Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Should someone be put in prison for a practical joke?

Yes. All practical jokers belong in jail. Or hell.

Harry has been an unrepentant prankster his entire life, but now he has been locked up after one of his jokes went wrong which resulted in several injuries. Once inside he quickly bumbles onto the secret of several other inmates. There was an opportunity during construction of a prison expansion to build a tunnel which they use to regularly leave. This isn’t for escape because none of these guys have long enough sentences to want to live on the run, but rather they just use the tunnel to go out and do the things they can’t while in jail only to return each night. Harry gets cut in on the scheme, and he enjoys the quasi-freedom it allows him. However, there’s a big catch. The inmates have realized that they have the ultimate alibi of being in prison so they've got an ambitious plan to rob two banks at once, and they demand that Harry take part in it. This puts Harry in a real bind since he may be in jail, but he’s no crook.

The late Donald Westlake was capable of doing both drama and comedy well, and as a lighthearted story written for yucks it works surprisingly well. I was worried in the early going because I really dislike practical jokers, and I thought that he’d be asking a reader to find Harry’s pranks hilarious. Instead Westlake makes it clear that this behavior is beyond annoying, but that Harry has a sick compulsion even when he knows the warden is watching him like a hawk and that his fellow inmates will murder him if they find out he's the one responsible. The humor comes from just how incapable Harry is of stopping, and the casual way we learn about the reign of terror he’s inflicting on hardened criminals. There’s a lesson for Harry in this story so that kept the book from asking me to be on the side of a guy who thinks tying someone’s shoe laces together is funny.

There’s also a running gag about Harry’s last name sounding like a vulgar term which I’m not gonna try to replicate here because I don’t have the patience to figure out how to do an umlaut. As with the practical joke angle I worried that Westlake was going for the most obvious and juvenile thing when it actually turns out to have some deeper meaning explaining Harry’s behavior.

So what we end up with is an enjoyable caper that makes for an entertaining couple of hours of fun reading.

However, I do find myself wishing that Westlake might have used this idea in one of his serious crime books he wrote as Richard Stark. If the humorless thief Parker would have run across a practical joker who screwed up his plans to rob a bank, and then got his big meaty paws around that guy’s neck and squeezed until he turned purple…. Yeah, that’d make for a pretty satisfying book, too.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: The Sinners

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

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

The Pritchards are just some good ole boys, never meaning no harm. Making their way the only way they know how. That’s just a little bit more than Sheriff Quinn Colson will allow.

Ah, damn it. I think I owe Waylon Jenning’s estate a royalty payment now.

This one starts out way back in the prehistoric days of the 1993 with Tibbehah County Sheriff Hamp Beckett finally nailing his nemesis, a hell-raising pot-farmer named Heath Pritchard, with enough weed to send him to prison for a long stretch.

Twenty five years later the nephews of both men have gone into their respective family businesses. Quinn Colson is the sheriff while Tyler and Cody Pritchard grow some of the best pot around, and they use the money to fund their love of dirt-track auto racing. The lady who runs the *ahem* gentlemen’s club, Fannie Hathcock, is also the local representative of the Dixie Mafia, and she suspects the Pritchard boys might be cutting into her profit margin with their higher quality weed.

This is a powder keg getting ready to blow, and the fuse is lit when Heath Pritchard gets out of jail and inserts himself into his nephews’ lives. While Tyler and Cody just want to make enough money to pay for cars and Jack Daniels their uncle thinks that he should be able to resume his place as the stud duck of Tibbehah County with no regard for the law or the criminals currently running the show.

As this is going on Quinn’s best friend, Boom Kimbrough, has taken a job as a long-haul trucker, but he discovers that his company is a critical part of the supply chain hauling all kinds of illegal stuff across the South. As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Quinn also has to get ready for his upcoming wedding.

I’ve enjoyed every book of this series, but this is my favorite of them so far. Ace Atkins has built up each character and the setting so that Tibbehah County is its own vivid world now. While each novel has its own self-contained story there’s also been a complex overall arc going on in the background. One of the more interesting aspects is the way that the nature of crime itself is evolving in rural Mississippi over the last ten years. When the series started the ruling redneck kingpin was a good ole boy county politician who engaged in more traditional forms of small town corruption. Now the game has changed with politicians more focused on trying to roll back the clock as cover for far more ambitious schemes then just milking the county’s expense budget. Money seems to be flowing everywhere except to people looking for good jobs, and this includes expansion by organized crime who want to move drugs by the truckload instead of just letting a couple of good ole boys sell a little weed.

