The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Read May 2019
Recommended for fans of dark thrillers

It’s almost impossible for me to review Bacigalupi. Check my other reviews, you’ll see. The Windup Girl, Pump Six and Other Stories; the only one I did justice to was Ship Breaker, his YA book. In a nutshell, it’s because once I am out of his world, I really don’t want to go back in. I work rather hard at maintaining both knowledge and optimism–without thought of ‘moral dessert’ (someone finally just watched The Good Place)–and Bacigalupi sends me right into the pit of despair (and not the good kind, with an albino with a cold). 

Here’s why:

Life, all around her. Struggling and surging and trying so very hard to survive in the face of all the horrors the world had to offer. 
On this ragged edge, she was alive…

She’d come to Phoenix to see a place dying, but she’d stayed for the living. Trying to divine something meaningful from this place’s suffering. What does a place that falls apart look like? What did it mean?

Nothing.
It doesn’t mean anything.
It just tells me how badly I want to live.

I persevered reading because out of his adult books, this one had the most hope (ha! A relative term). But there is environmental devastation, purposeful destruction, casual cruelty, deliberate cruelty, poverty, prostitution, torture, mutilation, and even the sex is masochism. And no one really gets just desserts, and no one is really magically saved. It’s like… the worse possible version of the world. Which is, indeed, the world, but without the leavening of hope, positivism, or vision. There is a little compassion in here, which most genuinely–oh shit, I just realized–might be from a magical Negro. Damn it. 

There’s a line from somewhere–not here, certainly–about how the mirror someone holds up shows us the version that makes us want to cut our hearts out. That’s what Bacigalupi does here, but the way he does it seems also to hold up the worst version of himself. 

Really, read Jennifer’s excellent review. What she said.

Technically, probably a four-star book in quality (fast plotting, world-building, word-smithing), much less in ‘enjoyment.’ I don’t think I can rate this one at the moment. I’ll probably keep my hard copy for awhile, but I’m definitely ditching The Windup Girl.

Many thanks to Jennifer for motivating me to get this off my TBR list.

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Incursion: Vampire Apocalypse, aka ‘Counteraction’ by M.D. Massey

Read May 2019
Recommended for fans of apocalypse camp
★   ★   

You know when you are kind of bored and channel-flipping, and you land on SCYFI channel or whatever it is these days, and you are watching people battle zombies, and then another, weirder zombie comes out of nowhere and it’s kind of funny and you start laughing because it’s just so damn dumb?

It’s totally like that. 

The lone hunter, aka ‘Scratch,’ is out killing supernaturals in the post-apocalyptic world (nuclear, zombie, supernatural) when he hears a rumor of SCARY THINGS massing to the east. He must check them out, now. (Ridiculous plot spoilers ahead–meaning the plot points themselves are ridiculous, not my sharing of them) (view spoiler) In a real horror movie, you’d groan if the hero went looking in all the darkest, most unsafe places. Here, you just gotta laugh and cheer him on.

There is–I kid you not–a surfer werewolf. If that isn’t meant to be camp, I don’t know what is. But he was funny. Young Keanu Reeves can play him in the movie. Humorous cultural references are made (Blade, Romero films), with asides on no one getting the jokes anymore. 

“‘And he likes to watch some stupid show called Scooby-Doo, with this dog that talks and a bunch of kids who are about as dumb as rocks. Moving drawings…creepy. All the monsters are fake on that show, too.’ She shook her head in disgust.”

Nevermind the sense of it, my own tolerance for 300 pages of camp is low, so halfway through the book I found myself checking page numbers. Acceptable stringing-of-words-together can’t save a basically ridiculous plot and cutout characters. Although Massey attempts some character depth and ethical conflict (“be better than the others,” “what’s human?”), it’s too one-note and never sells, since the hero has to reverse himself in another ten pages. The same ethical conflicts stand in for character development for the female character. 

“Gabby, I’ll kill a deader, a rev, a nos’, or a ‘thrope in a heartbeat, and I expect you to do the same. But when it comes to killing our own kind, we need to balance our will to survive with remembering what it means to be human.”

Nevermind that they are running with a ‘thrope, or that the human they allow to survive becomes a repeated problem. Because what’s this genre for, subtlety? 

Narrative is first person. Info-dumping is limited, which I appreciate, and largely seems to concern swords, the undead, and the conflict at hand. Complete with commentary. 

