San Anselmo, CA, United States | Member Since 2006
Get the picture? Tom Wolfe holds a unique place in American journalism over the past fifty years. Ever since Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, Mr. Wolfe has been writing extraordinarily over the top stories about whatever catches his fancy. IMHO, the Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full are his best works by far. His gifts are many. His ear for dialects across the country is amazing. He creates some of the most cinematic scenes that you will ever read. Much of his writing is really memorable. He has roamed around our culture and chosen some wide-ranging aspects of it, each of his books being meticulously detailed to the nth degree. Lou Diamond Phillips, BTW, is the perfect narrator for these books. He has actorly skills, but in this book he is forced to make a large number of noises that should have been edited out. Rigorously slashed.
And here lies the problem. Mr. Wolfe is now so large and iconic that editors must blanche at the sight of him. Overdoing is his trademark. There are times when this approach works beautifully. There are other times when he should turn down the volume, way way down. And he doesn't. This is a story about Miami, and about all of its various races-ethnic-cultural-artistic (see what I mean?) dimensions. It is over-reaching, but in some places it hits the mark. Nestor Camacho rescues a Haitian Immigrant from the top of a seventy foot mast, and manages to first climb up the mast with only his arms. Then he grabs the guy with his legs (oh so incredibly muscular) and crabwalks him down to the deck. By this time there is a gigantic traffic jam, newscopters, onlookers, etc. It's a very vivid scene, and it sets up many facets of the plot(s) in a gorgeous, writerly way. You can see why it takes him eight years or so to knock out these monsters. There is so much going on that, after a while, you need a scorecard to keep the players straight. There are Russian "oligarchs" (read: criminals who have stolen much of the riches of the former Soviet Union in order to flash around their wealth); Haitian immigrants and politicians; Cubans everywhere; occasionally a Jew, a WASP, an Italian, you name it. We are the melting pot, and Tom has thrown us all in, stirred, and concocted a heady stew of stuff (stop me before I start getting rhapsodical). Nestor's girlfriend at the beginning is Magdalena Otero, a naif who is so blazingly beautiful that she gets drawn into the upper echelons of Miami's richest. She works for a psychiatrist who specializes in "pornography addiction." Norman, the psychiatrist, is a shameless self-promoter and a disgusting individual in his own right. Ghislaine is a (of course) beautiful young woman, the daughter of a professor who is being forced to teach Creole, the language of the lowest of the immigrants. See how this is beginning to pile up all around you? I could go on, but I wish that Tom hadn't. By the third segment I really couldn't stand the book any more. Waaay too much of a sometimes good thing.
Where do I start here? How about with the protagonist in the book. Her name is Indiana Jackson. Have you ever in your entire life known a person of either gender whose first name is Indiana? Neither have I. A small thing, but it has the ring of false-hood.
I love Edoardo Ballerini. I have listened to about thirty books that he has read, and I've loved almost all of them. Even he can't save this mess. I gave up after four hours, which I think is a decent amount of time to judge whether I am enjoying a book or not. Not. I believe there is supposed to be a murder mystery somewhere in the book, but I heard little about that. What I heard about was a whole lot of she said-she said, and a whole lot about women who go to a lot of yoga classes, plus hydrotherapy, aroma therapy, hypnosis, and so forth. Even in the world of Ms. Allende, these are extremely pampered individuals. And, BTW, I am a psychologist, so I am not at all adverse to hearing about people's experiences in psychotherapy.
I live in the same neck of the woods as Ms. Allende, and I know that she is a major star in the world of Latinas; my wife comes from Colombia. That, combined with the chance to listen to Mr. Ballerini disposed me positively towards the book. No use. It may be the case that millions of women, and maybe a few men, love this kind of writing, but I don't. And I love murder mysteries, detective novels and thrillers: still no good. If you are a fan of Ms. Allende's, then you may well like this. As you have clearly seen by this point: I didn't.
