Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: Sinner Man

Sinner Man Sinner Man by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Between this and Resume Speed I’ve read two Lawrence Block stories in the last week that were about men leaving town and taking on new identities. But even if Mr. Block had a dozen more books coming out soon about guys hopping busses and trains for further misadventures under fake names I’d still cheerfully read them.

Don Barshter is your run-of-the-mill insurance salesman in a small city in Connecticut, but he’s bored with his life and drinking too much. One night he tries to end an argument with his wife with a brisk slap, but the silly woman falls wrong and ends up dead. Don’s first instinct is to call the cops to turn himself in because it’s 1960 and accidently killing your wife during a fight isn’t that big of a deal, but then he decides to seize the chance to reinvent himself instead.

After stashing the body in a closet and emptying his bank accounts Don is off to exotic Buffalo under the name Nat Crowley, but what should a wife murdering insurance agent pick as a new career? Organized crime seems like a lucrative field with growth opportunities that won’t bother with a lot of background checks so he starts hanging out in bars and rubbing elbows with gangsters while beating up the occasional Canadian tourist to establish his credentials as a rough customer. Soon enough Nat is in with the local mob, but can he ever truly escape his past by engaging in even worse acts?

This is billed as Block’s first crime novel, and in an afterword he explains that while it’s actually the first one of the genre he wrote it wasn’t the first one he published. In fact, he tells a fascinating story about how it got lost in the shuffle of the various books he was churning out for the paperback publishers of the day under various pen names, and while he got paid for it he’d never gotten a copy and had only vague memories of the story. It was a chance conversation with some fans on Facebook that led to him finally learning the title and name it was released under.

It’s a testament to how much material Lawrence Block has written in his life that he has entire books that he thought were lost, but this isn’t just a gimmick trading off the idea that it’s a young Block’s first mystery novel. It’s an incredibly solid and fascinating piece of work that starts out as a plot driven story about how a guy could leave one life and start another on the run. Then it turns into a serious noir that has a lot to say about how you may be able to change your name, but you’re still gonna be stuck with what you’ve done and who you are.

Block also drew on his days as a soft core porn writer to incorporate some steamy sex scenes in the best tradition of the pulp paperbacks, but even those turn into something deeper and darker with Nat’s relationship to the gangster savvy Anne Bishop getting increasingly complicated as he works his way up the mob hierarchy.

Overall, it’s just a fantastic piece of pulp fiction that shows that even when he was starting out that Block was already a great writer. This is one of my new favorites from Hard Case Crime.

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Review: Resume Speed

Resume Speed Resume Speed by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

At the start of this we meet a man called Bill who is an awful hurry to catch a bus out of town, but as soon as he’s over the state line he immediately gets a job as a cook at a diner and starts establishing a new life there.

You may think that sounds a bit fishy, but honestly who among us hasn’t hopped a bus out of town and changed their identity?

This new novella from esteemed mystery writer Lawrence Block is a bit of an odd duck. It’s mainly about Bill as he develops a routine in this new town and quickly becomes a valued employee at the diner and a reliable tenant at his rooming house while he starts a relationship with the local librarian. His only vice is the single shot of whiskey he has every night before bed. Yet, we know that Bill is hiding from something.

That description sounds more mysterious than it actually is because nothing that we learn about Bill is all that surprising considering how we’re introduced to him, and most readers will probably be able to have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end.

What I found incredibly enjoyable is just the way that Block is able to write people doing even everyday things. Whether it’s private detective Matt Scudder wandering the streets of New York or hit man Keller traveling the country to murder people there’s always this steady stream of observations and actions that don’t seem like anything special while reading yet they make for compelling stories. It’s a quiet way of getting to really know a character, and Block is the master of building these small moments into something larger.

