Monday, October 08, 2012

much more than murder

Title: Bad Business
Author: Robert B. Parker
Bookmark: leather bookmark from University Hospital's Ireland Cancer Center (I got it with purchase of Lisa's Story)

Spenser is one of Parker's longest-running heroes.  I don't think his first name is ever mentioned, he doesn't seem to age, and apparently the characters that surround and support him are equally immortal.  I surmise a little here, because I think this is the only Spenser book I've read, but I have it on good authority.

In this case, Spenser is hired to discover who killed Trent Rowley, CFO of a major energy borker called Kinergy, in the halls of the business.  His wife wants to know who did it, but she mostly wants Spenser to prove she had nothing to do with it.  This gives you a good sense for the wife's (Marlene) character.  Trust me, she never gets more likable, and isn't meant to.

It doesn't take Spenser (and his buddy Hawk, and World's Greatest CPA Marty, and Spenser's longtime girlfriend Susan, who turns out to be the shrink from another Parker series) long to figure out that there's shady things happening at Kinergy, and far more than you might think, even knowing there'd just been a murder there.

Ably assisted by his merry band, Spenser uncovers extremely iffy bookkeeping, a large and prospering sex ring, and what may be the mother of all long cons.

I wasn't really interested in Spare Change.  I enjoyed reading it, but when I finished it, I didn't feel an urgent need to go hunt down another Sunny Randall mystery.  Spenser is a different matter.  I like the character, his style, and his voice.  He reacts to jokes that other people don't realize they make, and plays word games with as much self-serving vigor as me, plus he's a total badass, with friends who are also total badasses, even if I didn't learn much about them in this episode.

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posted by reyn at 7:53 AM


Wednesday, October 03, 2012

family traditions

Title: Spare Change
Author: Robert B. Parker
Bookmark: Lizard in a stick

Sunny Randall used to be a cop.  Her Dad Phil used to be a cop.  Now she's a PI, and he has been brought in as a consultant when a cold case reopens itself.  When the Spare Change Killer first prowled 25 years ago, he led the task force, but they never got the guy.  They did receive a few notes, addressed to Phil, commenting on his progress or lack thereof.  When Spare Change seems to have gotten back in the game, the police ask Phil to lend his expertise.  Phil asks his daughter the same.  We never really find out why, except that he apparently values her input.

I recently had a discussion in which I outlined the difference between a "crime novel" and a "mystery novel."  In a crime novel, you're just along for the ride.  You watch the players, you may even witness the crime and know the identity of the culprit, but you are not a participant.  You are just there to enjoy the story.  A mystery novel, however, is a puzzle to solve.  The clues are laid out for you the same as they are for the investigators, and it is only a matter of whether your knowledge and skill are a match to theirs; you can determine this by correctly deducing whodunnit on your own, and check your answers by reading the story and finding who actually did the deed(s).

This is a crime novel.  In an early chapter, our girl Sunny interviews the culprit, then only a suspect, and immediately declares to the team, "he did it."  From then on, it is only a matter of proving he did it.  Because crime novels require less engagement than mystery novels, I have to be really interested in the story to get excited about them.  If I'm not excited, that doesn't mean the book isn't good.  It only means I wasn't excited.  Generally speaking, I like Parker's stuff, though I have limited experience with it.  This book felt more like a diversion than an adventure.  Maybe he's just not good with female leads.  Maybe I'm not good at reading female leads, though I personally doubt that.

Here's my problem: the chapters dealing with the investigation were good.  Scenes between Sunny and her dad were also good, and even touching.  You really like her dad, and suspect that he is by far the wisest and most likable character in the Parker Pantheon, despite his choice of wife.  I also liked scenes between Sunny and her friend Spike, the self-described "toughest queer in the world."  You can't help but want to be friends with the guy, and not just because you know nobody would ever bother you in his company, ever [sic].  But scenes between Sunny and her ex-husband/ possible new lover (so boring I've already forgotten his name) fell flat and made me feel uncomfortable.  Whatever her reasons, I couldn't root for her love life.  Scenes with her unaccredited and highly unethical counselor friend Julie were worse.  I actively disliked her, and could never figure out why they were friends at all.  She seemed to exist to make Sunny's choices look good by comparison.  Sunny regularly discusses everygoddamnedthing with her therapist, Dr. Silverman, who in Sunny's mind is perfection with excellent hair.  Maybe I hated those scenes because I consider psychotherapy to be the least expeditious way possible to waste a whole lot of money, or maybe it's because as a foil, shrinks are the laziest possible solution for a writer.  Even having your protagonist talk to a fractured segment of his own mind is better.

