This is the first time I have ever read (listened) to a series of Conan stories that were all by Robert E. Howard, undiluted by his imitators and dimi...moreThis is the first time I have ever read (listened) to a series of Conan stories that were all by Robert E. Howard, undiluted by his imitators and diminishers, and what a revelation. Howard's work was not the pulpy trash of his followers; it was accomplished, vital, deep and rich in characterization, and some of the finest world building ever achieved. It was that thing I love most: a novel in short stories.
Listening to this collection, one gets a full picture of Howard's Cimmerian. Not the "barbarian" his copycats like to present (it's interesting to note that Howard's Conan only ever refers to himself as a Cimmerian), but the man with powerful personal ethics, a good man born of a bellicose tribe in a time of war, a man whose lustiness is lustful rather than rapacious, a man as capable of personal brutality as he is of noble heroism as he is of tactical genius as he is of creeping stealth as he is shocking kindness as he is geniune responsibility. Howard's Conan is a possible man, a realistic man, a man who does great things and travels far -- rising from thief/pirate to general/king -- but a man who, despite his titular status, suffers consequences and faces situations with real stakes.
That Conan, Howard's Conan, disappears in the writing of others, becoming a buffoonish barbarian pseudo-god, a "barbarian" in every caricatured sense of the word, a moron, a being of pure instinct and no intellect, the sort of character Arnold Schwarzenneger might play, rather than a real actor with a real brain (say Tom Hardy).
The stand out stories: "The Tower of the Elephant" (my favourite to teach), "Queen of the Black Coast" (recently adapted and serialized beautifully by Brian Wood for Dark Horse Comics), "Black Colossus," and "The Devil in Iron" are some of the finest short stories ever put to typewriter -- by anyone.
If the only Conan you know is the Conan co-opted by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Robert Jordan et al., and you enjoyed their pulpy goodness well enough, do yourself a favour and read the real thing. Robert E. Howard was the real deal, and I'll be surprised if he disappoints you.
One final word: the narrator of the audiobook -- Todd McClaren -- is excellent. His voice his clear, his feminine voice avoids insipidity, and the way he paces the tales is impeccable. I'll be seeking his voice out in the future.(less)
I felt like brushing up against the '60s last week, more as a way to uncover some more serious places to start reading than to truly inform myself abo...moreI felt like brushing up against the '60s last week, more as a way to uncover some more serious places to start reading than to truly inform myself about the period, but I was pleasantly surprised by John Robert Greene's willingness to criticize the sacred cows of the generation.
Whether discussing JFK's poor legislative record (before and during the Presidency), MLKJr's lack of support from the Black activist community who felt he wasn't doing enough and was too quick to capitulate to the Man, LBJ's war mongering, Ike's diplomacy or Nixon's supposed crookedness, Greene suggests -- quite explicitly -- that the myths of oru expectations and memories are very different from the realities of these men and their mark on their times.
It makes me want to read more, more than I already did. Job well done, Dr. Greene. Your "further reading" sections already have me adding to my list of to-reads. (less)
John Lee, the narrator of many of the more famous Miéville books on audio, has a voice made for very specific kinds of stories. The City and the City...moreJohn Lee, the narrator of many of the more famous Miéville books on audio, has a voice made for very specific kinds of stories. The City and the City is one of those stories wherein his voice works, as it also does with Miéville's Kraken. He has the kind of voice that perfectly suits the cynical world of our now. Hard without being harsh (and without the gravelly phlegm of smoking too much), almost combative in his delivery and mostly humourless (which worked oddly well in the very funny Kraken), Lee sounds like the sort of guy Miéville is usually writing about in his Earthbound books. So imagining Lee's voice as that of Tyador Borlu, even with the English accent when it should really be some form of Balkan accent, is not at all difficult. His voice is perfect for the jaded cop from Beszel, expressing pragmatism, annoyance and righteousness (though not necessarily of the "self") in turns. I'm not as big a fan of John Lee when he tries to read the Bas Lag books, but for Miéville's stuff on Earth, there is no one better. (less)
What a fantastic way to consume an overview of an historical period. Ian Mortimer's decision to create a guide for tourism shifts the focus of history...moreWhat a fantastic way to consume an overview of an historical period. Ian Mortimer's decision to create a guide for tourism shifts the focus of history from the "Great People of History" to the "People You'll Meet while Walking by Shitbrook," and that turns out to be far more fascinating -- at least to me.
Want to know how to avoid prosecution for murder in case you slip up during your travels? Mortimer lets you know. Want to know what sports you can expect to enjoy? They're all here. Want to know what drinks to avoid, what to look for in foods, what roads to take, what protection you'll need while travelling, what to wear, what to read, what to carry with you? Look no further than this fantastic guide.
I'll be leaving for London 1362 tomorrow, just after one of the outbursts of plague has cleared up. That way I can take advantage of the decreased and depressed population, and hopefully avoid the buboes.
A Swedish national, a "sports" journalist, goes missing in Budapest, behind the "Iron Curtain." It's the height of the Cold War, and Swedish homicide...moreA Swedish national, a "sports" journalist, goes missing in Budapest, behind the "Iron Curtain." It's the height of the Cold War, and Swedish homicide detective Martin Beck, about to enjoy his vacation, is sent, instead, to look into the disappearance.