There are a number of people who find Cormac McCarthy too violent for their tastes. It's too bad for them, IMHO, because they miss out on masterpieces like these. The plot grabs you very quickly and holds on tight. John Grady Cole, a sixteen-year-old Texan, is forced off his family's ranch due to his mother's disinterest in finances. She eventually finds her way to the stage, where she acts very small roles. John Grady leaves his hometown with his best friend Easy Rawlins, and they ride south into Mexico. I couldn't possibly give you a fair taste of the plot, but trust me. Cormac McCarthy has been called one of our finest writers, and this is perhaps his finest book. It actually is the first part of a three-book series called the Border Trilogy. McCarthy follows John Grady and Rawlins through several years of their lives, beginning with John Grady leaving home and then riding around Mexico without any direct purpose but with a taste for adventure, the need to see what is over the next mountain, and the bittersweet experience of falling in love. Along the way we meet a large cast of characters, every single one of them described so perfectly that we remember them for years. John Grady falls in love with a young woman who is the daughter of a very wealthy man. The romance is scandalous, as John Grady is light-years beneath the social status of her family. The father likes John Grady, respects him for his skills and his independence and his extraordinary knowledge of horses. However, once the man discovers that John Grady has fallen in love with his daughter, he sends her off to Mexico City, where his wife dominates the social scene; he then sends John Grady to prison, despite the fact that the young man has become his trusted foreman on the ranch. There is no real charge against him, but John Grady and Rawlins find themselves in a truly horrific prison. This is the section where the faint of heart might be stretched to their personal limits. Several thugs are hired to kill John Grady, and they make very serious attempts on his life. We meet the inmate boss of the prison, and learn of the brutal authority structure within the prison. John Grady and Rawlins find themselves in the prison infirmary, from which they are mysteriously rescued. On the streets again, John Grady is determined to find the young woman, and he does. These scenes are achingly romantic, even though we know that they will end badly for him. Nonetheless, they spend two days in a lovely small Mexican town, which is made incredibly beautiful and emotionally warm through the skills of the author. If you want to hear more of the story, it awaits you in the book. You will love it.
The readers who follow me know how I feel about Frank Muller. He was the greatest narrator who ever lived, and this book is one of his finest achievements. I have listened to this about four or five times, and I will continue to do so for years to come. His feeling for the ambience of the West is remarkable. He speaks slowly, with a perfect Texan accent. He voices all of the characters in such a masterly way that it is really hard to believe that he can call up all those voices whenever he needs them. You have to listen to him in order to appreciate the breadth of his skills. He died about ten years ago, and it was a tremendous loss. Stephen King once said that he wrote for Frank's voice. If you are interested, another Frank Muller masterpiece is John Grisham's "The Testament." A completely different book, but just as powerful a story, again told by the greatest story teller we have ever known.
I bought this book because Edoardo Ballerini reads it. I had never heard of Mr. Jansma. Now I know why I've never heard of him. His writing is the definition of boredom. I listened to three and a half hours of it, giving it the old college try, but after that I could take no more. There are a few cute scenes in it, as near the beginning when the narrator describes himself as a boy, watching an old watchmaker in an airport kiosk fixing watches. I should have stopped there. By the time I quit it, I did not care a whit about any of the characters, and I could not, or did not, follow the plot at all. It seems to be something of an F. Scott Fitzgerald wannabe. It becomes very trite very quickly, piling up all sorts of artsy, wealthy Manhattan socialites of many nationalities, all of whom meet at cocktail parties. One of them opens up the trunk of his car and finds cases of caviar, which he and the narrator eat while they sit on the car's bonnet. Whooppeeee! Your time is way more valuable than any attempt to listen to this, and there are literally thousands of books in this genre. Please don't buy it. If you do, don't say I didn't warn you. Mr. Ballerini still reigns, but you just cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
So, if my title is true, then I have to ask myself this: why did I listen to almost six hours of it? In days gone by, when in St.Louis we only had three TV channels, and you had to get up and walk over to the TV to change the channel, my mother used to love watching her "stories" when she got home from teaching school. Apparently, the apple don't fall far from the tree.