Another aspect that fascinated me was that it seems like it should be set in the past. Surely, in our modern age someone couldn’t just jump on a bus and reinvent himself in a town down the line could he? That’s what I was thinking and the first part of the book felt very old school to me like it had been written in the ‘60, but then there are mentions of computers and Google so it’s definitely the 21st century. It could have seemed anachronistic, but I found that it gave the whole thing an interesting timeless tone instead.

Overall, I was completely engrossed with Bill as he goes about his everyday life while hiding from his past, and I’m more impressed than ever with Block for the way he makes this quiet character-based story work.

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Bait

Bait Bait by J. Kent Messum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book for review from the author.

Can you imagine waking up on an island with a bunch of good-for-nothing junkies who almost immediately start going into withdrawal and puking all over the place? And your only way out is by swimming through waters infested with hungry sharks?

Still, it sounds more appealing than being on a season of Survivor.

So these smack-hounds wake up on a beach in the Florida Keys with no idea how they got there. There’s a small amount of food and water left there with a note that they can get more by swimming to the next island, and the bigger prize is a whole bunch of heroin if they can make it through the sharks. Will they try to swim for it or not?

Uh, I did mention that they are junkies and there’s heroin on that next island, right?

There are some stories idea that just sound so amazingly outrageous that you immediately want to check them out. Sharks vs. Junkies is one of those. Messum walks a fine line here of setting up an idea that could have been a movie on SyFy channel, adding enough depth of character and tragedy so that it doesn’t seem like a total cartoon, and then still delivering enough scenes of sharks devouring junkies that it satisfies the itch you got when you heard the idea. (You sick bastards!)

I’m not sure if this could have been sustained in a longer novel, but at 288 pages it hits the sweet spot of being tight enough to work without feeling rushed. Intercutting flashbacks of each character gives us a snapshot of their lives as addicts, and Messum makes them sympathetic by highlighting wasted potential but he doesn’t glamorize or excuse them.

I was a little less sold on the parts that shift to the men behind the whole Turn-Junkies-Into-Fish-Food scheme. There’s decent motivation provided, but I think the book may have worked a tad better if we knew nothing about them or why they were doing it until the very end where the final chapter provided an excellent opportunity for a bit of exposition to explain motives. Keeping them more mysterious might have tightened up the book even further and added more intrigue.

Still, it’s an intriguing and well written story that delivers on the concept it’s selling. It also reinforced my belief that nothing good happens in the ocean.

Finally, I owe J. Kent Messum some thanks. He had approached me about reviewing his newer book, and I turned him down because I’m just a dick like that. Then Dan told me about this book with sharks chewing on heroin addicts, and I’m only human so I wanted in on that action. I didn’t realize that this was by a writer I’d previously refused to review, but once we got that got sorted JKM was very gracious and cool enough to send me this along with his new one Husk which I’ll read and review soon.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange: The Oath

Doctor Strange: The Oath Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If your name is something like Stephen Strange then you’d almost have to be a superhero, wouldn’t you? Either that or Bond villain.

Dr. Strange is very upset to learn that his friend and servant Wong has terminal brain cancer and vows to use every mystical means at his disposal to save him. The cure he finds turns out to have much larger implications that threaten Strange both magically and physically.

This is one of those Marvel characters that I mainly know from his appearances in other books rather than reading his main titles. The whole trippy-psychedelic-mysticism thing has never really been my cup o’ tea, but like a good comic book nerd I saw theDr. Strange movie and enjoyed it so much I decided to read up on the Sorcerer Supreme.

I couldn’t have picked a better story to try. Brian K. Vaughan is one of my favorite comic writers, and this is a great read that mixes Strange’s history with a grounding in the modern Marvel universe that puts magic side-by-side with science. The artwork really sells this too in the way that it portrays a ‘realistic’ New York where something like the Cloak of Levitation does seem unworldly. I also particularly liked the use of the Night Nurse as a supporting character.

