Roundup: February 2017

lockeThe Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Short Version: Locke Lamora is a young thief at the head of a band of merry misfits known as the Gentlemen Bastards. Alternating between tales of his rise to the head of the Bastards and an ongoing story in Camorr that starts as a simple job but quickly expands to be far more deadly, it’s time to meet Locke Lamora…

The Review: I had the highest of hopes for this novel and it, at first, seemed that it would meet them. Scott Lynch has created a fascinating city in Camorr, full of strangeness and wonder that he illuminates and obscures with just the right mixture, and Locke Lamora and his crew are fine companions. But the minute you start to pay too much attention, the whole thing falls apart. Lynch seems well aware of his flaws, in the introduction to this Tenth Anniversary Edition – flaws in structure, in character work, in plotting – and it’s nice to know that the author has a sense of where he stepped wrong.

Because when he steps right, this book is fun. There’s more than a passing resemblance to be found in Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology and fans of one will likely enjoy the other. But as I’ve said before, the price of entry is often so high to new fantasy series – and this one doesn’t earn its keep. While it provides fine diversions and a handful of memorable sequences, it never rises to its early promise and instead sits solidly in the middle of the field.

30268564My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Rating: 2 out of 5
The Short Version: During a hospital stay some many years ago, Lucy Barton is visited by her mother. She stays for three days and they talk, about nothing and everything – and underlying it all, a tension simmers from a past that perhaps neither wanted to call forth.

The Review: I’m sure that other ToB commentators will remark upon the similarities between this book and Our Souls at Night, last year’s lovely and quiet discovery of the Tournament. I’d just like to stick a flag in the ground and say that any such similarities are superficial at best – Haruf’s novel was a lovely and warmly elegiac novel of small towns, where Strout’s is little more than sketches of scenes, loaded with “meaningful silences” and “unspoken thoughts” that actually don’t hold anything more than literary portent.

It’s only been a few days since I finished this novel and it has already largely rushed from my mind. Lucy Barton has moved to New York, fleeing – or at least rushing from – a small town in Illinois and some implied badness that occurred there. She’s got a life here now, with kids and a husband and a mysterious illness that nobody can figure out (one that also just vanishes, apparently; this novel is written as Lucy writing her reflections of this convalescence). Her mom comes to visit and they have the sort of Small Talk Hiding Larger Emotional Concerns that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lifetime movie or a college student’s attempt at writing Pinter.There’s barely anything here, is the problem. Nothing Strout brings to the table reveals anything new, shows us anything that hasn’t been done before, reveals why this is a full novel as opposed to a sketch for something larger. It’s like an attempt at writing an Alice Munro novella, except by an author who is not Alice Munro. (And don’t get me wrong, I thought Strout is a great writer. But this was not her best, by a long shot.)

29246610The Obsidian Chamber (Pendergast #16) by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Short Version: Special Agent Pendergast is presumed dead after washing out to sea at the end of Crimson Shore. But after Constance, his ward, is abducted and Proctor, his valet, sets off in pursuit, we discover that death might not be death at all – for either of the Pendergast brothers…

The Review: Sorry if this is a spoiler but I think it was pretty obvious from even the end of Crimson Shore: Diogenes survived his fall into the volcano. A thrilling idea, one that the Pendergast series has long held off from but that always seemed likely, and now here we are. And, as it turns out, it is (mostly) thrilling. For one thing, the ‘formula’ of these novels is shaken up by the fact that Pendergast barely appears until about a hundred pages in: instead, it’s Proctor racing across the globe (and I mean across the globe) in pursuit of Diogenes and Constance. The book functions more along the lines of the multi-stage rocket metaphor than maybe any other I’ve ever previously applied it to: the first stage of this book burns like hell, and then falls away. And while there’s plenty of thrust to the rest of the novel, it never quite recovers that initial burst of excitement and energy.

All in all, it’s a fine entry in the Pendergast series – but it is not what it could’ve been. The finale dissolves into a chase and firefight that feels more akin to the Helen trilogy than the Diogenes trilogy (let alone the earlier masterpieces) and it reads, at times, like the authors couldn’t quite decide what to do with Diogenes after bringing him back. They give him a convincing reboot and we’re kept delightfully off-kilter for a while about his true intentions… but that delight gives way, a bit, as the story comes towards its conclusion. The series still provides its pleasures, to be certain, but let’s hope the authors maybe take a little more time on the next one.

theblackmondaymurders_tp-1All Hail, God Mammon (The Black Monday Murders, Vol 1) by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Short Version: What if money was alive, potent, powerful? What if shadowy god-like families controlled it, controlled us too, using occult measures? What if finance really was a dark art?