Basically, it’s a poorly developed episode of Supernaturalwithout the eye-candy or visuals. Clearly, your mileage will vary depending on what you look for in an apocalyptic, monster or zombie read. Read at your own risk.

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Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Read May 2019
Recommended for fans of Kate Daniels
★   ★   ★  

 

The short version:

Kate Daniels fans need to give this one a try.

The long version:

Interesting world-building, taking off on the Native American idea of subsequent ‘worlds’ that happen with each upheaval (this concept is explained more later in the story). The integration with various Native mythologies–I think primarily Diné, although the world idea might be more universal–is very interesting and one of the aspects that will make this stand out for urban fantasy and supernatural fans. Setting is a post-apocalyptic world, after various environmental and political upheavals have fragmented what used to be known as the United States. Much of this is alluded to, but not well explained (yet–hints are that this will expand in the next book), which is actually one of my favorite ways for world-building to develop. 

The more problematic aspect for me is the main character, Maggie, aka ‘The Monsterkiller,’ who draws upon two different tribal ‘gifts.’ As a character, she feels very New Adult, with unresolved issues from her teen days, an unrequited crush, and a extra-generous helping of rage, denial and isolation standing in for the remaining development. It’s a tired trope for me, but at least there seems to be some forward character development at the end. 

As fitting for new-adult development, there are issues of love/relationship that need to be worked out, although arguably, they aren’t the primary focus for this book. That is to say, I’d not call this a relationshippy style of book, although I recognize that feelings of isolation/attraction and unresolved mentoring issues are part of the driver and underlying plot. I have a problem when these characters act jaded and knowledgeable but then remain willfully ignorant. In this case, she notes then ignores strangeness surrounding Kai, and plotwise, keeps getting interrupted before it’s addressed. That’s always an extremely annoying YA/NA move. Since the strangeness is telegraphed to the reader, the only one semi-surprised at reveal is the main character. 

In plotting, I found it to be a tricksy book, as befitting anything with Coyote in it. Though it starts ostensibly simple (‘kill the monster’), it becomes more complex. Kind of like an Andrews plot, and like Kate Daniels, Maggie doesn’t do much detecting–other people tell her what to do, or it moves forward because she antagonizes someone.

Writing is above-average, especially for a first book. It is in first person, present tense, which is unusual. I wonder if the present tense is a deliberate reflection of a Diné cultural structure. A lot significant amount of the story is description coupled with explanation. A sample section about Maggie and her friend:

“I like Tah, I really do, and he’s the closest thing I have to a living relative. We aren’t related, aren’t even the same clan, but he calls me daughter. That means something.

I duck under the blanket and break into a grin. I can’t help it. My trailer is shelter. It serves its purpose as far as a house goes, but Tah’s hogan feels like a home, the kind of home they talk about in bedtime stories. It’s a traditional hogan–one big room in an eight-sided building, walls made of long single-cut logs, tightly roped together and sealed with concrete. There’s a cooking fire alread burning in the woodstove in the middle of the room, and the scent of pinon is so pleasantly sharp I can taste it on the tip of my tongue. Warm woven rugs in reds and oranges and browns hang from the walls in between aging picture frames filled with worn photos of smiling family members…”

Would I read it again? Possibly, to better absorb the world, because with such long paragraphs of description, it’s tend to slide over them as the plot heats up. But I did buy the next for kindle. I’m not sure that the series is physical-space worthy, but this was a promising start.

Elena’s brilliant review addressing the problematic feminism of the trope and how Roanhorse executes it: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

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Incursion: Zombie Apocalypse by M.D. Massey

Read May 2019
Recommended for fans of survialist zombie stories
★   ★   ★  ★   

It’s a good thing I read this novella first, because the subsequent books turned out to be another herd of zombies all together. 
Incursion: Zombie Apocalypse is a tight, solidly written little novella about a man suffering PTSD after multiple Afghanistan tours when he is forced to confront the end of the world. Everything is set up beautifully for his survival, but it’s the psychiatric aspects that were the most interesting, beginning with his attempt to do CPR throwing him into a panic attack. 

I thought Massey hit the right notes for motivation without beating the reader over the head. The writing was solid for me, with only a very rare misplaced phrase or–helpmeplease–smirk. 

