The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #38: Ocean at the End of the Lane

Have you read my other posts? Did you know I have a personal blog? Will you check it out? (I suppose I shouldn’t be waiting for a response from you since I have no idea when you will read it)

Adopted mid-westerner, Neil Gaiman’s newest book is a rich form of youthful and mature storytelling. It starts as a Roald Dahl-style exploration of childhood and the distrust that naturally exists between children and adults, and slowly turns into as surreal and dream-like a narrative as I’ve ever read. The villains are scary, the heroes are strong-willed and determined, and the setting is at once familiar and highly stylized. Yet, as the world becomes more imaginative, chaotic and uncontrollable those characters become even more important to hold on to. They aren’t simplistic because this is a kid’s book, they’re simplistic because, when faced with bizarre complications to our world, we can all be forgiven a little more simplicity. Gaiman’s characters are real, consistent and consistently flawed; how they adjust to chaotic settings in our present is amazing.

The simple lessons of children’s fare gives way to a more complicated acceptance of how complex our lives are (even as children). That the main character remains static, unchanging, unable to grow or adjust is a startling choice. It’s hard to write a book in which a protagonist does not grow or learn or undergo a formative experience (just ask some of my 9th grade students, who wrote better short stories than they thought they could, almost in spite of themselves.)

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narfna’s #CBR5 Review #87: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Napoleon

7936477So, these books are pretty much the silliest things ever.

They’re satire, sure, but the satire is so silly, it’s lost most of its bite. And not that I’m complaining, mind you, because I laugh my ass off when I’m reading them. Every one of these books has the same basic structure: the Pirate Captain gets an idea or has a problem, the crew resists due to common sense, they run into one or two famous historical figures, have verrrry deeply silly adventures, and then everything is reset at the end. The pirates don’t have real names (except for Jennifer, the lady pirate who used to be a Victorian gentlewoman), but are instead called things like ‘the pirate with a scarf’, ‘the albino pirate,’ and ‘the pirate who liked kittens and sunsets.’ There are anachronisms EVERYWHERE. All the pirates are completely neutered. The worst thing any of them do in this outing is trick Napoleon into pretending he’s having a dream where he meets famous historical generals (and Napoleon remains entirely convinced it is in fact a dream).

Actually, it’s hard to convey just exactly how silly this book is, so I’m just going to give you some examples:

“The best thing about he seaside,” said the albino pirate, “is putting seaweed on your head and pretending you’re a lady.”
“That’s rubbish,” said the pirate with gout. “The best thing about the seaside is building sexy but intelligent looking mermaids out of sand.”
The rest of the pirates, spread out on the deck of the pirate boat for their afternoon nap, soon joined in.
“It’s the rock pools!”
“It’s the saucy postcards!”
“It’s the creeping sense of despair!”

“All the best people aren’t appreciated in their lifetimes,” Scurvy Jake continued. “Look at Baby Jesus — nobody took him seriously. They thought he was a tramp!”

“Listen, do you know what I’d be doing if I was still a Victorian lady instead of a pirate?” Jennifer persisted.
The pirates didn’t have a clue, but the pirate with long legs tried a guess. “Having a shower?”

“Well, I think it’s very exciting to have Mister Napoleon as a neighbour,” said the albino pirate. “I mean to say, he almost conquered the whole of Europe.”
“And I ate the whole of that mixed grill that time. Not ‘almost ate,’ you’ll notice. I finished the job,” said the Captain with a scowl, moodily buttering his Weetabix.

“It’s not the same on dry land,” muttered the pirate with a nut allergy. “Without the romance of the sea, pirating just seems like quite antisocial behaviour.”

And then of course, there’s the Pirate Captain and his impeccable logic:

“Baby kissing is a tried and tested way of getting votes, Captain.”
The Captain didn’t look convinced. “Thing is, number two, what’s the voting age nowadays?”
“It’s eighteen, sir.”
“Exactly!” The Pirate Captain waggled an informative finger. “So there’s not much point lavishing all this attention on babies when they can’t even vote for me, is there? I should be concentrating on the eighteen-year-olds. And you know which other bit of the electorate is overlooked? Women. So really it makes a lot more sense for me to spend the morning kissing eighteen-year-old women.”

