Friday, June 14, 2019

Review: The Shameless

The Shameless The Shameless by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

A spray-tanned sack of crap is about to win a major election because he’s very good at firing up rubes with promises of returning to a time that never really existed, and even when his shady connections and criminal history are exposed all he has to do is claim that it’s all lies by the media to get his loyal followers to ignore the stories.

You know, I usually read crime fiction to escape reality...

Quinn Colson has been the sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, for almost ten years now, but things aren’t getting any easier for him. The rise of a populist candidate for governor who wants to turn back the clock has excited a whole bunch of deplorable people who feel emboldened to act like even bigger assholes than usual. The candidate also has ties to the Dixie Mafia, and that relationship has caused an internal power struggle in the organization which reaches all the way to the lady running the local strip club. Meanwhile, a couple of podcasters from New York have come to Tibbehah to dig into the mysterious death of a high school boy twenty years earlier. That has personal connections to Quinn because his late uncle, the sheriff at the time, declared the boy’s death a suicide to the satisfaction of no one, and Quinn’s new wife was dating the kid when he died.

This series started with a fairly simple hook of a war hero returning to his hometown and trying to stop the crime and corruption he finds there. However, that summary makes it sound like this is a bunch of books about a bad ass action hero going lone wolf and taking the law into his own hands, and that’s just not the case. While Quinn is definitely a guy who can take care of himself in a fight, the solution is never just a matter of shooting the bad guys. Quinn respects the law and due process even if the people in power around him often don’t, and so the books aren’t just the fantasy of a good guy with a gun being the answer to everyone’s problem.

Another thing is that even though the series revolves around Quinn this is not just his story. Over the course of nine books Ace Atkins has built up the population of Tibbehah County to the point where we’ve spent as much time with Quinn’s family, friends, and enemies as we do with him. By building up every aspect of his fictional county and all of its characters Atkins has made the story about much more than just one sheriff in a small rural community.

That really pays off in this one because Tibbehah is clearly supposed to be a microcosm of America, and it’s obvious who the crooked political candidate is standing in for. The book displays how the promise of preserving traditions and culture as well as returning to some imagined glory days is just racist code used by rich old white men to try and keep their power. It’s also easy to see that as a former journalist Atkins is angry how the media has been smeared to give the faithful an excuse to turn a blind eye to crimes and horrible behavior.

The podcast subplot provides another interesting angle on the media aspect. The two young ladies seem like responsible and decent people who genuinely want to expose the truth about a hidden crime. However, they’re also looking for a good story, and they're just a little too eager to jump on a juicy theory once it presents itself. Again, this seems to be a veteran journalist doing some commentary about how facts are important, but but the context and agenda of who is presenting them also needs to be considered. That's a very valid point at a time when true crime stories are being picked over and analyzed by podcasts and internet sleuths.

This one also ends on a cliff-hanger and most definitely seems like part one of a larger story. There’s always been some on-going threads from book to book that have built up a larger story in this series, but generally we also get a self-contained storyline as well. This time not much is resolved, but I’ll be counting the days until we find out what happens next.

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Review: Blood Relations

Blood Relations Blood Relations by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from the publisher for review.

Lee Crowe is the kind of private investigator who isn’t above taking a shady job from a defense attorney as part of an effort to intimidate a federal witness. While working on that project he comes across the body of a wealthy young Claire Gravesend who fell from a roof and smashed into a Rolls Royce.

Damn, but the rich even get to die in luxury.

Claire had been acting oddly before dropping out of sight. The police are calling it a suicide, but her mother isn’t convinced and hires Lee to find out the truth. Investigating Claire quickly proves to be dangerous business, and when Lee makes a shocking discovery things really start getting weird.

One of the things I loved about this one is that we start with what seems to be a gritty neo-noir tale about a morally ambiguous private detective, and that’s the thread that’s maintained even when the story starts shifting into other territory. While there are elements of other genres brought in, the style and themes are constant throughout the book.

That really works because the main draw here is the character of Crowe who we eventually learn is a disgraced former lawyer who was once on the doorstep of real wealth and power, but he lost it all once his well-connected wife got bored with him. Now Crowe seems to have few lines he won’t cross like after discovering Claire’s body he takes a picture and sells it to a tabloid for a nice payday.

Despite apparently having no moral code we see throughout the book that Crowe is more complex than a guy willing to do any dirty job for money. Having once had a glimpse behind the curtain of privilege to see how rigged the game is he has no compunction about cheating himself. Even as he’s willing to work for the benefit of the wealthy there’s also resentment simmering in the background, and once he starts learning the truth about Claire Gravesend he’s capable of outrage and wanting to see some justice done.

