A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block

This is the last of the Matthew Scudder detective series.  I disliked the previous two because of the unwanted sections giving the viewpoint of the serial killer.  But in what may be the final Scudder book, we are back to old times, old style.

Scudder is now in his sixties, still sober, still married to Elaine, and sitting around with his old friend and criminal, Mick, who has now married the daughter of the folks murdered two books ago.  He has also cut way back on the drink, some days not drinking at all.   As the two get to reminiscing, Scudder remembers old High-Low Jack, Jack Ellery.  They were in grammar school together for a couple of years before Scudder’s family moved, and ran into each other a couple of times since, with Matt having joined the police force, and Jack having taken a criminal route.

But when they meet once again, about a year after Matt is sober, it is at an AA meeting, and Jack has been sober longer than Matt, a couple of years at least.  He is working the Steps, the twelve steps of the program which have been created to help a person get sober and remain sober.   He is working on the 8th and 9th steps, where one lists all those one has harmed by one’s drinking, and in the 9th step, goes to each one to make amends.

He is found one day in his rooming house room, shot twice, once in the mouth, and it is not suicide, unless you consider him a very determined person.   The police have nothing, and the case goes cold, but Jack’s sponsor has a dilemma which he discusses with Matt.  He has the list of persons harmed written by Jack, and if he turns it over to the police, they could involve a lot of innocent people with dicey backgrounds.  If he doesn’t turn over the list, perhaps the killer is among those on the list and will go free.  He asks Scudder to investigate the people on the list in order to clear them.  And it looks like everyone on the list is clear.  And then some of them start turning up dead, one as an apparent victim of a murder, and one an apparent suicide.

Great mystery, really well done, and the case solved by Scudder’s now legendary tenacity and inability to let go.

There was a lot about AA and the meetings, and a fair amount about the steps, and I found it all just so interesting.  I am glad this seems to be the last of the series, because I was getting tired of it,  and judging from the previous two books, so was the author, but I did want to finish out the series.  The book ends with Matt and Mike:

Somewhere along the way he’d returned his bottle to the back bar and came back with a liter of Evian water.  And there we sat, two old men up past our bedtime, talking and drinking water.

I might try some of his other series.  He is a prolific writer with a style I enjoy.

 

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THE SEEKER’S RIDDLE by Andrew Calhoun

A seventeen-year-old kid from Corpus Christi in the Southern Union, an insular and backward-looking area of the country (world? not sure), wants out.  He is obsessed with space, and astrophysics.  It is the 23rd century, and citizens of the SU are not accepted into top universities in other areas because their education is so backward.  Locke Howden and his ten-year-old sister are orphans, living off the charity of their housemates.  He figures if he gets a job mining asteroids on a three-year hitch, then goes to a decent university, he will finally be able to return to Earth and get his sister for a decent life elsewhere.

On the elevator vehicle to the space station transportation center, he meets a young woman pilot and her autistic brother who is continually tapping something.  Bullies enter the room, and do bullying things, Locke intervenes, and the sister is grateful.  He eventually figures out that the young autistic man is tapping out some mathematical equations.   They reach the space station and board their transport to the outer fringes of the galaxy, but help!  The ship is boarded by pirates, and the sister, the brother and Locke are kidnapped and taken to an heretofore undiscovered planet.  Fortunately, this planet is like earth with gravity, biosphere, atmosphere, and all that.  What is also on the planet is a downed HUGE spaceship.  The planet is the headquarters for the pirates, and they want to get into that spaceship but it apparently still has internal power, and the security system won’t allow them in.  In fact, there is a vestibule which has a wall containing a puzzle which must be solved in order to get into the rest of the ship.

Turns out the pirates are ‘hacked androids’ — human brains and consciousness in an android human-like body, and the ship won’t let them even near it.  But the planet also has a community of human farmers, and the ship will allow the humans into the vestibule. But nobody can solve that puzzle.

The autistic brother is actually a savant, with some extraordinary knowledge, and the pirates kidnap him hoping he will be able to solve that puzzle and get them inside the ship.

All very space opera-y and fun, and filled with some interesting ideas.  But there were some things that kind of took it out of the A+ category for me.  First of all, not sure why the protagonist was a 17 year old boy.  It didn’t quite work for me, seems like it should have been a young twenties person.  Second of all, and most annoying, even though the time is the 23rd century, the book is filled with current, and not only current to 2018, but current to mid-20th century’s slang and phrases and references.  Like when a character who is in a hurry quotes Frost:  “I’m afraid I’ve got promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  Really?  Folks would still be quoting a somewhat minor American poet of the twentieth century in the twenty-third century?  naaaaaah.  And lots of tired old cliches, which are tired old cliches even now, like “avoid like the plague”.  Stuff like that.  It put me off.

