Maximum Bob, by Elmore Leonard #15in2015


Maximum BobMaximum Bob by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting characters with unique voices. A plot that is unpredictable but feels inevitable. A setting that has tone more than detail.

I’m a fan of Leonard’s work, even though I haven’t made a dedicated effort to read all of his books. This book, about a judge who wants to drive his wife away and blackmails a defendant into helping him–which naturally goes completely haywire, and stirs up a great deal of trouble–is a bit shaggy in the best way. I’m not sure what I’m going to read next, because this will be a difficult act to follow.

[Added: I had no idea there was a TV series based on this book. I’ll have to look it up.]

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Devil May Care (James Bond – Ext Series #36) by Sebastian Faulks (as Ian Fleming) #15in2015


Devil May CareDevil May Care by Sebastian Faulks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A criminal mastermind has a plan to destroy London, which he promptly casts aside mid-book for a plan B that better matches the expectations of James Bond’s fans.

Set in the ’60’s, the novel portrays the setting in a detailed, concrete way, but almost nothing else about it is interesting. The characters are not much fun, the action scenes have little urgency to them, and Bond himself barely seems like a secret agent with a license to kill.

Honestly, if there’s one mistake that authors make, especially when they’re writing thrillers, it’s describing fight scenes as though recording the events of a movie. No one needs the blow-by-blow. What matters is the urgency and the feeling of it.

Still, amazingly detailed setting, though.

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The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block #15in2015


The Sins of the Fathers (Matthew Scudder, #1)The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Matt Scudder novel, although it’s not the first one I’ve read. It’s quite good, especially for its time (1975).

Matt Scudder was a husband, father, an alcoholic, and a relatively honest NYPD detective. Then one day something terrible happened and he dropped out of his life, quitting his job and walking away from his family to live in a cheap hotel and drink all day. He makes his living as an unlicensed private investigator: he doesn’t fill out forms, or charge by the hour, or any of it. He does favors for “friends” and afterwards those friends give him “gifts.”

In this first novel in the series, one of Scudder’s cop buddies sends a client his way: a young prostitute has been murdered in her home by the young man she lived with. He was arrested in the street, screaming, covered in blood, with his dick hanging out. After a couple of days in jail, he hanged himself, closing the case for good.

But the girl’s step-father isn’t satisfied. Not that there’s any doubt in his mind about who killed her, but she walked away from college years before and went to New York. She didn’t keep in contact with her family. They had no idea what was happening to her.

Why had she walked away? Why had she become a prostitute? Why was she living with this young man?

Who was she?

And because he’s doing a favor, not working directly for a client, Scudder’s investigation becomes more wide-ranging in pretty much the way you’d expect.

It’s a fast-moving book, and it’s short, so it takes very little time to read it. I wish I’d started with this one so I could move through the series in order. Scudder eventually picks up a series of recurring characters and he joins AA.

But it’s appropriately bleak and tragic, something I’ve been looking for. Good stuff.

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Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child


Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher, #11)Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Silly but fun, as long as you don’t think about the plot too much.

Criminal overlord plan: If you’re worried about an excellent team of investigators showing up to investigate a murder you’ve committed, and you want to lure them in on your own terms, wait until after you complete your $65 million deal with terrorists.

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In the Midst of Death, by Lawrence Block


In the Midst of Death (Matthew Scudder, #3)In the Midst of Death by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Matt Scudder is a former cop and an unlicensed private investigator. Sometimes he does favors for people, and they give him money as a favor in return. This time he’s hired by a cop who’s accused of extortion; can Scudder convince the accuser to retract?

Of course things get complicated and there’s a murder. The cop claims he’s been framed by other cops, and Scudder is the only one who can help.

This is early in the series, when Scudder was still drinking heavily. It was much later that he joined a 12 step program and struggled to keep his life together. I’m not sure which version I prefer.

The weird thing is that, while I enjoyed the book–the tone, the characters, the plot–I’d completely forgotten I’d read it before. Read it and didn’t remember it at all, except for one sentence. I rarely reread deliberately, and this isn’t a book I would have tackled again if I’d recognized that utterly generic title.

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61 Hours by Lee Child.


61 Hours (Jack Reacher, #14)61 Hours by Lee Child
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Jack Reacher novels are interesting, in that they’re enjoyable but not particularly involving. Reacher is the basic competence-porn thriller hero, who can work out where a fugitive has run off to after nothing more than a brief phone call, but doesn’t recognize the killer when the plot needs him to assume something else.

