The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

August 18, 2009

Still playing catch up...more overdue reviews.

I finally got around to reading one of Andrew Vachss' books, thanks to the interview of him by Craig McDonald in Rogue Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life. Vachss recently published the 18th and last novel in his Burke series, while I finished FLOOD, the first of the Burke books, now almost 25 years old. Being entirely objective about the novel, it has some flaws: a lot of movement without action, some outdated ideas about women. But in Burke, Vachss has created a memorable character. First and foremost, Burke is an urban survivor. He is all about low-profile self-protection, but manages not to become a recluse. He's nobody's idea of Superman. He's afraid to the point of paranoia. And he's no moralist or do-gooder; there aren't too many scams he can't see coming, or work if he wants to. But he also knows how the criminal justice system does and doesn't work, and when called on to help a woman bring down a child rapist and murderer, Burke will do all he can to help her but he will also make sure of his own survival. He has some interesting friends in low places to help him. I'll be reading more in the Burke series as the stark agony and realism of Vachss' focus - child abuse - means that no matter when these books were published they remain tragically, socially relevant.

Coming on the heels of Vachss' bleak tale about the search for a child killer, debut author Sophie Littlefield's A BAD DAY FOR SORRY at first seemed a bit too lighthearted for the topic of spousal abuse. Turned out though that Littlefield does treat the topic with respect, and I have no doubt at all that she is going to have a huge success with what would seem to be the first in a series. Her heroine, Stella Hardesty, is no Stephanie Plum - thank God! - but is a middle-aged, energetic woman whose own lifetime of experience with spousal abuse has led her to become the blood-chilling bane of existence for wife-beaters in her small community. In some ways, Stella is like Burke except that she doesn't pay as much attention to self-protection either as she should or as she thinks she does. Don't get me wrong, she's not as moronically defenseless as Stephanie Plum, but she does sometimes act more on impulse than judgment, and this forces the author to rely a shade too much on luck and the goodwill of law enforcement officials to mitigate the consequences of Stella's actions. But Littlefield captures the dialogue and attitudes of the small-town Midwest to perfection, and again, I think this series is going to be a big, big success for Littlefield.

36 YALTA BOULEVARD is the third book in Olen Steinhauer's series set in a post-WW2 Eastern Bloc nation. This time around the book shifts from police work to espionage, and Brano Sev, that mysterious figure from the previous books, takes front and center. As a result of a botched job in Vienna that left him with amnesia, Sev is demoted and sent to work in a factory. But even that simple statement has an astonishing amount of intrigue behind it. It's cross, double-cross, and triple-cross, as Sev tries to find the truth and still remain ideologically pure. One of the wonderful things about these books is that the author never tries to pigeonhole characters into behaving in Western ways. One may not always like his characters, one may struggle to understand their worldviews, but they are always fully developed and interesting.

9 comments:

  1. I have Steinhauer'sThe Tourist in my audiobook queue, and I'm looking forward to reading this author. I noticed that both Jen and you had A Bad Day for Sorry listed on your blogs, so I'm curious about the author--and why Stephanie Plum (a character I've heard about, but not read at all) get the reaction you mention? Good reviews, Corey. Thanks.

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  2. I have several issues with the Stephanie Plum series but the one I referred to in the post is that after 15 books in the series, Plum - a bounty hunter - still hasn't learned to defend herself and that point is used repeatedly by the author to create slapstick action sequences or occasionally even a scene where Plum is in serious jeopardy. I'm always surprised when readers of the entire series are not insulted by the static nature of a character who has endured assault, near-rape, hunted vicious killers, etc, but can't be bothered to learn even a little self-defense. For a few books, the comedy can help the reader overlook this (and other problems), but since the books all work on the same formula, the joke wears pretty thin about book five.

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  3. Oh I'm so anxious to get to A BAD DAY FOR SORRY. I've read two reviews now and am almost to her point in the reading queue, but blasted she wants to be read RIGHT NOW! LOL I agree with you Corey on Stephanie Plum, but I have to admit upfront that I tired of her antics in book 1 and never got any further. I guess I don't like women represented that way in crime fiction, especially BY women. I mean, really, who could possibly be that stupid and continue to blunder upon her targeted out outcome?

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  4. You've touched on another of my issues with the Plum series, Jen: a female author gets away with creating a character like Plum, but if a man had written that character the skies would have fallen in on him. Or if, in this modern age, Plum were a male character and was unable to commit to one relationship, that character would be spit on by women.

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  5. I just can't manage to read humorous crime novels, I don't know why. I've been meaning to read Vachss for years. Especially TWO TRAINS Running. Husband is a big Olen Steiner fan. Spies are another sub-genre that doesn't hold my attention though.

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  6. Spies aren't usually my primary interest either. Steinhauer's first two books are really murder cases, investigated by police. 36 Yalta is a spy story, no doubt about it.

    Humorous crime is hard to do, I'm sure that's why there are so few successful authors in that niche. Westlake, Hiaasen - after that the quality tapers off sharply (though I loved D Burke's THE BIG O - that was like a screwball comedy).

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  7. I met Sophie last night, Corey, and told her your comment on my blog about bracing herself for more bestsellers in her future (she only has spotty Internet access while on tour and hadn't seen it). She thought that was very kind of you to say so I thought I'd pass that along. She is a really, really nice/funny/cool person and I hope you'll get to attend one of her future signings.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your Plum issues. I have so many, I wouldn't know where to start, or maybe with: Get your damn gun out of the cookie jar when you go bounty hunting some dangerous criminal!

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  8. Thanks for passing that along, PCN.

    Yeah, that 'gun in the cookie jar' thing. How well would that go down with women if Robert Parker wrote that, do you think?

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