Monday, January 30, 2012

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Various, originally serialized in the magazine Black Mask (1930)

Michael and I have emerged from The Slide and, with 2012 well under way, it's time to kick-start the joint post series wherein I review a novel and Michael reviews its movie adaptation. Our little project began way back (*grin*) in May of 2010 and has been one of the unexpected joys of my blogging habit. My reading life has been enriched by our exchanges, which is something every avid reader appreciates. Plus, I can now boast of having acquired the skills needed for audiobooks. I remain a neophyte but my training moves along nicely.

The year did not begin with rainbows and kittens and confetti in sgwordy's circle of existence so it was a relief that we went with a title I had already read and seen (great suggestion, Michael!). And, as luck would have it, I'd already posted about this book. Since I'm going to do the copy/paste deal (with minor editing for clarity's sake) I thought I would at least spice things up by including some informative links for anyone not familiar with Dashiell Hammett or this classic private eye novel.  The first and most important link, though, is:

I found this bio to be thorough and interesting. From the same website, some info on the book. This bio [ETA: no longer exists] is a little shorter if you're in a hurry. This link has a list of, I think, Hammett's short stories and then various analyses/comments on his plots and novels. And now, for my two cents.

It very well could be that I had a This Is Spinal Tap experience with Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. After a couple Behind the Music marathons the brilliance of This is Spinal Tap is slightly overshadowed by the real thing. Of course I laughed and enjoyed it (seriously, how can you not laugh at the tiny bread? don't remember the tiny bread? click here) but I obviously didn't see it at the right time. We've all experienced this, right? You were so excited but then it turns out you saw/read something after the hype or after the right age has completely passed you by? Well, anyway, this might be the case with me and this book. But how about a synopsis first...

San Francisco PI, Sam Spade, is hired by Brigid O'Shaughnessy to help reunite her with her sister. Brigid is pretty sure her sister is kickin' it with a bad man and she'd like help getting her sister away from him. This is all lies, of course, and after the death of his partner Spade becomes embroiled in recovering a stolen statue (see title). Just who stole the statue and who is its rightful owner depends entirely on who is telling the story.

I have to say right up front that my favorite thing about this book was that it was in the 3rd person. My little heart just pitter pattered with love and appreciation when I saw that. It's not that I mind 1st person that much but that my recent mystery/crime/thrillers had mostly been 1st person and I was getting sick of that perspective. So huzzah and hooray for a different perspective whilst solving a mystery. Irrelevant side note: I felt the book had no rhythm. This might seem an odd statement but as a speed reader I'm extremely sensitive to rhythm in books. No rhythm = very difficult to speed read. What I can't say for sure is whether I need the rhythm to fit my brain or if books simply have natural rhythms that I pick up on. It may be a little of both, though, because often enough I come by books (most recently Mrs. Dalloway [Woolf]) and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death [Huston]) that take me 3-4 chapters to find their rhythm. Only after I've found it, am I able to speed read (note: I don't always speed read but I'm irrationally put out if the option is taken away:). Anyway, noticing this rhythm thing got me to thinking about what exactly might remove rhythm from a book and my best guess for this book is that it was due to the odd way in which Hammett described action.

Hammett doesn't exactly take short cuts when describing action. In fact, I'm hard pressed to recall if the word "punch" was ever used, though certainly several punches were thrown. He has a very distinct style in that he takes you practically step-by-step through the action. A condensed example:
Spade pushed Cairo gently aside and drove his left fist against the boy's chin. The boy's head snapped back as far as it could while his arms were held, and then came forward...Spade drove his right fist against the boy's chin. Cairo dropped the boy's arm, letting him collapse against Gutman's great round belly. Cairo sprang at Spade, clawing at his face with the curved stiff fingers of both hands. Spade blew his breath out and pushed the Levantine away...Spade stopped him with both palms held out on long rigid arms against his face.

There's nothing at all wrong with the style but much of the info listed I can perfectly imagine on my own and, frankly, would assume: heads snapping when punched, stiff fingers when scratching, it would obviously take rigid arms to stop someone in that way, etc. Again, nothing wrong with it, it's just that, for me, it resulted in a lack of rhythm. And also, it gave the action a stop-motion quality. Since each step was detailed my brain imagined everything happening much slower than it would in reality.

