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The Case of the Substitute Face

The Case of the Substitute Face - Erle Stanley Gardner

Perry Mason seems to belong to a highly valuable (from employers’ point of view) type of people – workaholics. Despite the fact that he has a private practice and thus works for himself he really cannot enjoy life while not working. In the end of previous book his secretary managed to send him on a vacation in exotic places – along with herself. By its end the famous lawyer was desperate for a work and lucky for him work he found right on the ship upon its returning to the port of origin. A woman passenger came to him asking for an advice in a fairly complicated situation.

 

Starting from this point on the amount of red herrings thrown around was enough to keep a small group of killer whales well-fed for a year. For this reason it is really hard to say what that woman wanted from Mason while making it brief and at least partially comprehensible. I am sorry for the longish explanation that follows.

 

The woman’s name was Mrs. Newberry. She was in her second marriage with a daughter from the first one, Belle. Her current husband Carl Moar suddenly quit his job of a humble clerk in an investment company and took the family on a high-class cruise using $25,000 in hard cold cash which suddenly appeared from nowhere. May I remind you the book takes place at the time when this kind of money meant something? Add to this sudden wealth the fact that the guy took his wife’s last name for the duration of the cruise and you came to the same conclusion as his wife: he embezzled the money from his company.

 

Still with me? This is only just a very beginning. Belle was leading high-class life on the ship and as a part of it developed a crush on a guy completely out of her league – from a social standing point of view. The problem was, the guy was already in sights of a woman from his class: a spoiled entitled girl who used to get what she wants. She also happened to be on the ship and was not crazy at all about the new romance. The spoiled brat was accompanied by her father who was a president of the company Carl Moar was employee of.

 

If you managed to understand all of these, I have more. Belle happens to resemble a popular Hollywood actress and she did everything to increase the resemblance: she duplicated the actress’ hairdo, her makeup, and other things. She also made a picture with the same pose and lightning as those on the latest publicity picture of the celebrity.

Elvis Presley and his double

That picture of Belle was in her parents’ luggage, but one day Mrs. Newberry discovered the picture of her daughter was substituted for that of the original actress. This prompted her to involved Mason in her problems.

 

If you are still not confused after my explanations you deserve some kind of medal. If you are not confused and decided you know exactly how all of these facts fit together, let me assure you: you cannot be further from the truth. As I said this barely scratches the surface and later developments only complicate the plot even more.

 

Have you noticed in the modern times we somehow managed to create very special snowflakes who consider their sacred duty to be offended by literally anything and letting the whole world know about it? The type that gets their PTSD triggered by everything that does not fit their views.

A very special snowflake

Have you ever wondered where these come from? Look no further than this book: the way Belle is treated by everybody including Mason, she cannot help but becoming such.

 

By the middle of the book if you manage to recognize all the red herrings for what they are it is quite possible to figure out at least part of what is going on. This and the idea that at one point Mason possessed a fact which was not shown to readers made me lower the rating by one star from my usual one for an installment of the series. Oh, and Della Street acted really boneheaded here; she is usually much more intelligent than that.

Reading progress update: I've read 33%.

The Last Wish - Andrzej Sapkowski

A great retelling of Slavic myths/fairy tales.

The Iron Jackal

Iron Jackal - Chris Wooding

Imagine a situation which became one huge cliché in adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and thriller literature by now. Somebody asks you to steal/deliver a sealed box for a truckload of money with the condition you do not open the said box.

A mysterious box

Anybody who read more than one book in his/her life or saw a couple of summer blockbuster movies knows there is only one way to deal with the situation that guarantees a long and happy life: refuse the deal on the spot, turn away and start running. Stop only when you are on the other side of the Galaxy from the mysterious box; anywhere closer than this will not do. 

The other side of the Galaxy

 

In the series' universe there are no movies and Captain Frey of Ketty Jay does not read much - it was actually stated in this book. So he fell for the trick above and agreed to steal a box while it was transported by a train. After all, the pay was good and the job seems to be reasonably easy as there supposed to be very few guards on the train. Let me give you a slight spoiler and say that the crew of Ketty Jay succeeded while reenacting a good old Western train robbery in steampunk settings. Captain Frey being completely clueless about the dangers I mentioned above (kids, there is a big lesson here: read more) committed an ultimate sin and opened the box. To a surprise of exactly nobody his life became completely worthless at that exact moment. He spends the rest of the book in a desperate attempt to stay alive. 