A Canadian boy would expect a 70s Budapest to be riddled with spies and spying and suspicion. A Canadian boy would expect oppressiveness and oppression at every Hungarian turn. A Canadian boy would expect high adventure mixed with the KGB and CIA. A Canadian boy would expect an international murder, with international implications. A Canadian boy would expect something thrillingly action packed. A Canadian boy would be wrong, though.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo were not as foolish as the Canadian boy. They didn't have his prejudices and indoctrinations. They knew the story they were telling, and they told it their way, with integrity. So their story has a beautiful Budapest, with bath houses, and quays and the Danube outside Metropolitan hotels. It has local police just like anyone else's police, no better or worse, just doing their job. It has a little danger at the hands of some German drug dealers who make their home in Budapest. And the solution to the mystery of the missing man is mundane and lying back in Sweden. Budapest was just a step in the path to the appropriately depressing conclusion.
It is what all the Martin Beck mysteries are -- true -- and that is the highest praise I can bestow on a work of fiction. (less)
I said I was going to listen to it the next time I read it and here I go.
An intelligent man I know is also an incorrigible literary snob wh...moreI said I was going to listen to it the next time I read it and here I go.
An intelligent man I know is also an incorrigible literary snob who believes that the last author of any true literary merit was Faulkner, and that anything that has come since must be poor by definition (himself excluded, though I suspect I am not). He reads more recent texts because he must (for school or pedagogical purposes), and his feelings about them are predominantly negative.
So he read the Wasp Factory at my behest while I listened to it, then we sat down and chatted. He was entertained by Frank's tale, but he feels The Wasp Factory is poorly written, that Banks is nothing but a sensationalist writing with overdetermination and a tendency towards the melodramatic. It's the only Banks he has read, and my opinion incorporates a reading of most of Banks' novels, but I disagree with my friend -- both in the case of The Wasp Factory and the quality of contemporary authors.
I am mostly talked out after our discussion of the other day, where we left things unconvinced by the other's arguments. Suffice to say that I find much to admire in the emotional, sometimes passionate, sometimes cold first person revelations of Frank Cauldhame. Banks told the tale in the voice the tale required, and the tale of lies upon lies upon lies upon half-truths is to be much admired as an entertainment and as literature. And a world, such as my friend desires, wherein Dickens would be top-middle-bottom of the reading menu, is a world that would bore me to coma. Leguin, Mieville, Banks, Morrison (an author my friend admits approaches quality), Vandermeer, Hope, Katzman, Atwood, Allende, Mitchell, Murakami, Ishiguro, and others I'm not remembering make my imagination tremble.
I'm glad he read the book for me; I am sad he didn't like it more; I surely loved our conversation, though. Books (and the people who love them) really are good, aren't they?(less)
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote their Martin Beck series in the sixties and seventies. They wrote ten novels in ten years. They wrote about a time wi...more Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote their Martin Beck series in the sixties and seventies. They wrote ten novels in ten years. They wrote about a time without computers and modern gadgets, but apart from those conveniences themselves, the books could have been written yesterday.
These books are about everything that continues to be wrong in our societies. They are about carceration, misplaced conceptions of justice and the omnipresence of injustice. They are about the militarization of police forces and police culpability in the crimes they are expressly formed to fight. They are about an environment under siege by our way of living. They are about our fears of sexuality and society's role in controlling our desires. They are about rape culture and the fight of women to control their bodies and own their sexuality. They are about the disaffection of our children and young adults. They are about failing economies, people without work, the haves having more and the have-nots having so little that they turn to crime in despair. They are about the need for forgiveness. They are about guilt and conscience and ethics. And they show that not a damn thing has changed (at least in the Canada of today, the country I live in, it hasn't. Canada right now is the Sweden of the seventies and that is fucking depressing).
Into all of these issues, spanning nine years a this point, are thrust Martin Beck and Lennart Kollberg. They solve murders for the National Police Squad. They are men of conscience, actively struggling everyday with the issues Sjöwall & Wahlöö drop in their path. By the close of the book, one of them resigns from the force he once loved and now disdains. The other goes wearily on. People die over the course of Cop Killer, even a cop (though the "actual" cop killer is rather surprising). The wrong man is railroaded into prison to await trial for a crime he didn't commit simply because it is the path of least resistance. Other men are hunted and ear-marked for death because of coincidence. A girl is bitten repeatedly in the groin by an attack dog because she helped some friends (though she'd already surrendered when the dog attacked). A cop and a man he helped convict of murder (now free after serving his sentence) sit down over a seltzer water and an aquavit to share their guilt over the people they've killed. And one cop looks forward to eating a meal with the woman he loves. It's all here in this marvellous book.
Make no mistake, these books are not to be taken lightly; they are literature. They should be the canon of police procedurals. If you love detective stories and you've not read the Martin Beck books you need to get started. You'll see why.
p.s. If you decide to read this series take my advice and reread Roseanna just before you read this for the first time. I did quite by accident and a happy accident it was.(less)
All the main characters, Aubrey and Maturin included, faded into the background of The Mauritius Command, becoming a kind of landscape upon which the...moreAll the main characters, Aubrey and Maturin included, faded into the background of The Mauritius Command, becoming a kind of landscape upon which the drama of Lord Clonfert played out. His was the story that most captured my attention this time through.
Clonfert begins the tale as the captain of HMS Otter. He is a vain man. A handsome man who cuts a dashing figure in his finery. He has developed some bravery (after a shaky beginning to his career), is a "capital seaman" and has the loyalty of his men. He is also an unabashed liar when it comes to his accomplishments (even suggesting he was present at the killing of a unicorn, using a Narwhal tusk as his evidence), but his vanity quickly undermines his spirit when he's thrust into the shadow of his former shipmate, now commanding officer, Commodore Jack Aubrey.
Clonfert is eventually made Post-Captain by the man he sees as his nemesis and is given the frigate HMS Néréide as his command. He eventually loses his ship and half his face in a poorly executed action, and once he realizes that Jack Aubrey will again return him to command, after the Mauritius Campaign has reached its successful conclusion, he takes his own life in his convalescent bed.
