The Dresden Files #10: Small Favor by Jim Butcher

Read: 21 December, 2014

The Summer Court is sending Gruffs (remember the billy goats? Yeah, those gruffs) after Harry, the Winter Court is sending Hobs, and Marcone has been kidnapped. All this results in a rather complicated (and dangerous!) affair that reveals a lot more about the Fallen and the Heaven/Hell conflict.

The last couple books seem to have been setting up the character pasts, with little more than vague hints about the overarching plot. Here, the characters are established and we appear to be moving into the big reveal.

I like Sanya quite a bit, and was glad to see him make an appearance. I also liked getting a bit more backstory about him – particularly with regards to being a black man growing up in Russia.

Fidelacchius finally became important again, as Harry tries to find a new owner for it. (SPOILERS: I was concerned that Dresden was going to end up becoming a Knight, in addition to being a Warden and everything else. It would have just been so Mary Sue-ish. I kept hoping that Murphy would take it up instead, and was very glad when she was chosen. I was even more glad when she refused it, and gave a perfectly character-consistent reason. I’m still hoping that she’ll become the new Knight eventually (particularly given how Fidelacchius seems to match Murphy’s style of sword), but I’m glad that she didn’t just take it up right away. That would have been very un-Murphy.)

Overall, a solid addition to the series and I’m looking forward to reading the next!

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The Dresden Files #8: Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

Read: 30 September, 2014

The tone is set when Dresden attends the trial of a sixteen year old boy accused of dark magic. The kid had stumbled into mind control without knowing the laws of magic, and now the White Council can only make one choice: the penalty for breaking the laws of magic is death. As Dresden leaves the trial, the Gatekeeper gives him a cryptic warning of dark magic being used in Chicago.

The first few books in the series were pretty campy, trying to be Noir and coming off more like the hammy versions of the genre. The last few books, certainly since Blood Rites, have felt a little like place-holders. Very little actually happens in Blood Rites, making the book feel more like just a vehicle for the big reveal at the end. Dead Beat had a lot more going on, but still seemed to be trying to get through a load of exposition.

Proven Guilty had some of the same feel to it, and we learn a great deal of background about the “Dresden Pack.” We also see quite a bit of pay off in Dresden’s character development as he deals with his strained relationship with the Carpenters, his connection to the fallen angel Lasciel, his “will they, won’t they” relationship with Murphy, his feelings about Ebenezar, and, of course, his rather difficult relationship with the White Council.

There were several difficult issues tackled in the book, perhaps the biggest being Molly, the Carpenters’ seventeen year old, having a crush on Dresden. While I understand that it’s a situation many would rather not read about, and I see several reviews calling Butcher some variation of “creep” for writing about it, I actually quite appreciated it. The fact is that this situation happens, and it happens a lot to young girls who have troubled relationships with their families (and are therefore already vulnerable in all sorts of ways). Acknowledging that the older man might be tempted, that the refusal might be difficult, just added realism to scene. Throughout, Dresden modeled the (mostly) appropriate course of action for the older man to take – he refuses, he sets explicit boundaries, and he never ever takes advantage of the situation (except, of course, for the impromptu lesson involving an ice bucket challenge).

I also appreciated how Dresden and Murphy handled their feelings for each other. While certainly not ending the “will they, won’t they” subplot, I was pleased to see them talking out their feelings and options like mature adults. Dresden also gains a new understanding of his mentor, Ebenezar, and begins the process of repairing their relationship. All in all, Dresden grows up a lot in this book, and seems set on a good course to repair all the damage that came to the fore in Dead Beat.

That said, there was a little “plot critical” silliness. The events of the book circle around a horror movie convention: SplatterCon!!! Yet despite two separate incidents that, collectively, led to several deaths and hospitalizations, it’s just assumed that the con will continue. Never is the possibility of cancelling the rest of the event seriously considered. I can understand continuing on after an incident that left an old man beaten up in a bathroom, but once someone dies, it almost seems in poor taste to keep on celebrating horror movies.

Butcher has gotten much better at setting up tricks that will come in handy later in the book. Early on in the series, Dresden would pick a few potions to make, seemingly out of a hat, only to find that they happen to be the exact potions that he needs. It was a little silly. Here, however, Little Chicago is introduced early on, but it’s given a firmly plausible purpose, even if it happens to be exactly what Dresden needs later on. There’s also some teasing, where Dresden thinks that he will need it, but then doesn’t, then later does for a different reason.

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The Dresden Files #7: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Read: 9 September, 2014

The main mystery of the book involves the surviving apprentices of one evil necromancer, and the search for a book that could give them god-like powers. But, as seems to be more and more the case as we make our way through the series, the real story is the cumulative effect of Harry’s choices coming back to bite him. On the seventh book now, there have been more than a few.

While Blood Rites felt a bit like a character exhibition placeholder – where much was revealed but the book itself felt thin – Dead Beat made all that gathered information feel like it mattered. It’s also the first time that I really got the sense that Harry is changing, and not just in the sense that he’s getting more powerful. He’s also becoming more corrupted, and more vulnerable to pushes from the baddies (psychologically speaking).

I’m interested to see where this all goes!

Best line: “Polka will never die!”

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The Dresden Files #6: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Read: 14 July, 2014

Thomas the White Court vampire makes a reappearance when he asks Dresden to help protect a porn movie director from a dangerous entropy curse. Meanwhile, Mavra of the Black Court vampires has returned, and she’s out to kill Dresden.

After the last few books, it was nice to see Harry move away from the “save the world from imminent destruction” plotline and instead focus on the “save Harry from imminent destruction” model. There are only so many times in a row that I can keep up my suspension of disbelief in the face of world destruction that can only be averted by one person.