Napoleon is pretty great, too. At one point he writes this fake suicide letter in an effort to discredit the Pirate Captain, after a giant squid washes up on the beach:

To Whom It May Concern,

I cannot go on any longer. I know people think us giant squid are just unfathomable monsters of the deep, but we have feelings, too. And it is time the world learned the terrible truth. For several years now the Pirate Captain and I have been carrying on an illicit affair. Many times I have asked the Pirate Captain to do right by me, but he refuses, always telling me that he cannot be seen having a relationship with a giant squid because of the harm it would do to his public image. Also, sometimes he hits me. Anyhow, just yesterday I discovered I was pregnant with the Pirate Captain’s secret love child! I told the Pirate Captain about this and he flew into a rage and said he would never help support his half-squid/half-pirate progeny and then he hit me some more. So now I am going to commit suicide by beaching myself.

Goodbye, cruel world
The Giant Squid

Really, that’s all I have to say about this book.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #25: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ve been up here day by day, but if you missed one, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog

For those who want a particular nerd-itch to be scratched: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

This may well be the summer I rediscovered my love of Rumpole: reading Mortimer’s crusty but benign barrister in London, watching Leo McKern play the rotund defender of justice. But I couldn’t end the summer without reading the Rumpole origin story, the case where it all began, when a young Horace Rumpole defended a boy on two charges of murder alone, and without a leader (as he so often mentions in almost every, single story, ever.

Usually, John Mortimer writes Rumpole stories rather than Rumpole novels. Usually 20-30 pages is enough to recap the initial confusion, the early struggles and the stagger revelation that helps Rumpole acquit (or–sadly–fail to acquit) his clients. But in this case, with so much of Rumpole’s past to explain Mortimer takes 215 pages to tell his tale. It’s all worth it, we find how the hero met his wife, how he got connected with a superb solicitor (the go-between for clients and their lawyers in British law), how he earned the trust of his most faithful clients, and why he decided to always defend even the most hopeless of cases.

I doubt that many non-fans would really care to read this origin story (even if it’s available in radio play format featuring that most tumblr-ed of all tumblr-y hunks: Benedict Cumberbatch). But still, if you have a nerd itch to scratch, what better way to do it than with an origin story? If you want an origin story, what better kind than one that perfectly reflects the poetic style and endearing beliefs of the character you care about?

It’s not a great book (just as Rumpole isn’t great literature), but it’s great for me and for a capstone to my summer of Rumpole.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #72: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)

the cuckoo's callingYou thought you could keep this a secret, didn’t you, Jo? WELL TOO BAD.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, the latest novel by J.K. Rowling, originally written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, features private dick Cormoran Strike and his temporary secretary, Robin, as they become involved in investigating the supposed suicide of supermodel Lula Landry at the behest of her grieving brother, who doesn’t believe it possible Lula could have killed herself.

I am beyond glad that J.K. Rowling is writing genre again. She’s just so good at it. And sorry, Jo, I’m also beyond glad your lawyer’s wife leaked this to the public, because otherwise I never would have read it (or if I ever did, it would have been much farther down the road when you were like six or seven books in or something, as it seems the only time I ever hear about mystery books is if they last long enough to be notable to those who normally don’t read inside the genre). I know this probably makes me a bad friend fan admirer thingy whatever, and for that I apologize . . . but damn. I just love your words so much.

Shit. This has gotten weird real fast, even for one of my reviews.

Also, it’s more than slightly ironic that I have just written a chunk of this review as if I knew Ms. Rowling and was addressing her personally, when a great part of The Cuckoo’s Calling is devoted to an examination of fame from the other side. At one point, our hero Cormoran Strike literally wonders how it is that some people feel as if they know celebrities, even think of them in terms of friendship, when the reality is they don’t know them at all. The fact that it’s Jo who’s writing this — one of the most famous women in the world, a woman who fiercely values her privacy, and who spent a large portion of the latter Harry Potter books reacting via writing to her growing celebrity — leads me to wonder if she really doesn’t understand the impact her books had on an entire generation of kids. I admire Ms. Rowling’s public persona very much, but it’s her books that make me think of her so fondly.