The Review: This was one of those walking-through-a-bookstore discoveries. I was intrigued by the cover, gripped by the first pages, and done with the book the same afternoon I brought it home. Conceptually, it feels like an occult-noir sibling to Animal Money: money is, somehow, alive or at least sentient in a way. Here, it channels dark power into a few families who operate as guardians, conduits, and ostensible users. All the massive financial crises of our human past? They’re not because of human error; they’re because the money itself demanded a sacrifice.

The book is dense and confusing at times – I’m almost certainly going to need to re-read it before I pick up volume two (ideally this October) – but it is fucking BRILLIANT. Jonathan Hickman’s narrative work is layered, using charts and prose alongside traditional panels to create a story that pulls you deeper than you’d expect from a comic, and Tomm Coker’s art is creepy, seductive, and riveting. I’m a little confused, still, but delightfully so: I can’t wait to see what comes next.

old-knivesAll the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: Two former CIA agents and former lovers meet for dinner, years after a tragic incident in Prague sent one of them running from the job. Both have ulterior motives. Both have unanswered questions. Both have secrets to hide. Both may not walk out the door.

The Review: The spy thriller, the really great one, is a tricky art. The best versions, those by the likes of Graham Greene and John le Carré, are as much about spy work as they are human beings – because they seemed to realize, fundamentally, that spy work would not be half so interesting if it wasn’t for the human beings who were doing it. And so Olen Steinhauer, whose work has been compared to both of those men (I confess, this is my first of his books), picks up that mantle and writes here a tightly contained thriller that keeps the reader gripped for about as long as a meal – which is exactly what he was looking for.

Told through alternating voices, both Henry and Celia’s, we never get to see the full picture until the very end – and it’s a delightful ride along the way. Steinhauer delivers everything you’re looking for from a thriller but manages to still keep the story small. Yes, lives are at stake – or they were. Yes, there’s some amount of international derring-do – or there was. Yes, there are layers on layers on layers – both now and then. But the novel works best when it sits at that dinner table in that little bistro in Carmel-by-the-Sea (incidentally, I visited that town this summer and dined at a restaurant that might’ve inspired Rendez-Vous, so I felt that delightful boost of being ‘in it’) and just lets the former flames talk to each other. They are both older, softer, slower – but their training still sticks. You barely want to put the book down, just to see how it ends – and whether those old knives are still sharp.

30809689Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Short Version: Odin, Thor, Loki, Ragnarok, frost giants, and more – the classic tales of Norse legend, retold by a master of fantasy and prose.

The Review: Look, it’s Neil Gaiman retelling the Norse myths. You already know exactly what it’s going to be – and it lives up to that knowledge, one hundred percent. Much like the work of Roger Lancelyn Green or Bulfinch’s Mythology, these are the tales of antiquity retold and sculpted by the author doing the retelling. Gaiman explains from the start that he has always had a soft spot for the Norse legends – longtime readers will know this, for who can forget Mr. Wednesday? – and he sets out not to make them his own or add any sort of flash to them, but to instead introduce them to a new generation of readers.

More than anything, I can see myself reading these stories to my children someday, just as the Greek and Egyptian and Arthurian myths were read to me. Gaiman’s voice is at its very best here and if you have the chance to hear him read from the book, I’d highly recommend it: these tales are, after all, meant to be told around a roaring fire or under the summer moon. They’re meant to be told, retold, and retold again – and to catch the small shifts that occur therein. The only thing to wish (and Gaiman wishes it, too) is that there were more tales to be retold – for beyond this book, there are very few other surviving tales of Odin, Loki, Thor, Baldur, Freya, Hel, and so on. Perhaps we can convince Mr. Gaiman to write a sequel to this book that fills in those gaps – or, perhaps, we can convince you.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Drew, very impressive reviews. I have only just stumbled upon your site.
    You’ve got me wanting to read most of the above. And just February?
    Regards . Marie .

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