Unfortunately, the Mavra subplot felt a little tacked on. I think Butcher felt it was necessary to pad out a central plot that really didn’t have too much substance to it (readers – and even Dresden himself – immediately suspect the correct baddies) and as an excuse to bring in Ebenezer to speak to the personal reveals that occur in the book, but the plot itself does very little. Harry is attacked, he fends off his initial attacker, decides to go on the offensive, does so, kills the baddie, oops but did he really? So, in the end, Mavra came and went with no impact in the story (except for an injury that may or may not be important later in subsequent books, and a couple of reveals that really could have been made through other means).

The personal reveals are clichés, but Butcher handles them well by doing the literary equivalent of having large neon signs on them reading: “Hey, look, a cliché! Right here! Isn’t this just sooo trite? Haha!” It works. Over and over again, I reached for a grown and pulled out a chuckle instead.

The series is getting more interesting now that there is an expanded cast of characters, and they’re all amassing a fair bit of depth. This book, in particular, felt like a pause in the action to focus on moving character arcs forward. Unfortunately, both major plotlines felt forced, coming into play just so that Harry can have his big personal reveals. Even so, and even with the occasional sloppiness (how many breakfasts does Harry need in one day?), it was a fun read.

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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Read: 11 July, 2014

When I was a kid, I watched the usual fare of The Little MermaidThe Last Unicorn, and other The Adjective Noun cartoons. But perhaps less usual, I absolutely loved old detective movies. I just gobbled them up! The Maltese FalconThe Big Sleep, and The Thin Man were three of my absolute favourites (and, to date, I think I’ve seen The Thin Man at least 50 times). So when I found a copy of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon at a garage sale, I knew I had to read it.

And it’s pretty close to the movie. Really close to the movie.

Hammett’s dialogue is fantastic and full of character, so it’s very easy to tell who is speaking even without added signifiers. Gutman, in particular, was fantastic. It made me appreciate how good the casting was in the movie version.

Some aspects are dated (or ought to be, but that’s a rant for another day). The frequent references to Gutman’s fat, for example, or Cairo’s homosexuality (something that I hadn’t picked up on in the movie version for some strange reason, though in retrospect it’s quite clearly there, too).

The romance is just as gag-worthy. Man meets woman, man knows woman for a handful of days during which she doesn’t do much except lie to him and rather obviously try to manipulate him, man falls so deeply in love with woman that he vows to wait for her while she serves her 20 year jail sentence. I mean, really? Couldn’t the love angle just be dropped? Or is it just meant to highlight what a tough cookie Spade is that he can be head-over-heels in love and still turn her in? Either way, it was the only aspect of the story that I felt was bungled.

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The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

Read: 15 January, 2013

After getting injured on the job, Joe Cashin leaves Melbourne Homicide for a post in his rural home town while he recovers. While he deals with some family tragedies, the trauma of his last Homicide case, and the politics and racism of his new environment, he investigates the brutal murder of the town’s wealthy hero, Charles Burgoyne.

I really enjoyed this book! It takes a long time for it to really get into the mystery, but that time is well spent on establishing Cashin’s character and the various factions that make up the town. Once the mystery starts in earnest, the red herrings and plot twists are expertly handled, such that I really felt taken along all the false roads with no cheating.

Race plays a fairly significant part in this story, as the murder is cast as rich white guy brutalized and killed by thieving aboriginal kids. This leads to an overt conflict between  the white side of town and the slums. I found the question of race to be deftly handled. It’s explicit in parts, but never gets browbeating.

The story has a strong Australianity. The slang peppering the story is an obvious example, as are the descriptions of the town – Port Monro – and nearby Melbourne. I’ve never been to Australia, so I’m probably a poor judge, but I feel like Temple really nailed that “sense of place” aspect. And I, for one, will be adding “spaggy bol” to my vocabulary!

Cashin is a very interesting character. In fact, I think it could be argued that the book is far more about him and his journey to come to terms with the past (both his on-the-job injury and his family history) than it is about the murder of Burgoyne.

The writing style is fantastic, with great use of imagery and metaphors. The dialogue is very snappy and funny, and Cashin is pretty much the master of sarcasm. I think it’s fair to say that Temple does something special with the detective mystery genre in Broken Shore, and I highly recommend giving it a try!

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Inspector Montalbano #3: The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri

Read: 26 November, 2012

I was introduced to Inspector Montalbano on a trip to visit my dad, who has lately been burning through the series and couldn’t stop raving about it. While I was there, we watched a couple of the TV shows, and then dad sent me The Snack Thief as a birthday present.

I can be quite picky about mysteries. I find that too often they rely on withholding information or on giving the characters absurd ideas or quasi-psychic insight to reach the correct conclusions, and that’s frustrating because it makes me feel lectured to, rather than an active participant in the solving efforts. The Snack Thief handled this perfectly – all the information is presented to the reader as it’s discovered, and any withheld information had good reasons for being withheld. When Montalbano thought that the answer lay in one direction, it’s what I would have guessed as well. When he was wrong, I was wrong too, and not frantically yelling at him to just please think about Clue X.

The characters are fantastic – they are all, truly, characters, with very amusing quirks and details. Even small side characters aren’t spared the gift of personality. While it may seem like an odd comparison, it reminded me somewhat of A Song of Ice and Fire, except, of course, that the quirks and details were funny rather than depressing and horrifying.

I highly recommend this book and, more broadly, the Inspector Montalbano series. It’s a quick read, easily finished in an afternoon, but it isn’t fluff, and it’s hilarious. My only advice would be not to read it on an empty stomach!

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