Jonathan Moore has very quickly become one of my favorite writers, and I think this is his best one yet. There’s some very slick genre fusion going on here along with good character work, and the plot makes it a compulsive page turner. But I think the most impressive thing is how he creates an almost dreamlike atmosphere at times, and yet also blend that with much more grounded elements. This is most definitely a hard boiled crime novel in tone, but there are also scenes that would be right at home in a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick movie. It’s an intriguing mix.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’d also highly recommend all these other ones by Moore:

The Poison Artist
The Dark Room
The Night Market
Close Reach

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Review: The Devil's Code

The Devil's Code The Devil's Code by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kidd returns home from a fishing trip and immediately gets bad news. One of his hacking buddies was recently killed in Dallas while supposedly breaking into a software company that does a lot of cybersecurity work for the U.S. government. At the same time feds start a massive crackdown looking for a group of hackers going by the name of Firewall, and Kidd’s name is on the list along with several other friends of his even though they aren’t part of any organized group.

Fearing that they’re being set up to take the fall for some kind of shenanigans, Kidd recruits professional burglar LuEllen to help figure out how his dead friend is connected to Firewall through their usual methods of hacking and breaking into places to get information. As the pressure increases Kidd finds himself living like a fugitive as he tries to find a way to get the government to lay off the hackers.

This is another solid story featuring Kidd and LuEllen from Sandford, and they continue to be the kind of criminals that you really hope get away with it. There’s the usual clever scams and schemes, and Sandford makes what is essentially a conspiracy thriller plot still seem grounded and realistic. Most of all, it’s just fun to read.

This was published in 2000, and while Sandford usually does a great job of writing the tech stuff so that it doesn’t seem dated, but there’s a few aspects that haven’t aged well. There’s a plot point about how the NSA is concerned that increasingly sophisticated computer encryption is preventing them from tapping into communications so this was obviously written before the Patriot Act gave them the green light to spy on everybody. But that’s a minor complaint.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: Delta-V

Delta-V Delta-V by Daniel Suarez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s gold in them thar asteroids!

In the near future commercial space exploration is growing, but not fast enough to suit billionaire Nathan Joyce who believes that humanity’s only chance of long-term survival is to immediately start mining asteroids. This will not only provide critical resources and advance the technologies to let people start living in space, but it also could create an entirely new and sustainable economy. Joyce is recruiting an multinational group of risk-takers like cave diver James Tighe who have the skills necessary to be the first asteroid miners. The mission will be unprecedented and dangerous, but not all the threats come from being in space.

I love Daniel Suarez’s books because he’s great at looking at where we’re at both technologically and as a society and then coming up with very plausible stories about what comes next. Here, he’s selling the idea that humanity’s future hinges not on colonizing the moon or Mars, but instead on coming up with ways of living in space using the resources we could get from the hunks of rock floating around out there. He’s very persuasive on this point, and his conclusions make a lot of sense. (I kept finding myself thinking that this could be the prequel to The Expanse series which finds humanity spread out through the solar system.)

It helps that this isn’t a tale filled with wide-eyed optimism, and there’s a lot of cynical pragmatism in how the plot unfolds. Suarez creates a world in which it’s greed as much as anything that would make this happen, and that getting this going would take the resources of the mega-rich. That certainly fits the direction we seem to be heading with guys like Elon Musk and Richard Branson putting big money into space. But when you get people driven by profit margins and massive egos involved you can’t really trust them to do the right thing for the greater good or even their own employees either. Throw in a bunch of murky laws related to this and competing national interests, and it’s probably inevitable that mining asteroids will be just as cutthroat and messy as business on Earth.

If you’re into space stuff, especially near future hard sci-fi, then there’s a lot to like here. Suarez is better at coming up with cool ideas and tech then he is writing about people, but he does an adequate job of creating a cast of characters and putting them in interesting and sometimes hazardous situations. While a lot is wrapped up here the book also ends on what seems to be a pure sequel set-up so I don’t think we got the whole story, but I’ll be happy to check out the next one, too. 3.5 stars.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review: Brothers Keepers

Brothers Keepers Brothers Keepers by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A small order of monks have lived on New York’s Park Avenue for almost two centuries. They managed to keep their monastery as the city grew thanks to a ninety-nine year lease, but they’re surprised to learn that the lease is almost up and that their entire block is about to be sold to build a new office building.

As part of the attempts to save their building Brother Benedict is forced to leave his beloved quiet monastery several times to deal with the family that held the lease and the business people who are buying it. When Brother Benedict meets and falls for a woman involved in the deal he finds himself questioning whether he belongs with her or with his fellow monks. He’ll also learn that all’s fair in love, war, and New York real estate.