But it’s not just on Lula Landry’s behalf that Strike ponders the strange behavior that can surround celebrity. Strike has cause to be prickly about fame, as well. His father is a famous rockstar who he’s only met a handful of times, but that doesn’t stop everyone who finds out about his parentage from making certain assumptions. He’s also ex-military police, and is still recovering from losing the lower half of one of his legs. He owes a ton of money, he’s just broken up with his girlfriend, and things aren’t looking so great for him in general. His temp secretary, Robin, is delightful. She doesn’t get as much characterization in this one as Strike does, but I’d imagine that will change in future books, as he lets her do more and more work for his cases. This was very much a first book. She had to take time to set up Strike’s initial character, then slowly but surely allow Robin to worm her way in to a permanent job, and I think more importantly, allow her to be someone that he can let see the embarassing bits of his life (for nearly the whole novel Strike tries to pretend to her that he isn’t living out of his office on a camp bed, when it is glaringly obvious to both of them that he is).

The mystery in this was really good, really thorough, and Rowling does a nice job of setting up red herrings, but at the same time laying clues so it’s obvious in retrospect who the murderer is. (This is something we already knew she could do, as she did it so well in all the Potters.) Strike is very good at his job, and Robin finds she has a talent for it as well (much to her delight, as she confesses early on that she’s secretly always wanted to work in a PI office), so it’s fun to watch them work. Even though I really liked the mystery, there wasn’t really anything there that made me go YES. I do, however, love Strike and Robin as characters (Jo is so good at characters, you guys), and I can imagine myself easily re-reading this after future books in the series have been published and retroactively giving it five stars, once I know where the series is headed. It’s not love yet, just really, really like.

Recommend highly for mystery and crime fiction fans, and for all those who were disappointed by The Casual Vacancy. This one has a distinct adult feel to it without making you want to smash your head into hard furniture in utter despair (so, yes, children, there is sex and swearing; it’s not a big deal, and please grow up, why won’t you?) .

[4.5 Stars]

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #17: The Casual Vacancy

For more thoughts on this and other bits of British nerdery, consider my eponymous blog: The Scruffy Rube.

Picturesque, pristine, and pleasant.

That’s the general tone that surrounds a lot of the English villages in my favorite British literature. Jane Austen wrote about scores of them, John Fowles’ beloved Lyme has the same tenor. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when I started reading JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy to find that she too had chosen to write about a seemingly serene little town, but Rowling’s setting was far seedier than her predecessors might dare to write.

The Casual Vacancy is about as far from the world of Harry Potter as you might care to go. The depressingly mugglefied air of Pagford village, could seems like a town so run-of-the-mill that it defies anything to be dramatic. But Rowling thrives when describing self-contained worlds that struggle for security and, to some extent, secrecy. That’s where an insular, overly-protective small town jives neatly alongside the vanishing charms and invisibility cloaks of the wizarding world.

The Casual VacancyThe two worlds connect again when Rowling turns her focus to writing about local teenagers, jaded by familial outrage and dedicated to personal interest. She has a masterful method for writing the tortuous logic and emotional angst that typifies teenagers, but her real talent lies in reflecting that same behavior in adult characters. Thus helping teens seem less immature and more relevant to the adult world that surrounds them.

At times it felt like Rowling dropped “gritty” bits of writing (profanity and eroticism) as a way of proving: “I’m not just the Harry Potter lady”, even if they weren’t terribly relevant or valuable to the story. But at its core, The Casual Vacancy shows the same strength of authorial imagination that put Rowling (and Harry) on the map in the first place.

It doesn’t take much to see The Casual Vacancy in a post-colonial light. The most powerful residents hold tightly to a sincere belief in their own superiority, condescending to tell another group of people how they should be living their lives. When some make an effort to put the powerful and the powerless on a more equitable footing, those in power do all they can to stop it. [And that doesn’t even touch on the overt disdain reserved for the one Indian family in town, a particularly bitter–though likely accurate–pill to swallow]

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #15: Rumpole and the Golden Thread

For many more thoughts on how this book relates to touring around London visit my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

For me, Rumpole stories (written by ex-lawyer John Mortimer) will forever be stories about familiarity and comfort, both because those motifs appear repeatedly throughout the series, and because the evoke those feelings within myself. Rumpole the aging defense lawyer is happiest with the Oxford Book of English Verse (which he quotes with aplomb), a stubby cigar and a bottle of cheap wine. As he strives to acquit each and every client he takes on (no matter how nefarious or cold-hearted they appear to be), he maintains his twin beliefs in the golden thread of justice (that we all must be judged as innocent until proven guilty), and that we live in a world of petty indecencies that the educated among us must endure.