I also really like what Atkins did with the Pritchards. He’s sprinkled references to other works in his books like a subtle homage to True Grit into one of his Spenser novels. Here, the Pritchards obviously seem to be inspired by The Dukes of Hazzard TV series.

If this was Atkins winking at the reader and playing this as a jokey reference, it’d just be a gimmick. However, what’s he done with this idea is pretty clever. Bo and Luke Duke were just a couple of redneck Robin Hoods fighting corrupt local officials. However, the Pritchards aren’t running moonshine, they’re growing high end weed, and their enemy isn’t the comical Boss Hogg, it’s an entire murderous criminal syndicate. Similarly, their uncle isn’t a lovable old rascal with a talent for making shine who doles out good advice. Heath is a strutting criminal with poor impulse control who pisses off everyone he deals with by acting like it's still 1993, and that he's the biggest swinging dick around.

In short, the Dukes are the fantasy of the good-hearted Southern boys who like to raise a little hell, and there ain’t no pickle they can’t get out of by driving fast and jumping over the nearest creek. That won't help when facing an organized system that has far more resources and no hesitation about killing off anyone who might cost them a nickel.

Everyone in the book is getting squeezed by the powers that be in some fashion. Frannie has made a fortune for her bosses for years, but the second they think she’s got a problem in her operation they start questioning her capability and start making moves to muscle her out. Boom is just trying to mind his own business while making a honest living, but he finds himself caught up in the schemes of criminals and the demands of law enforcement. Quinn is under pressure from shitbird politicians more concerned about checking the immigration status of anyone who isn't white rather than dealing with the growth of organized crime in their backyard.

That’s the effective theme that Atkins is working with here. It’s the collision of the dream that all a country boy needs to survive is a can of Skoal and his trusty shotgun vs. the cold hard realities of the 21st century, and it makes for a helluva read.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier by Mark Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m new to the world of Twin Peaks, but as someone who holds advanced nerd degrees I’m familiar with a lot of franchises that have decades of continuity, intricate histories, and scores of characters who have gone through extreme story arcs. Yet, I think Twin Peaks is the only one that could release a short tie-in book that seems like it’s just filling in some story gaps until the very end when it drops a couple of revelations that made me reexamine what I assumed I knew about the story all over again.

Damn, and when I started watching the old show on Netflix last summer I thought it was about solving the mystery of who killed one girl...

OK, just to recap. The series ran for only two seasons back in the early ‘90s. A prequel movie was done after that, and then 25 years later the show returned with 18 episodes that seem not just about a surreal battle between epic forces of good and evil, but also what I thought to be a slyly brilliant meta-commentary on TV as well as the nostalgia driving the resurrection of old shows. The previous tie-in book, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, was released before its return and functioned as a set-up for it. The Final Dossier is about wrapping up some of the loose ends and acts as a kind of afterword to the series.

Following the style of Secret History the story is told in a series of FBI reports from Special Agent Tammy Preston to Deputy Director Gordon Cole that recaps and sorta explains what happened. (Or at least as much explanation as we’re likely to officially get.) It also fills in the gaps about what happened to many of the original characters as well as what occurred after the events of the last of the new episodes.

What’s interesting is that a Twin Peaks viewer sometimes knows more than Agent Preston so when she has a question we often know the answer. So it’s like even though the FBI has some pieces of the puzzle only someone who watched Twin Peaks, not any of its characters, is in a position to see the whole picture. Understanding that picture is a whole different story. Probably only David Lynch and Mark Frost could do that, and it sounds like they’ve said all they have to say on the subject.

I was slightly disappointed in this until the ending. Secret History did similar things but was also telling us a story we didn’t know at all as well as having its own central mystery to solve. This seemed only to exist as a way to tell us all the things the show didn’t have time to get into. There’s also a depressing similarity to many of the characters’ fates. What happened on the show 25 years ago seemed to have tainted almost everyone, and there’s damn few happy endings. The best that many of them managed was to maintain the status quo with their lives not getting any worse.

