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This Census-Taker (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 27 August 2017 00:00

ong-time readers of my reviews know that my favorite living author is China Meville (it’s a love-hate relationship – this guy writes like I should write). I’ve got pretty much every book of his on my shelves. A lot of them are crazy-weird but leave me haunted and thoughtful. And This Census-Taker, it’s the craziest (and deepest) of the bunch.

So this boy lives in an almost dreamlike house high on a windy hill overlooking a town, sometime in a sort of steam-punk post-greatness era. And the tale begins with him dashing down to the city in the valley below, running all the way, screaming and crying that there has been a murder. His mother has killed his father. Or is it the other way. We’re not sure.

No, it seems he’s hysterical – his father (a simple key-maker, though this carries far more magic than the skills of an ordinary locksmith) is fine. His mother, it seems, has left. There is a note. There isn’t any blood. And there is certainly no body (there is a hole in the mountain above, one that his father throws the family’s trash and the occasional animal he brutally kills into) but how can one prove that a corpse has been dropped into that horrific darkness? So, sure, the boy must be hysterical. He’s returned to his father’s care. What else can the disinterested villagers do?

This Census-Taker (named after a character hinted fleetingly through the course of the book, only showing up in the eleventh hour) is a strange book, one that will not conclusively tell you what has happened and what is to be, but more of a dream. After I read it and sat blinking at its conclusion, I slept on it and woke up with my own private idea of what might have happened. I’m not sure if it’s true – I just have a conviction that I know a little more about what took place in the background of this macabre tale.

But I liked it. It had place and depth (that “trash hole” gives me the willies, even now). The characters were realistic – they move with a purpose not dictated solely by the story they appear in. In the end, there is a conclusion (of sorts) and a belief that the characters have moved on. But, as I said, the story echoed in my head for days to follow, troubling me with its implications in unspoken whispers.

If you are looking for a simple story, one where the goal is set in the opening page (i.e. solve the murder or go to war), you won’t care for this windswept tale at all. But if you are a reader, a true reader, you should check this one out. And hey, it’s a novella, a short little thing, so if it really doesn’t appeal, you won’t be in it that long.

Me, I wish it had run longer.


Last Updated on Sunday, 27 August 2017 05:04
The Girl on the Train (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 20 August 2017 00:00

et’s get this right out in the open. This is a protagonist you aren’t going to like at all.

Rachel is a pathetic drunk. Her drinking and violent tendencies cost her a marriage. Now abiding in an apartment from an over-enabling friend, she rides in to London every day, not to work but to pretend to work. Because she drank at a work lunch, lost control and got the sack.

One of Rachel’s little “games” is when the train stops every day at the same signal, she looks at the back of one of the suburban houses (apparently a few doors down from her old abode, where her ex still lives with the woman that supplanted her). The woman who sits on the patio drinking coffee is so serine. Her husband so caring. Rachel actually names them, gives them backstories, almost loves them. Their lives follow what hers should have been, sipping coffee in the sunlight as the train rattles past, her loving husband kissing her neck before heading off to his successful work.

But then one day Rachel is rocked to see this woman, so complete in her own life, kissing another man on the back porch. And shortly afterwards, she comes up missing.

Fuelled by her besotted fantasies, Rachel is drawn in – like Charlie Chan and Miss Marple – to try to solve the case (even though she is unreliable, often drinking until blacking out, unable to hold a course of action, a total disaster of a detective). But her actions begin to unravel of quiet calm of her former street, revealing the lying and cheating of its underbelly. And in the end, it all becomes clear. Horrifically clear.

The story is told from three women involved (including the one who was murdered) and across different times, so it pays to watch the date in the chapter headings. Eventually we are able to piece together what happened and what the fallout is. Well-told and interesting, the author was bold in picking a character so depressingly a failure that my sister gave the book up at midpoint. Still, kudos for going after such a tough-to-carry heroine. I stuck with Rachel through to the end. If I had one problem with the book, it’s that the women and men in the story seem cast from the same molds (the women unfaithful, weak and indecisive, the men quick-tempered and violence-prone). But yes, overall it as a good read, an interesting mystery with a red herring or two to keep the reader guessing.

But if you do take my recommendation, know that your protagonist is no “Dick Champion”. It’s going to be raw.


