The Unpleasantness of the Eccentric Detective

77604Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven’t read many mysteries. It’s not a genre that normally appeals to my escapist philosophy of fiction. Yet as a writer, I have had some interest in hiding details from my readers until the opportune moment–and besides, I try to branch out once in a while.

This book was not quite what I expected. I had heard positive things about Rex Stout’s series before, and the first in that series has certainly been intriguing, but I’m not sure I want to continue with the series. In the simplest estimations, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are only the Americanized Holmes and Watson–one an eccentric, the other a more practical man. Wolfe’s ethical shortcomings are far removed from Holmes’, of course; where Holmes frequented opium dens and held to other vices, Wolfe is something of an agoraphobe–and, based on the ending of the book, that extends beyond weakness into true character flaw.

It was probably the ending that made me lower my rating from 4 stars to 3. The grand reveal of the final few pages was not our killer–no, he had been suspected since an early chapter, and confirmed a little more than halfway through–but was instead a facet of the character of our supposed protagonist, the great detective Nero Wolfe. This was not in keeping with what I had anticipated for a mystery novel, in that all the red herrings and false leads and unimportant minutia were put aside and overcome long before the end; it was also not what I expected from a book which, presumably, should make me cheer for the character after whom the series is named.

All that to say, I found it very difficult to appreciate Nero Wolfe, especially in the final pages of the book. Not that he is not a well-written character, or a well-rounded character (no pun intended), but that I simply do not like him. That would probably be okay, since we spend far more time with Archie Goodwin than with Wolfe, if I had liked Goodwin a great deal. If, say, Goodwin had been more like Watson–honorable, of strong character, and perhaps less… American–I could be entertained by the eccentric (if unethical) detective. (Goodwin is petty and short-tempered, heavily self-interested, and a bit of a womanizer, from what I’ve read.) Instead, I read a book in which I supported the ambitions of no one, and I was sated only with the conclusion to the mystery.

At any rate, the book is well-written. It includes mannerisms and turns of phrase appropriate to its age (first published in 1934), and there are even now some typographical errors among its pages, but the characters are complex (if a little unpleasant to me) and the plot entertaining.

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Devotional Point of View and Authority

22272729My Daily Bread by Anthony J Paone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was given this book as a gift, and–in need of a daily devotional–I gave it a shot. In a lot of ways, Fr. Paone’s work here really delivers. Many of the readings are convicting and encouraging, warning and uplifting at the same time. Frequently, I set the book down, and I was enlivened to face the day with vim and vigor, to turn a phrase.

But the book was not perfect. Fr. Paone frames the book as a dialogue with Christ–a dialogue in which Christ rarely quotes Scripture, occasionally speaks in the Person of the Father, and does not always present himself in the pattern of Our Lord, according to what we know through Scripture and the Church. Through Christ as a mouthpiece, Fr. Paone encourages spiritual behavior that has widely varying levels of success, and should only be pursued under the close guidance of a wise spiritual director (such as flagellation, for example). Fr. Paone (as Christ) also grants only grudging acceptance of anyone who pursues anything less than the contemplative life; while it is true that a life wholly dedicated to God may be holier than one drawn in multiple directions by the worries of this world, that does not make the rest of us second-class citizens. After all, we are obeying God’s commands, too–to be fruitful and multiply, and to reflect the love of the Godhead through holy matrimony and devout family life.

Most of the book is just fine, but I think Fr. Paone would have done better if he had not purported to be transcribing the words of the Living Word, but only his own spiritual advice. Alternatively, he could have used Scripture passages as the basis for each prayer, showing how–through the Written Word–God does intend for us to behave in the ways that Fr. Paone has encouraged.

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The Minutia Laffite

34407The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf by William C. Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me three years to read this book. This was not a series of attempts, starting over again and again, having forgotten what I read before, but a single attempt, in which I laid the book down for months at a time and, taking it up again, resumed where I had left off.

This book was extraordinarily detailed. With those familiar with my progress in the book, I have joked that I would have found less information had I read the primary sources myself. Mr. Davis put such great effort into researching this subject, and presenting the truthful information he found, that I found it very easy to become bogged down in the minutia. The book also had a tendency to follow rabbit-trails, pursuing avenues of historical data that seemed largely irrelevant to the story of the Laffites.

On that account, the book became most exciting near the end, when documents became scarce and historical accuracy fell away, in favor of a few spare reports and a host of romantic fiction. While the details of tangentially related admiralty courts and Mexican independence movements had some bearing on the story of the Laffites, the real character of the brothers–and the adventures of their lives–seemed an afterthought. The relation of their deaths, in the next-to-last chapter, occurred mid-paragraph without any fanfare. The final chapter focused, in part, on the death of piracy in the Gulf; the remainder was about race relations in Louisiana, where Pierre Laffite’s descendants sought to deny non-white ancestry and forgot about the infamous brothers (except that they were pirates).

The summation of the brothers’ lives was both telling and, in a way, disappointing. The pirates Laffite were so careless with their money, so self-interested, and so unsuccessful (in spite of their many talents) that, according to the author, they had almost no bearing on the politics of the Gulf and, ultimately, died in poverty and failure. On the one hand, this is a reasonable warning against a life of self-interest and piracy, but on the other, it begs the question of why I should have spent three years reading about these men. (The real answer, of course, is that I should have buckled down and read through the book in a sensible amount of time, but I digress.)