It's not a tragic death. It's rather pathetic, actually. O'Brian's expression of Clonfert's fall, however, is touching and strikes at a truth I've witnessed amongst many of those who find themselves in competition with one another. Quite often, the successful person, the "bull" in an analogy of Stephen Maturin's, has no idea that the less successful person, the "frog" in the same analogy, envies him, hates him, or obsesses over him in any way. So the bull steps on the frog without ever noticing, and as Dr. Maturin suggests, "how can the bull be blamed ...." How, indeed?
I never want to be a frog, but I fear that there is a bit of that beast in me despite my desire. It is something for which I must be wary. I should probably be wary of being the bull too. Wariness may just be the most benevolent policy. (less)
I exhale my breath in a long deep sigh. I've just finished listening to what is probably the most cinematic of all the Sjowall and Wahloo Beck books (...moreI exhale my breath in a long deep sigh. I've just finished listening to what is probably the most cinematic of all the Sjowall and Wahloo Beck books (maybe not the best, but certainly the most evocative), and for the first time (despite the excellence of the entire series) I want to drop everything I'm doing and get started on the next book.
I need to know how the serious cliffhanger resolves. I need to see the fallout of everything that's happened, I need to see how these men, some of whom I hate and some of whom I love, handle the carnage they've been part of and have helped to bring about directly or indirectly.
I sit here typing with a slight pain in my back when I should be cleaning or grocery shopping, and I think of writing a book with the qualities of The Abominable Man. Its unique in the Beck series for taking the shortest time from crime to resolution. A day passes. That's all. And that is a huge departure from a series that is all about the banality of police procedure. It is a crime where the criminal might actually want to be caught, but we can't know that for sure. It's a bloody crime that leads to a crime some might call crazed (with a lone gunman on the roof of an apartment block killing police) but I call desperate.
It moves from action to action to action. It throws together two pairings of cops who hate each other, separating them from their usual, comfortable partners. It makes us care about them all. It makes us care about two of the other victims, dumb ass radio cops from earlier books. It makes us care about the murderer, to see where he is coming from. It makes us loathe the murderer's first victim, and love our eponymous hero more than we ever have before. Thus I realize that I couldn't write a book with The Abominable Man's qualities. Not from scratch. The Abominable Man is excellent because it is preceded by six other books, and those books built the milieu through which all of these men heroes, villains, victims, victimizers and buffoons move. It is a book that only patience of purpose and playing the long game could create.
I'll need seven books to get there. Better get writing. (less)
I can't remember what I've said previously about the Martin Beck books (beyond my general positivity), so I apologize if you find me repeating myself...moreI can't remember what I've said previously about the Martin Beck books (beyond my general positivity), so I apologize if you find me repeating myself (I am too lazy to go back and read all my previous reviews). I think it is also important to note that my star rating here is contrasted with the other books I've read in the series. The rating doesn't reflect my feelings about The Fire Engine that Disappeared compared to all books -- only other Martin Beck books.
That business complete, I have to say "I dig these books!" They are amongst the best police procedurals I've read, and all Swedish crime fiction (perhaps all crime fiction) since the sixties, including (especially?) Steig Larsson, owes these books an immeasurable debt. But I don't care about the plot of this book tonight. I care about the characters, which is, I think, what Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo most wanted us to care about.
Martin Beck -- The man from which the series gets its name is not much more than a bit player in this tale, but he's still the place to start. He is the pivot around which everything else revolves, and the relationship between himself and his daughter, Ingrid, is one of the most beautiful father-daughter relationships I've ever read. It is true in a way that other manifestations simply aren't. At one point, she suggests that he should move out of the family home as she's about to do, hinting at a much needed divorce from the wife and son that make him so miserable. It is an expression of trusting intimacy that is potently honest. I can't help but love them both for that moment.
Kollberg -- Sarcastic, bombastic, sextastic, Kollberg has been my favourite throughout the series, and he remains so here. He starts out petulant and sarcastic, fucking with the rookie, Benny Skacke, incessantly, and winds up with nine inches of steel in his belly. It's a sweet little arc that keeps my favourite vibrant and alive. Will he still be anti-gun after his stabbing? I'm guessing yes. Dogmatically so.
Benny Skacke -- And speaking of young Skacke ... not too bad. He's a smart operator, and it is all down to his tenacity. I get the feeling that his desire to be Chief of Police is going to come to fruition by book ten. And his final error, the error that leads to serious danger, is the kind of error that will be misconstrued as heroism -- much to his benefit. Lucky bastard.
Gunvald Larsson -- Perhaps the most important man in this book, Gunvald Larsson is also the biggest prick, the most unlikeable, the most insufferable. He's the ugly cop. He's not dirty, no, no. But he is brutal, unswerving, unreasonable. He is a bully of the worst kind. He is mean, insulting, close-minded, foolish. Yet he starts this book as a hero, dragging eight people from a horrible house fire. And he milks it for all he can.
Einar Rönn -- He's Larsson's best friend, and he brings Gunvald a bunch of flowers while he's recovering from his heroism, to which his friend wonders aloud: "Did you pick them off a grave, Rönn?" Rönn winces, genuinely hurt, but his love for Larsson never wavers. Dumb? Yes. But I can't help loving him for it, and as cops go he's actually kind of okay.
Fredrik Melander -- is just plain old Melander. He pseudo-solves things early on. He loves his Plain Jane wife. He is his ordinary boring self. I can't do anything but love him for who he is.