My only real complaint is that by starting with this particular story any other Dr. Strange comics now have a very high bar to clear so I’m worried that reading more about the Master of the Mystic Arts might pale in comparison.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: White Jazz

White Jazz White Jazz by James Ellroy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This conclusion to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is just as wholesome and uplifting as the previous three books with his usual cast of characters such as corrupt cops, gangsters, hustlers, blackmailers, shakedown artists, bag men, thieves, junkies, drug dealers, dog killers, whores, johns, pimps, peepers, perverts, panty sniffers, and politicians. Oh, and most of them are murders, racist, and/or incestuous as a bonus, and that includes the hero of the novel.

It's 1958 and LAPD Lieutenant Dave Klein is a busy guy. In addition to his police duties he’s also a lawyer, a slumlord, and he does the occasional contract murder for hire. Klein gets assigned to investigate a weird break-in and vandalism at the home of a police sanctioned drug dealer, but with an ambitious US Attorney sniffing around the LAPD trying to build a corruption case it seems a bad time to be drawing attention to that particular rotten apple. Klein also takes a side gig from Howard Hughes investigating an actress who left him to star in a B-horror movie about communist space vampires, and he’d love to start chasing down a gang who pulled off a daring robbery of a fortune in furs to get a piece of their action. However, Klein soon finds himself in the middle of a living nightmare which pull his loyalties in multiple directions, and as the crimes pile up it’ll take a miracle to keep him from ending up in jail or the morgue.

The last two novels of the L.A. Quartet each used a trio of bad men doing bad things as their main characters, and Ellroy very consciously breaks the format here by making Dave Klein the solo lead and a first person narrator. This seems kind of like a call back to the structure of Black Dahlia and gives the conclusion a more intimate and personal feel, but it also seems like it doesn’t quite fit. As usual when things really start going off the rails Ellroy has his lead running around like a maniac both committing and investigating crimes while constantly making and betraying alliances that further his own agenda for the moment. When you have three characters doing this they can share the load and have them in various levels of trouble. By having only Klein to put in the soup it really stretches credibility too far to think that he wouldn’t have been arrested or killed about halfway through the book, and it certainly doesn’t seem like anyone would deal with him after the third or fourth time he’s double-crossed them.

Ellroy also advanced the clipped sentence fragment/stream of consciousness style he’d been building to new levels, and in fact, he probably pushed it too far in this one. L.A. Confidential has a flow to it that works whereas White Jazz too often veers into near gibberish. It’s a problem that shows up in other Ellroy novels, too. When he’s got this style on a leash he can really take it for a walk, but when it gets away from him it runs wild and devolves into near self-parody.

Probably my biggest disappointment with this is that it just doesn’t seem to deliver on the promise of the ending that L.A. Confidential pointed towards. That built to where it felt like the final book had to be an all-out war between two of the characters left standing. By bringing in a new character with the LAC angles only coming into play late in the game it doesn’t have the epic climax to the entire story I was hoping for.

It’s still a solid Ellroy novel, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the potential of what came before.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Professional thief Bernie Rhodenbarr is trying to go legit by buying a book store, but that’s a tough way to make the rent even back in the days before Amazon. So when Bernie gets an offer to swipe a rare volume of Kipling verses for a hefty payday he’s more than willing to start picking locks again.

However, what should be a simple exchange of the book for the cash goes sideways, and Bernie finds himself on the run from the cops after being framed for murder. He’ll need all of his criminal skills and some help from his best friend Carolyn to get out of this one.

As I’ve stated on other reviews I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block, but this series wasn’t my favorite thing he’s done although I quite enjoyed The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. I think it’s because while Bernie is a thief the books generally revolve around him playing amateur sleuth rather than actually being about his profession. Still, there’s a charming low-key quality to these, and I always enjoy Block’s casual dialogue where characters often ramble and make amusing observations about life’s quirks.

I liked this the most of the early ones I’ve read because it introduced Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer who is the person that Bernie can count on most and vice versa. Their friendship is one of the things I’ve most enjoyed about the series.

