Blogging for Books: The Ballad of the Small Player


I squandered my spring break by thinking about all the packing I’ll have to do if we end up moving in June (you may need to stay tuned for a big announcement, you may not. Life is great like that). Now it’s the first day of my third term of grad school, I’m not quite halfway done but I’m getting there and it feels so good to be making progress. Something that I really appreciate about Drexel is that they very clearly lay out what classes you are supposed to take, making planning so easy to visualize (something that is truly relaxing to me).

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Empire finale. I lead an exciting life, folks.


You know who else leads an exciting life? Not the main character in The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne.

I mentioned in my previous Blogging for Books review that I was trying to stay away from Western-Focused books written by white men. This book is a success if you really stretch my to meet my criteria. It’s by a white dude, about a white dude, but it’s set in Macau so I gave myself points for that. You are given a limited selection to chose from, so you need to make do with what you can get.

What does the publisher have to say about this book?

“As night falls on Macau and the neon signs that line the rain-slick streets come alive, Doyle – “Lord Doyle” to his fellow players – descends into his casino of choice to try his luck at the baccarat tables that are the anchor of his current existence. A corrupt English lawyer who has escaped prosecution by fleeing to the East, Doyle spends his nights drinking and gambling and his days sleeping off his excesses, continually haunted by his past. Taking refuge in a series of louche and dimly lit hotels, he watches his fortune rise and fall as the cards decide his fate.
In a moment of crisis he meets Dao-Ming, an enigmatic Chinese woman who appears to be a denizen of the casinos just like himself, and seems to offer him salvation in the form of both money and love. But as Doyle attempts to make a rare and true connection, all that he accepts as reality seems to be slipping from his grasp. 
Resonant of classics by Dostoevsky and Graham Greene, The Ballad of a Small Player is a timeless tale steeped in eerie suspense and rich atmosphere.”

Osborne is a perfectly competent writer. I have read some really boring books where the prose was just too dense, or too sparse, or whatever. Not here. Osborne is competent and knows his way around writing. And Osborne seems like an incredibly interesting person. His author bio on Random House reads: “Lawrence Osborne is the author of one previous novel, Ania Malina, and six books of nonfiction, including the memoir Bangkok Days. His journalism and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Newsweek, Forbes, Tin House, Harper’s,Conde Nast Traveler, and many other publications. Osborne has led a nomadic life, residing for years in France, Italy, Morocco, the United States, Mexico, and Thailand. He currently lives in Istanbul.”

Unfortunately, this book is still dull.

Set in the casinos of Macau (and Hong Kong? I think?), Small Player follows Lord Doyle, a Grade A scumbag with a gambling addiction and Dao Ming, the hooker with a heart of gold.

Doyle’s hit it rich by siphoning money from an old woman, a client from his former lawyer days, back in England. He faces no consequences for these actions, unless you count his bad luck. He squanders all his money, runs into Dao Ming (who he meets at the very beginning of the book) and she manages  to pay off his debts and save him from deportation, and then I skipped from chapter 17 to chapter 19 because nothing was happening, and then from chapter 19 to 21 (the final chapter) because still nothing was happening and then I counted the book as read. Pretty much nothing happens. Lord Doyle squanders his fortune, he begs some money off of another gambling addict, Dao Ming swoops in and saves the day, the he wins all his money back but misses out on true love or something. Supposedly the supernatural is involved (per the book jacket) but all I could count was the constant references to luck.

In order to enjoy a book, I have to like a characters. This doesn’t mean I think the characters should be “likeable”, I don’t need to want every character to be my bff, but I need to enjoy their presence. The best example of this feeling that I can give is the villains in the Redwall series. These villains are bad, they are evil, they are despicable, they deserve everything that is handed for them and I cheer when they are brought to their knees. But I still love them. Chapters from the villain’s POV are incredible and just as enthralling as the rest of the book, I may welcome their demise but I love to see them try and fail to enact their dastardly plans. I don’t like the characters in the sense that I support their cause or actions, or want to be friends with them but I like reading about them because they are developed, motivated, and exciting. Lord Doyle and Dao Ming are neither of these thing. Grandma is the most exciting character in the book but she doesn’t feature prominently at all.

Maybe I am just not the right audience for this book. I’ve been in casinos and I even won big once*. I don’t find casinos that exciting. They’re loud, flashy, and overstimulating and really kind of sad in a weird way as everyone is so isolated and so unaware of their surroundings. But I thought a gambling addict hitting rock bottom could be interesting. I thought Macau could be an intriguing setting. I thought a lot of things, but this book was just dull.

Unless casinos or disgraced Englishmen are your fetish, I do not recommend The Ballad of the Small Player. 2 out of 5  stars.

*$12.50 at a slot machine. 50 cents of pure profit, baby!.

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


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