 

The book remains true to the tried-and-true formula of the previous installments. The first line opens with bullets flying everywhere because Frey did something stupid. After killing a lot of innocent bystanders and the guys who just did their job the crew of Ketty Jay escapes unscratched - it seems to me this universe also happened to be a recruiting place for Stormtroopers from Star Wars: the latter guys are famous for shooting at a Death Start at blank point range and never hitting it. 

 

To continue with the familiar formula, right after getting from the initial danger Frey does something stupid even by his standards and places the entire crew into a very big (even by his standards) jeopardy. The rest of the book is spend on them trying to survive in face of overwhelming odds. 

 

On the positive side the action of the book is practically non-stop and I could not find boring parts at all. Paradoxically it feels somewhat long; some editing would be in order, but I hesitate to say which parts need to be cut out. 

 

Captain Frey was completely two-dimensional character in the first book. He became much better in the second only to play a lovesick puppy in here. In the merciful moments when he forgot about his love he just acted stupid; see above. 

 

Jez of all characters is boring. Those who know what she is would not believe me as it is almost impossible to make her such, but Chris Wooding succeed. My second-favorite cat of literature, Slag does not get too much time and is not exciting although he did become a subject of a great scientific experiment. 

A cat alwyas lands on its feet

 

Silo finally got well overdue attention and his background is fascinating. His parts are never ever boring. Doctor Malvery finally develops somewhat from a stereotypical perpetual drunkard. Both Pinn and Harkins have their moments, but nothing to write home about. I am 100% unconvinced by the given reasons why the crew put their lives in danger for their captain who is a selfish lovesick drug addict, but I will let it slide. 

 

In the end I was never bored by reading this installment, but its strict adherence to the same plot as before and the extra length killed the rating. Please do not get me wrong as I gave weaker and more boring books the same rating, but I really cannot go higher. 

Reading progress update: I've read 39%.

Iron Jackal - Chris Wooding

Frey and Co. just destroyed a lot of priceless artifacts trying to escape with their lives: business as usual.

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

I decided to read a one-book edition of the classic, just the way it was written. I will however split my discussion between three parts of it. I need to mention that I will not bother hiding any spoilers as I have trouble believing any modern person living in civilized enough parts of the world to have internet access has not read this one or at least has not seen the movies – which for all their faults were decent, but I am not talking about that abomination called the movie version of The Hobbit.

 

For the very brief synopsis of the plot I will quote Brandon Sanderson’s brilliant description from his Alcatraz series. A furry-legged British guy had to throw his uncle’s ring into a crack in the ground. As I mentioned before I hope everybody and their brother are familiar with the plot, so the only purpose this description serves is pure amusement.

 

My first time I read this I was quite young. The end of the book (I will refer to this work as a book, not a trilogy) gave me the worst book hangover I ever had before. Much later on I saw the movies and reread it. I matured and became more bitter and cynical. My initial rating of 5 stars still stands. This is a classic of epic fantasy against which all other epic fantasy works were judged up until now and will be judged in the foreseeing future.

 

There is a reason countless carbon copies of this epic exist – of different quality. Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara comes to mind immediately. It is very much arguable whether it was different enough not to be called a blatant rip-off, but the next two parts of his trilogy were different enough. What would happen if you replace Frodo with a biggest whining asshole you can think of and leave everything else intact: a guy who loves speaking in bad poetry, the Council that gave birth to the Fellowship, and the freaking ring itself? You would get Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson; it gets recommended a lot and for some reason nobody is bothered by its similarities to The Lord of the Rings. These two are just the best-known examples.

 

It would be very much unfair to call The Lord of the Rings the first work of fantasy. Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard, and others were writing what is considered fantasy today way before J.R.R. Tolkien. By the way while style of Lord Dunsany is a little hard to read in modern days, Howard’s Conan is still great. Tolkien was probably the best at world-building in fantasy rivalled only by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and it took latter 15 huge books to do.

 

To my complete surprise I found the book an easy read on my second time through. Even the dreaded endless poetry did not bother me too much and no, I did not skip over it. Tolkien’s writing style – when it does not slip into epic-ness in the third part – makes it a nice read.

 

What follows is my criticism of some occasional flows in otherwise great classic epic fantasy book. I will split it into three parts to keep some semblance of organization.

 

The Fellowship of the Ring.

