Thursday, October 3, 2019

Book Review: The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz


Photo: The hardcover's cover, from Goodreads

Very, very good book, a bit of an improvement over Lagercrantz's previous in this series, which I didn't like as much. (To be fair, I really loved his first one, taking over for Larsson.) I'm not totally thrilled with the writing of the ending, though the ending itself was fine. But that's probably just my preference. The reader will have to judge for him/herself. I guess it depends on how you mind, or don't, how an author blatantly stops the progress of an action sequence to show characters talking about something important. It's done not to info-dump--though it may come across as that here--but to artificially create cliffhangers that keep the pages turning. That's a device that Nordic Noir takes to an extreme, and it's done here. I dealt with it, but didn't prefer it. Others may be more, or less, bothered.

For beginning novelists, which I still think I am, despite the many (over and over) I've written, take a look at the structure. The Prologue begins like any of the many police procedurals on TV: with the death of a character that starts the plot rolling. I'm really interested about this one because as I read, it became clear fast that this book could've started with any number of scenes, including the deaths during a blizzard on a mountainside, or maybe Salander's attempt on her sister. I think most authors would've started there, even in a prologue. That didn't happen here, because the main plot is that of the murder shown, which leads to Blomkvist's appearance, and not that of Salander's conflict with her sister, which ends up engulfing everyone at the end. It's also up to the reader as to which one he finds more intriguing, but it explains the split-screen writing at the end. This is strange, as the main characters essentially get ensnared in the subplot, and the minor characters end up resolving the main plot. Weird, but interesting, if you're into reading into writer's choices.

I gave this 4 stars, rather than 5, because of this oddity. It wasn't handled badly, just strangely. As for the book itself, there's a lot going on here, maybe too much, and I can't help but feel that the author could've held off the plot-string involving Salander's family, as it seems more tacked-on here. The main mystery is interesting enough, but I also understand why Lagercrantz did it: It ends the second trilogy's plot-string, as if maybe the series itself will end and he felt he had to wrap this up. Maybe he's got a different plot-string for another trilogy already outlined, ready to go. I don't know, but it seemed largely unnecessary, except that each of these books is "A Lisbeth Salander Novel" and not "A Mikael Blomkvist Novel" or anything else. She is the main plot, not whatever mystery is given to us. I get that, and I don't, and I can abide by it, and I don't like it, all at the same time.

The cooly distant tone and writing are staples of Nordic Noir, so I was good with them. A little more disconcerting is how Blomkvist--a writer for a successful news and politics magazine--is treated like a rockstar. Everyone knows who he is, and he's stopped on the street for autographs. I know the Nordic countries have much higher literacy and readership numbers than does the U.S., but this has always struck me as off in this series, in all six books. War correspondents and writers of great importance should be treated like rockstars, but they're not. Nobody knows them. I like to think of large crowds suddenly stopping James Ellroy on the street as he's hailing a cab, clamoring for his autograph, but that doesn't happen. Yet Blomkvist is mentioned by name and image on TV, and he's clearly a celebrity in his own Millennium universe, but more than anything else in this series, that's always been a head-scratcher to me. He's a pale, portly figure who woman trip over to sleep with, too, but...well, you get the idea. You're okay with all that, or you wouldn't be reading the 6th book in the series by now. But it's all an eye-roller for me, and I just had to say so.

Ultimately this one is well worth your money. Salander, despite it being her series, is hardly in it but for the beginning and for the end, and she doesn't say more than 20 words in the whole book, but you're used to that by now, too. Yet I'd be okay with giving her more to say and do in the next one. The last few sentences of this one hint that maybe the author thinks so, too. Read and enjoy. 


Thursday, September 19, 2019

Book Review: The Institute by Stephen King



Photo Credit: The Hardcover's Cover, from Goodreads

I've got all of King's books, and I've been writing that his stuff lately is okay, but that we need to accept that the genius is...resting. Producing, but resting. I've been writing that his stuff is "compulsively readable" for so long now, I can't remember when that wasn't the best that I had to say. REVIVAL was a rare exception, but for a long time before that, and now for a long time after, "compulsively readable," and that I read his newest book in X number days, were the best I could say. But then I read that The New York Times, and that Kirkus, had given THE INSTITUTE rave reviews. They said he was back to form, that he hadn't written about kids this well since IT (but with the release of IT Part 2, what else would they say?), and that this novel was extremely well structured--all rare positive review bits, especially from the NYT and Kirkus, who are not always enamored with King's stuff. So I bought it, as I would've anyway, because I own all of his books in hardcover, and because I knew I'd read it swiftly (check) and that I'd at least find it compulsively readable. But this time--THIS TIME!!!--I felt confident I'd have more positive things to say.