It also seems to go out of its way to correct a mistake in Secret History with a weird and unlikely story about how that book said that Norma’s mother had died before the show started even though there’s a whole sub-plot with her and her living mother in the original series. However, it’s odd that Frost goes to such links to correct that gaffe here when there are several other continuity errors and contradictions that aren’t addressed. (e.g. The story of how Big Ed and Nadine came to be married is nothing like how Big Ed describes it on the show.)

So it seemed like this was simply a bit of extra material to answer the questions of hard core fans, but that it hadn’t even been particularly well-researched or thought out. That’s when the last few chapters kicked me in the head with a very important bit of follow-up on the impact of one of the last big events in the return episodes, and then came a revelation that pretty much blew my mind and changed my perception about a whole facet of the entire series. (It’s possible that a more dedicated Twin Peaks fan may have twigged to this before I did, but it certainly doesn’t seem like information that the series gave us.)

I’m not entirely sure that I like the idea of dropping something that seems so crucial in a follow-up book rather than putting it in the series itself, but nothing is easy or straight-forward when it comes to Twin Peaks. The entire show is begging to be picked apart and analyzed with layer after layer of themes and meaning examined so it doesn’t seem like that much of a cheat that one nugget was held back and tossed out later.

This would have exactly zero appeal to anyone who hasn’t the show, and it’d be pretty confusing if you haven’t read Secret History either. But for those who have it does provide a lot of interesting extras to think about.

Fair warning: Any untagged spoilers about the show in the comments will be deleted.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Upper Hand

The Upper Hand The Upper Hand by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy for review from the author.

Having a group of thieves and con men as your extended family sounds kind of cool, but you’d better keep your hand on your wallet at the reunions.

The three Ucker kids have drifted apart since their father died and was shown to be a thief. Axel has a good job at a bank, but his hobby is drawing up elaborate plans for robberies that he never pulls. Gretchen makes her living by stealing valuable comic books from nerds. The youngest, Kurt, stayed in their old hometown to take care of their aging mother and keep playing death metal with his friends in a garage band.

After their mother dies the three siblings are shocked to learn that she left everything including her house to her favorite TV evangelist, Brother Floom. Another surprise comes when they meet their aunt, an imposing woman who calls herself “Mother”. (Yeah, that’s right. She’s Mother Ucker.)

Mother informs the three that most of the extended Ucker family are criminals, and she introduces all of them. Then she reveals that Brother Floom is really their grandfather who assumed another identity years ago. This is all part of Mother’s pitch to teach them the family business with the ultimate goal of ripping off Floom.

Johnny Shaw always delivers a great mix of crime and humor, and this story plays to his strengths with this comic caper that involves a variety of schemes, double crosses, elaborate robbery plans that never quite work, and a family with more than its share of dysfunction. It’s a romp with a plot that’s constantly moving and a varied cast of characters that has a genuine laugh on almost every page. It’s also got enough heart and brains to it to keep it from being more than just a collection of gags and goofy situations.

My one complaint is that there are so many moving parts to the plot that some things just don’t end up making any sense, and Shaw even acknowledges that in the wrap up with one character shrugging off inconsistencies by saying that they were ideas and improvisations that weren’t needed in the end. That’s a bit of a cheat, but it didn’t really bother me because stories built around elaborate cons and schemes are frequently designed to keep things from the audience, not necessarily to make sense within the story. See the scene in Oceans’s 11 when George Clooney is questioned about why one of their own crew wasn’t told about a key piece of the plan. Clooney’s response is to essentially wink at the camera and say, “What fun would that have been?”

It’s a similar thing here. If you like the story, it works. I liked this just fine, and it worked for me.

Full disclosure – I once contributed an unpaid review to Shaw’s Blood & Tacos e-zine.

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Review: The Outsider

The Outsider The Outsider by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading Uncle Stevie for about 35 years now, and there’s been plenty of peaks and valleys in my fandom. This time out he found a whole new way to disappoint me.