I would have enthusiastically read much more in this version of the post-apoc world. Unfortunately, it turned into something else entirely in the next book, Incursion: Vampire Apocalypse. This one is serious; that one is solid camp. I’d say read this and consider it a one-off. One of the better traditional zombie survival books out there.

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The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Read April 2019
Recommended for fans of feminist fairy tales
★   ★   ★  ★   

T. Kingfisher stories have a kind of magic for me. They seem to be exactly what I need to read at that point in time.

The Seventh Bride is the tale of a fifteen-year-old girl who gets betrothed to a noble, much to her dismay. When she is finally required to go to his house, she meets three other women who are somewhat reluctant to share their stories. It doesn’t take long before the girl makes up her mind that this is not a place she wants to stay.

Mind you; this isn’t entirely a feminist tale. Or maybe it is, in the sense that it respects the range of female experiences and coping skills, particularly in the area of male-female relationships. At any rate, though it is ostensibly about Bluebeard, it’s really mostly about the women. It’d be a fascinating book to discuss in context of the Bechdel test, honestly.

But it’s also about one young woman facing her fears, even if the reasons change each time she does so (nostalgia/longing, fear, anger, desperation). And that is a message I need to hear. Good stuff, but not immediately re-readable, unlike The Tomato Thief, which I immediately re-read after finishing.

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The Vinyl Detective by Andrew Cartmel

Read April 2019
Recommended for fans of hipster thrillers
★   ★   ★    

I really think my recommendation says it all, but here’s some specifics:

A very, very down-on-his-luck record fan is getting desperate. The estate broiler finally broke, so the choice is to pitch in for a new one or buy in-floor heating on his own. He suffers, but not as much as his twin cats, so when a mysterious, beautiful woman calls on him with a request to find a rare record, he takes the job, and then the subsequent job. You know, classic noir set up, only our hero the Vinyl Detective doesn’t keep a bottle of Johnny nearby, and his bestie is more prone to offer a spliff.

And for those of use among us who were born recently, ‘records’ are plastic/wax thingies that used to be the only way to listen to music, unless it was live.

Once we get past the immediate mystery of why someone wants this record–which becomes a forgotten plot until much later–it’s a bit of a relationship story, with V.D. and woman hitting up various London spots known for the missing record. Their search is troubled by a series of coincidental deaths, only V.D. seems to lack the ability to connect the dots. He must be friends with lots of people with bad luck.

I’ll avoid going further at the risk of spoilers, except to note two things; one, a significant plot twist [the shooting ‘death’ of Nevada’ (hide spoiler)] is marred by the absolute stupidity of everyone involved. Like deux ex machina level of stupid. I found it curious that everyone’s explanations were so unsatisfying without any natural curiosity. It’s still a relationshippy story, so am I supposed to blame stupid on that? I admit, it was a temptation. 

Second: V.D. takes up (spoiler) [with the New Girl Ree, (end spoiler)] which was just dumb, not made clear in the writing, and seemed emotionally inconsistent. But what do I know? 

Oh, thirdly, the end doesn’t justify the means. I guess I sorta get it. But not really. Seems an awful lot of spilled blood for that resolution [so the heirs were happy to have paid assassins killing off people over the record? But then suddenly the V.D. is able to find all the copies in 6 months or so? (end spoiler)] It also makes the British police look incompetent, which isn’t really fair.

There’s a ton of jazz references and jazz music history in here, so you might enjoy it more if you are into that kind of thing, or at least get that kind of passion. If you are one of those people that argue the quality of the various kinds of formats (as a recent music nut did to me when I offered him a free DVD), you might really enjoy this kind of book and it’s ode to the fans. Me? Not that kind of a fan. (Either it’s live or its not, in my book, and sometimes live is made worse by the fans. Oh, I said it.)

At any rate, the book was still engaging because hero is a dork who loves his two cats, the heroine a modern kickass babe (sigh), and the mystery engaging if unevenly constructed. I can totally see why reviews on this would be mixed, and no, it is absolutely not up to Peter Grant quality. That said, it was very diverting for me on a headache kind of day, so it falls as a ‘win.’

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Dopesick by Beth Macy

Read April 2019
Recommended for people who feel completely unfamiliar with oxycodone
  ★    1/2

A problematic read for me. Yes, I know; awards and all that. But I honestly think the awards go to the fact that Macy made Oxycontin and heroin part of a national conversation, not because this book was exemplary journalism or writing.