And that, ultimately, is what makes me love these books. The characters. They are true. True and real. And I can't and won't ask for more.
One of the things I dig most about the "Martin Beck" mysteries is that they are only named "Martin Beck" mysteries out of convenience. He's the highes...moreOne of the things I dig most about the "Martin Beck" mysteries is that they are only named "Martin Beck" mysteries out of convenience. He's the highest ranking policeman in Sjowall and Wahloo's Stockholm Homicide Division, and a couple of the early books tended to focus on him, but as the series goes on the books can be about any of the men who work with Beck.
The Laughing Policeman revolves around two of the detectives: Lennart Kollberg and Åke Stenström. In fact, the central mystery of the book is the shooting of Stenström and seven others on a double decker bus on the edge of Stockholm and Skåne. No one has any idea what Stenström is doing on the bus, and the hunt for a mass murderer in 1968 Sweden is all a bit surreal to the detectives who expect that kind of thing in Vietnam war torn USA, but not late-sixties Sweden.
The investigation (refreshingly bereft of the "cop killer" chest beating we've come to expect from our police procedurals) digs deep into the life of Stenström, trying to figure out what he is doing and why he is on that bus. We meet his girlfriend and future cop Åsa Torell, we discover their sexual proclivities, Stenström's love of guns, and his lofty ambitions.
It is Kollberg who does most of the work on this front, befriending Åsa Torell after Stenström's death and going so far as to invite her to stay with him, his wife, Gun, and their baby (only one at this point) for a while. We discover much more about Kollberg's Socialist politics, his disdain for guns, his and Gun's sexual proclivities, and that he is a damn good detective. No wonder he and Beck get along so well.
The Kollberg and Stenström stuff is exactly the kind of stuff I love. Getting to know characters in the midst of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. But what Kollberg is supposed to be doing, along with Beck and Melander, Larsson and Rönn, is finding a mass murderer. And that part of the story is as satisfying as it can possibly be. If you love mystery novels, and if you're even mildly interested in Swedish crime fiction, you will love this book. I did. (less)
I like listening to this book better than reading it, I think. This one is steeped in the emotional lives of Jack and Stephen. It's the first that rea...moreI like listening to this book better than reading it, I think. This one is steeped in the emotional lives of Jack and Stephen. It's the first that really starts showing us how deeply these men feel about each other and the others they care about, and hearing it rather than reading it adds a level of intimacy that increases the novel's emotional satisfaction.
It opens with Stephen's torture at the hands of the French, and Jack's daring rescue. Captain Jack cares for his wounded friend with a tenderness that belies his massive frame, and he can't help but be rattled by the state in which he finds Stephen.
HMS Surprise continues in this vein, moving from emotional moment to emotional moment. Jack loves Sophie Williams, but cannot marry her because he is arrested for debt and Mrs. Williams wants a rich man for her daughter, not just a rank or name. It cuts Jack to the quick.
Stephen loves Diana Villiers (Sophie's cousin), but she has run off with Canning, a much liked Jewish merchant with interests in Diana's birth home -- India. Stephen also comes to love a little street urchin named Dill, and he eventually loses both Diana (for now) and Dill (forever). And he kills Canning in a rather spooky dual, where Stephen, even with his torture-warped hands and a bullet in his chest, manages to end the dual with the death of his rival. Death and heartache are Stephen's lot.
And then Jack and Diana, and Bonden and Killick and all the Sophies (the crewmen of Jack's first ship), are in a deep state of dread that Stephen will not make it through the infection left behind by his surgery (which he himself performed) -- and the love that they all feel for the too intense, rather ugly, brilliantly talented doctor is revealed.
Listening to Simon Vance bring this to life increases the intimacy for the reader/listener, making this a rare case when the audio book increased my enjoyment. I wonder if this will happen again? There're still 18 books to listen to. Perhaps it will. (less)
I am a big fan of multi-multi-part series. Series that follow the same character(s) for eight, nine, ten or even dozens of books have an ability to pl...moreI am a big fan of multi-multi-part series. Series that follow the same character(s) for eight, nine, ten or even dozens of books have an ability to play with characters and let them grow and breathe that one shots or even trilogies don't.
The best, like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey Maturin Series, do such a fine job that their characters become members of the family. People you know intimately and love despite all their flaws. The worst, like most of the Fantasy and Sci-Fi series that have multiple authors, remain a fascinating way to examine how different authors present their different takes on the characters they're writing about. They're often worth reading despite the contradictions and lapses in authorial judgement.
The mystery genre is probably the most prolific producer of multi-volume sets -- especially when it comes to the police procedural. It makes perfect sense to follow a cop or forensic examiner or whatever else over the length of his/her career, and their stories have the easy crime hooks that land our attention. Fans of crime novels all have a favourite detective -- mine is Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander (I am setting aside Mr. Holmes for this discussion) -- and we all have plenty that do nothing for us. But the one thing that can be said for all the "big" characters of the genre, whatever the skill of their creators, is that the more books that are written about them, the more they come to life.
This is, of course, also true of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's exceptional Martin Beck series -- only more so.
Beck and his colleagues -- Kollberg, Melander, Larrson, Rönn -- exist in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's sixties Sweden with an ease that seems entirely unreasonable. The Beck books are short (at least the three I've read so far), yet these characters, in tiny, almost imperceptible ways, achieve depths that other characters can't and don't. They don't seem like characters anymore. They feel real, as though these books are a chronicle of men who once existed.
Perhaps this has most to do with a peculiarity of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's books that popped up in The Man on the Balcony. It struck me that there books are unique in one very important way. Unlike every other multi-part series I've ever read -- and there've been quite a few -- the Martin Beck books are not really multiple parts. Sjöwall and Wahlöö weren't writing ten Martin Beck stories, they were writing ONE Martin Beck story, and each "part" was really just a chapter in the greater whole.