Rumpole and the Golden ThreadTo me, Rumpole always sounds like Leo McKern, in large part because I heard the Australian actor reading the stories while bouncing along Montanan highways and byways in our family minivan. But he will always remind me of my father, a big and burly man who giggled at jokes I didn’t understand and got a wistful look in his eye when the poetry started to course its way through the main character’s monologuing. I love the idea of a noble, true, unflappable lawyer devoted to asserting the power of the human mind and the human soul. These are lofty ideas, but they sound every bit as good in McKern’s voice as they did during my father’s lectures. Walking about London you see those same ideals, high peaks, noble, sturdy architecture designed to endure, and in so doing manage to impress. Sure there are new flashes of steel and gleaming glass, but the core of London is as eternal as it ever was, and as consistent as Rumpole himself.

This collection fell a little shy of my normal fondness. Two stories relied on the sort of “aha” revelations by confessing witnesses that feel more at home in an episode of Matlock. One of them sent the titular defender of innocence to a fictional African country that felt more like a hodgepodge of uncomfortable post-colonial stereotypes than good ol’ Mr. Rumpole story-telling. In all they weren’t my favorite Rumpole stories.

But they were Rumpole stories, and they were Rumpole stories that I was reading in the thick of the city, popping up the steps from the tube onto Tottenham Court Road or wandering down the byways past Fleet Street and the Old Bailey. It let me feel right at home in a foreign land, and I expect it will do the same for anyone else who picks the stories up generations from now.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #63: The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby

This debut novel takes place in Shanghai in the 1920s, where a newly-arrived young British cop hopes to start his life over thanks to the sponsorship of his rich and politically connected uncle. Field is just getting used to the atmosphere in Shanghai–hot, corrupt, sordid, and exotic, drastic contrasts of rich and poor, with deadly but exciting currents running just under the surface—when he is assigned by the political unit to which he is attached to keep tabs on a rival police unit involved in criminal investigation. The heads of both units are vying for the post of police commissioner, and Field is an unwitting pawn in the battle. Money begins to accrue mysteriously in Field’s account, but he is not sure who is trying to buy his loyalty.

When Field gets in the middle of a homicide investigation involving the brutal mutilation/murders of several Russian prostitutes under the thumb of a powerful Chinese criminal warlord named Lu, he finds himself falling for one of Lu’s women, Natasha. Like the other women, Natasha had been the privileged child of wealthy white Russians until they were forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution, and ended up in Shanghai without wealth or protection. Considered homeless refugees, the Russians slipped to the bottom of the Shanghai social order and their daughters fell under Lu’s control to survive. But someone is killing them and Field is determined to solve the mystery and protect Natasha.

Especially fascinating about this novel are the author’s insights into the role of the British colonial elites in carving out a gilded enclave for themselves in the midst of the hunger and poverty, the crime, drugs, filth and tragedy that is the real Shanghai. Our hero Field is bounced back and forth between the uncle and his ilk at their clubs and dinners, their elegant homes and offices, their gorgeous clothing, their perfumed wives, and the underbelly of society represented by Lu and his army of thousands, who among other things finances orphanages so he can have his pick of discardable playthings and who can order murders with the flick of a finger. It is when the idealistic Field discovers that his uncle’s circles are wholly dependent on Lu for their political power, that he becomes the target of both sides.

The action comes thick and fast, and the identity of the killer eludes Field’s—and thus the reader’s—grasp time and again. Field and Natasha have to decide whether to trust each other, Field has to decide who among his fellow cops he can trust, and who among his uncle’s friends he can rely on. Nothing is as it seems, and the good guys and bad change places several times as the story races to a terrifying conclusion.  An exciting, well-written, well-paced and atmospheric  thriller.