Issue 1: Macy does not feel like a competent research or investigative journalist. Apparently, before the book-writing gig, her newspaper job was ‘human interest’ stories. I can so see that. And I am not the human interest kind of reader. Dopesick primarily focuses on those on the front lines… but not the dopesick. Though it begins by talking with a major drug dealer, it quickly moves to one of the physicians who watched the crisis unfold, a very brief history of Oxycontin, the manufacturer Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and the family that owns the company.

But mostly, there are stories from the mothers. Details are heart-tugging and, honestly, facile. She writes about how one son who died of an OD used to help his mom grow sunflowers, so now the mom plants her whole front yard full of them. Another carries around the urn of her son’s ashes and caused a minor disturbance in a courtroom. Does this help us understand drug abuse? No. Does it help stir anger against Purdue Pharmaceuticals? I’d argue, ‘no,’ because it gives the reader a sad, tragic death, only partially from system failure. Macy is trying desperately to relate the individual stories to the larger issues of economics and escape, but never gels. Unlike Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which dispassionately used the micro-stories of people to show the complexity of the issues around housing, Macy seems desperate to engage the reader through emotion.

Surprisingly, for a book about ‘dopesick,’ Macy largely avoids the elephant of addiction. It feels like she’s quick to blame the system (Ann had a twisted ankle and got twenty-five oxycodone) before looking at individual behaviors that contribute. It is clear, indirectly, that many of the mothers were in denial about the level of their teens’ use. So it kind of ignores the web of deceptions and strategies that occur before the pill takers turn into addicts. She makes it sound like people are prescribed oxycodone, get addicted, start finding someone with extra, start dealing to cover costs, then turn into heroin addicts. There’s a loose attempt to connect that chain with economic depression, but it doesn’t work. Mostly, she makes it sound like the ‘good’ kids did it for fun and then, boom, their lives end. Literally. For me, it’s the most annoying kind of journalism, because it uses stereotypical images and catch-phrases to capture ‘tragedy.’ It’s Hallmark Channel journalism.

Issue 2: Macy is not a great writer. She uses adjectives for things she can’t possibly know, but play into preconceptions (see above re: Hallmark Channel, and below quote about “stone-faced”). She also quotes some people saying really intriguing but largely unsupported things, and then doesn’t address them later. When I checked her ‘footnotes’ in the back (they aren’t actually footnoted in the body of the book–you have to skim through the notes and see if a section you are curious about is highlighted), she has lame-ass citations. By ‘lame-ass,’ I mean one quote she uses from a guy who asserts “Adderall might make the brain more susceptible to addiction,” then she cites a book called “Drug Dealer,” published in 2016. This claim in the middle of writing about 2005-2007, so I’m not sure how prescribers were supposed to know this? Like I said, terrible journalism (But further research has led me to think thatbook has potential).

Issue 3: Purdue Pharmaceuticals is an evil, evil corporation. As a general rule, I’m pretty sure most pharmaceutical companies are greedy, soul-sucking entities, but Purdue seems actively evil, which Macy illustrates. The topic gets a chapter or two, but is severely hamstrung by the fact that it is a privately owned corporation, by the very private Sackler family, and that one of her co-workers already investigated and wrote a book about how Kermit, a town of 400, had enough pills to supply the U.S. The Sackler family has doubled-down by counter-suing the states instead of admitting any kind of culpability. The only ones that have won here are their lawyers, who have made buckets defending them since 2005 or so, when the internet exploded and people really started to get that Oxycontin was addictive. I would have liked an expose of how Purdue built their empire; I want more of the details from the whistle-blowers. Some of those are included, but not in detail. There’s a woman who was terminated and filed a “wrongful termination” lawsuit, asserting she was fired because she refused to sell/push drugs to two of her highest-prescribing doctors. (Her district was Florida, naturally). I wanted to know more about that–they must be saying that they actually tracked prescribers and numbers, and actively promoted to them. Which, by implication, is basically admitting that they were being legal drug dealers. Now that is unbelievably unethical, and if you have problems with kids pushing dope in schools, is because this corporation and the family that owned it ENCOURAGED IT. This family has billions, made from an addictive substance they repeated promoted as not addictive. Anyway, Macy only briefly covers that case, and largely in relation to the fact that she ended up losing.