Finally, there are the scenes with her family.  Her mother and sister are, to be blunt, idiots.  I think they're supposed to be.  Parker knows they are, and has fun with that.  He writes idiots really well.  I'm torn on these scenes.  On the one hand, they make me hate those two characters, but on the other, they're probably the most realistic, true-to-life scenes in the entire book.  In one chapter, four characters are talking simultaneously, having two or three separate conversations, blithely ignoring questions by people outside those little chats.  It was great, and reminded me of how big groups of family actually talk, but the constant preening and attention-seeking by people (the mother and sister) who have no grasp of the scope of the world made me want to tell them to shut up and leave so the grown-ups could talk.  But I think that was Parker's goal.

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posted by reyn at 2:07 PM


The Haj

Title: The Haj
Author: Leon Uris
Bookmark: Panera receipt

I picked this up for free at a bookstore only because I recognized the author's name and figured it was high time I introduce myself.  (and yes, because it was free)  I didn't even get to it for a couple months--but I'm glad I did.

Our narrator, Ishmael, is the youngest son of Haj Ibrahim al-Soukori al-Wahabbi (an early chapter includes some interesting information on Arab naming conventions).  His voice gives us the story of his family's life following the end of World War Two and the creation of Israel from formerly Arab lands.  This is a little like saying the Star Wars trilogy is "about a farmboy."

Uris's work is obviously highly researched and thickly detailed.  Reading it felt immersive and educational, but I was always a little curious how accurate the depictions of life and culture described in the book really were.  Although the bulk of the 566 pages covers the span of Ishmael's life, the book opens with his father becoming muktar (mayor/tribal leader, essentially) of their village after the death of his father, and continues to give a thorough recounting of the years leading up to Ishmael's birth, including WWII from the Arab perspective (white folks fighting in Europe, with a brief incursion into the desert).  We get Ibrahim's entire back story, and later, that of his friend Gideon Asch, a Jewish "desert rat" and later British officer and leader of Shemesh Kibbutz (a Jewish village, or kibbutz, established near Ibrahim's village of Tabah).  Ibrahim and Asch share a complicated friendship, often confiding in each other things they could never tell someone else--especially someone else of their own faith--despite maintaining a charade of constant animosity between their villages.

Ishmael, as the youngest son, is destined to be the family goatherd, but his mother has other plans for him.  Manipulating both him and his father, she manages to move him to a favored spot among the Haj's four sons, and he goes on to finagle himself an education.  His new place at his father's side gives us a detailed view of the manipulations forcing Ibrahim's path.  Ishmael tells us that his world is often Arab against Arab, and that nobody can be trusted.  His father likes to say that if you have one hundred friends, you should get rid of 99--and be wary of the last.  Leaders in the Arab world, realizing the strategic importance of Tabah's location, begin to make deals with Ibrahim to restore Arab power and drive out the Jews, but Ibrahim realizes that for all their talk of brotherhood, he is himself being forced out.

The village is abandoned, and the family separated from the people the Haj has led his entire adult life.  Without a home, without power, they become refugees, spending years in camps near Jerusalem, and finding their own ways to survive in a world that has become constant turmoil and infighting.  I was almost halfway through the book before I realized that the title didn't refer to the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, but to Ibrahim, who was able to add Haj to his name after he made the pilgrimage himself.  He then spent the rest of his life leading his family through the Arab world, trying desperately to save both, and bring Arabs into a modern age of accord and peace while maintaining his traditional values.

The story is deeply involving, though it was written in 1984, before political correctness, and certain aspects may be offensive to Jews, Moslems, Arabs, and/or women.  I'm not a member of any of those groups, so I found some of the more objectionable passages a point of curiosity.  I was curious about the accuracy of depictions of life in Tabah, Arab and Moslem culture, and the history of Israel.  I wondered a lot about what modern Jews and Moslems would think about the book, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the current situation in the Middle East, the animosity towards Westerners, and how, despite what many news networks will tell you, nothing has really changed in the past 50 years.  The weapons and faces are different, but they're still fueled by old hatreds.  The book was both illuminating and ... pretty scary.  But very good.

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posted by reyn at 1:19 PM