That, more than anything else, allows Sjöwall and Wahlöö to breathe life into their policemen. References in The Man on the Balcony to the first part of their story, Roseanna, aren't simple reminders of some action that happened in the past, they are experiences that shaped their characters' personalities and altered the way the men are now reacting and behaving. Everything about these men is built as if they are real. Not just characters on a page, but men whom Sjöwall and Wahlöö can bring into existence through sheer force of will.
It's no wonder this series is seen as a seminal work of the genre. Its influence should be tremendous for anyone writing about cops. Hell, I don't write about cops, and its already influencing me. (less)
This book is widely considered one of Hemingways worst, and there's even a tale floating around that he told director Howard Hawks that he thought it...moreThis book is widely considered one of Hemingways worst, and there's even a tale floating around that he told director Howard Hawks that he thought it was a pile of shit. It's not, though. It's neither his worst nor a pile of shit. Nor is it his best. But there is much to admire in To Have and Have Not, and those things are amplified by Will Patton's award worthy vocal performance in the audio version.
Patton's quiet, simmering rhythm, and his hushed tones -- even in the most violent moments -- bring out the story's melancholy, its hopelessness, its pity, its hope.
And it makes it much easier to see the love and respect Hemingway has for his characters in a way that might not be so clear when the words are sitting stagnant on a page. It really feels like this book, more than any except The Old Man and the Sea, was meant to be heard. Pick up your copy and read yourself Chapter 12, then flip over and read yourself Chapter 19 right away. Read it slowly and calmly. Can you feel the intentional flow? Can you feel the way Hemingway loves Marie?
He does. Hemingway loves Marie the way he loves Pilar in For Whom The Bell Tolls, and it is beautiful -- especially the way its read by Will Patton.
For me, this time, To Have and Have Not was about Marie, and by the end I am sure she's going to be just fine. I really wish Hemingway had gone and told us more about Marie Morgan. But I love what he have. (less)
I could hear the cigarettes and bourbon tearing apart narrator Tom Weiner's vocal chords as I listened to his reading of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke,...moreI could hear the cigarettes and bourbon tearing apart narrator Tom Weiner's vocal chords as I listened to his reading of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Weiner's voice adds aural texture to a book overflowing with atmospheric texture; he compliments the Martin Beck tale perfectly with his slurry gravelly voice.
And that's seems important to me here in a way that it doesn't in all audiobooks. I think it is because of how important this series is to its genre.
Mankell's debt is easily traceable. His Kurt Wallander novel, The Dogs of Riga, is a direct descendent of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Wallander spends his time in Riga, Latvia, at the height of the Cold War, investigating a murder, just as Martin Beck spends his time in Budapest, Hungry investigating a man's disappearance. The similarities are such that they feel like companion pieces, pieces meant to be read together as a way to consider the same tale from the perspectives of different eras.
But I discovered a potential link of inspiration that surprised me (and I'd love to have an admission for this from the author himself -- just to satisfy my curiosity). I am willing to bet that China Miéville read The Man Who Went Up in Smoke when he was gearing up to write The City and the City. In a much simpler form, the tale of Tyador Borlú's search for the killer of Mahalia Geary is present here. But the most interesting link is the way Beck moves between the cities that are Budapest. It is a city and a city, and that idea is playing on the edges of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.
These connections and those who've been inspired by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahloo don't really matter for too many of us. What does matter is that these are some seriously satisfying mysteries. Must reading (or listening) for any serious fan of the police procedural.(less)
WARNING: This "review" (if you can call it that) contains some veiled but serious spoilers. Only read this review if you've read Kraken or aren't plan...moreWARNING: This "review" (if you can call it that) contains some veiled but serious spoilers. Only read this review if you've read Kraken or aren't planning to read it for some time.
Star Trekiteuthis: The Original Series Episode: TOS 061 - Spock's Brain Season 3 Ep. 1 Air Date: 09/20/1968 Stardate: 5431.4
The U.S.S. Architeuthis is on a routine mission in its preservative bottle when a riffling, ink stained, paper tiger beams into the National History Museum. Without a word, the tiger reorders the ink of its pages and everyone is rendered unconscious. It moves around the Museum until finally it comes to Miéville. Smiling an inky smile, it lays a hand on the author's head, as if it's found what it was looking for.
When Wati Kirk awakes, Miéville is gone from the Museum. Before the labour organizer can find out where his author has gone, Dane Parnell calls, demanding his presence immediately. Miéville's body lays on a diagnostic table, on full life support. Dane Parnell explains that his brain is gone ... miraculously removed with some technology that the Kraken Agent has never seen before. Every nerve was sealed and there was no blood lost. However, Parnell tells him if the author's brain isn't returned to his body within 24 hours, Miéville will die.
Wati Kirk orders the city's familiars to pursue the paper tiger. By following its lack, the Architeuthis arrives at the Sea's embassy in Varmin Way. When Wati Kirk and party shift inside, they find a soaked, underwater world inhabited by two villains: Grisamentum, who is comprised of ink and paper, and the Tattoo, a crime lord tattoed onto the back of a man named Paul. While Grisamentum is resurrected in the liquid body of ink, he doesn't fully understand the power of metaphor. Only the "Great Prophet" -- a.k.a. Billy Harrow -- has this knowledge, and he was left behind by ancient squid cultists (or bottle angels) who once lived on the planet.