Issue 4: You want compassion? Talk to someone who isn’t the child of police officers and a cancer nurse. Macy didn’t help me develop that, or make me appreciate the insidious way addiction rewires the brain, one dopamine burst at a time. The last time I took care of an addict at my last hospital, we had to call a “Behavioral Emergency” because we had finally gotten all the (unknown) drug out of his system and he was pissed we messed up his high. His mother was exhausted, tired of coming to the hospital and trying to talk sense into him. He ripped out his IV, leaking blood everywhere (Hepatitis positive, naturally) and left. It was super not fun. Macy’s stories barely even help me with compassion for the parents, seeped as they are in denial and white privilege: “Kristi remembers the first time someone in town suggested her son had a pill problem.… Kristi defended her son, even suggesting that it had been the woman’s son, not Jesse, who swiped the pills.” She continued to make me feel compassion and empathy for the people that love addicts, but didn’t do anything for me about addicts.

Which leads me to issue #5: Macy doesn’t handle The Race Issue well. When someone is black, she usually makes a point of saying it, and “urban” is often code for “low-class-person-of-color.” She will reference ‘sides’ of the town. What has become clear by 2016 is that now that loads of well-to-do white kids are dying, it’s a national issue. The one person I remember in the book as a person of color is black, is in prison, and Macy blames as being the person that brought ‘dope’ to their middle-class burbs. The white twenty-some-old that was in jail is portrayed as ‘reformed,’ living healthy and educating others before he goes to do his time in prison for providing drugs in an OD death.

Issue #6: The Science: this is science-light. I really, really wanted more of this: “Bickel went onto scientifically quantify the indifference of the typical opioid user, comparing the average non-addictive person’s perception of the future – calculated to be 4.7 years – against an addicted users idea of the future, which is just nine days.” I once met an addiction researcher that educated me on brain ‘wiring’ and how it changes with addiction, and it was really the first time I really started to appreciate how terrible trying to combat addiction is. I was hoping Macy would talk more about the changes in addicts and how they can actually be helped, but it felt like this section was science-light and hope-heavy.  She likes to blame various aspects of the system–usually lack of affordable rehab beds when an addict finally says, “I’m ready to quit”– but doesn’t really address the most obvious problem, that she herself notes: only 50% of addicts who get into a program and on maintenance drugs stay sober for a year. That’s a really shitty success rate–would you go to a surgeon who was only successful 50% of the time? (“Oh, we got most of your appendix, but not all of it”). Take thyroid medication or insulin if there was only a 50% chance it would work? Yeah, probably not. These people are desperate, so they’re taking what they can get, but the most honest response to the addiction issue? ‘We don’t know the best way to do it yet.’

TL; DR: If you know nothing about what oxycodone is or why it’s part of the national conversation, start here. But if you want investigative journalism, info on Purdue, or discussion on treating addiction, go elsewhere.

One and a half stars, only because I never threw it across the room.

Actual semi-comprehensive overview in under 20 minutes by John Oliver:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qCKR…

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The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

Read April 2019
Recommended for sci-fi fans
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

When I sat down to read The Prefect, I thought I was reading a sci-fi mystery along the lines perhaps of Leviathan Wakes. Then I thought I was perhaps reading The Last Policeman set in space: the dogged detective solving a crime no one cares about or needs solved. T-urns out it was a sprawling space opera, and that just isn’t what I expected at all. So a certain recalibration was necessary.

Though billed as a stand-alone novel, I couldn’t help but feel like I was starting with Season Two of a series. Tom Dreyfus is a prefect, which is a sort of policeman for the democracies of The Glitter Band, a loose organization of over ten thousand habitats that nominally support the idea of democracy. Dreyfus is sent to investigate the destruction of a habitat and the murder of the nine-hundred-plus people who lived inside it. It appears it may be the work of an Ultra ship that was visiting prior to the destruction, which has enormous political implications, but Dreyfus has the feeling there is more to it than that. As part of his fact-finding, he arranges a delicate diplomatic meeting with the Ultras. He also interviews a couple of the recorded personalities of the habitat residents, known as ‘betas.’ Apparently the personhood of these holographic recorded personalities is somewhat questionable, particularly since a failed experiment with the trying to fully upload people into an ‘Alpha.’ Still with me?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Dreyfus’ lieutenant Thalia needs to fix a computer bug that is affecting the servers that maintain the democracy of each habitat. Oh, and Dreyfus’ other lieutenant is a ‘hyperpig,’ which may be some sort of genetic thing or racial thing, I couldn’t tell, but apparently there’s a lot of prejudice there.