The leading review of this book is by a person who totally loves it, calling it a superb, thrilling mystery murder, or words to that effect. I do like listening to Joe Barrett's voice, even though his range of voices is not that wide. And the writing, given the genre, is not all that bad. However, after a while it just got to be too much: who is in love with whom, which couple is breaking up, who is the housewrecker, what are the toxic nature of mother-daughter relationships, isn't it sad about unrequited teenage girl/adult man love, and blah and blah and blah. I never accepted Hillary as a detective; she is just a woman who is fiercely in love with her husband and can't even consider the possibility that he might have killed one girl, not to say two of them. The book is a small-town story, where everybody knows everybody's business. I certainly have no problem with those kinds of books. I just really can't explain why I lost interest in this book pretty early, and then just sat there and listened to it for so long. I am shocked (shocked!) about it. Maybe I had a lot of time on my hands, or I was shirking some kind of responsibilities, or I don't know what. You may love this book. There's room for all kinds of opinions in this world, thank God.
Lawrence Block has become a highly prodigious writer. He gives an afterword to this audiobook which is quite explanatory and very enjoyable. He wrote the book under a surname, Paul Kavanaugh. The book is based an two serial killers, John Starkweather and Carol Fugate, who murdered a number of people in Kansas for no reason other than their severe psychopathy. I want to say that Alan Sklar's voice is beautiful, gravelly, and perfectly tuned to the characters and the plot. The male, Jimmy John, is a pure psychopath: there is absolutely no reason for killing the people that he kills. The woman, Betty, is basically taken along for the rides. Jimmy John also steals dozens of cars, in order to evade the police, who eventually catch up with him. At first Jimmy John is completely repellent. You don't ever really like him, and Betty is a cipher. However, Mr. Block and Mr. Sklar make an excellent team, and the book becomes compelling reading in spite of our complete distaste for Jimmy John. Block never makes the mistake of trying to "nicen him up," or make him sympathetic in any way. He is just a loser, and so is Betty. It happens that Terence Malick made his memorable movie "Badlands," about the Starkweather/Fugate story, and Block candidly admits the classic betrayal by the denizens of Hollywood. He obviously wishes that the book had made it to the screen, and it is quite cinematic. Malick won that contest, and Block may have been better off, as he never again wrote with half an eyeball on a movie contract. Block's tone and pitch of the plot are perfect. He keeps the suspense moving and keeps us reading. Nothing is really "explained" about either of the characters, and even though that has been the fashion of more recent crime novels, Block somehow knew that he didn't need to do it. He also didn't need to create a dogged detective in pursuit of the criminals, a style which has driven hundreds of crime series since. This was a one-off, and it is better off for it. Block's move to New York and his development of the character Bernie Rhodenbarr, the bookshop owner/detective, has really never held me in the way that this book did. You might hate this book, as the primary character is completely repellent with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. However, I found it a very enjoyable read. I do like action, although of course I like thought as well. In this book you get a whole lot of the former and very little of the latter. Don't say I didn't tell you.
In the past several weeks I have devoted about four and a half hours trying to enjoy this book. But, when you are "trying to enjoy" something, what that means is that you are not actually enjoying it at all. Maybe it's cultural, as my wife is fond of saying. You do find yourself rooting for the young Rajkumar, but there is no suspense at all in this story. Clearly he is going to grow up and marry the lovely young Dolly (I am so sure that that is not how to pronounce her name; it's just phonetics). I bought the book because I thought I might learn something about Burma, and because Simon Vance is just a really good narrator. Call me an American, which I certainly am, but the book is not friendly to an American reader, in the way that Tim Hallinan's books, which are about Thailand, certainly are written from the American viewpoint. I love his books, and I am educated as well as being entertained by them. I learn quite a bit about Thailand and about Southeast Asia from them. Tim knows how to hold his audience in the way that Amitav Ghosh does not. This week I realized that I listened to Owen Laukkenan's book "Criminal Enterprise" in its entirety while I was in the middle of struggling through this book. Not a good sign. Maybe you have to be Burmese, although that sentence sounds preposterous to me as I write it. Maybe I should just listen to the hundreds of other audiobooks that I have loved and been entertained by.