I liked the twists and turns of the plot but felt it was a tad bogged down in the info-dumping dialogue used to explain it. Also [spoilerish: highlight if interested], why the fuck did Effie and Sam trust Brigid even a little bit. I spent the whole book just waiting for her crumbumness to become known. My favorite character was probably Gutman because he made me laugh and was surprisingly pragmatic. Speaking of characters/characterization I especially liked how it was established that Spade has no idea how to relate to women in a non-sexual manner. I preferred that to many of my experiences with leading men who inevitably end up in the sack with the leading lady because it was more to do with Spade's social adjustment (or lack thereof depending on perspective) than Leading Man Sees Leading Lady, Must Humpty Hump Right Damn Now. I will refrain from any other gender relation explorations as possibly is unfair to judge a book that is ~80 years old in this manner.

From these comments are you getting my whole This Is Spinal Tap experience thing?

I liked the book well enough though not so much that I will run right out and get more Hammett or even recommend him to anyone. I am interested in The Thin Man though so will probably look out for it sometime in the future. But again, no rushing from me. [editor's note: how true, over a year later and i still haven't read this]

There are a lot of great lines in the book and I'm going to leave you with my two faves:
Gutman: "...but we were talking then. This is actual money, genuine coin of the realm, sir. With a dollar of this you can buy more than with ten dollars of talk."

Spade: "That's the trick, from my side," he said, "to make my play strong enough that it ties you up, but yet not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment."

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Powder of Love by Summer Devon

(review format shamelessly ripped off from Apprentice Writer)

Author: Summer Devon
Publisher: Loose Id (2011)

Premise: An unexpected and exotic inheritance creates an unlikely partnership, and the sparks fly almost immediately.

Cover: Title - Oh my gosh! I love it! I am such a sucker for puns and I should be above being so tickled by this small bit of word play but I am not. Art - I prefer illustration to live models but the bonus here is that the cover didn't bother me and the models so often do. I like the period buildings in the back and the artfully arranged desktop. In any case, it's a tasteful cover and clearly a romance. Truth in advertising is always nice.

What works:
Rosalie and Gideon are extremely likable. I rooted for them both right away and their immediate attraction was something I believed. Walter cracked me up and, no matter how perverse his interests, I never really had it in me to dislike him. Plus, I enjoyed his teasing manner with Gideon, and because I didn't have Gideon's job I never had to be overly annoyed with him. Rosalie has a companion and she gets a romance story, too, which I loved because the whole scenario was as adorable as a basket of kittens.

It's funny. There were some moments when I was definitely giggling along with Rosalie:

...but then she recalled Mr. Dorsey, who'd obviously opened the box and overcome its influence. For a horrifying moment, she imagined him in an aroused state similar to this, but pushed the image out of her mind.

Trust me, after a scene with Mr. Dorsey you're going to be horrified, too, and laughing at Rosalie having to deal with this mental image.

Then there are the perceptive things that Rosalie will say:

"I am not prone to caring for the good opinions of others. It's such a restful thing to go along with one's own judgment and not seek the approval of others."

What doesn't:
The action/dialogue did not always feel as if it served the plot but that it served to get some more hanky panky going on. Now, I believe that is the point of books under this publisher but I would have liked it a bit more had the sequences been more of a result of actions of the characters rather than it feeling like the characters simply needed to move on to reach the next hanky panky.

I never once had any doubt that Rosalie and Gideon would get together. This might seem like a stupid comment because that is always the guarantee in a romance but, for me, the best stories have that moment of doubt. I don't mean That Thing that happens Just Before the End to keep our lovers apart right after it seems their HEA is on the horizon but a true moment where I think, "Oh shit! Is this not going to work out?"