This is billed as a First Contact novel, so I am not letting the alien out of the bag if I tell you that, yeah, there were aliens, the main spokesalien of which seemed a pretty jazzy hipster, which also struck an odd note.  I can go with the alien speaking English using one of the character’ brains and body, but it seems just a little far-fetched that it would be so culturally attuned in his attitude and speech. Well, culturally attuned, that is, to the twenty-first century American culture.

But anyway, as I said, it was fun, and hey, aliens! Right?  Nifty weapons.  A boots-on-the-ground battle. The good guys win, the bad guys go to android heaven, and the rest who have a righteous mission to save the rest of their android brethern and sisteren from slavery, go and do just that.

(Yes, I know that sisteren is not a word. I was just being cute.)

ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING by Lawrence Block

The sixteenth Matthew Scudder NYC detective series.  Hated it.  It features that same serial killer from the last book, and once again we have the sections told from the perspective of the serial killer and pfffft,  stop, just stop doing that.

Scudder is 62 years old now,  prosperous, semi-to-mostly retired, the book has lost its late 1900s gritty noir feel, he doesn’t live in that hotel room any more, he still goes to AA meetings, and basically, the entire trope feels tired and like the author has gotten thoroughly sick of Scudder and this series.

There is a small side mystery which he solves, but nah.  Oh, well, all good things must come to an end.

There is one more in the series which looks a lot more interesting, so I will read that just to say I read the whole series.

 

THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin

No, this is not a sports book.  It is an epic fantasy, a trilogy, at least so far.  It won the Hugo Award in 2016, which is the top award for sci fi and fantasy.

Not all fantasy genre books are about dragons and magicians and wizards.  The Fifth Season takes place on a planet with a single supercontinent called the Stillness. Every few centuries, its inhabitants endure what they call a “Fifth Season” of catastrophic climate change.  The supercontinent is called the Stillness in contrast to the earth itself, which is in constant motion with plate tectonic movement, volcanoes constantly building, small tremlors always in play throughout the planet.  And the main focus of the story are the  Orogenes: people with the ability to control energy, particularly that of the earth (directly) and temperature (indirectly). They can cause and prevent earthquakes, and when angered can unintentionally kill living things in their “torus”, or area of influence, by stealing the heat from their bodies to use as energy to manipulate the ground. When this occurs, a visible circle of frost appears around them and living things can be flash-frozen solid.

They are widely hated and feared, and many are murdered by small-town mobs when their powers are discovered in childhood. If they are not killed by their family or comm,(village or community),  they are given to a Guardian, to be trained at a location called the Fulcrum inside the city of Yumenes. Fulcrum-trained orogenes are marked by their black uniforms, and are tolerated slightly better than untrained orogenes, in that they are not murdered quite as often. They wear rings on their fingers to denote rank, ten-ring being the highest. The slur “rogga” is used against orogenes, who likewise call non-orogenes “the stills”.

Fulcrum-trained orogenes are sent on missions to various locations to subdue earthquakes, volcanoes, get rid of coral blockages of harbors, etc, and thus are respected if not liked.

This book is all about stone, and geology, and energy lines and sources.  It has some strange creatures, such as the stone eaters, beings who are made of stone and are like living statues who can move through walls and rocks.

The principal character is an orogene who over the course of the book has three identities as her life changes and shifts.  The book opens with the end of the world, but is it really?  It is a book about oppression and power.  I was going to say more, but I think I will just leave it at that.  Extraordinary world building, characters with hearts made of stone and hearts that can actually move stone.  Some really nifty creative ideas, which when you get right down to it, is the only reason to read fantasy — to see what amazing ideas someone can come up with.

Two more to go in this series,  The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky.    I think I will give the next one a try and see how it goes.  My experience with trilogies is that usually the first is great, the second pretty good and the third ho-hum.

HOPE TO DIE by Lawrence Block

Number fifteen of the Matthew Scudder series.  I hated it.  Well, perhaps that was a little strong.  I didn’t care very much for it.  And here’s why.

First of all, the first person down-to-earth style narrative of Scudder was interspersed with third person viewpoint of the serial killer.  OK, and that is the ‘second of all’ thing — serial killer.  Kind of like when all else fails, haul out a serial killer perp.  Anyway, back to my ‘first of all’.   I don’t really like knowing who is the perpetrator.  I especially don’t like long drawn out passages giving us his stream of conscious thoughts.  I prefer to know only what the investigator of the murder knows.

Third of all, …  but wait.  Before I give you a third of all, I should give you some plot.  A prosperous couple is murdered and tortured in a home invasion robbery.  The two perps were shortly thereafter found  dead in an apartment in another neighborhood, a murder/suicide.  Case closed.

But Scudder, being Scudder, can’t quite believe it is all that simple because of several factors.  So he …. and here is the third of all …. he posits a third person involved,  in a completely implausible out of the blue scenario that really felt like the author realized he wrote the P.I. into an impossible corner and the only way to get him out was to come up with the mystery writer’s equivalent of “And then magic happened.”