The heroic levels of research that books like this are built on is often the best part, like reading an oddball magazine article on, say, congressional boondoggles during the Cold War. Unfortunately, “Show the research” can be intrusive, too. When Reacher is handed a gun, do we need a rundown of the manufacturer’s founding like some Wikipedia copy pasta? Nope. We get it anyway.

The climax was so absurd that I threw credulity aside and enjoyed it as camp. I prefer thrillers that strain credulity, and know it. It’s fun.

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J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey #15in2015


J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the CenturyJ.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book 13 in #15in2015

It’s deeply pleasing to read about the language Tolkien uses in his work. Not the one he created, which this book barely touches on, but the old words, names, and place names that he drew on when he wrote.

Having studied in the same field at Professor Tolkien, the author is well-placed to talk about the complexities, structure, and foundation of Tolkien’s work. It’s clear he’s irritated at the literary critics who dismiss Lord of the Rings as having no value at all, but in his effort to prove them so completely wrong that they’ve missed the greatest work of the 20th Century, he presents an excellent argument for the artistic merit in Tolkien’s work.

Is Tolkien the “Author of the Century”? Well, no. Is his work powerful, complex, and of literary value? Absolutely. If you can bear to read through Shippey’s gripes about the literati and can skim through some tedious analysis of the professor’s lesser works, this book is a source of sublime pleasure.

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The Babes in the Wood, by Ruth Rendell book 12 of #15in2015


The Babes in the Wood (Inspector Wexford, #19)The Babes in the Wood by Ruth Rendell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Book 12 of #15in2015

Wow. This was sort of terrible.

Rendell died recently, and the way her obituaries described her work made me want to sample it. The sensible thing would have been for me to carefully select a much-lauded novel, but instead I grabbed something at random on the shelf.

The characters were cliches: an absent-minded professor, a snotty supermodel, misogynistic Christian fundamentalists, the overweight guy who can’t resist a sweet cake in the most awkward of social circumstances. The plot dawdled, in part because of characters who find a body but don’t report it because of the bother it would cause them (missing children? So what?) and in part because there’s so little going on.

Worse, there are continual little author self-inserts that make no sense in the context of the rest of the book. Stuff like (paraphrasing) “The inspector had forgotten to ask an important question, and it would be weeks before he realized what it was” which doesn’t match the bulk of the novel, but seems very like a ham-fisted attempt to create tension.

Finally, it’s apparent from the latter part of the book that the author had a lovely vacation abroad, and much of the denouement made it tax-deductible.

Maybe her earlier work was more nuanced and interesting. Maybe it had momentum. This doesn’t.

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Book 11 in #15in2015


Things Fall Apart (The African Trilogy, #1)Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book 11 of #15in2015

It’s not often I set aside genre works to read something regarded as a literary classic, but I’ve wanted to read this since the author died a few years ago.

The main character, Okonkwo, is a tragic figure determined to make a prominent place for himself within his (fictional, but based on the Igbo of southern Nigeria) people. His father was a lazy, good-for-nothing layabout, who played music and drank other people’s palm wine, and borrowed sums he never intended to pay back. In a culture that valued community he was a likable taker.

Deeply ashamed of his father, Okonkwo was determined to be everything he was not. He worked hard, fought fiercely in war, and won renown as a great wrestler. But while he could fight and work and create wealth, he couldn’t manage the things his father was good at: he couldn’t create strong social bonds within the community. He was prone to rages, and did terrible things because he was afraid to seem weak/feminine.

Naturally, he ends up dying an outcast’s death, just like his father, because he was ready to go to war with the British colonials but no one was willing to follow him.

Okonkwo is one of those literary protagonists that literary readers lose so much: he’s an asshole you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with in real life, but as a reader you go deep into his history and his tragic flaws, watching from a superior position as his misguided instincts push him closer and closer to tragedy. The text portrays his errors but doesn’t allow much commentary on them, except in the context of the way he clashes with cultural traditions.

However, those cultural traditions are not spared overt criticism in the text at all. For a people who explicitly value community and the bonds of tribal identity, they have terrible blind spots. The vicious misogyny, the cruelty toward babies born twins, and more, create weak points in their society that the English missionaries, who show up late in the book, exploits. Okonkwo’s own son, whom he has treated with nothing but anger and criticism (in the hope that he would grow up hard and strong) is one of the first to flee his traditional tribal community for the Christian church. And just as with the man, so it is with the community as a whole: the lowest and most despised break away first, and once on the outside, attack the culture they were once a part of.

Not that the British are made into good guys, with their sham talk about justice while they destroy the Ibo traditions and kill their people.

It’s a sad book. I like sad. It’s also complex–much more so than this review makes it seem. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking out the subsequent books.

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