I was very curious to discover that Tolkien uses goblins and orcs interchangeably. In The Hobbit Bilbo found the fateful ring in Goblin’s caves. When this story was briefly retold in The Lord of the Rings, goblins became orcs. In modern fantasy these two races are very much distinct. I always imagine goblins to be green guys on a weak side, more like bothersome troublemakers while orcs are brutes with tusks and armed for a battle.

 

Initially it took Frodo a while to get his behind moving and a because of this a lot of people complain about slow start. I was one of the complainers during my first read, but I found I like the slow-moving beginning the second time around. You will get a big picture of pastoral life in Shire to fully appreciate what would be lost to darkness.

 

Tom Bombadil gets my award for being the most pointless character ever to grace a work of fantasy. This would be the only part where the movie did better than the original source: the former skipped his parts completely. To quote one of the person who commented on this and who said it much better than I could, “The end of the world is coming and we have a character happily singing songs about himself in his small corner of Middle Earth”. Add to this his annoying habit of speaking in bad poetry and my award is entirely justified.

 

What the heck happened to Radagast? He was supposed to be a great wizard equal to both Saruman and Gandalf, however after unwittingly sending the latter to a trap he disappeared without a trace.

 

In my humble opinion this is still the best third of the whole book.

 

The Two Towers.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but I think Tolkien created the first fantasy trilogy (if you consider his big book being split in three parts by the publisher). In this case he was also the guy who created the first Middle Book of a Trilogy Syndrome case. The idea is that the first book has to have an interesting beginning of a conflict and the last book has to have an exciting conclusion which leaves the second book with the boring job of building a bridge between the two. The Two Towers clearly shows this.

 

I also do believe that the second part about Frodo and Sam being miserable can be made much shorter without any loss.

 

I have the impression that while Tolkien tried to show the tragedy of a war, he still glorifies battles if they are fought for the just cause. Much later it was Glen Cook in his Black Company who showed that war is a really dirty business, no matter what side.

 

The Return of the King.

Once again the part about the misery of Frodo and Sam can be shortened, but not to the extent as in The Two Towers. It looks like the editors were asleep at their job as much at the time the book was written as they are now.

 

Did anybody else had the impression that Gandalf the White was more useless overall than Gandalf the Grey?

 

Did you notice that Sauron never ever makes a personal appearance? Tolkien made an excellent job of creating a menacing bad guy without showing him even once.

 

This was also probably the first time an extremely annoying trope was used: take a pity of a bad guy and let him go only to have him backstab you later (Saruman). This one made an appearance countless times ever since and by now really overstayed its welcome.

 

The last line of the book is brilliant and is as a perfect ending as it could possibly be. I only found one other fantasy series which came close to this perfection: the aforementioned Black Company by Glen Cook.

 

This part is shorter as it contains numerous appendices, notes, etc. Reading them actually gave me a headache. They do contain some minimalistic info about the further fates of surviving characters. To make a long story short the mortal guys died with time. There, I saved you troubles of suffering through 200+ pages.

 

I also realized that Middle Earth is not a nice place to live as wars were raging non-stop through its long history.

 

In the conclusion I have a seemingly unrelated advice to my American friends. Do you have a tough choice in November between voting for a really bad person and an equally bad person? I will make it easy for you:

Frodo for president

Reading progress update: I've read 8%.

Iron Jackal - Chris Wooding

The Ketty Jay crew is back to the old routine: they are getting shot at. I miss the cat.

Reading progress update: I've read 61%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

The Two Towers is done. On to The Return of the King. 

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens - Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz was forcefully pushed, I mean gently persuaded by his loving relatives and friends into defending a besieged city he never saw before in his life. 

Gently Persuade

To put things into perspective, the people who are supposed to care about the guy thought it would be a good idea to send a 13-year-old boy into a city surrounded by an army of evil librarians in hopes he somehow would be able to save the day. Off he went only to discover that the situation is much worse than what everybody thought previously. 

 

Let me start with the following disclaimer: the book has one very funny part. That part was excellent; to avoid spoilers I will just mention that it involves Shakespeare. This part is the sole reason the book escaped 2.5 star rating. 

 

As you have guessed already, my complaints (or cranky rants, if you like) follow. I always hated how Brandon Sanderson breaks the fourth wall in the series. This time around these moments made up more than one half of the tale probably to hide the fact that how much has actually happened. I can almost see Sanderson saying, "Look how clever I am" while writing. Too much of anything is never good, even if it is chocolate. 

