Monday, December 2, 2013

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Five out of five possible stars

This is the twelfth and final entry in Joseph Hansen's excellent series featuring insurance investigator, Dave Brandstetter. Published over a period of twenty-one years, from Fadeout in 1970, to this book in 1991, the series was witty and very well-written, with cleverly-plotted stories and well-drawn characters. Set in southern California, the books also captured perfectly the geography and the social and economic currents of the place and time.

What really set these books apart was the fact that Hansen created in Dave Brandstetter the first openly gay P.I. to inhabit a series like this, and neither Hansen, not his protagonist ever made a big deal out of it. Dave's sexual orientation was made clear from the opening pages of the first book, and it was simply a fact of life, just like the sexual orientation of any other detective. Dave had a love life and was active sexually throughout the series, but it never seemed intrusive or in any way out of the ordinary. In fact, Dave's romantic attachements were much more believable than those of many of his heterosexual fictional contemporaries.

As the series opened, Dave was already a middle-aged man and by the first pages of this one, he is nearing seventy. Many of the friends who populated the series with him are gone now; the others are all retired. Dave himself is not well; he tires easily and aches all over. His long-time lover, Cecil, begs him to see a doctor, but Dave dismisses the idea and claims he hasn't the time.

The story opens when a friend calls Dave in a panic. A young boy has apparently witnessed a murder and was then kidnapped by the woman he saw standing over the body. The boy, who has clearly been abused, manages to escape from his captor, whose name is Rachel Klein, and is found wandering along a beach by Dave's friend. The murdered victim, Cricket Shales, was a musician who has just been released from prison after serving time on a drug charge. He and Klein, who is also an addict, were once an item and she apparently feared he was coming back for her.

The cops arrest Klein and are ready to declare the case closed. But Dave is not so sure that Klein is guilty and so continues his own investigation of the case, even though he has allegedly been retired himself for a couple of years. In the process, he will put his own life and health in jeopardy.

The story itself is a good one, with lots of twists and turns, but in this book, the mystery takes a back seat to the health problems that are obviously ailing Dave. Along with Cecil, readers have worried over Dave's physical decline, especially in the last couple of books, and it's clear where this one is headed. As one nears the end of the book, it becomes especially hard to turn the pages and you want to linger over every last word.

When we finally reach the end of the case, and of Dave's career, it's a sad and elegiac moment. But one closes the book with a deep appreciation of what was a ground-breaking and very special series. Hansen was as good as any other crime writer of his era and this is a series that readers will remember long after they have forgotten most others.

Like A Big Honkin' Russian Classic

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Game of Thrones is really good. You may not think so after reading the rest of this review, but yes, I enjoyed this book. I liken it to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in that it's a sweeping epic mostly focused on the movers and shakers while keeping the timeline linear by shifting the focus back and forth between characters and groups of characters, specifically families.

Also, it's a big honkin' huge book, just like those Russian classics. Honestly, A Game of Thrones could have been made into two or three books. George RR Martin has slowed down his publishing rate for this series and some think he's burning out. By breaking up these massive tomes into smaller books that could be released over time, there wouldn't be such a large and noticeable gap between books. On the other hand, if your book is meant to be a thousand pages long because that's how it naturally progresses and ends, the action remains intense, and the reader's interest can be maintained through out, then by god you should publish that thousand page book!

Let me state now, I'm not a big fan of the fantasy genre. It's reliance on cliches, the general poor quality of the writing, the immaturity sometimes seen in relating to characters of the opposite gender of the author, etc. Martin succeeds in many of those areas where so many others have failed. There were relatively few moments while I was reading when I felt like I knew ahead of time exactly where the scene would inevitably lead. On the whole, his writing is solid. His many female characters are fully rounded, not "full-breasted". Yes, there are heroes and there are villains, but there are plenty of shades-of-gray characters in between as well. People are forced into unpleasant choices that they'd rather not make as it goes against their morals or code of honor, but they do make that choice because it's necessary or because - even if it's seen as wrong by many - they just can't see a loved one suffer. I like that. I don't need to see Mr. White Knight Johnny-do-good making noble sacrifices, nor do I want the bad guy doing evil for the sole purpose of doing evil. Martin is very good about giving his characters their due motivation.

As for the writing itself, a gripe I have with fantasy epics is a reliance upon stock phrases. I understand repetition was a memory device used in the old oral tradition, but we write this stuff down now. There's no need to ape a dead art that even its purveyors wouldn't still use if they were around today. They'd get a computer, printer and a ream of paper and be happier than a pig in shit. Having said all that, I'm not even sure this form of repetition is even intended as a homage to the bards of yesteryear. It think this boils down to lazy writing. Now, before you get all upset let me say that I'm not calling George R.R. Martin a lazy writer. He has written many books with many pages. It is truly amazing the amount of output he's produced. But therein lies the problem. When you write a 900 page epic that people eat right up and then beg for more, you are put in the position of having to produce more as rapidly as possible. Coming up with fresh ways of describing actions, characters and scenes can be difficult, even over the course of one regular sized novel, so it's no surprise to see people "breaking their fast" every time there is a morning scene. It's very useful in that it tells the reader not only that it is morning, but also that the characters are eating. That's great! So then as the writer you shouldn't feel obliged to say anything else on the matter and we can keep the action moving on...but wait...oops, he's gone and described what the characters are eating for breakfast, for the dozenth time. A couple times is fine, but unless there's something special about the food that we need to know, a couple mentions for the sake of detail is fine. The other issue being that, because "breaking their fast" and "milk of the poppy" are unusual phrases, they stand out. Therefore repetition of them stands out even more, and if you continue to see phrases that stand out time and time again, they tend to stand out for the wrong reasons and become stand-out annoyances.