I bought this book because I love Mr. Ballerini's work, not realizing that the book itself is nothing more than a recital of the many scams worked by the villain/protagonist of the piece, Mel Weinberg. Weinberg was a psychopath who hustled millions of dollars from all kinds of people, from individuals just looking for loans to large corporations wanting a variety of services that Mr. Weinberg promised he could do for them. All of these people were cheated by Weinberg. There is no plot to the book at all. It is just a recitation of the cons worked by Weinberg. He pretended to own European banks which could lend money at below-market rates. He flew on corporate jets because he had conned the corporations. He hit small victims and big victims. He hit inventors who wanted financing for their inventions. The only time I laughed was when Mr. Ballerini mentioned an inventor who wanted to patent "a giant magnet which could be used to pick up skyscrapers and move them from one city to another. This, however, is small pickings. I cared absolutely nothing about Mr. Weinberg: there is nothing sympathetic or likable about him. I still love Mr. Ballerini's work, but, you know, silk purse and sow's ear, however that goes. Don't waste your money or your time. Spend some time on a book with interesting, sympathetic characters and a great narrator like Mr. Ballerini. There are so many great books available that I won't even mention them, except for plugging just a few of my absolute favorites: Polar Star, by Martin Cruz Smith, read by the late, incomparable Frank Muller. The Ice Limit, by those two guys, Preston and Childs, read by Scott Brick. The Testament, by John Grisham and read by Mr. Muller. Shantaram, whose author and narrator I have forgotten, forgive me, but this is a tour of India which will captivate and charm you. Et alia. Thanks for your attention.
I've read a lot of Grisham over the years. One of his books, The Testament, read by the incomparable Frank Muller, is one of my three or four all time favorite audiobooks, because it leaves the courtroom and becomes a thrilling adventure into the swamps of South America. It's also a unique love story. I heartily recommend it to any audiobook reader. It is a genuine work of genius, unlike anything Grisham has ever written before or since.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Sycamore Row. Grisham is so conscious of repeating himself here that he regularly makes reference to the prior book, in which attorney Jake Brigance defended a black man, Carl Lee Bailey, against a murder. With an all-white jury, Carl Lee was acquitted, and Jake was famous.
This book is set three years later. The plot is interesting. A wealthy white man leaves a hand-written, holographic will (I believe this is a sly reference to The Testament, Grisham's masterpiece) and then commits suicide. In the will he names Jake as his lawyer and leaves 90% of his twenty million dollar fortune to his black caretaker, a woman named Letty Lang. The small town, Clanton, Mississippi, is of course scandalized, and all hell breaks loose when the truth of the hand-written will becomes widely known.
Unfortunately, all hell may be breaking loose, but simultaneously this is the point at which Mr. Grisham retires to what he knows best, the courtroom drama. He has done so many of these by now that he can write them, figuratively speaking, in his sleep. And that's where it put me. Again, as I often do when an audiobook begins to bore me, I set it down for a few weeks and then picked it up again. It bored me again. All of the courtroom theatrics have been done to death by now, and I think that Mr. Grisham is simply responding to the pressures of the publishing world to, uh, keep crankin' 'em out. He would have been better off not publishing this book, and doing something completely different. In fact, he has done that, with a book called Calico Joe, which I have not read yet but will. Great writers often fear that they will get stuck in a rut as they get older, and for a whole lot of them, their fears are richly justified. Too much of a good thing is just too much.
Michael Beck does his usual excellent work. His mastery of the variety of Southern dialects, plus various black voices and a large cast of rednecks, good ole boys and the entire panorama of Southern womanhood: Beck is just lovely to listen to. I am sure that better material will come along for him, and when the author is cooking, Beck delivers. As for Sycamore Row, if I were you, I would skip it. If you have never read The Testament, please do. It is truly one of a kind in the Grisham library, displaying gifts that many later books lack entirely. Plus, there is Frank Muller. He may have been gone a long time by now, but his beautiful voice lives on in his amazing array of narrations. Him, you will love. I garontee it.
