worth, doesn’t he.

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Review: Hope to Die

Hope to Die
Hope to Die by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spoilers ahoy. And in the same way that Block repeats nuggets from Scudder’s past in every novel, I’ll repeat what I’ve said in past reviews: why are you reading a review of the 15th book in a series if you’ve haven’t already read the other fourteen, and if you’ve read that many, I don’t see how my review could ever be a useful means by which to decide if you should read the rest. So this is a discussion, not a review. Caveat lector.

We’ve been with Matthew so long that not only do we no longer need to have him explained as much as we used to, we don’t even need his secondary characters explained. So that just leaves the bad guy. And this is a huge departure from what we’ve seen before in the Scudder novels.

Which is great, on the one hand, in so far as we’re not getting the same old thing. Reading, once again, about murder and rape and fireplace pokers, but this time from the villain’s point of view. On the other hand, when you stay with a series through well over a dozen novels, maybe it’s because you want the same old thing. Murder and rape and fireplace pokers, and Matthew finding the guy who did it in between AA meetings.

I’ve said in past reviews that, with a few changes, those books could have had an entirely different main character. That’s even more true for Hope to Die, were any subplot activity is fueled by all of the things Matthew did in the previous novels, and could be easily replaced by adding a few extra expository pages for whatever new character put in there.

In other words, and this is what I’ve been trying to get at through this review: this is not a Matthew Scudder novel, with murder and rape and a fireplace poker. This is a murder and rape and fireplace poker novel, with Matthew Scudder.

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Review: The Yips

The Yips
The Yips by Nicola Barker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going to be real honest with you, here: I’m not sure what I just read. But I read it, and stayed up all night to finish.

At the beginning of this novel, one of the characters tells a story to another, a real whopper, and then confesses that she was just winding him up, having him on, taking the piss, as they say in Merry Olde. She then goes on to tell another story, more outlandish, more convoluted, more unbelievable than the first. This one turns out to be true.

And the impression I got was that the author, Nicola Barker, just sort of made it up right there on the spot, drawing on her obvious gifts, her creativity and inventiveness and ability to maintain a break-neck momentum. And then the next several chapters were more or less simply drawn from what she had made up.

I can’t say I know this is how the book is written, and, in my opinion, a writer’s process is not a good way to contextualize a critique. But it’s how The Yips feels to me: like stream-of-consciousness, but applied to structure only, with characters added to flesh out the story.

And these characters: the single most egomaniacal golfer on the planet, an eight-times cancer survivor, a flighty but dedicated college girl, the cancer survivor’s radical-turned-C of E cleric wife, the agoraphobic daughter of the woman who the golfer sent into a coma with an errant slice many years ago… I’ve barely scratched the surface of descriptors needed to describe these people, and left out way more characters than I’ve included. Did I say the characters flesh out the novel? This is a novel oozing, dripping with flesh.

And I don’t know what to make of it. Nothing much happens. I mean, a heck of a lot happens. But I don’t know that anything happened. All of it tied together by people getting to know each other rather more quickly than seems real, but stuffed inside Nicola Barker’s force-to-be-reckoned-with writing style, it all makes sense. Except it doesn’t.

Anyway. Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. Worthy of the nomination, I think.

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Review: The Teleportation Accident

The Teleportation Accident
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back in 2012 I got it into my head that I would read all of the books on the Booker Prize Long List. I think I got through three before life happened. And now I’m angry because The Teleportation Accident wasn’t one of them, and I wish I’d read it back then. I’ll never be asked to judge the Booker Prize, and the winner that year, Bring Up the Bodies, was one of the best books I’ve ever read. But Ned Beauman deserved at least to have made the short list. Such a good read.

Beauman has a gift for writing long, dense sentences that flow around and back on themselves, with enough rhythm to carry you through and enough irony to make you smile throughout. And that’s just the sentences. There’s also a cast of absurd characters in miniature purgatories of their own creation. And the first half of the book is set in pre-war Berlin, but only by virtue of the year during which things takes place, not for any pre-war ideas or imagery.

The main character, Loeser, is a loser, essentially. But he hates Bertholt Brecht, and therein lies the challenge Beauman must have set himself, I imagine: how to write a novel filled with the kinds of delights that reminds readers that they’re reading, but convinces them somehow to get lost in the text anyway. I’ve read books before that were so good I had to stop and just think about how good they were. The Teleportation Accident was like that in places, but I couldn’t actually stop.

There’s love, or at least there’s lust, and there’s intrigue, or least there’s conspiracy, or at least there’s the best-laid plans of mice and men. There’s magic, which is to say science fiction, which is to say the opposite of historical fiction, and there’s historical fiction too. But none of that, none of any of it sticks out or becomes an artifact of self references. Ned Beauman is the kind of writer who breaks the rules but doesn’t do it for it’s own sake- this is not a hyper-modern novel, or a post-anything novel.

This is simply a well-wrought piece of fiction, and once you’ve read it, you’ll be mad you hadn’t read it sooner.

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Review: Everybody Dies

Everybody Dies
Everybody Dies by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If Scudder 13, the one before this one, was the opposite of a thriller, and this one, 14, is the opposite of 13, I guess that makes Everybody Dies a thriller. Which it is, and therefore not much of a “mystery.” But we’ve long passed the point where the books in this series are mystery novels with the same main character. These are books about Matthew Scudder and his friends.

In fact, this one is more about one of his friends than himself. A mystery novel might be “about” the main character, but about the mystery, so if the Scudder series used to be about the mysteries, and then they ended up being about Scudder, no we’ve kind of gone full circle. Everybody Dies is all about Matthew’s friend Mick Ballou.

In other words, Lawrence Block is idea-mining from the Scudder side-characters. He sort of did that with Elaine back in A Ticket to the Boneyard. But I like it, because who knows, maybe in one of the last three books we’ll get the TJ story as well.

As to the meat and gristle of Everybody Dies: the highest body count we’ve had in a Scudder novel. Goes with the title I guess, part and parcel with being a thriller. We’ve seen, in past novels, Scudder edging a moral line, and straddling it, if not stepping over it quite so unambiguously. What would be interesting if the Matthew in Scudder 14 were to, say, be asked how to solve the problem at the end of Scudder 12. I think he would have chosen differently. Which means Scudder is still evolving, so we’ll see where he ends up.

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