Monday, December 8, 2014

Benjamin Black Attempts a Homage to Raymond Chandler

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

As a general rule, I avoid reading books in which a new author takes over an established character from another author who has died or retired. The whole idea of taking over someone else's series seems somehow wrong to me on a number of levels, and I've never read one yet in which I thought that the new author really did justice to the series or the characters.

Given that, I would have totally ignored this book in which Benjamin Black resurrects Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe who is, of course, one of the icons of crime fiction. But then a book club to which I belong chose the book and I had no choice in the matter.

I really wish they hadn't. I've read a couple of Black's novels featuring his own series character, Quirke, a pathologist in the 1950's Dublin morgue, and I've enjoyed them. Even so, I approached this book with more than a little trepidation, and reading it did nothing to allay the concerns I had going in.

The book is set in the early 1950s and opens with Marlowe sitting in his office. A beautiful, leggy and mysterious black-eyed blonde wanders in and asks Marlowe to find a missing "friend," named Nico Peterson. The blonde is a little vague about the details of her relationship with the missing Nico and about why she is so anxious to find him.

Marlowe and the reader both know that the woman is not giving him the whole story, but of course that's the way things go in P.I. novels like this. Marlowe takes the case, which naturally takes any number of strange twists and turns before finally coming to a conclusion. Black attempts to imitate Chandler's style, but succeeds only marginally. The fact of the matter is that there was only one Raymond Chandler and in the seventy-five years since Philip Marlowe first appeared in The Big Sleep, no one's come close to matching what Chandler did.

If I'd picked up this book knowing nothing about it, and if the main character had been named something other than Philip Marlowe, I would have thought that someone had made yet another fairly game effort to imitate Chandler but had fallen short like everyone else who has attempted to do so. And before writing this review, I sat down and re-read The Big Sleep, which I reviewed here in March, 2010. Doing so simply confirmed my impression that this homage pales against the original.

The Black-Eyed Blonde is not a bad book, and, for what it's worth, it's better than Poodle Springs, the novel that Chandler left unfinished and which was then completed by Robert B. Parker. But it's not nearly as good as a Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler and, for that matter, it's not as good as a Quirke novel by Benjamin Black. I'll eagerly look forward to reading another of the latter, but when it comes to Philip Marlowe, I'll be sticking to the real thing.

Needs More Scenery

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars


That's what I felt I was seeing as I read this, a blank slate, a void, an empty room.

A Wrinkle in Time is a very nice tale, but I just wish L'Engle spent more time developing the settings. The decently rounded characters seemed to be floating in spartan landscapes like portraits hung in limbo.

Lackluster description is one thing, but perhaps more than anything, I think my tepid-3 star, ho-hum reaction to A Wrinkle in Time is due to my reading it as a middle-aged curmudgeon. It's made for kids and I haven't been one of them in a while.

My wife loved this book as a child and kept hinting I should read it, hinting so much that the hints became ultimatums. Could've sworn I heard her in my head shouting, "Read this or you do not love me!" So I read it and well...meh. I missed the age-appropriate boat on that one, I guess. But hey, at least I was smart enough not to give her my scathing review (yes, this would've been seen as a scathing review in her eyes). I just said, "It was nice," and that's the story of how I managed to stay married.

The End

Blowing Forester's Horn

Lieutenant Hornblower (Hornblower Saga: Chronological Order, #2)Lieutenant Hornblower by C.S. Forester
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Get your horn blown in this book of complete seaman insanity!

Our hero Horatio Hornblower is put in a tough position with his wardroom messmates. The captain of the HMS Renown has gone off his rocker and thinks his officers are plotting against him. They're not...well, not at first. They're pushed into it when things come to a head and it becomes apparent the captain's erratic behavior is endangering the ship. The lieutenants gather for a meeting to talk over the situation in a meeting that could be construed as mutinous. And that's when things take a surprising twist.

Lieutenant Hornblower is a different kind of Hornblower book in that its narrated by Bush, Hornblower's bestbud. This shift in the usual POV was probably done for a couple reasons. One, Bush leads a pivotal attack and two, Hornblower is caught in a tough situation affecting his financial and married life, which would be easier to show through someone else's eyes rather than hearing it from the source. An Englishman of that period (early 1800s) would never be so indelicate as to discuss such intimate details.

While this is the second book in the series, it's actually the seventh book Forester wrote about Hornblower's career in the navy. The series originally started with Hornblower having already obtained the rank of captain. After Forester took the series to its natural resolution, he went back and did a bunch of prequels to fill in the details of his hero's early days.

I bring this up only because the writing is affected by it. This book is more nuanced than those preceding it. Forester's plotting and character development improved as he went along. The first half of the series flows and feels old-shoe comfortable, while the latter half feels stilted and utilitarian. The whole thing, especially this book, is quite enjoyable, so that's just a minimal word-to-the-wise.

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