Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Murder In The Sun

Until Death
by James L. Thane

4 out of 5 murdered clients of a prostitute approve of this book

I’m not going to pretend that this is in any way an objective review…..

Jim Thane has been a longtime Goodreads friend, and I’ve often pointed to him as the example of how we all wish authors would behave on there.  Instead of pimping out his own books, he actually writes great reviews and interacts with others regularly  They don’t call him Gentleman Jim for nothing, folks…

In fact, Jim is sometimes too polite for his own good because he’s barely drawn any attention to the release of this second book featuring Phoenix homicide detective Sean Richardson. As Sean and his partner Maggie are working on one case of brutal murder, a high-end prostitute named Gina comes forward with the information that someone has stolen her little black book containing all her clients and that someone has been murdering these men. As Sean scrambles to uncover the killer, he’s also still grieving for his recently deceased wife, and he finds himself increasingly intrigued by the beautiful Gina.

Like the first in the series, this is a police procedural, and there are enough valid suspects in play to keep a reader guessing until the killer is finally revealed.  There’s also a very cool plot point based on technological twist that threw me for enough of a loop that I had to check with Jim to verify that it was a real thing and not something he invented for the story.

Sean makes for a sympathetic lead character with his grief providing a nice counterpoint to his no-nonsense police persona.  He’s like a more polite Lucas Davenport or a more human version of Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet.   It’s also a refreshing change of pace to read crime novels not set in New York, LA or Florida.

The fine folks at Shelf Inflicted did an interview with Jim Thane that includes one of the funniest and most epic answers ever to a question asked of a crime novelist.

Also posted at Goodreads and at Leafmarks.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Do As I Tell You

by Max Barry

3 out 5 evil poets

“Vartix velkor mannik wissick! Read this review and then email me your credit card numbers!”

If you followed my instructions, then this is the greatest book ever written.  If you didn’t, then it’s a decent thriller with a clever sci-fi hook to it that doesn’t deliver on its full potential.

Lexicon tells two parallel stories.  In the first one, Wil is a young Australian who is abducted at an airport by a mysterious man called Tom who tells him that he is being pursued by a powerful and dangerous group that has dedicated itself to using language to manipulate others.  The best of their people are called ‘poets’ and take on names of famous scribblers like Yeats or Woolf.  A poet can seize control of another person by reeling off a series of special code words that hack the brain and enable them to implant commands.

The other story takes place a few years prior to this and tells of how a teenage homeless girl named Emily becomes a student of a special school where the kids are trained in the art of persuasion to become poets.  The stubborn and headstrong Emily constantly chafes against the strict rules of the school, and she eventually finds herself in hot water.  As Wil and Tom try to stay a step ahead of the poets hounding them, Emily’s story eventually begins to dovetail with theirs and all points converge at an Australian town that was the victim of some kind of industrial catastrophe.

There are some echoes here of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash which also focuses on the idea of language as a kind of virus.  When Lexicon is exploring the ideas of persuasion and a secret group manipulating society by using mass media, it’s pretty interesting.  When it reverts to the thriller potion of people on the run from a vast conspiracy, then it’s a lot more formulaic and not nearly as much fun.

I had some other issues with the book, but I gotta venture into spoiler country to talk about them. so don't continue reading if you don't want to know elements of the ending.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Monster Mash-Up


By Stephen King

3 out of 5 silver ball bearings

Only Stephen King could write an 1100 page book about the innocence and wonder of childhood, and then kick it off with a six-year-old boy getting his arm ripped off by a clown.

Derry, Maine, in 1958 is a bad place to be if you’re a kid.  Child disappearances and murders are occurring with astonishing regularity, and while the adults set curfews and hunt for maniacs, a group of 11-year-old outcast kids know the truth.  A supernatural entity has been terrorizing and killing the children of Derry.  These 7 kids eventually band together into a self-proclaimed Loser’s Club dedicated to destroy the evil they call It.

In 1985 the members of the Losers are called together again in order to fulfill a childhood promise to return to Derry if It ever returned.  However, now they’re adults who have only foggy memories of exactly what they did to stop It the first time.  Can they summon the same belief they had as kids to again face and stop It?

With the creation of It, King threw a kitchen sink full of monsters into this with the villain able to take the form of whatever will scare it’s latest victim the most.  So the kids alternately face everything from werewolves, mummies, lepers, crawling eyes, giant birds and Frankenstein’s monster with It using the form of a demonic clown called Pennywise as the baseline.  The concept that it’s the belief system of the kids that they use as their main weapon against It was a clever idea. So if it’s a werewolf and the kids believe it’s a werewolf, then they also believe that silver can be used against the creature, and It has to abide by those rules.

Another of the more successful aspects of this book is how King creates 7 likeable kid characters and then writes them as adults so that they really seem like the same people.  Another part of this that is particularly sharp is just how well he portrays the sheer terror that each character seems to feel at one time or another.  While he presents all as being brave and stepping up when it’s Big-Damn-Hero time, they all also have moments where they’re pushed almost to their limits or beyond.