 

As any adult knows growing up sucks. If people tell otherwise, they are lying through their teeth. So there is no need to rub it in our face and this is exactly what the second half of the book does. Alcatraz grows up and this is not funny at all, this is sad; especially if you consider that this is the first time the series stopped being funny. 

Growing up sucks

 

I did find something for Alcatraz to feel better about. His father is a complete failure as one. His mother is not much better - if not worse, however as far as coldhearted mothers concerned Bastille's mother can easily compete with Alcatraz's. At least unlike the former the latter shows some signs of humanity. The former shows as much emotions as any stone of my pavement. 

 

Speaking about parents there was an interesting plot twist at the end which unfortunately was overshadowed by a use of Deux Ex Machina or something that felt like one to me. How else would you resolve an unsolvable situation without one?

 

This was bad enough to almost make me abandon the series. However considering the fact that the next book would be the series conclusion (can somebody confirm it?) and that the books are quite short I will force myself to finish the series - eventually. 

Reading progress update: I've read 63%.

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens - Brandon Sanderson After the funniest scene of the entire series nothing exciting happens.

Reading progress update: I've read 35%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien The first book is done; on to The Two Towers.

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia - Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz finally got to visit his mysterious native land. What was supposed to be a time of quiet and peace turned exciting deadly even before the poor guy stepped on the said land: his air vehicle was blown from the sky. Excitement followed the hero even when he met his (unfailingly very quirky) relatives and meddled in local politics. At least with the latter case everybody knows politics is supposed to be deadly, mystical land or not. Horror of horrors, Alcatraz might have to ask a librarian for help – this is a guy who fought them through the whole series.

 

Librarian

 

Before I say anything else I would like the say the following. This is a good book. I rated it with 3 stars, but I gave the same rating to much weaker ones. I laughed while reading it at least once and I did have a few chuckles. So why such a low rating? There are several reasons.

 

I began to feel pity for Alcatraz: a big no-no when you read a humorous book – in my opinion. Poor guy was hoping to find his parents for as long as he could remember. There is a saying, be careful what you wish for as you might get your wish fulfilled. In Alcatraz case it is very much true. His mother is evil – there is an indication in this book that she might not quite be Sauron-level evil, but still. His father is a jerk. How big is a jerk he is? Let me just say that had I been this kind of father I would have kicked myself hard between the legs. Repeatedly. While wearing steel toe boots.

Steel Toed Boots

I believe this method is the only hope of curing this kind of jerkiness.

 

My perpetual complaint about this series – breaking of the fourth wall – applies here as well. I mentioned in the last book these breaks were localized to the beginning of chapters. Here they are much shorter in the beginnings (thank God!), but also scattered all over (oh no!). I really hated most of them; they were out of place, they broke the flow of the story, and they were not amusing – most of them. “Kill them with fire!” I say.

 

In the previous installments Alcatraz infiltrated a Downtown Library and the Library of Alexandria: both are fun and evil places. His native mysterious land is kind of boring. At least I was not that impressed with it. On the positive side his newfound relatives are at least amusing. Of a special notice is his aunt whose talent is to say the most inappropriate at the moment things. Imagine her mentioning to a young woman that her fiancé (who had a misfortune of being Alcatraz aunt’s son) that the guy just recently stopped wetting his bed. No wonder Alcatraz and other people related to her try to keep the distance from their “talented” relative.

 

As I already mentioned it is a better book than my rating of it might indicate. It did not diminish (much) my wish to continue reading the series. Join the fight against evil librarians!

 

P.S. Why do knights of Crystallia strongly remind me Redshirts from Star Trek? Not as fast to be killed, but equally useless. 

RedShirts

Reading progress update: I've read 26%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Moria at last.

Reading progress update: I've read 47%.

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia - Brandon Sanderson

A furry-legged British guy had to throw his uncle's ring in a hole of in the ground. Very funny description, especially considering my current second read is The Lord of the Rings. 

Reading progress update: I've read 19%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Half of the first book (Fellowship) is done.

Reading progress update: I've read 15%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Enter Aragorn.

Reading progress update: I've read 11%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

I hate Tom Bombadil. There, I said it. I mean who would like a completely pointless guy speaking in bad poetry?

 

Something the movie has done really well: he was not in it.