A young boy has been brutally murdered, and all the clues point directly at Terry Maitland. This is shocking because Terry is a happily married family man and all-around good guy whose coaching of youth sports has made him one of the most popular and respected people in town, and there’s never been the slightest hint of any kind of criminal behavior from him. However, with both forensic evidence and multiple witnesses there is no doubt that Terry abducted and killed this child so Detective Ralph Anderson has him arrested in the most public and humiliating way possible.

The problem is that there was so much evidence pointing at Terry that Ralph didn’t bother nailing down his whereabouts when the crime was committed, and Terry has an iron clad alibi that makes it impossible for him to be the murderer. Yet for every piece of evidence that shows that Terry couldn’t have killed the boy there’s another equally damning one that positively shows that he must have done it. How could a man be in two places at once?

The infuriating thing about this book is that the first half had a lot of promise. King seems to have been inspired by the Harlan Coben style of thrillers whose hooks generally revolve around circumstances that seem impossible. (In fact, Uncle Stevie even acknowledges this by actually having Coben himself be a plot point in the book.) And this works for a while as King builds up the scenario with an intriguing mix of clues and witnesses that both absolutely prove that Terry must be the murderer while also making it utterly impossible for him to have done it.

There’s a huge problem with that though. When Harlan Coben writes his books the resolutions are based in reality, not the paranormal. So for each one he has to come up with a plot that leaves you scratching your head and then provide a solution to it that’s satisfying. What Uncle Stevie did here is to create the puzzle part which he adds layer after layer to it, but then he essentially just says “Oh, yeah. It was a supernatural monster. And now here’s a completely different book about trying to catch it.”

You can certainly do a story that mixes police investigations with the unexplained. The X-Files is the obvious example of this, but that series would generally show us the weird stuff in the opening scene every week then Mulder would try to unravel it for the rest of the episode. We all knew going in that the supernatural and aliens were on the table so there’s no point in spending time to make the viewer think there might be a non-fantastic answer even if Scully usually tried her best to find it.

Since this is a Stephen King novel with a red-eyed monster on the cover a reader should know from the start that something spooky is in the mix. Yet, he gives us absolutely nothing about that angle for the first half of the book. He plays it straight like he’s writing a regular crime thriller, and he put in so much time and effort on it that he actually managed to make me forget at times that the ultimate answer would probably be a ghoul of some kind. So it’s like he’s teasing us that there is some kind of Sherlock Holmes style solution to this puzzle, and I found it incredibly unsatisfying when the supernatural stuff showed up to explain it all.

The extra sad thing is that Uncle Stevie has done this plot before, and he did it better there. The Dark Half has a main character who is suspected of murder, there’s physical evidence showing he did it, and it’s only an airtight alibi that saves his ass. Yet, in that book we know from the jump what’s going on so it all flows together naturally, and it’s just one piece of a larger story rather than half a novel spent developing a mystery that is essentially not a mystery at all when you remember that you’re reading Stephen King.

The second issue I had with this is that this is linked to the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. I didn’t care for those books, and if I’d have known that this had anything to do with them I wouldn’t have read it. I thought that series was done so to have that show up at the half way point here as a surprise and then play a major role in the proceedings felt like false advertising. Another irritating aspect is that (And this has spoilers for End of Watch) (view spoiler)

At over 500 pages it’s also way too long with not enough happening except for a whole lot of yackity-yacking going on amongst characters. There’s a tremendous amount of repletion with people restating the facts about the initial problem of Terry being in two places in once, and then during the monster phase there’s endless jibber-jabber speculating about it. Dialogue has never been a particular strength of King’s, but all his worst habits are fully on display here so it’s extra bad that the book mostly consists of conversations.

I also found myself nitpicking a lot of stuff here. Now that he’s over 70 years old Uncle Stevie seems to struggle writing younger people these days. Terry is described as being under 40 yet at one point his wife is remembering how they used to listen to Beatles albums in his college apartment, and she idly wonders if John Lennon was dead by then or not. A guy who is 40 today was born in 1978. John Lennon was murdered in 1980. So Lennon had been dead for almost two decades by the time Terry was in college. That’s the musing of an aging Baby Boomer, not someone under 50.