And, well...I read THE INSTITUTE's 561 pages in about 2 1/2 days. And...it's compulsively readable.

It isn't IT, and he doesn't write about kids as well in this as he did in IT. It's possible that this is the best he's written about them since IT, but how many of his recent books have only been about kids? Maybe, none of them---since IT.

The book starts off with a drifter, and a small town, and how the drifter ingratiates himself in this small town...but King has done that millions of times, and can possibly write that now in his sleep. (Which he possibly did, here.) Then it switches rather abruptly to The Institute, which seems suspiciously like The Shop, from FIRESTARTER. But this ain't FIRESTARTER, and the baddies from The Shop are much more so than the ones here. (There are similarities, too. There's a John Rainbird character here, of the opposite gender, but Rainbird was a badass that nobody here approaches.) Nobody here is Charlie McGee, either. Those were better written characters than anyone here. I mean that in the kindest of all positive ways.

This book is really about Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." The whole book, in fact, could've been from the point of view of those who work for The Institute, and maybe that would've been a better book. (Sounds like a helluva good idea to me.) Here, there's a cleaning lady who could've been fleshed out better, and at the end there's an 81-year old woman who seemed very interesting. Why did she stick around, and with such gusto? THE INSTITUTE tries to go there, but mostly doesn't, which is a shame. The baddest badass of them all gets short shrift at the end, to the extent that King himself suddenly seems to give up on her, and all she gets is the other characters calling her "the queen bitch." She was badder than that, and deserved better, if you know what I mean. She could've been this book's Rainbird. The one who gets that honor doesn't deserve it, and in fact seems kind of lame. At the end, you won't care too much what happens to him.

In the meantime, the kids are drawn out well enough, and you will care about what happens to them. But, A) they're kids, so that's maybe automatic, and B) it's really their book, so they get the most airtime. Still, you get caught up in the going's-on, and it is compelling in a slow-moving train kind of way. It'll pass the time, and it is compulsively readable.

But it could've been so much more. The people who work at The Institute have their reasons for doing so, and King strongly insinuates that these reasons are compelling--but never appropriate, of course. The ends don't justify the means, here, and that's really the point of the book. But why do such people work for such banal evil? Many of them are obviously deranged, but some are maybe almost good people, or those who could've been. This book could've been essentially the same story, with that theme been better pondered and shown. It's never answered, not even close, but King seems like he wants to go there, that he wants to try and answer it--but then just drops it.

And so ultimately it's a good read. 561 pages in just short of 3 days means the book is good on some level. Yet maybe this is what's lacking in King's work now. The why. The big themes. King was never "deep," per se, which he takes pride in, and on some levels he's right. He wants to entertain more than he wants to instruct (he could've stayed on as an English teacher if that's all he'd wanted), but the fact remains that THE SHINING, CARRIE, IT and many others had more depth to them, more heft, without ever sacrificing story. Lately his stuff is about 95% story, to the exclusion of perhaps all else, and that's why they seem lesser. CARRIE, for example, never tried to explain how religious mania could screw up a family and a kid, but it sure did show it very well. THE SHINING showed how a very, very flawed man could redeem himself to save his wife and son. THE SHINING therefore had a hefty thing to say about personal redemption. I could go on...

King's stuff now frankly just lacks this heft. It's all story, all the time, and it doesn't have too much to show, or to say, about things that it could, and should, show and say about. In this case, Arendt's "banality of evil." That's too bad, because it could've easily gone there, and it would've made this book a lot better. It's not as bad as the Bill Hodges fiascoes, but...you won't want to read this one again. It'll sit in my bookcase with all the others, but...it probably won't come out of it again.

Too bad. THE INSTITUTE is okay, but it could've been one of his better ones in a long, long time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Book Review -- Mephisto Waltz by Frank Tallis




Review Mephisto Waltz. Disclaimer: this copy free from Pegasus Books

Another excellent entry into the historical / detective fiction series, this time set in Vienna in 1904. Think: Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware and his cop friend Milo Sturgis, except here it’s the time and place of Freud. The case: there’s a bomb-wielding anarchist on the loose, and nobody knows who he is, including the people who work with him. He goes by one name: Mephistopheles (hence the title; go to YouTube for the actual music), and he’s always hidden. The book starts with a three-member jury sentencing someone to death. His face is melted with acid, so you don’t know who. Other killings (one accidental) follow, and there’s a last-second cipher to figure out, and a bomb to stop.