Dane, having borrowed a device which will control Miéville's body without the aid of his brain, goes with the author to join Wati Kirk and his party. They find Grisamentum, the tiger who came into the Museum. They quickly realize that Gris doesn't have the skill or knowledge to have understood the operation on Miéville, and the Londonmancers tell them about the Great Prophet.
Finally, Wati Kirk finds Miéville's brain. The Tattoo has hooked it up to control his main thug, Goss and Subby. The brain is now revered by the thug as the "Controller," which the thug hopes will fulfill his (its? their?) murderous thirst for the next 10,000 years. After trying unsuccessfully to get Gris to repeat the operation on Miéville in reverse, Dane submits to the Great Prophet and gains the knowledge of metaphor needed to restore Miéville's brain and save both the author's life and all their existences.
Without his Controller, Goss and Subby succumb to the wrath of Paul who conquers his Tattoo. Wati Kirk suggests the familiars go on strike once more, and Grisamentum's attack on Miéville never-was.
I'm slowly getting sucked into the world of audiobooks and loving them more and more, but I nearly abandoned this one. I am glad I didn't, though.
This...moreI'm slowly getting sucked into the world of audiobooks and loving them more and more, but I nearly abandoned this one. I am glad I didn't, though.
This Blackstone edition suffers from one of the most painful voices I have ever heard -- some guy named Richard Brown. He has a nasally, whiny, smoke-too-much voice that grates the ears the way skin grates when a thumb slips off a carrot and gets shredded. He makes no attempt to offer performance of any sort, opting instead for straight reading. No variations of emotion, no variations of tone or vocal quality, just him reading Solzhenitsyn's words translated (albeit from H.T. Willets' reputedly excellent authorized translation) into English.
My kids listened to about an hour of the story one day while we were driving, and much to my surprise, they loved it. Bronte said that Brown sounded really cool and that his voice was perfect. She got me thinking, and I had to admit that she was onto something. His voice is perfect. His adanoidal drone, the sort of voice you'd expect from a "evil" English rodent in an animated movie, was perfectly suited to Ivan Denisovich Shukov, the carpenter/bricklayer/"spy"/zek banished to a Siberian Gulag in Stalinist USSR.
Brown's voice really does capture the grind of camp life. The crushing weight of scrounging for food, working for pride despite the hardship, the biting cold, the loyalties and pities that dictate every minute of every day, all that camp life must have been is contained in that torturous voice. So listening to this translation to the dissonant sound of Brown's voice turned out to be a rewarding experience. By the end I really liked it. But I am still going to have to cut off a star from this edition because I came so close to turning it off and not going back.
Zahi Hawass is an important guy when it comes to Egyptology. He knows it, and he wants us to know it too.
He spends a great deal of time in Mountains o...moreZahi Hawass is an important guy when it comes to Egyptology. He knows it, and he wants us to know it too.
He spends a great deal of time in Mountains of the Pharaohs dropping names, asserting his authority when it comes to the possible readings of the artefact record, and sharing anecdotes about his own finds and discoveries. Yet amidst all this self-aggrandizement is some excellent information, and a reassuring vision of how healthy the debate surrounding Egyptian finds continues to be within the community of Egyptologists.
Mountains of the Pharaohs is at its worst when Hawass gives in to his imaginings of "what might have happened" to the Pharaohs and those close to them. These fictions -- containing emotion, action, and an off-puttingly omniscient narration -- might very well be rooted in facts about the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, but they are mostly silly and annoying, offering up a fanciful vision of Hawass' utopian vision of Old Kingdom Egypt. And this utopian vision doesn't dissipate when he leaves the fiction behind. Hawass tends to read the archaeological record with a romantic view of a near perfect ancient world that was mirrored in their near perfect monuments.
The book is at its best, however, when Hawass spends some time with the common folk. The closing chapters about the regular Egyptians who were engaged in building the pyramids discusses some exceptional finds, and brings Hawass to a more balanced place in his vision of Ancient Egypt. The common Egyptian is a perspective I've always felt was poorly represented in popular Egyptology, so it was refreshing to see it here.
Finally, the reading by Simon Vance (of whom I am a fan, having only ever listened to his audio recordings of the Aubrey-Maturin books) is suitably noble and weighty, impeccably matching the voice to the source material.(less)
The Swedish-noir (Swedish-svart?) family tree runs just so: Martin Beck (grandfather) → Kurt Wallander (father) → Mikael Blomkvist (son).
Now I admit t...moreThe Swedish-noir (Swedish-svart?) family tree runs just so: Martin Beck (grandfather) → Kurt Wallander (father) → Mikael Blomkvist (son).
Now I admit that my exposure to this family is limited by my North Americanism, by the translations that filter their way across the Atlantic, by the culture(s) that make(s) these works popular, but even if there are branches and roots of the tree that I can't see, the relationship between these stories is undeniable.
So it feels to me like Martin Beck -- more specifically the first novel starring Martin Beck, RoseAnna -- is the progenitor of the big protagonists that came after.
Martin Beck, you see, is the sixties' Kurt Wallander. He is consumed by his job, he is deep in a failing marriage, he is constantly depressed, almost always in ill health, yet there is something admirable in his doggedness. And in the version of RoseAnna that I listened to, Henning Mankell admits his debt to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöö, acknowledging that the writing team's split from classic "English" mystery, their committment to the banality of police work, their need for investigatory truth, deeply influenced his own work.
Making that first connection is easy, the next much less so.
On the surface, Mikael Blomqvist seems a bit harder to link to his father and grandfather. He is flamboyant (for a Swede), where they are moderate and restrained. He is an active lefty, while they are decidely more conservative. He is a hopeful investigative reporter, while they are jaded old school cops. He shares the spotlight with Lisbeth Salander, while they are clearly the protagonists of their tales.