That’s the rough premise, so you can see where it requires attention. I can see it being one of those books that only appeal to genre readers, unlike Leviathan Wakes, which pulled in even non-genre fans. One mistake is that The Prefect follows a third-person narrative, switching points of view as needed, including that of someone who has an oppositional agenda to Dreyfus’ team. There’s a two-fold result: one, it spoils the suspense of the mystery early on; instead of discovering along with the detective, the reader is waiting for Dreyfus to catch up. My book notes show that it was only (mild spoiler) a little over half-way when this gestalts, so the remainder of the book clearly isn’t about the initial mystery.

Two, the narrative switches make it more of a challenge to identify and develop a particular character. I’m not sure I ever learned much about Thalia, except she’s driven to overcome the ostracizing of her prefect father. Likewise, Dreyfus is haunted by a particular incident from eight or ten years ago, but not precisely what it was. Beyond that, his history is a mystery.

Reynolds also gets a bit carried away with creativity and gives an overview of a number of worlds in the Glitter Band, including the Prefect base, the decimated habitat, and the four different habitats Thalia is visiting. None of it is germane, and all of it contributes to the feeling of Season Two. You know; it helps to launch the starship before you go to all the different worlds. 

The final challenge is that a number of issues dovetail together in the last bit of the book. It was a genius ending, but really needed the build earlier to make it truly impactful. I feel like Reynolds couldn’t make up his mind if he wanted to tell the small story (Dreyfus’ story) in context of a dramatic backdrop (much like Last Policeman), or a large story from the viewpoint of various agents.

That said, it is a great story. The writing is sophisticated and avoids spoon-feeding the reader. The pace feels solid, particularly as it shifts to space-opera. It’s an intriguing, sophisticated universe. The philosophical issues raised, both purposefully and as asides, are tantalizing, if somewhat underdeveloped.

Overall, it felt like a good book that could have been great.

Many thanks for Mimi and Milda for motivating me to read it!

 

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The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelway-Sundberg

Read April 2019
Recommended for people who can read the original
 ★     ★      

A great premise: a group of older people in an assisted living facility become frustrated with their living conditions and embark on various activities to emancipate themselves. Sadly, the writing is unable to capture my interest, though I read a translated version, which could have contributed to the confusion. Much like hanging out in a residential facility, I found myself dozing off without warning.

The first paragraph from chapter one:

“The next day, while the guests, or the ‘clients,’ as they were now called, at Diamond House were drinking their morning coffee in the lounge. Martha thought about what she should do. In her childhood home in Österlen, down in the south off Sweden, people didn’t just sit and wait for somebody else to take action. If the hay must be put in the barn, or a mare was going to foal, then you simply pitched in and did what was necessary. Martha looked at her hands. She was proud of them–they were reliable hands, and showed that she had done her fair share of hard work. The murmur of voices rose and fell all around her as she surveyed the rather shabby lounge. The smell was decidedly reminiscent of the Salvation Army and the furniture seemed to have come straight from the recycling depot. The old gray 1940s building, with its asbestos fiber cement cladding, was like a combination of an old school and a dentist’s waiting room. Surely this wasn’t where she was meant to end her days, with a mug of weak instant coffee to go with a plastic meal? No, damn it, it certainly was not! Martha breathed deeply, pushed her coffee mug aside and leaned forward to speak to her group of friends.”

If you are still awake and appreciated the exact description of Martha’s moment of reflection and the building she is in, you should read on! This is the book for you. If you think that you would like a little less description and a little more action, then you may want to skip ahead to page 69 when the ‘League of Pensioners’ put their first crime into action. As they are the most incompetent thieves ever, I got stuck trying to understand which parts were supposed to be ironic and/or funny. Or was this genuine, and elderly Swedish people are incapable of simple logic, and the surrounding ‘normal-aged’ people incapable of recognizing subterfuge? Maybe it’s madcap? Except I’m not getting the cultural context of what makes it funny.