Overall, it’s a solid mystery with a good sense of humor, and Block always makes a character just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of daily life in New York City a treat to read.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Duma Key

Duma Key Duma Key by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And this is why adults shouldn’t play with dolls…

Edgar Freemantle used to be the quintessential American success story. He was a self-made millionaire who built a thriving construction business, and he had a long and happy marriage which produced two daughters. However, Edgar’s good luck ran out one day when he had a brutal run in with a crane at a job site that cost him an arm, screwed up a leg, and cracked his skull. The brain trauma left his eggs slightly scrambled and made him prone to fly into furious rages that his wife couldn't endure so the accident also ends his marriage.

While trying to recover from his injuries and the divorce Edgar decides to relocate to Florida and indulge in his long dormant hobby of drawing and painting pictures. Edgar rents a house at isolated Duma Key on the Gulf Coast where the gorgeous views and long walks on the beach inspire him to amazing artistic achievements and a rapid recovery of his health. In fact, Edgar’s progress in both areas could be termed as too good to be true if not downright spooky.

I read this for the first time shortly after it was originally released in 2008, and at that time I was intrigued by the story of a damaged man turning to art to heal his body and mind which is a subject that King has intimate knowledge of after being run down by a car. (King wrote movingly about it in the non-fiction On Writing.) However, I found the supernatural stuff lacking, and I’d kinda wished that King had written just a straight up character piece about a guy discovering a latent talent following a tragedy.

Since then I’ve seen what happens when King tries his hand at non-horror genre piece (Mr. Mercedes) so I no longer think that would have been a good idea. Overall, I found myself more intrigued this time by the supernatural aspects and less enamored of the story about Edgar’s recovery and development as a painter. This is probably because I’ve find myself more sensitive to the tics of his that I dislike which this has several of.

First is that there’s a general lack of focus. King has always been willing to throw the kitchen sink at a reader, but he really seemed particularly unwilling or unable to pick a path and stick to it here. There’s elements you see from other stories like Dead Zone with a brain injury leading to weird abilities and there’s the ghost story in an isolated locale like The Shining as well as bits and pieces from other King works. All of this leads to the typical case of King bloat where it seems like a couple of hundred pages could have easily been shaved from the finished product.

The character of Wireman is a prime example of something else I’ve grown irritated with in King’s work where he creates a wise and quirky character and then fills their mouths with overblown dialogue. Here, Wireman frequently refers to himself in the third person, sprinkles his conversations with Spanish jargon, and he’s full of meaningless sayings that are treated as profound by Edgar. Seriously, if someone ever told me, “Do the day, muchacho! And let the day do you!” then I’m going to flip them off and walk away. Which is a shame because there was much about Wireman in this best friend role other than the way he constantly expressed himself that I really liked.

Another King trope that has increasingly irked me in recent years in his habit of creating situations where the characters are fighting the clock but then waste huge amounts of time talking instead of acting. In this one there’s a point near the end where hell is gonna be unleashed at sunset which is coming fast, and yet Edgar feels that’s the ideal time to sit the other characters down and tell them a long rambling story about what he’s discovered. And then of course they find themselves screwed at sunset. How about for once you let them get the job done and save story time for afterwards, Uncle Stevie?

However, despite these gripes I did enjoy this book. King hits the melancholy tone of Edgar, a middle-aged man with a broken home and broken body, perfectly. Doing one of his stories on a bright Florida beach rather than the spooky Maine woods was a nice change of pace, and it fits the way that there’s an underlying tension. There’s also an extremely wicked irony at play here in that most of the stuff happening seems like a good thing rather than evil. Edgar is healing and he’s creating amazing art, and he even uses his newfound abilities to do some good. You can see how he’s willing to push aside any warning signs because so much of what is happening to him is legitimately changing his life for the better without any of the usual dark down side you’d immediately see in most horror books.

It’s not quite as good as I found it in 2008, but it’s still one of the better later era King novels.

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