Another pet peeve of mine is the adverb. It's a way of quickly describing something without going into much depth, which is fine in some instances, but overuse leads to weak characterizations and the like. Adverb use is fine for journalism, where a reporter needs to describe say a multi-death house fire in the span of 150 words. There's no time for lengthy prose. But when you've got hundreds of pages to work with, there's time. Martin's not as egregious as some fantasy writers about this, but he does get a little adverb heavy now and then. There seemed to be these sections where clusters of them would appear like pack animals rumbling by, causing a momentary disturbance in my reading. It's not a big deal, but they do stick out like a soar thumb to me, especially when used one after another. Hell, there's at least one occasion, and maybe two even, when...suddenly something happened suddenly! Really? Come on, who's editing this stuff? Anyone?

When I was boy I would come home from school and mom would be there doing the ironing or whatever while watching the daytime soap opera General Hospital. This was during the heady days of the "Luke and Laura" saga, and I LOVED every minute of it. Their forbidden love affair dragged on forever, through all kinds of impossible odds. The tension was just exciting enough, with a plot on a level a 9 year old could follow, but more importantly, essentially the same thing happened in every episode so that the story dragged out into epic length. That really appealed to me. I think that's because children seek stability. Here was this fun story that I could come home to everyday and rely on it being there for me, giving me that little thrill I enjoyed so much and being the constant I so desired. That's what the soap opera did for me. To this day I love me a good ol' series. However, series or no, I'm okay with only reading this first book and stopping. I don't feel an overwhelming desire to read on. I'm older now and have things I want to do, other books I want to read. I'd love to follow these characters to the end and maybe some day I will, but good golly miss molly, there's a whole lotta readin' goin' on for what is essentially a soap opera!

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Down At The Old Bailey, But Not Down At The Mouth!

Rumpole of the BaileyRumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rumpole of the Bailey is former barrister (lawyer) John Mortimer's first crack at fictionalizing his former life. His hero, Horace Rumpole, toils down at London's Old Bailey defending morally tarnished persons, who usually didn't "do it" least not this time around.

This is a batch of humor to lighten the soul with a sprinkle of pathos for real world problems. Mortimer writes in a breezy, almost Wodehousian way, substituting the care-free, silly bachelor for a more curmudgeonly, sly near-retiree. But while Rumpole may be a bit grumpy with his colleagues and wife, and though he defends criminals, he is a thoroughly sympathetic character. Mortimer knows his boundaries and stays within them. He can also be relied upon to tell a satisfying tale competently.

I could've given this five stars, I enjoyed it that much. And there's hardly anything to complain about it. I didn't give a perfect score because it's a collection of light comedy, short stories and so for that reason alone it doesn't seem worthy of 5 stars. That's terribly unfair of me, I know, but it's how I feel right now. It's probably not how I've felt in the past, nor undoubtedly will it be how I feel in the future. It's a funny world, isn't it?

A Story Best Left Untold

A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New YorkA Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York by Anjelica Huston
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

(This is an ARC that I won in a giveaway. Yes, I asked for this.)

I am so mad at Anjelica Huston. I was a sideline fan of hers all these years. With this book she killed that. I was a fan of her father's and she killed that too.

Well before Anjelica, I was a John Huston fan. As a kid, for me he was Gandalf, having done the voice for the Rankin Bass adaptations of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Return of the King. I love that man's voice and his imposing figure inspired awe when I saw him in "Chinatown." But then his daughter took that away from me with her autobiography.

…her horrible, horrible autobiography.

To an extent, I knew she was Hollywood royalty, but I didn't realize that in her youth (this book covers from her birth to early adulthood) Anjelica Huston was the Paris Hilton of her day: a vapid, directionless princess.

A Story Lately Told is country estates, servants and nurse maids, "mummy!" and "daddy!" (and later "daddy doesn't love me!"), horseback riding, fox hunts, party frocks and taking tea with the O'Tooles and/or getting sloshy with countless other celebrities. So very little of significance happens that if it wasn't for the few outstanding films her father directed, this whole family could've ceased to exist and the real world would've carried on quite well without them.

Once Huston hit her teens, schooling essentially ended for her. Considering that she skipped out day after day, it's no wonder the writing herein is so bad, with its disjointed paragraphs where each sentence is its own disparate idea. Her dubious understanding of natural science has the reader scratching their head. (A quote or two here would be great, but apparently I'm not allowed to quote from this, it being an ARC, I guess.) To say the least, it needs editing, even more than it's already had, as noted by Huston in the acknowledgments.

It's not that this book is the worst thing ever written. It's not. Huston can string a few beautiful phrases together. In fact I liken this read to walking through an art gallery, one in which the pictures are gorgeous, but there ends their worth. It is filled with a tarnished Rockwell or two and an overwhelming number of Thomas Kinkades. Pretty, all too colorful, and completely void of a deeper meaning.

And apparently there's more to come! Another book is due out soon, which will delve into her acting career. I wish I'd held off and read that one, and never seen this. I hope for Huston's sake, the next book has more substance, that she found there is more to life than modeling and standing in front of cameras. Because there are just too many meaningless, ineffectual stories in A Story…. Edit some out, those many that start promising and go nowhere. Build up the anecdotes of the good ones. If it's not too late, shorten this book up to half its size and combine it with the one on her movie career. We all like a good story, but if you're going to demand everyone's attention, make sure its a good story.