That’s enough summary. The mystery is handled well, but in a way you may not be familiar with, and I mean that as a very good thing. There’s no CSI-like structure, or procedural. There’s an ME, of course, and he may remind you of one from TV’s procedurals, but that’s it. The coolest things about this book, and done well in the whole series, but really done well here, are:

      A)    you get a slice-of-life (of just under 300 pages) of what it would be like to live in 1904 Vienna, and it’s taken just as seriously—if not more so—than the murders. The crimes are part of this early-20th Century world, before WWI and, in fact, in the time of early cars (Herr Porsche is a minor character, his car is a push-button, as many of the earliest ones were, and he drives a hybrid!), so these are treated as something that would be an everyday part of this world. No sensationalism; no guns. None of the tropes of the genre. They happen as they would happen in that world, and that world molds them. The world isn’t altered to enhance the crimes. The crimes enhance that world. You really feel like you’re there, tasting all that strudel. And--

B) It’s a treasure trove of cool things to look up, to learn about, to listen to on YouTube. This is the kind of thing that makes Dan Brown books so interesting: I buy those in their Illustrated Editions to see the paintings, to look at the sculptures, to learn about the locations (Good idea to Pegasus Books: Consider publishing Illustrated Editions of this series, going back to the first—and why not include a CD or a link to listen to the constantly-referenced music of the time?). And I do the same with Tallis’s series: I’ve listened on YouTube to all of the (very) many songs and music mentioned. They’re actually very good. (Favorite: “The Elf-King” from a few books ago.) I’ve looked up all the real-life personages (This one does a very good job of listing all of them at the end, and of offering quick bios and glimpses.), from Porsche to Freud, and all of the princes and princesses. So it’s not just a simple mystery and you’re done, a ton of books in a series so alike that they all bleed into each other and you couldn’t explain one to somebody (Are you listening, Kellerman?). This series is different, each one a stand-alone, distinct. Tallis publishes one every five to six years, and maybe for this reason.

And Mephisto Waltz even has a cool, gaslight-noir cover. It’s my first hardcover of the series—thanks to Pegasus Books. (That’s my disclosure. Again.) So grab this one. You may read it in one sitting, like I did. When you’re done, get the other six, and enjoy. And feel free to look up the music, the people, the art, and the inventions of that world.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Short Plea to Charities that Send Depressing Pics

Well, I'm back. I've been gone for about ten months, for personally devastating reasons I'm not going to get into, and if you're close to me, you already know. But I'm happy to be back, and hopefully I can post consistently as an avenue to better days.

If you're a constant reader, thanks for staying with me. If you're not, welcome aboard, and thanks.

My first blog back is a plea to the ASPCA and such charities that I have a mind to send in to Bill Maher and his New Rules:

"New rules: If you already give a hefty amount of money to organizations like the ASPCA, the Animal League, and a few other such organizations, you should automatically be exempt from getting mail with pictures like this..." Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going upstairs, listening to depressing music, and sobbing hysterically...




Thursday, January 25, 2018

Three T206 Baseball Card Sales

Okay, so a long-time wish of mine may actually come true this summer. I've wanted to open up my own baseball card store, or at least deal in them with a guy I do business with on eBay on a more frequent basis. So I took a test drive on 18 cards, and I've done the business math on 3 of them. Overall I made a profit of $149.62 on just 3 cards! Buying on eBay and yard sales in the summer; took just minutes for each; just had to go to the post office. $59.62 profit on the Keeler. $51.02 on the Evers. $39 on the Brown.

Just did all the math. I originally spent $523.87 on all 18 cards. They all sold for $652.90. So the profit was $129.03. Total time buying all these and going to the post office to sell them would be about 2, maybe 2 1/2 hours total. That's about $50-$60 per hour, sitting on my ass in my central air office, with no overhead. I learned: Deal mostly in HOFers; and buy in the summer and sell in the winter.

Willie "Hit 'em Where They Ain't" Keeler, batting. Hall of Famer. Paid $62.88. Sold 1.23.2018 for $122.50. Profit: $59.62.






Johnny Evers, with bat, another Hall of Famer. Paid $44.98. Sold for $96. Profit: $51.02.





And "Three Finger" Mordecai Brown, another HOFer. Paid $30.54 raw, add about $10 to get it graded, mailing, etc. So say $41.00. Sold for $80. Profit: $39.00.




So I sold these three, plus 15 more, via Probstein123 on eBay, for a total of $652.90. On these three cards alone I saw a profit of $149.62. Not too bad. Maybe I'll try to do this part-time over the summer, see how it works.