On the personal front, his ex wife dies, he attends the funeral and sees his two sons from whom he is if not exactly estranged, at least extremely distant from.  One son is doing OK, and the other is an alkie and a ne’er-do-well, who later hits him up for money.

Meh.

 

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan

I wonder how many lifeboat books there are, other than Das Boot?   Maybe not as many as a reader might think.

This lifeboat tale is told in first person by a sweet young newlywed, Grace Winter, whose husband does something ….. we are never sure just exactly what ….. to get her into an already somewhat overcrowded lifeboat as their ship, The Empress of something or another, sank rapidly after a mysterious explosion.

It is 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was just assassinated, so and after having honeymooned in Europe, the young Winters grab a ship home to the USA.  but alas, that explosion puts an end to their lovely cruise.  Was it from a submarine?  The cause was never found, but it was found that the lifeboats were underequipped, and the evacuation process was chaotic, with some boats not full, and other overcrowded.

The boat in which Grace found herself included one seaman from the ship, who took charge.  As they float around, hoping to be rescued,  the 39 passengers began to exhibit their true natures, and our narrator begins to show us that perhaps she is not as reliable a narrator as we might have wished.

We learn of these events as she writes her account of the ordeal while sitting in prison awaiting trial with two other women, for murder of one of the people on the lifeboat.  She writes not only about the lifeboat but about her life leading up to the sailing, and we come to understand that Grace has the soul of a survivor, and nice guys finish last.

Great book, and the twists are sleight and devious, until we come to that point where we are saying to ourselves, “Oh.  Oh. Oh.”,  having been under the spell of the sweet-natured and good-hearted Grace.  We remind ourselves that it is the winners who write the history.

 

THE MADNESS OF GRIEF by Panayotis Cacoyannis

It is 1969, London, and motherless teenager Jane is about to learn even more about the world, and her world, than she may possibly want to.

Cacoyannis’ trademark quirky style is evident once again as it dances around a … oh, what’s that word for not exactly sad? …. oh, yeah, poignant, that’s it …. poignant tale about secrets.  Everybody has them, don’t they.   Even me.  My secret is that I am not really 37.  But back to Jane, and her …  what’s the word for goofball in a good way? … oh, yeah, eccentric, that’s it … eccentric family and friends.  Her father is a magician.  Mr. Magikoo.  He is beloved by his fans, and spends a good deal of time touring the country with his wife and daughter.  Well, hey, it’s 1967, and in 1967 we all still thought the world was a lovely place, we were just coming out of that era of naiveté that spawned Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Benny Hill, Jimmy Durante, Sid Caesar, and the like, so Mr. Magikoo’s popularity is not such a stretch.

Well, the touring goes just fine until Mr. Magikoo kills his wife.  OK, OK, it was an accident, having to do with electricity and lightning, but still.  So he continues touring with his young daughter right up until the time he wanted her to walk between some swinging knives mechanism they dubbed the Sweeney Todd, until his sister put a stop to THAT, you better believe it!

Dad eventually takes up with a classy lady, Mia-Mia, who moves in, mostly, cleans and cooks and takes care of the two of them in their tiny house next to the magic shop, displacing Aunty Ada, who had been doing that for them, and whose nose was now a bit out of joint about it.

Jane has a bff, a young man, Karl, a classical pianist, who has a German mother who is a Reichian therapist, and a father who left them long ago for another woman.

Frau Angela had married a philandering Smith, and then, when it dawned on her what he was up to, divorced him and proudly reverted to Schmidt.  Frau Angela (who was now Dr. Schmidt) had then insisted on a hyphenated surname for their son, and Karl duly became a Schmidt-Smith.

If you have read enough Cacoyannis, you will already suspect that all is not as it seems, and that there are secrets that have other secrets, and that the book is actually an onion.  You know, layers, and layers, and every time you peel off a layer, your eyes tear up.

I am not going to tell you any of the secrets, because that would spoil the whole thing for you.  But remember that it is a book about secrets and identity, and realness and fantasy, grief and recovery, and what masquerades as fantasy often is a disguise for despair.

I admit to a smidge of disappointment with the ending.  I felt it was cliché and ..oh, what’s the word for facile and overdone?…. oh, yeah, trite, that’s it….. trite.  In fact, it could have done just splendidly without the final section altogether.  But what do I know?  I’m just a simple illiterate peasant who likes to read and muse on the human condition.  Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, criticize.  Guess which one I do.

I have to give Mr. Cacoyannis some serious praise for his seemingly innate ability to write a female character.  Not only a female character, but a teenage female character.  Everything about Jane struck just the right note, and I should know, having once myself been a teenage female, about a century ago or so.

So, funny, quirky, sad, surprising, clever and witty.  And the title?

That for everything else I forgave him, because the things that happened after we lost mum didn’t count, they were all part of a madness that couldn’t be helped.  That madness of grief….