It's not the protagonists who hate women (at least not enough to destroy them), but the criminals they deal with. It is a preoccupation for all the authors, and it makes me wonder, when one reads these books, what the attitude towards women really is in Sweden. Can it be as bad as these books suggest?
Whatever the case, these books are compelling reads for anyone interested in the mystery genre. Don't be fooled, though, by those who would have you believe that Steig Larsson is some sort of genre creating genius who gave rise to Swedish crime fiction out a vaccuum. He's the most recent, and most popular, of a healthy and strong family tree. And this book, RoseAnna is one of the healthiest and most gripping of its roots.(less)
It's been a while since I've been so infuriated by a read. I am pissed this morning after finishing Bitter Seeds because the book is so fucking uneven...moreIt's been a while since I've been so infuriated by a read. I am pissed this morning after finishing Bitter Seeds because the book is so fucking uneven. The highs are very high, but the lows tend to be abyssal. I considered giving it five stars at a couple of points, vowed to give it one star often, and finally decided that I had better split the difference.
Here goes for the Highs and Lows:
High #1 -- The conceit of Nazi engineered superheroes whose presence change the course of the war is a winner. I am loathe to say it is original because an 80s multi-verse timeline in Marvel's Fantastic Four played with that idea, but Tregillis does some original stuff with it, and when he has us hanging out with Dr. von Westarp's damaged children () the book is at its very best. It is, however, partnered by a low.
What we have here in Bitter Seeds is a whole schwack of the silliest kind of Nazis. We have Dr. von Westarp as the creepy, sadistic, human guinea pig using scientist; we have Reinhart as the an overbearing necrophiliac; we have Kammler as a leashed moron; we have Heike as a fragile, suicidal victim.
But then we have Klaus and Gretel, two Nazi Übers, who have real depth and back story. They should bring equilibrium ... except they don't because, you see, they are not "genuine Aryans," not real Nazis, they are Roma, marginalized within their own SS group and treated as other by both their race and their abilities.
Now I don't for a second want the gypsies to change, but some sort of expansion of Kammler or Heike, some sort of explanation for Reinhardt's behaviour (besides the obvious, "he's a Nazi") could have brought the necessary equilibrium. Some time spent defining why anyone else in Germany was the way the were, even Dr. von Westarp, could have pulled them away from caricature and made them antagonists worth spending narrative time with. It doesn't happen, and this missed opportunity is infuriating.
High #2 -- The British Warlocks. I loved the idea of supernatural science going toe to toe with supernatural magery. British Warlocks vs. Nazi supermen?! Sounds fucking cool doesn't it?
Low #2.0 -- But then the fucking Eidolons show up and we discover that the Warlocks have no magic; theirs is a linguistic capacity that allows them to "negotiate blood prices" for the service of the near-omnipotent Eidolons. Midi-chlorians anyone?!
Low #2.1 -- But it got even lower for me where the Eidolans were concerned. The narrative response to England's deals with the Eidolans was to give us Will Beauclerk, sort of the head Warlock working for Milkweed, whose guilt over dealing with the Eidolans leads him to morphine addiction and eventually madness. He feels the terrible pain and gravity of what he "must" do to keep England safe. Slaughtering innocents, making human sacrifices, becomes justified -- or at least rationalized -- in the narrative because there is someone of conscience engaged in the perpetration, which in conjunction with the two-dimensional Nazi caricatures, winds up solidifying the simplistic notion that any Allied atrocity is good because the Nazis were unconscionably bad.
High #2.1 -- Yet the ending, (view spoiler)[Will's discovery of the baby isolation vaults at Milkweed headquarters -- wombs of non-language to spawn a new generation of Eidolan negotiators (hide spoiler)], was a killer moment, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Tregillis will engage meaningfully in an examination of his England's tactics during his reimagined Second World War.
Low #2.2 -- I don't buy, however, that Tregillis will do anything of the sort in the The Coldest War. I expect Will's lone voice of conscience will continue to be the factor that negotiates audience acceptance of shitty British behaviour, while caricatured Soviets will be evil no matter what they do. A future low, perhaps, but a low that puts a major dent in my enjoyment of Bitter Seeds.
-- Gretel and Klaus and Will. I kept reading (listening) because of them. When Tregillis takes time with his characters, he can do some good things, and these three are the books greatest strengths.
Low #3 -- Raybould and Liv. All other poor characters aside, and there are plenty, Raybould Marsh (our protagonist, I suppose), his spouse and their "love" was one of the most ham-fisted relationships I've read. I never bought a moment of their love for one another. I never bought the way they met. I never bought their marriage. I never bought how it motivated Marsh. I never bought their split and reunion. I never the homoerotic triangle that developed between them and Will. I never any of it. Most of the time, it felt as though the publishers (or some outside mentoring source) told Tregillis to add a love story. And this was the best he could do. Well, his best wasn't just "just not good enough," it was destructive to most everything it surrounded.
Low #3.1 -- Raybould? What a fucking stupid name. But that's okay, stupid names aren't all that bad, but it puts me in mind of a personal low for me: the names of Brits and Germans in general. I am a huge football fan, so I know, inherently, the names of most footballers in Germany and England, and most of the supporting characters in this book have a corresponding footballer with their name. This is probably coincidence, but it is a coincidence that made me conscious of the narrator every time my mind pictured a modern footballer rather than a person of the proper period.
High #4 -- The pace was brisk and compelling ...