This continues the trend I’m on of reading a Hard Case Crime novel only to find it distinctly lacking in hard case crime. Several of the recent ones have been character based stories with a few crime elements in them, and despite this being a long out-of-print novel by a legendary mystery writer it’s more of a low key comedy than anything.

That’s not to say that it’s bad. I’m a big fan of almost everything Donald Westlake did, and the man could shift gears from gritty crime stories to goofy capers and make them both entertaining. Like most of his lighter stuff it’s entertaining and provides plenty of chuckles although the ending is a little abrupt and bittersweet. It’s fun enough although I’m still scratching my head at why HCC printed it other than to put the Westlake name on the cover.

Slightly off-topic bonus thought: Reading this story about quirky monks dealing with a 1975 New York City reminded me in a weird way of a Wes Anderson movie. I’m not saying that a Westlake book exactly seems like an Anderson screenplay. More that I think that the ‘70s setting, quirky characters, and style of dialogue would be a good fit for an Anderson adaptation. Once that idea was in my head I couldn’t stop thinking of Bill Murray playing the abbot. So if anybody out there knows Wes Anderson, do me a favor and get him a copy of this.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: A Touch of Death

A Touch of Death A Touch of Death by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lee Scarborough is a former football star who has been failing as a salesman. When he meets a woman by chance he gets embroiled in a scheme to recover $120,000 of stolen money.

Guess how that goes?

This is a tasty slice of pulp fiction that has a unique hook and provides plenty of twists and turns. The book doesn’t end anywhere near where you think it will based on the early chapters, and there’s plenty of paranoia fueling the plot by the end of it. I hadn’t read any of Charles Williams’ work before this, but now I’d like to check out more.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review: The Empress File

The Empress File The Empress File by John Camp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This involves a small group of people running an operation to take down a bunch of corrupt politicians who use extreme gerrymandering and dirty tricks to stay in power while they steal everything they can and screw over everyone they claim to represent in the process.

I kinda feel we should all be taking notes from this one.

Longstreet is small river city in Mississippi where the local officials are crooked as a dog’s back leg. After an innocent unarmed young black man is mistakenly killed by the police the whole thing is quickly swept under the rug. However, a group of left-wing activists have had enough and want to take over the town by any means necessary.

This brings artist/computer-expert/saboteur Kidd into it by his hacker buddy Bobby who was a friend of the murdered kid. The idea is Kidd will come up with a plan to dismantle the local political machine so the activists can take over the city council. Kidd is sympathetic to the cause, but his real motivation is that corruption means money being involved so there’s a good chance of a big payday. To help with that angle he contacts his friend/professional thief/sometime-lover LuEllen to help find a way to get the dirty officials out of office and steal all they can from them while doing so. However, they’ll have to be very careful because they’re kicking an awfully big hornet’s nest.

One of the primary reasons I really like it is that it’s just such a cool concept. A shady hacker tries to take down a ring of crooked politicians who control a small city? I could read about that all day long. As with the first book, The Fool's Run, the schemes that Kidd comes up with are devilishly clever and seem realistic. As he and LuEllen track down where the locals have stashed their loot so they can rob them, they’re also working on a scam to expose them as well cooking up a way for the activists to take over once the dust settles. Sandford has a knack for writing people planning and executing criminal acts, and these play out as essentially elaborate heist novels.

Another Sandford talent is creating characters that are fun to read about. Kidd and LuEllen are two great examples of this because they’re smart, funny, interesting, talented, and come across as real people instead of the kind of cartoon characters you get in lesser thrillers. They also don’t make excuses or rationalizations about who they are, and they have a clear-eyed pragmatism about being criminals despite sometimes having good intentions. Even though they try their best to avoid violence they’re also starting to question how many people still end up dead when they pull one of these jobs.

It’s also interesting that even though this book was published in 1991 and involves some computer tech that it doesn’t feel dated at all. In fact, even though Sandford has been writing these kinds of books for 30 years and frequently includes technology of the moment, they all age exceptionally well. That's probably because the main plots are rooted in ideas and themes that don’t change, and the tech is just window dressing. This book starts with a trigger happy cop killing an unarmed black kid, and then it rolls into massive political corruption. He obviously could have done that set-up today and just changed a few minor things like subbing wi-fi for dialing into a modem.

The only thing I disliked is that the main thug is the town’s animal control officer, and there’s a pretty nasty stuff in his treatment of dogs and cats to make it clear that he’s a sadistic bastard. Sandford doesn’t engage in misery or torture porn, but he does know how to write a scene that will make your skin crawl. Since I can’t stand to read about animals being abused I could have lived without that, but again, it’s relatively brief, and we don’t have to dwell on the details so it’s fairly easy to skim over and get the essence of that character.

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