Ralph also seems to be somewhere around 40 years old yet when he’s trying to figure out a restaurant name from a scrap of paper he has to go to his wife to have her run the internet search for him. I’m pretty sure that a detective whose job involves research and information gathering is capable of using Google. And it’s not even that Ralph is anti-tech or computer ignorant because he uses an iPad regularly through the book. Again, this seems like an older person’s way of thinking about the internet, not someone who would have been using computers since his first day with the police department.

I also found the main break that finally gets the plot moving toward the supernatural stuff to be highly unlikely. 

King tried doing plain thrillers with the first two Bill Hodges books, but he struggled mightily with plotting them so he threw in the towel with the third one where he went full-on supernatural again. This one feels like he thought he had a great idea for another crime novel, wasn’t really sure how to resolve it, started writing it anyway hoping he’d figure it out, and then when he couldn’t he just threw up his hands and made it all about a monster. I won’t be reading another crime based book by him. Unless he tricks me again.

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Review: Firebreak

Firebreak Firebreak by Richard Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Parker’s in the middle of killing somebody you’d think he’d be too busy to take a phone call about a potential job, but a man’s gotta eat.

The score is a bunch of valuable paintings that a rich d-bag had stolen for himself and are now hidden away in a remote hunting lodge he owns. However, security is very tight due to a previous botched robbery attempt, there’s a very tight clock on when this has to get done, and one of the crew is a high-strung computer nerd fresh out of prison. Parker also needs to track down whoever sent a hit man after him so there’s no shortage of complications to this one.

This series started in the ‘60s, and I think it works best as retro old school crime stories. However, Richard Stark (a/k/a Donald Westlake) came up with some good modern variations on his usual stories when he brought Parker back in the ‘90s. Here, the rich guy made his money as part of the dot-com boom back when those guys were just wealthy assholes rather than evil billionaires bent on destroying democracy and/or the working class. Ah, the good old days….

So between that and all the Internet and communication angles to the heist you can tell that Stark was figuring out a way to make Parker still viable in the digital age. And it works. They may be using computers to help pull of this heist, but somebody still has to go in and get the stuff which also means having a tough guy who can think on his feet.

I also liked the angle to the hit man story and the brutally efficient way that Parker backtracks the guy to the people who have an old grudge against him. There’s a lot going on in this one, but Stark makes it all fit together and hum along right along to its conclusion.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review: Blood Standard

Blood Standard Blood Standard by Laird Barron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

Apparently the American mob is just like Starbucks in that they’ve got franchises everywhere, including Alaska.

Isaiah Coleridge is an enforcer who has been working this frozen turf for a while, but he gets in big trouble after crossing a deadly local boss. That earns him a vicious beating as well as a dangerous enemy. He’s also exiled from Alaska and sent to live on a farm in upstate New York as part of his punishment. Isaiah is content to follow orders about staying away from family business, and he spends his days shoveling shit for the couple who run the place, and he makes several new friends while living a quiet life. However, when the couple’s wild young granddaughter disappears after hanging around several lowlifes Isaiah can’t help but to reenter the murky underworld of mobsters, dangerous gangs, murderous hillbillies, crooked cops, and Feds to try and find her.

Bottom line here is that this a really solid and entertaining piece of crime fiction. I was a shade disappointed that we didn’t get more in Alaska because I thought the entire novel was set there and was looking forward to an offbeat locale, but the rural New York area also makes for an interesting place to have a mob enforcer doing his thing.

The most interesting aspect is Isaiah himself. He’s the son of a Maori woman and a former American military officer so he had an army brat upbringing. As a mob enforcer he’s an expert at both dishing out and being on the receiving end of extreme violence. He’s also a smart guy with a taste for the old school epics like The Odyssey as well as the occasional sip of whiskey. Throw in a soft spot for animals which can bring on John Wick levels of violence when triggered, and you’ve got a complex character who smoothly narrates the twists and turns of the story.

My main complaint is that it’s all just a bit much. The personal story of Isaiah being in the mob’s doghouse and dealing with own issues is deep enough, but when you add in the hunt for the missing woman which entails layers of navigating mob protocol and then add mercenaries to the mix, that’s maybe one or two scoops of stories too much. Plus, it mainly all is to give plot reasons for Isaiah to go to more locations and meet more colorful characters. That’s the classic detective template, but I could have done with slightly less of all of it. Still, I’d be happy to read more of Isaiah’s adventures.

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