Last Updated on Sunday, 20 August 2017 08:37
Razor Girl (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 13 August 2017 00:00

arl Hiaasen – what can you say? If you haven’t read any of his South Florida Crime Novels, you’ve got a treat. While his writing can be a bit formulaic (good guys are gruff and honest, bad guys are unremitting shit-weasels (one of my favorite phrases of his) who tend fated to end his tales in horribly fitting ways). It’s not high art, that’s for sure, but it’s fun.

So, the title character, the Razor Girl, is a young woman with a suspicious name (Merry Mansfield) who makes a living of sorts by crashing into cars. She’s got rear-ending to a fine art, hitting them just enough to get them to stop. And when the driver comes back, understandably furious at the collision, there she is, caught in the (staged) act of shaving herself in a very private place while driving (you cannot get any more distracted than that). Usually she’ll beg a ride off her road-side companion for a lift, fluttering her eyes or shaking out her ruby-red hair, to which the mark (being a man) will generally concede to. And usually she’ll have him drive her to wherever various less-than-lawful sorts will be waiting to kidnap the mark for whatever purposes they desired. And Merry, she’ll accept her money and go off to do it again and again.

See, Hiaasen’s characters are like that – strange yet interesting. And the stories roll through unexpected twists and humorous observations (mainly regarding how stupid Florida can be sometimes, how low-brow and tourist-swarmed a place it is). Razor Girl is no exception, just bouncing its way from one situation through another until a satisfying conclusion is met.

If I had one thing to say bad about it (and it’s a review, so I’m duty-bound to do so), the plot wandered a bit near the end. Like its companion novel Bad Monkey, the plot seems so fixated on being clever that the traditional buildup to the climax appeared lost (and when it does finally come, it’s so quick that it seems a cheat). As mention, Bad Monkey had this issue as well, and as that was a book on disk, my wife and I kept thinking it was nearly over when it wasn’t.

But overall it was a fun novel, interesting to read. And I’m always happy to see how our favorite Key West food inspector is faring. If you’ve never done Hiaasen, you might want to give this one a try.


Louis XIV-A Royal Life (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 30 July 2017 00:00

only knew Louis (the 14th) through two forms of entertainment. There was the version provided through Dumas, that of the selfish and ungrateful ruler, who punishes the loyal Fouquet at the wormtonguing of Colbert and is nearly swapped out by Aramis' kingmaking (Man in the Iron Mask). And then there is the Versailles series, where he is in control and fitting his rule to his circumstances, but with all the secret societies and plots about the place, it feels almost too fantastical. In this, I decided to find out just who Lou was, so I checked Louis XIV, A Royal Life out of the library and had a go.

It was an interesting book (though confusing - I really needed a guide to know who all the folks in the court were). And I'll admit that after long stressful days, it rather put me to sleep. But I got through it (two days before it was due) and was able to review it in time, so that counts for something.

It was interesting to find out that Dumas was full of crap, that Fouquet was likely embezzling (and had arranged the country's finances in such a way that he was, literally, too big to fail). Turns out he wasn't - once he was tossed into the jug (or rather the Bastille), the early Louis got to work. Never again did he give away the running of his country to advisors and counselors. He ran it as if it was his own affair (which it was), holding two long meetings a day, reviewing reports and gathering intel. His wars (most of them) were carefully thought out, supplied and timetabled. His diplomatic movies were as deliberate as chess. He turned France around, filled its coffers and reduced its taxes.

He also sensed the old saying about keeping enemies closer - Versailles was arranged to keep his nobles at court under his watchful eye and not out in their provinces where they could stir up trouble. And that strategy seemed to work - unlike the Fronde (where the nobility clutched at the power of the royals, and he barely survived his mother’s regency) he kept them under control, under virtual golden lock and silver key, busy with the etiquette and gossips of court, misdirected in their efforts for a half-century. He never really had contention from them.

He also bred like a rabbit. Working his way through wives and mistresses, he managed to produce numerous offspring. He even placed a grandson on the throne of Spain (which looked rather like a mistake, but author Olivier Bernier makes a strong case that it wasn't).

Overall, a very interesting story of a very interesting man, a powerful statesman who realized what needed doing in his time and did it.

Now, pardon me while I race over to the library - got a book to return!


Last Updated on Saturday, 29 July 2017 15:05

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