Low #4 -- ... But the book was way too short. The whole of World War II condensed to this relatively slim volume? A multivolume series could have been written about WWII, let alone his next foray into the Cold War. Bitter Seeds is not anywhere near enough -- it is far too slim -- and with a more languid pace and greater time spent with ALL his characters, many (if not all) of the lows of Tregillis' book could have become highs.
I will go on. I will read the The Coldest War because there were parts of this book I really loved. Its potential was great. I wanted to love it. But if the same highs and lows continue, I will stop splitting the difference and go the way of the lowest possible star rating. And those bits of love that make me want to continue will fester into their opposite. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Back when I got stuck in the doldrums of The Shipping News, finally tossing it overboard, then wasted my time with The Stone Diaries a year later, I subconsciously vowed to ignore the Pulitzer Prize forever. I broke that vow in '99 for The Hours, but that was because one of my mentors knew Cunningham, and he recommended The Hours because he knew my love for Mrs. Dalloway. I went straight back to my personal embargo, though, and it stuck until 2009 when I finally caved and read The Road.
I wouldn't say the embargo lifted after that, but my conviction definitely waned, so when I needed something to listen to on my long commute and saw Jeffrey Eugenides's audiobook version of Middlesex on sale for $7.99, I caved and decided to give it a go.
I expected crap when I started listening, but when Lucky and Desdemona hit Detroit I really started to dig it, and when it ended today with Cal/liope learning the truth of the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency from his YaYa, the recessive gene that made him a hermaphrodite, I realized I'd been a convert to Middlesex's beauty for the bulk of the book.
I don't know if I would be as impressed with Middlesex if I had read it rather than listening to it because Kristoffer Tabori's vocal performance was absolutely mindblowing. I don't think I have heard too many vocal performances that can beat his work on Middlesex. He's no Orson Welles playing Lamont Cranston, but he kicks the crap out of most of the contemporary voice actors I've heard in animated movies and audiobooks. His voices were so distinct, his performance so complex, that characters masking their voices over telephones or through heating ducts had just enough of their original voices to be recognizable while still convincingly masking them from others in the story. Even better, Tabori turned much of Eugenides' prose into poetry. Or -- perhaps -- Tabori simply revealed the poetry of Eugenides' words that were there all along.
I like to think that's the case because the way Eugenides writes about Detroit, San Francisco, and Smyrna is some of the most beautiful metroprose I've ever heard, and I found myself caring for every character Cal/liope came in contact with. I'd hate to know that Tabori's performance made the story better than it really is (although I have a sneaking suspicion that I'd have felt some of Eugenides' descriptions and characterizations were a touch precious without Tabori's performance). So I will never actually read this book now that I've listened to it. I like this story, and I want to keep on liking it.
So am I finally back reading the Pulitzer Prize winners? I dunno. Perhaps. But even if I do start reading them again, I won't be seeking them out.
Maybe I'll buy them on audiotape, instead. You never know what the bargain bin is going to turn up.(less)
Before I go on, though, I should mention that The Accidental Time Machine is only the third book I have ever listened to on tape. So I didn't "read" this book, I listened to it; a mode of delivery that I fear may have fatally altered my perception of Haldeman's story because I couldn't stand the narrator.
Kevin R. Free's vocal performance was terrible. Often, he failed to match the emotion that Haldeman's words intended; the voices he provided for different characters occasionally bled into one another, detracting from the flow of the story, forcing me to struggle to figure out who was speaking; and his accents -- Boston, Australian, Imaginary -- were universally unconvincing. I found myself wishing over and over that someone else was reading this book.
I am not convinced, however, that Kevin R. Free is completely to blame for my disappointment in The Accidental Time Machine. I never seemed to connect to the story itself, and a big part of that had to do with my feelings for the painfully flat protagonist, Matt.
I never cared about Matt, and I had a hard time buying his slacker calm. Whether he was walking into the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy, being interrogated for the murder of his former drug dealer, turning over his bottle of wine to an insane auction in a distant, future, uber-L.A., or placing his trust in the strange, time machine sextet, Matt was totally unflappable.
But get him around a naked woman, a futuristic porn computer, a cuddly ex-girlfriend, or his Nobel Prize winning grandson nee mentor, and he is suddenly Mister Flappable.
And that's his entire personality in two mini-paragraphs. Maybe I can make it even simpler still: slacker unflappability or squirmy, petty flappability. He never grows, he never changes, and he ultimately makes a happy life out of mediocrity. What a hero.
And I won't even get into Martha and her boring sexual naïveté, athiest/agnostic awakening, or modest/immodesty.
Sure, there were some clever and likable bits. I enjoyed "La" for a while, the artificial intelligence who embodied Los Angeles; I thought the memory helmet was a nice touch; and something about the family Matt caught fish with in the time of the Christers was satisfying. But there was way too much crap. Haldeman referenced countless sci-fi classics without subtlety or inspiration, his ending was too pat, too deus ex machina, and the constantly forward moving action -- jumping, jumping, jumping -- never really made sense to me in connection with Matt's character. I just didn't believe he was a curious enough person to drive the plot forward in that manner.
And then there was Haldeman's constant use of "not un-." George Orwell's disdain for the "not un-" configuration is one that I share not undeeply. Haldeman did it and did it and did it again, and I wanted to not unstrangle him..
He's not the only author who uses "not un-." Many do. But I usually notice its use and move on, letting it fade into the background when the story has anything to offer me. The fact that my aggravation grew every time Haldeman used it is a sign of how disappointed in The Accidental Time Machine I am.
My feelings about Kevin R. Free's vocal performance mitigates, ever so slightly, my negative feelings for Haldeman's book, but if Haldeman doesn't impress me when I read The Forever War our relationship as author and reader will be over for good.(less)