Lastly, and this is nitpicky, there were a couple things that made the scientist in me go, "Wait a minute!" When Rosalie takes the powder to a researcher she wants to see his lab to ensure that he's well-equipped to work with it. She knows that simple inhalation is all that is needed for a reaction to occur (and this powder has quite the range and is speedy, too, in the air) but doesn't insist that he wear some kind of mask and is actually pretty close to it herself. Woops! The density of the powder also made me go, "Eh?" There's a point when 10 grams of powder is missing. My mind immediately imagines 10 grams of a powdery substance that is light enough that it will immediately go airborne thus becoming an inhalation risk. My mind chose Agarose and 10 grams of that would probably cover a playing card and be about at least quarter of an inch high. but then, whoops, "the powder is dense, heavy. So that's probably about the size of, say, half a pea." Then my mind got to wondering if the doctor would have even used grams during this time period, New York 1880 (I know, picking nits... what can I say? When I start down a science path my mind gets going). A quick search tells me that the Metric Act of 1866 made it legal to use the metric system in the US but that the US didn't receive measurement standards until 1889. I can't really say for sure, though I'd really like to know as the history of scientific research is really interesting to me, but I'm inclined to think he wouldn't have used metric. Can anyone settle this for me?

Easy to like characters and a story that fulfills the needs of a publisher leaning towards the erotic make this a very palatable read for anyone looking out for this type of romance. Bonus: it might be termed erotic light so it could be a "gateway" for anyone looking to explore erotic romances. Don't be intimidated by Loose Id's disclaimer... I can't find a link straight to it and I don't want to copy it out but this freaking awesome disclaimer includes "do not try any new sexual practice... without the guidance of an experienced practitioner." I wonder if they have any "experienced practitioners" to recommend to me. ;-)

This book kindly provided by the author
This blogger kindly asks the author to forgive her for taking a geologic age to post a review

Monday, January 16, 2012

More Linky Love

ETA: More on this topic.

Shannon Hale makes a very good point in this post.

To it, I would add that another limitation of only teaching classics is that the classics mentioned in the article (and almost all of the classics I was ever assigned to read) are entirely of Greek/Latin and European origin. It's a wide, wide world and more people might be interested in classics if the accepted list was more reflective of that wide world.

Also, could that guy be more snobbish? Jeez!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011 Favorites

Favorite fiction: Three-way tie!
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Shibumi by Trevanian

Favorite non-fiction: Three-way tie!
Dark Alliance by Gary Webb
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Favorite mystery/thriller: Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbot
This literally came down to about five books because I practically stopped reading mystery/thrillers in Feb. This cannot be explained after a mys/thriller glom in 2010. I even meant to participate in a mystery reading challenge and, well, that didn't actually happen...

Favorite historical fiction: Roots by Alex Haley

Favorite fantasy: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
This was also a sparse fantasy year.

Favorite Sci-fi: Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

Favorite Romance: Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

Surprise hit: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonagel

Surprise blunder: Tie!
The Calculus Diaries by Jennifer Ouellete
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Favorite author discovered in 2011: Trevanian

Most re-read book first read in 2011: A couple Georgette Heyer books go here. They're short, cute, and comforting when I read a couple duds in a row or a book that leaves me emotionally wrung out.

Most recommended and recommendation actually taken: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Most recommended books I wish people would have read but usually didn't:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Dark Alliance by Gary Webb
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonagel

And since I do occasionally do something other than read...

Favorite - Brokeback Mountain*
Surprise hit - Love and Other Drugs
Surprise blunder - 30 Minutes or Less and Source Code
*I know this is sort of cheating but I didn't watch it until 2011 so it was new to me. Also, I don't think I saw anything in 2011 that I was truly excited about
(I do actually watch films that do not star Jake Gyllenhaal)

Video games:
Favorite - Resident Evil: 4 (Leon is back!)
Surprise hit - Brickbreaker (which made getting rid of my Blackberry so very sad)
Surprise blunder - Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (but, of course, I still loved it even if I didn't love it - yeah, I can't explain it either)

Past Editions: 
2010 Favorites

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Technical Topic - Narrative Non-fiction

This is a great interview of Rebecca Skloot with its main topic being structure. Very interesting stuff.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Things Fall Apart

IF by Rudyard Kipling

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Of course I am a woman and a daughter but the sentiment remains. Whenever I don't feel grown up enough for life, this poem makes me feel better.

This New Year I have had reason to give thanks for my many blessings. Well, I have reason every year and every day but every once in a while something happens to bring home to me how lucky I am. It just happened to be around the holidays this year. I wish peace and happiness were as easy to dole out as words and blog posts.

I hope you, too, can give thanks for your blessings. And if, perhaps, you or someone you know is going through a hard time please accept the peace and happiness I am so desperately wanting to share with those that need it. Things can fall apart so quickly.