And confusion, I confess, continued, because as we all know, Sweden is pretty close to socially perfect, so why are they being so awful to their old people? The administrators lock the ‘clients’ up at night, and then (mild spoiler) the staff decides to mildly drug them to keep them compliant. What?!? I felt like this must be set in the 1960s–surely Swedes don’t run around drugging people? Is this the secret to a happy society? We haven’t been allowed to do that to others in America for years and years, despite millions of oxycodone prescriptions. I truly don’t understand; was I supposed to laugh that their robbery plans were so incompetent as to not include the lights going out? Or that Nurse Katia isn’t concerned there’s no notes regarding the absence of five residents? This seems so strange to me.

There’s some sort of sub-plot about the awful administrator at the facility having an affair with one of the staff, and the declining conditions at the facility. Maybe the hook is that the book is hyper ‘realistic’ in description and scenarios–with the exception of the elderly shenanigans. But the writing ended up killing it. It feels like a basic reading level in vocabulary and thought process, as the above paragraph shows. A third person point of view often means that it is just narrated from different perspectives, not that much insight is offered. First this happens, then that happens, and then that occurs, and this is what this character thought about it. Pacing is terribly slow, with paragraphs of description of both setting and Martha’s crew making plot points even further apart.

I ended up with a terminal loss of interest around page 95. In fact, I’m falling asleep writing this. Not recommended for listening while driving.

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Promised Land by Robert B. Parker

Read April 2019
Recommended for fans of Spenser
 ★     ★     1/2    

The One Where Spenser is Schooled on the Dangers of the Souless Suburban Life by Susan. Also The One Where We Meet Hawk, Who Is a Total Legit Badass.

It helps to keep these separate, you know?

Many of the early themes of the Spenser mysteries appear here: the emotional dangers of the suburbs, ethical nobility, women’s general sexiness, and the foolishness of various anti-establishment movements. Spenser is hired by Harv Shepard, a wheel-and-deal land-developer-contractor to find his wife who has disappeared without a note, and leaving their two children behind. Spenser is all alone in the suburbs of the Cape, and he is hoping that Susan will come up and join him for a relatively simple case. Only it turns out not so simple when they run into Hawk leaving Harv’s home. Spenser gets some legit information from the local cops and is able to track down Pam and her vigilante buddies. Pam’s feeling super-suffocated in the ‘burbs and Susan gets angry at Spencer’s seemingly casual dismissal of her midlife-identity crisis.

In comparison to prior books, the writing feels tighter. For instance, while we do have a fair amount of scenic description of the road to Hyannis, it’s kept down to three sentences, one briefly sarcastic.

“The soothing excitements of scrub pine and wide sea gave way to McDonald’s and Holiday Inn and prefab fence companies, shopping malls and Sheraton Motor Inns, and a host of less likely places where you could sleep and eat and drink in surroundings indistinguishable from the ones you’d left at home. Except there’d be a fishnet on the wall. If Bartholomew Gosnold had approached the Cape from this direction, he’d have kept on going.”

Strangely, it’s a story that is more resonant in series context than in any particular value as a mystery. It is very much a relationship book, where Spenser and Susan explore their own growing relationship and struggle with the comparisons to the unfortunate Harv and Pam and their love-based but dysfunctional relationship. Pam’s perspective on her self-actualization and Harv’s perspective on their history contain poignant but frustrated feelings. It’s also the start of a Spenser and Hawk friendship. Hawk is introduced here as a free-lance enforcer who has a shared boxing history with Spencer, but an exchange of solid favors lay the foundation of their future working relationship.

Of course, numerous time-period oink moments remain, with Spencer deliberately ‘not-ogling’ various female characters. But is seems pretty benevolently oinkish, as opposed to creepy. Recommended for series fans, but definitely not for the ‘mystery.’ There’s also an extended bit about women and ‘frigidness.’ No thank you very much, Dr. Not-Freud.

No, I did not read all the words. Because visualizing their dumb outfits hurt my eye-brain and I can’t read about 1970s conception of sexuality without hurting my thinking-brain. Our first look at Hawk:

” With him was a tall black man with a bald head and high cheekbones. He had on a powder blue leisure suite and a pink silk shirt with a big collar. The shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and the chest and stomach that showed were as hard and unadorned as ebony. He took a pair of wraparound sunglasses from the breast pocket of the jacket and as he put them on, he stared at me over their rims until very slowly the lenses covered his eyes and he stared at me through them.”

Ok, maybe I read all the words there. Two and a half silk stars, rounding down for general time-period oinkiness, which isn’t fair, but there you go.

 

 

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