If your interest in the corsairs of the Gulf is that of an academic historian, seeking more details on the politics, economics, and complexities of life in the early 19th century, then this may very well be your favorite book. For me, I appreciated the look at the realities of the last age of piracy, and I found much of the book informative, and even entertaining, there was far too much detail to keep me engaged as a reader. (Perhaps you will say that I should read a romanticized fiction of piracy that focuses on tall tales rather than real history, and perhaps you would be right, but I’m still glad to have read this book–I only wish it hadn’t taken so long.)

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An Acceptable Addition

10119993The Sable Quean by Brian Jacques

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book didn’t really take me almost three years to read. I read a couple chapters, then reread them, then finally read the book all the way through.

I had a little trouble getting into the book initially, which is uncommon for Jacques’ books (in my experience). Most of his books have great hooks, great characters, and great adventure, right from the start. The problem with this one is that it did not quite feel original enough. The Ravagers remind me of the Rapscallions. Vilaya reminds me of Tsarmina or Silth the Marlfox. Zwilt reminds me of Ferahgo. Buckler is like a cross between Rakkety Tam and Tammo. Diggs is similar to any number of hares. The troupe of hedgehogs is like the Wandering Noonvale Companions or the Rambling Rosehip Players. Stealing children to defeat Redwall is like Mattimeo.

Ultimately, there were original elements. A warrior mole was a nice touch. Sables, as creatures, had not appeared before. I just had to work harder to find them than I usually do.

This book also seemed a little more tame than others, as far as deaths for heroes are concerned. Only one (named) protagonist character was killed in the course of the book. (Of course, a couple of my favorite books are probably Martin the Warrior and The Long Patrol, so I may be biased toward killing protagonists more than most fans.)

Ultimately, it was a fine installment, but not one of the best.

Of course, I’ve only just learned that Mr. Jacques passed away three years ago, so now I feel a little bad for saying negative things.

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A Negative Review of Star Wars: Rebels

I honestly cannot comprehend all the positive reviews for the premiere of Star Wars: Rebels. Everywhere I look, folks are saying what a great triumph it was over all those pre-release haters, and how it’s the best thing since sliced bread, and it revitalizes the Star Wars universe in a way that only Dave Filoni can, and the animation was spectacular, and the writing was brilliant, and…

And I’m baffled.

Because it was none of those things. I thought the writing was bland, the voice-acting was lackluster, the plot was rushed, and the characters were cookie-cutter representations of everyone’s favorite elements (why else would we need a Mandalorian, a hairy alien, a Jedi, and a mysterious orphan who unwittingly is Force-sensitive?), and the animation is the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a 1990’s CGI animation class at the college level. The characters are as realistic and expressive as Duplos (especially the gaunt Wookiees).

Honestly, it has potential, but they really have to rein in the nonsense. They told more than they showed. (This is probably my greatest complaint.) “We have to get to Kessel, the Empire’s prison planet, and rescue the Wookiees!” (next scene) “Here we are at Kessel, rescuing the Wookiees!” How did we get to Kessel? How did we avoid Imperial patrols? How did we dodge planetary defenses, orbiting Imperial vessels, ground-based turbolasers and ion cannons? So much could have–should have–gone wrong, but it proceeded flawlessly. There were no hitches, no hiccups, en route. There were a few minor ones, easily overcome, during the actual rescue, but… they left out so much great story just by telling us that it proceeded easily. They tried to develop Ezra’s character with a monologue from Hera about being a good person. It just comes across as lazy storytelling. “You remember that time we saved the galaxy? That was great.” “How’d you do that?” “Oh, there was this really mean bad guy, and we beat him up, and saved everybody. Now you know what a great team we are.”

There was enough material in that one episode to last half a season, but they crammed it all into one episode. Why? They could have led us on with clues about Kanan’s status as a Jedi, could have given us insight into the characters, helped us develop an attachment to the people we’re watching. They could have made discovery of Kanan’s identity and Ezra’s Force sensitivity an actual plot point, instead of a foregone conclusion. Sure, that would have given us more time with just Agent Kallus and no Inquisitor, but that would have been a good thing. Imperial Intelligence is a scary bunch of people; if the Empire is the Nazi regime and Stormtroopers are stormtroopers, then I.I. is the Gestapo. People fear Imperial Intelligence. But we don’t see that; we see a moderately clever Imperial officer chase down a bunch of rebels, then hand things off to the Big Scary, the Inquisitor. If the Inquisitor were really a Big Scary, we’d have met him halfway through the season, or later, so that we have an escalation of villains and dangers. What’s above an Inquisitor in terms of personal villains? Where will we go in Season 2… or 3… or 6? What would escalate things for our heroes? We’re not likely to get James Earl Jones as a regular, after all. So instead, we’ll end up with the clumsy villains who get trounced every episode (and every season) by the heroes, resulting in a very boring show (especially long-term).

What else did they do in this jam-packed pilot? They eliminated all intra-team conflict. Zeb could have been genuine opposition for Ezra’s continued presence on the ship (basically, Star Wars: Rebels‘ Jayne Cobb), but instead, by the end of the episode, he’s practically hugging the kid. He’s sorry for being so mean, and everyone can live happily ever after. There’s no conflict between our main characters.

What’s interesting about that, you ask? Nothing.

I have not cataloged my full list of complaints about this show, but I’d need to watch it again with a pause button, a red pen, and paper (preferably in the form of a copy of the script) to get all of my objections. Like I said, it has a lot of potential, and before its release, it had a huge amount of hype and promise, and all I see is a mediocre kids’ show set in the Star Wars universe. Maybe next episode, they’ll start breaking into song while boarding the ship, so we’ll know it’s time to board the ship.