The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #40: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Yadda Yadda Yadda: Main blog link is here

As the weather turns colder and the sports talk radio station turn their focus 100% towards pigskins, I can’t help but pop in audio-books to make my car ride go faster. Finding Douglas Adams’ classic surreal mystery in a box of my parent’s basement this summer was an unanticipated winner for me. All the silliness and sublime imagination of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is repurposed here to guide characters through a curious case of murder, betrayal, magical conjuring and a sofa stuck half way up a staircase.

As a reader, Adams knows precisely what he wants to emphasize in each line and phrase, and captures a great deal of the tonal elements that many other readers may miss. He occasionally blurs the distinctions between characters, and the rhythm of his jokes sometimes veers into “wry-observation-overload”. But the thrill of the chase, the glee of the literary allusions (turning Samuel Taylor Coleridge into a plot point must be an unparalleled feat of excellence in authorial nerdery), and the hilarity of his coy pause and punch-line syntax makes it a perfect companion through the snowy streets of commuter-ville USA.

 

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The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #39: Triumph

Guess what! You can read more of my weird commentaries on my personal blog! What’s that you say, you have better things to do? Well…tough…read it anyway! (Here at the Scruffy Rube)

Running is a writer’s world. Alone with the sound of your breath and the pounding of your feet against pavement, you have all the time in the world to imagine and create stories, legends and myths. You can take your time to chronicle each and every alteration of the weather and the body until you have a big pile of overwrought imagery and irrelevant symbolism.

Jeremy Schaap cuts through a lot of the running falderal with his book about the Track and Field battles during the 1936 Olympic Games. Naturally the focal point is Jesse Owens, and he devotes most of the book to both illuminating and complicating the Buckeye Bullet for readers who know him only as a name from the history books. Owens is a reluctant father and an uneasy political figure who has no choice but to accept his position in the athletic pantheon. At times, he seems to be little more than a cliche spouting, anti-septic athlete, but that has less to do with Schaap’s writing and more with the carefully reassembled hodgepodge of quotes given to sportswriters of the day (making the plethora of cliches much more understandable). And a fair amount of time is spent reflecting on the Nazi ne’er-do-wells whose dreams of a demonstration of aryan supremacy were foiled by Owens, including Goerbles, Goering, Leinie Reifenstahl and, of course, Hitler himself. Their villainy is despicable to be sure, but in the context of their political standing, not wholly different from how the Olympics are sought after today.

Triumph is at its best when it focuses on Owens’ interactions with lesser known luminaries of his time, including AAU chairman and manipulative mastermind Avery Brundage, sprinting rivals Ralph Metcalf and Uliss Peacock, coaches Charles Riley and Larry Snider and the reluctant Nazi/Owens-ally-to-be Lutz Long. The audiobook’s narrator (Michael Kramer) doesn’t ape accents, but offers subtle variations on a slow, well measured drawl, to give each quote a degree of gravitas. There are some characters (including several inconsequential sportswriters and the utterly irrelevant Eleanor Holm-Jarrett) who bog down the story rather than support it, but those are minor complaints of a broadly interesting and honest look at a defining moment in American sports history.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #144: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

It’s nearly Halloween (Harry’s birthday) and Harry Dresden is less than thrilled to discover that his friend Police Lieutenant Karrin Murphy is going off to Hawaii with another man. He’s even less thrilled when Mavra, an extremely powerful vampire of the Black Court, who he hoped they’d managed to kill in Blood Rites, turns out not to be dead and is blackmailing him with Murphy’s involvement in the case unless he helps her. If Harry doesn’t find something called the Word of Kemmler in three days, Mavra will make sure Murphy’s career is ruined, and that she may very well face criminal charges because of aid she gave Harry on a mission against the Black Court vampires. Harry obviously can’t let that happen, and so he has no choice but to agree to the vampire’s demands.

Turns out the Word of Kemmler is a book, the last writings of a very powerful and very dangerous, now dead, necromancer and whoever possesses the book will gain access to terrible powers. Harry’s not the only one looking for the Word. Three of Kemmler’s former apprentices are in Chicago, wanting the to be the first to find the book and become the most powerful necromancer of them all.

Full review.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #63: Before they are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie; audiobook read by Steven Pacey

before they are hanged

‘We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.’ Heinrich Heine

The second in The First Law trilogy, Before They are Hanged picks up where The Blade Itself (read my review of that here) left off, and we are thrown straight back into the adventures of the mismatched band of characters we know and love.

Maimed inquisitor Sand den Glokta has been seconded to the southern Union city of Dagoska to investigate the disappearance of his predecessor, as barbarian Gurkish hordes threaten to overrun the city. Who can he trust as he tries to get to the bottom of things and keep the city safe? Warrior Logen, ex-slave Ferro and petulant nobleman Luthar have accompanied the sorcerer Bayaz to the edge of the world on his mysterious quest that will push them to the limits of who they are, and soldier Collum West finds himself having some tough choices to make as he babysits the Crown Prince as the northmen attack.

This might all sound like run-of-the-mill fantasy fiction fare, but Abercrombie’s deft touch, knack for dialogue and eye for human nature elevates it.  As you might expect from the middle volume of a trilogy, much of the story is set-up for the final book. What pushes this forward is the development of characters you have already invested in. There are battles, murders and love affairs; loyalties are tested and unexpected allegiances form. I LOVED this book.

