Monday, May 5, 2014

Matthew Scudder faces Danger and a Moral Quandry

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is the second book in Lawrence Block's excellent series featuring Matthew Scudder. It doesn't pack quite the emotional wallop of the first, The Sins of the Fathers, but it's a very good read nonetheless.

For those who don't know, Matthew Scudder is an ex cop who lives in New York City and who works as an unlicensed P.I. He left the force under tragic circumstances and has since developed a drinking problem which is here noticeably worse than it was in the first book. His "office" is in a saloon, where he passes most days and evenings drinking coffee laced with bourbon.

One afternoon an old acquaintance, "Spinner" Jablon, finds Matt in Armstrong's, the saloon where Matt spends much of his time. Spinner is a minor criminal that Matt knows from his days on the force. Jablon has apparently gotten himself into some sort of trouble and believes that his life may be in danger. He asks Matt to hold an envelope for him and to open it only in the event that something happens to him. Matt presses for an explanation, but Jablon tells him that he'll know what to do if and when he has to open the envelope.

Well, obviously, we all know what's going to happen next. Poor Spinner winds up floating in the East River, and when Matt opens the envelope, he discovers that Jablon had been blackmailing three fairly wealthy people. Jablon assumes that one of them will have been responsible for his death and leaves three thousand dollars in the envelope along with the blackmail materials. He wants Matt to discover who killed him and bring him or her to justice.

Matt could just stuff the three grand in his pocket and forget about it since his client is no longer around to complain about it. But Matt isn't that kind of guy, and Spinner knew it. Matt feels morally obligated to follow through and so develops a plan for smoking out the killer. But naturally, the best laid plans sometimes have unintended consequences. As a result, Matt finds himself in the middle of a moral quandary and discovers that his own life may now be on the line.

This book is now nearly forty years old, but the story is still as gripping as if it were written yesterday. One gets so caught up in it that you're only marginally aware of the fact that it takes place in an era when there were no cell phones or computers and when investigative techniques were significantly more primitive than they are today. Given that this is one of the most celebrated series in all of crime fiction, it's hard to imagine that there's any fan of the genre who has not yet discovered it, but if that should somehow be the case, do yourself a very great favor and look for it.

A Clear And Present Danger...Of Sucking (Yeah, take that Clancy!)

Clear and Present Danger (Jack Ryan, #5)Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There was a clear and present danger that I wasn't going to finish this.

I don't watch soap operas. I used to. I'd get home and General Hospital would be on (Mom was heavily invested in the Luke & Laura saga,) so I got stuck with it. Consequently I know a soap opera when I see one and Clear and Present Danger is a soap opera.

How so? It jumps from character to character, from scene to scene. Some of it's nearly as melodramatic as a soap, but I won't go that far in my analogy. Mainly the issue is in the episodic nature of the storytelling. The scenes are big-time ADHD in how they flitter back and forth.

This has an adverse affect on character development. In fact, it seems as if Clancy attempts to counter this with info dumps. Often he introduces a brand new character, who may not even be particularly important, with a mountainous info-dump… This is Joe Schmoe. Joe was born in Eastbumfuq, IL, went to school at… and a minute later Mr. Schmoe is dead. I know it's a writer's attempt to instill an instant reader-connection to the character so that his death means something, but it doesn't work for me. I don't give a shit if a thousand such Joe Schmoes die at the hands of the baddest of bad guys. Nice try, but perhaps the issue is that you're trying to pack too much stuff into an already chunky book. Emotional bonds take time to develop.

Okay, I've been too nasty those far. Let's look at Clancy's good points...

Action is his strong suit. He puts you right in it. Whether it's firing a gun from a helicopter or stalking an enemy in the jungle, you're in the shit with the characters.

However, if you were to debate that his strongest point is his research and application of military technical details within his books, I would concede. Guns, ships, helicopters, military rank and decorum, wartime politics, spy craft, covert missions, etc etc etc phew-eee! This book grunts and oozes the stuff! I can see how military buffs, special ops fanatics, and "gun nuts" would go gah-gah over a book like this. We've all got our little fetishes and Clancy provides the porn for violent techies. (Before you start calling me a liberal, hippy, pussy, tree hugger or any of that shit, just shut the fuck up. I've owned guns since I was a kid.) I just don't get a woody over firearms anymore. I shot that load when I was pre-teen and moved on. But I guess if reading a Clancy novel satisfies the sort of person that gets off on that shit and it helps them get it out of their system, well then I'm glad these books exist.

Okay, back to the nasty…

Where the F is Jack Ryan? He's barely mentioned in the first half of the book and then when he does show up it's only to look around and ask, "what's going on?" And that is really his only purpose in the book, and it's purposeless. Sure, the main character fumbling about trying to figure out what's going on works great for murder mysteries, but that's because we the reader also don't know what's going on. We're finding out the truth with them. But here we already know what's going on because that's what's being related in the main story. That's the more interesting part! Every time Clancy cuts to Jack the book bogs right down into a full-on snorefest.

Like I said at the top, I almost didn't finish this. After about the midway point the whole freakin' thing turned into one of those snorefests for me. The writing was only adequate, the storytelling too jumpy, the spot-lighted details not my cup of tea. Perhaps if I spiked my tea with testosterone? Nah. I'd only end up inadvertently ripping the book in half out of sheer excitement.

Rating: 2.5 stars. I generously gave it three stars only because I'm in a good mood and GR's rating system is ridged.

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(Note upon the author's death)
Seems like it's becoming a thing where if an author's book sits on my nightstand waiting to be read for more than a couple weeks, the author is doomed to die. Yikes.

Old Mexico Is Alive And Well

Oaxaca: The Spirit of MexicoOaxaca: The Spirit of Mexico by Judith Cooper Haden
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oaxaca...the part of Mexico that doesn't believe it is part of Mexico. Oaxaca: The Spirit of Mexico shows the reader how different this part of the country is compared with the rest.

I say "show" because this is essentially a picture book with lots of captions.

(Above images are from the book. Those below are not.)

Is it different? I don't know. I've only ever been to Tijuana and no country should be judged as a whole by a place like TJ. However, I'm going to Oaxaca for an extended stay and in preparation I am studying up on the place. The only thing I knew about the place is that it has a good deal of history. It stretches back thousands of years, involves conquest and an envelopment of a new culture into the old.


But history is about the dead and there's more to life than history. Cooper-Haden's Oaxaca also made me aware that:

Handicrafts are still ripe in the region...

Traditional regional foods are cherished and maintained...


Holidays celebrated with gusto for hundreds of years...


But also that Oaxacans believe life is for the living, so I'm going to go down there and do just that! This is not the ultimate travel guide, nor is it meant to be. I'll need to pick up something from Lonely Planet or Frommers for that. But I'm glad I snagged this from the library and had a gander. It made me more aware of the place and gave me some must-see sightseeing ideas.

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