Martin Cruz Smith has been one of my favorite authors for a long time now. I have felt that Arkady Renko was the most brilliantly nuanced, perfectly created, utterly realistic characters in all of fiction, not just the detective/thriller novels. However, IMHO, Mr. Smith has finally run out of gas. I have tried several times to pick up this book after some weeks of leaving it alone, and it has just not held my attention. Renko now seems old and tired. The plot, which is based on the actual killing of a Russian journalist, is nonetheless scattered and rambling. Minor subplots lead us nowhere. The theme of a notebook full of coded messages which are decoded by Zhenya and his girlfriend (aha!) just does not grab me. We all know that Russian oligarchs have raped their country's natural resources in the way of brutal gangsters everywhere. Tatiana does nothing to further develop our understanding of these monsters. One of them now owns a team in the National Basketball Association! Washing your ill-gotten gains through the NBA! Brilliance in real life, but there is none of this in Tatiana. Smith's "Wolves Eat Dogs" was a true masterpiece which showed us these guys in a remarkably informative light. The sheer audacity of setting a novel in the area around Chernobyl: this kind of thing is what has endeared Mr. Smith to millions of loyal readers. Tatiana does nothing to further our love of the author and of his most important creation. The first three or four books in the Renko series (Gorky Park, Red Square, the absolutely incomparable Polar Star, Havana Bay and Wolves Eat Dogs: I guess that's five) form a tower of literary accomplishment which few authors can aspire to. There were a couple of misses (Three Stations, and now Tatiana), but I suppose that this shows us that everybody's human) which nonetheless do not detract from the whole. I have probably listened to Polar Star five or six times by now, and it is still 100% compelling and full of rich humanity. Even knowing the whole book, it still thrills me. I know I will read it again. And again.
Henry Strozier does a yeoman's work. Sadly for him, Frank Muller read three of the first books, and that is a comparison which very few authors can even think about satisfying. Actually, Edoardo Ballerini has now, again in my opinion, reached and surpassed Muller's genius at narration. Any of you who do not know Mr. Ballerini yet are in for an amazing surprise and revelation. Mr. Ballerini is responsible for my doing an absolute 180 on Robert McCammon's Matthew Corbett series. At first I was unimpressed; now I am utterly delighted by the richness and all-around virtuosity of both the writing and the narration by both of these remarkable men.
Apparently I have strayed from Tatiana. No surprise. I looked forward to this book for several years. (I actually asked his son, who works at a bookstore near us) how long it would take for this book to appear, and that was about two years ago. You might like this book more than I do. I hope so.
I think it makes sense to review all four books in this series together, but the length of such a review would parallel the length of just a chapter of one of them. Mister Slaughter, the Queen of Bedlam, Speaks the Nightbird and Providence Rider: all four of these are the adventures of Matthew Corbett, a young man in his twenties who lives and works in and around New York City at about the year 1700. There is almost no limit to the imagination of Mr. McCammon, and my feelings about the skills of Edoardo Ballerini should be obvious to anyone who has read any of my reviews of his work. I'm not sure I could have gotten through one hundred hours of listening (roughly) to anyone other than Mr. Ballerini.
What Mr. McCammon has done is tell an enormously complicated tale, with major and minor plots, characters who move in and out of the spotlight, with plot twists that often defy the logical sense, and so forth. Often I felt that Matthew must have felt something like Alice in Wonderland, because of all of the strange and weird doings all around him. Mr. McCammon will throw in an interesting character and then once we get pulled in to this person, the author just drops him or her right down through the hole in the stage floor. There are utter improbabilities piled up upon each other everywhere. The grand conceit, that Matthew is the first private detective ever, is a clever one. His dalliances with a series of women is off-putting, as the women tend to be so interesting that I wanted one of them to take up more of our time (as Susan Silverman does in the life of Spenser). We are titillated by each one of these smart beauties, and then each of them just fades away.
It is not possible to rate these books one through four, at least for me. I think you read and like the entire series, or you don't. There is a lot of explicit violence in them, but if you think about the collected group of detective stories in existence, you see a lot of explicit violence there, too. McCammon's observational powers, particularly for minor details of clothing and settings, is almost mesmerizing. If he has actually witnessed all of the places, then he is one heck of a researcher, as good as Tim Hallinan. I feel a little frustrated that I am not giving you the sense of the plots of all four of these books, but there is just too much plot for me to be able to do that in a sensible way. So, I'll say: read the first one. If you like it, then read all four. You will, like Alice, fall down into a remarkable world, one full of sense and nonsense, and unforgettable for all that.
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