Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Professional thief Bernie Rhodenbarr is trying to go legit by buying a book store, but that’s a tough way to make the rent even back in the days before Amazon. So when Bernie gets an offer to swipe a rare volume of Kipling verses for a hefty payday he’s more than willing to start picking locks again.

However, what should be a simple exchange of the book for the cash goes sideways, and Bernie finds himself on the run from the cops after being framed for murder. He’ll need all of his criminal skills and some help from his best friend Carolyn to get out of this one.

As I’ve stated on other reviews I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block, but this series wasn’t my favorite thing he’s done although I quite enjoyed The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. I think it’s because while Bernie is a thief the books generally revolve around him playing amateur sleuth rather than actually being about his profession. Still, there’s a charming low-key quality to these, and I always enjoy Block’s casual dialogue where characters often ramble and make amusing observations about life’s quirks.

I liked this the most of the early ones I’ve read because it introduced Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer who is the person that Bernie can count on most and vice versa. Their friendship is one of the things I’ve most enjoyed about the series.

Overall, it’s a solid mystery with a good sense of humor, and Block always makes a character just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of daily life in New York City a treat to read.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Duma Key

Duma Key Duma Key by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And this is why adults shouldn’t play with dolls…

Edgar Freemantle used to be the quintessential American success story. He was a self-made millionaire who built a thriving construction business, and he had a long and happy marriage which produced two daughters. However, Edgar’s good luck ran out one day when he had a brutal run in with a crane at a job site that cost him an arm, screwed up a leg, and cracked his skull. The brain trauma left his eggs slightly scrambled and made him prone to fly into furious rages that his wife couldn't endure so the accident also ends his marriage.

While trying to recover from his injuries and the divorce Edgar decides to relocate to Florida and indulge in his long dormant hobby of drawing and painting pictures. Edgar rents a house at isolated Duma Key on the Gulf Coast where the gorgeous views and long walks on the beach inspire him to amazing artistic achievements and a rapid recovery of his health. In fact, Edgar’s progress in both areas could be termed as too good to be true if not downright spooky.

I read this for the first time shortly after it was originally released in 2008, and at that time I was intrigued by the story of a damaged man turning to art to heal his body and mind which is a subject that King has intimate knowledge of after being run down by a car. (King wrote movingly about it in the non-fiction On Writing.) However, I found the supernatural stuff lacking, and I’d kinda wished that King had written just a straight up character piece about a guy discovering a latent talent following a tragedy.

Since then I’ve seen what happens when King tries his hand at non-horror genre piece (Mr. Mercedes) so I no longer think that would have been a good idea. Overall, I found myself more intrigued this time by the supernatural aspects and less enamored of the story about Edgar’s recovery and development as a painter. This is probably because I’ve find myself more sensitive to the tics of his that I dislike which this has several of.

First is that there’s a general lack of focus. King has always been willing to throw the kitchen sink at a reader, but he really seemed particularly unwilling or unable to pick a path and stick to it here. There’s elements you see from other stories like Dead Zone with a brain injury leading to weird abilities and there’s the ghost story in an isolated locale like The Shining as well as bits and pieces from other King works. All of this leads to the typical case of King bloat where it seems like a couple of hundred pages could have easily been shaved from the finished product.

The character of Wireman is a prime example of something else I’ve grown irritated with in King’s work where he creates a wise and quirky character and then fills their mouths with overblown dialogue. Here, Wireman frequently refers to himself in the third person, sprinkles his conversations with Spanish jargon, and he’s full of meaningless sayings that are treated as profound by Edgar. Seriously, if someone ever told me, “Do the day, muchacho! And let the day do you!” then I’m going to flip them off and walk away. Which is a shame because there was much about Wireman in this best friend role other than the way he constantly expressed himself that I really liked.

Another King trope that has increasingly irked me in recent years in his habit of creating situations where the characters are fighting the clock but then waste huge amounts of time talking instead of acting. In this one there’s a point near the end where hell is gonna be unleashed at sunset which is coming fast, and yet Edgar feels that’s the ideal time to sit the other characters down and tell them a long rambling story about what he’s discovered. And then of course they find themselves screwed at sunset. How about for once you let them get the job done and save story time for afterwards, Uncle Stevie?

However, despite these gripes I did enjoy this book. King hits the melancholy tone of Edgar, a middle-aged man with a broken home and broken body, perfectly. Doing one of his stories on a bright Florida beach rather than the spooky Maine woods was a nice change of pace, and it fits the way that there’s an underlying tension. There’s also an extremely wicked irony at play here in that most of the stuff happening seems like a good thing rather than evil. Edgar is healing and he’s creating amazing art, and he even uses his newfound abilities to do some good. You can see how he’s willing to push aside any warning signs because so much of what is happening to him is legitimately changing his life for the better without any of the usual dark down side you’d immediately see in most horror books.

It’s not quite as good as I found it in 2008, but it’s still one of the better later era King novels.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: The Girl from Venice

The Girl from Venice The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free ARC from NetGalley of this for review.

A book with the word Girl in the title? I’ve never seen that before….*cough*

In the last days of World War II in Europe an Italian fisherman named Cenzo hauls in what he thinks is the body of a dead young woman. Only she’s just playing possum, and Cenzo quickly finds out that Giulia is Jewish and on the run from Nazis who just killed her family.

Cenzo hides Giulia, but it turns out that she has a secret that someone is desperate to cover up by killing her. Things get more complicated when his estranged brother who has been doing propaganda films for Mussolini’s government shows up, and Cenzo finds himself drawn into the circle of once powerful people who are now looking for the exits as the Allies approach.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Martin Cruz Smith, particularly his series about Russian detective, Arkady Renko. Like Renko and many of his other characters, Cenzo is a smart guy who generally wants nothing to do with the schemes of the corrupt people above him in society, and yet he’s also incapable of just letting an obvious injustice happen. It’s another Smith staple that many around Cenzo see him as a pawn to use for their own purposes, but he’s got a knack for turning the tables on them while he pursues his own agenda. Smith is also great at setting stories in historically interesting places and periods, and he makes the most out of this one.

This isn’t an action thriller, and it’s also not a straight up whodunit historical fiction. It kind of falls into the category of character drama with some of those elements. Overall it’s Smith doing his usual thing, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

3.58 stars.

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