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. Antoher 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 resolution are based in reality, not the paranormal. So 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 on 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. (view spoiler)

King tried doing plain thrillers with the first two Bill Hodges books, but he struggled mightily with plotting them so he gave up and just 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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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Review: The Secret History of Twin Peaks

The Secret History of Twin Peaks The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this while enjoying a piece of cherry pie and a cup of damn good black coffee after installing my silent drape runners. And lemme tell you about this crazy dream I had last night. I was in this room with red curtains….

OK, those are the obvious references, but I’m new to Twin Peaks fandom so cut me some slack. Honestly, I’ve always been kind of fascinated by David Lynch’s work, but I struggled mightily with it because I’m the kind of person who needs the story to make some kind of sense at the end of the day. So Lynchian style dream logic just isn’t my bag.

Or at least it didn’t used to be until all the hype about the return of Twin Peaks got my curiosity up enough to finally work my way through the two seasons of the original show after and the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me. Something clicked for me this time with the whole story about the murder of high school girl in this weird town even if that second season is a real slog at times. And I was utterly transfixed and mesmerized with the return to it over 25 years later. So that’s how I ended up reading this, and as you’d expect from show co-creator Mark Frost even a tie-in book couldn’t be simple.

This came out before the return of the show, and it’s obviously meant to fill in some gaps and lay groundwork. The concept is that what we’re reading is a file compiled by a mysterious archivist who proceeds to link the town of Twin Peaks and the stories of some of its residents to a vast conspiracy that stretches back to the days of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In fact, it’s like a Grand Unified Theory of Conspiracy Theories that includes pretty much everything from Freemasons to Roswell to the JFK assassination along with references to real people like Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon, and L. Ron Hubbard.

The impressive thing here is how well this is done so that it actually doesn’t seem that batshit crazy if you’ve seen the show. The structure is particularly interesting in that it’s an epistolary novel using a variety of sources ranging from newspaper accounts to top secret government documents with notes from the archivist which connect the dots. Another layer to this is that we’re actually supposed to be reading this as a report from a FBI agent (One who becomes a character in the new season.) who is vetting the file and adding her own comments and notes to what the archivist is saying as well as trying to figure out his identity.

If you were only reading this to get questions answered from the show then it might be frustrating because while there are sections that deal with the familiar characters a great deal is just about this wide ranging conspiracy about UFOs. Sort of.

The main link is that we learn that a minor character from the original run of the show actually had a whole secret life tied into this vast conspiracy which also connects it all back to the town and its citizens. By the end it all comes full circle so that it makes sense. (Or as much sense as anything in Twin Peaks ever does.) It was probably slightly confusing to anyone who hadn’t seen the last season before reading, but as a companion piece to the entire show I found it extremely compelling.

One thing that I’m scratching my head over is that it seems to have some monumental continuity errors. Especially in the story of how Big Ed lost his true love Norma and ended up marrying crazy Nadine instead. Again, I’m no expert, but this seems wildly different then the story Big Ed told on the show back in the day.

On the other hand, the tale this time is being relayed by another character, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Frost wasn’t doing something tricky here that’s a commentary on how history changes depending on who’s telling it which would be a sly wink as to how much we can trust anything that’s in this book. Or maybe he just screwed up. It’s Twin Peaks so we’ll probably never know for sure, but that’s part of what makes it all so intriguing.

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Review: Noir

Noir Noir by Christopher Moore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Down these mean streets a man must go. Or to be more accurate in the case of Sammy ‘Two Toes’ Tiffin – down these mean streets a man must limp.

It’s 1947 in San Francisco where Sammy is a good guy with some skeletons in his closet who works as a bartender which is how he meets a beautiful blonde named Stilton, a/k/a the Cheese. As far as Sammy is concerned the Cheese stands alone, and he falls for her instantly. Unfortunately, his attempts at romance are hindered by his sleazy boss insisting that he procure some women for an Air Force general who wants to take them into the woods to provide entertainment for an elite club made up of influential men. Sammy is also working on get-rich-quick scheme that involves selling a deadly snake, there’s a racist cop causing trouble, and the news has reports about a strange incident in Roswell, New Mexico.

Since this was Christopher Moore writing a book called Noir I wasn’t expecting it to be James Cain or Jim Thompson. However, I was kind of hoping that he might stretch himself a little and be a bit less Christopher Moore. That's why I ultimately found this kind of disappointing because he gives it a try at first, but quickly throws it out the window to just write what he always does.

That’s the shame of it because the first couple of chapters do come across as Moore actually satirizing a noir novel with overblown pulpy language and a bunch of really solid jokes based on the concept. If he’d have stuck with that and resisted the urge to just do his usual thing of introducing the weird and/or supernatural he might have really had something. But then we get to the stuff about the aliens, and while it’s still got some laughs, it’s also a formula that Moore has done in pretty much every book.

I also found the shifting POV to be problematic. We start off with Sammy in the first person which lets him do the parody of the classic hard boiled crime novel which I wanted more of. But then Moore shifts to a third person narration which we later find out is coming from a very unlikely source. So the book starts off with this distinct voice which I was into, but when it shifts into something else which is when it becomes standard Moore. Then he tries to go back to first person Sammy telling the story, but he’d lost the tone of what he started with. Which was what I liked best and wanted more of.

It’s not a complete waste of time. Moore is just inherently funny and there are a lot of solid gags and lines that made me chuckle. But I wish he’d managed to actually write a noir parody instead of just doing the thing that comes easiest to him. If he wanted to write something in this time period and have aliens in it then why not do a pulpy '50s sci-fi kind of thing rather than claiming in the title that it's going to be a genre that it has almost nothing to do with?

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: Sunburn

Sunburn Sunburn by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two strangers meet at a small town bar. One is a sexy and mysterious redhead. The other is a handsome stranger who says he’s just passing through. That’s either the set-up to a dirty joke or the start of a noir novel.

I’ve been meaning to read Laura Lippman for a while now, and this one was right up my alley. I don’t want to say too much about the story because I think it’s one of those that the less you know the better going in. Suffice it to say that there’s plenty of twists and turns with both the main characters, Polly and Adam, hiding their own secrets and spending a lot of time wondering if they can trust the other even as neither of them can resist the attraction they have.

The plot is exceedingly clever with a James Cain feel to it, and that’s obviously deliberate since he’s even referenced. It’s one of those books where even the reader feels unsure of their footing as you’re constantly reevaluating each of them as new revelations come out. It’s also interesting that there’s actually very little action within the book. Most of what would be considered ‘the exciting parts’ happens before the book begins, and the biggest event that occurs essentially takes place between chapters. We don’t even know the truth about that until the end. In fact, a great deal of this just takes place in the heads of the people as they think about their secrets and suspicions even as they go about the routines they fall into over the course of the story.

That’s where the character work shines, and Lippmann shows a real flair at walking the line of leaving a reader unsure of what to think of both of them. Is one the victim and one the villain? Are they both villains? Both victims? What’s great is that the more you learn the less sure you’ll be about making any judgments about either one of them.

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