Steven Pacey (the cute curly-haired guy from Blake’s Seven) gives an awesome performance in reading the book. I was an audiobook virgin and I wasn’t sure if I’d like listening rather than reading, but staring down the barrel of training for another marathon with the associated three hour runs, I needed something to get me through. Pacey is brilliant, investing both the internal and external voice of each character with distinctive mannerisms and motivations. His reading is a masterful interpretation of the menacing and mysterious world Abercrombie has created.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #27: Zorro

I’m officially on my victory laps after completing my annual half-cannonball. Now it’s just about setting a new personal best. You can keep up with these and all my reviews of other things at my personal blog

For those who prefer authorial style to iconic characters: Zorro

I’ve been listening to Blair Brown slowly, almost lovingly, read Isabelle Allende’s take on the famous caballero and off for the past year. Finally reaching a stage where I turned it on double speed just to get through it all.

It’s not dull exactly, there are plenty of humorous adventures and acts of daring-do to keep fans of the masked swashbuckler happy. But it’s much more of an origin story than an epic adventure. Diego De La Vega (the man who will be Zorro) isn’t around for the first quarter of the book–only his parents are–and he doesn’t become Zorro until the final third kicks off. The last disc (which I would guess is about a fifth of the book) is where the action really picks up and all of Allende’s other work pays off.

That’s the thing, with an author like Isabelle Allende behind it, you have to expect that the immensely gifted author is going to make it her own. But with a character as well known as Zorro, you come into the book with a host of preconceptions and expectations. In an ideal world, Allende would use her talents to enhance and illuminate an already beloved character. In the real world, Allende used the character to showcase her talents.

Again, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a pleasure to hear a gifted author’s words brought to life (it certainly seems like Brown favors the description to the action, enhancing this feeling even more). But it’s a trifle disappointing to expect a heroic character’s greatest adventures only to find a beautifully described portrait of life in Post-Napoleonic Spain and her colonies.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #15: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

CleopatraSchiff
I can’t remember the last time I read an honest to God biography, so either it’s been a really long time or whatever it was was so unmemorable that my brain has erased it from my memory banks. Last autobiography? Easy: Benjamin Franklin. And I read memoirs all the time. But biographies, man, they’re a different beast. Especially the ones whose brave soul authors are hell bent on cataloguing every last verifiable moment possible of people who lived thousands of years ago. Stacy Schiff is one such soul, and Cleopatra, last Queen of Egypt, her muse.

There are two ways to evaluate this book. The first is one of which I am not capable: as a scholar who is familiar with other previously existing works of scholarship and research on Cleopatra and the last years of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. I was vaguely familiar with the story of Cleopatra when I started this book — although I was apparently even more ignorant about her than I realized, seeing as how I didn’t even know she had children, let alone had children fathered by two of the greatest men of the age, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Other reviews I’ve read imply that Schiff covers nothing new in her presentation/analysis of the known facts about Cleopatra’s life, or that said interpretations are also erroneous. I have no basis with which to judge her on this.

Instead, I will make do with what I’ve got and evaluate Cleopatra: A Life as a layperson previously unfamiliar with the subject matter. Looked at from that perspective, I’d say Schiff succeeds. She takes us from the hazy matter of Cleopatra’s birth (historians are not entirely sure who her mother was, for example) through her adolescence, where she was raised with brothers and sisters in a family not un-accustomed to murder and inter-marriage, all the way up to the ramifications of her death. The text is chock full of wonderful details, and Schiff does an excellent job placing all of Cleopatra’s actions within the context of her culture (and often cultures that clashed with her own, most often the Romans). She is also careful to acknowledge places where the historical record has blanks. In those instances, she either makes educated guesses (always letting us know that’s what they are), or, to paraphrase something I said in a Goodreads status update, in lieu of more concrete evidence of Cleopatra’s life, Schiff provides us with such detail of her surroundings that you can place her there in your imaginations.

My only real complaint is that, especially at the beginning, she just kind of jumps in to the material and hops from place to place with some unclear transitions. I was often confused as to what point in history she was talking about, but this problem soon disappeared after about the first chapter. All in all, though, this was a really good read that manages to accomplish it’s main goal. I felt it was important to Schiff that she try to redirect the cultural conversation about Cleopatra and turn her back from a woman who used her sexuality to manipulate men, to a competent and beloved ruler who presided over one of the greatest kingdoms in the ancient world.

I would also recommend the audiobook. Robin Miles is a veteran theater actor and her voice was a nice vehicle for Schiff’s words. In fact, this might be how I read biographies in the future as sometimes it’s hard without a narrative to interest me emotionally to pick books like this up, even though I enjoy them while I’m reading.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #10: I Know I am, But What Are You? By Samantha Bee

This book was a bit of an experiment for me. I enjoy memoirs and essays from female authors (Ali in Wonderland, Bossypants, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?), and have read them imagining them narrated by the authors themselves, hearing Tina Fey in my mind. I run for exercise, so I figured I’d take on the audiobook option as part of this Cannonball Read and find some fun memoirs to get me through my workouts.

My first purchase (via audible.com) was Samantha Bee’s cleverly titled I Know I Am, But What Are You? In it she chronicles her life, sharing some interesting stories, some funny stories, and some tragically funny stories.

Born to teenage parents, she spent time living with her mother, her dad and step-mom  and her grandmother. As a child she was an introvert, an animal lover, and obsessed with Jesus. Not so much in a religion sort of way, but in an ‘I’m going to wash his feet and marry him” sort of way. That story was easily my favorite of the book, although her treatise on gift-giving and -receiving is a close second.

She definitely has some interesting stories to tell, but I only found myself laughing out loud a couple of times. I’m not sure if that was even her goal. But I think I would have preferred to read this as opposed to listen to her reading of it. She reads it pretty much exactly as she narrates her segments on “The Daily Show,” and while that works in four-minute Republican take-downs, it can sometimes be a bit much in book form.

I’d say this would probably be best as a library book or a sale book loaded onto your e-reader for reading on a flight or on vacation.