However, I’ve never been as high on this one as a lot of King fans are.  I originally read it when I was 5 years older than the age of the Losers in their 1958 story so I had just left the age of childhood fantasy behind and wasn’t particularly enthralled with revisiting the concept.  On the flip side of that, this was adult King engaging in a bit of nostalgia porn, and I was far too young to understand the fleeting nature of youth.  Now I’m 5 years older than the Loser’s were in the 1985 portion of the story so it’s like I’m traveling back to the time I should be nostalgic about to listen to an older person’s nostalgia of yet an earlier time.  In short, I’m always out of sync with King’s rhythm when it comes to this one.

It’s some of King’s best work at tapping into the minds of kids as well as the bittersweet nature of looking back at that time as an adult, but it’s also one where he gave in to his worst impulses in letting the story bloat far beyond what was needed to tell the story

There’s a couple of other factors that keep this from being top shelf King for me, but they are filled with spoilers so don’t read any further if you don’t want to know.

Spoilers follow:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Vroom! Vroom!

by Stephen King
3 out 5 fuel injected stars
You never forget your first time, and the memories of my initial encounter with Stephen King when he lured me into the back of a 1958 Plymouth Fury and had his way with me are still clear over 30 years later.
For the record, he wasn’t gentle.
I was a wee lad of 13 when this came out, and Stephen King had established his reputation as America’s boogeyman after his breakout in the ‘70s.  I wasn’t much of a horror fan and despite my growing interest in ‘grown-up’ fiction had no interest in the King novels and movies that were freaking the adults out.  Then one day I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and read a magazine article about King and his new book centered on a haunted killer car.
“That sounds pretty cool,” I thought.  After my appointment, I went to the library which was right around the corner from my doctor’s office.  (Ah, small towns...) I can’t remember if I actually was able to get it then or if I had to put my name on the hold list.  I suspect that a new King novel probably had a waiting list.  In either case, I soon got my grubby little mitts on a copy and read my first Stephen King novel.  The countless hours since devoted to reading his work and the small fortune I’ve spent accumulating his books over the years are a testament to how deeply the hook was set.
Looking back now, that seems kind of odd because Christine is not my favorite King novel.  In fact, it’d be well down my personal list after others like The Stand, The Shining or The Dark Tower series.  Still, it’s a pretty good King novel and was more than enough to put me on the King path that I’ve been on ever since despite the occasional rocky patches.  
I still remembered being surprised at how relatable the story was.  The way I’d heard adults talk made me think that the entire book would be a bloodbath.  Instead, I was shocked to see that King actually focused most of the early part of the book on a couple of small town high school guys who didn’t seem any different from the older teens I knew.  I remember thinking that this was the first book I’d read that had people living in a way that seemed familiar to me.  That’s why when the horror started creeping in from the edges; it made it that much worse.
Geeky loser Arnie and high school stud duck Dennis have been friends since they were children.  As they’re getting ready to start their senior year, Arnie spots a For Sale sign on a rusting piece-of-shit 1958 Plymouth Fury nicknamed Christine by its owner, a nasty old bastard named Roland LeBay. Despite Dennis’s best efforts to talk him out of it, Arnie insists on buying Christine which puts him at odds with his academic parents, especially his domineering mother who has managed to control every aspect of his life to that point.
As Arnie works on what seems to be a miraculous restoration job on Christine, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the car and angry at the world.  Dennis was uneasy about the vehicle from the beginning and gets more suspicious as his best friend seems less and less like himself.  When people who crossed Arnie start turning up dead via bizarre vehicular homicides, Dennis’s dread of Christine leads him to believe the impossible.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as the book about the evil car, but like most good horror there’s a more human theme lurking in the story.  In this case it’s about how childhood friends can drift apart and how inexorable that can be in some circumstances.  Dennis and Arnie wouldn’t be that much different than anyone who gets wrapped up in the changes that adulthood is about to lay on them only to look up and realize that the person who always used to be at their side has gone their own way.  That’s a sad fact of life that King uses as the foundation of the book, only he uses a murderous car as the wedge he drives between them instead of the more mundane distractions that usually do the job.
The other hook that he hangs the story on is based on the old nerd-gets-revenge fantasy.  In this case, despite Arnie’s sweet nature, he’s so incapable of standing up for himself that even Dennis finds him pathetic at times.  When Arnie develops a backbone and begins dating the prettiest girl in school, you can’t help root for him even as you know that the cause of these changes is Christine and therefore can’t be a good thing.
With all this going for it, then why doesn’t Christine rank higher in the King pantheon?  A couple of factors drag it down.  At the time it was published, this was King’s longest book other than his epic novel The Stand and that one was about the end of the world so some wordiness wasn’t out of line. Some of the bloat that would often characterize his later work was beginning to creep into this one.  The set-up of Arnie and Dennis’s history and Arnie’s status as the unlucky geek of their school goes on too long.  Also, the character of Dennis is just a little too good to be true.  Not every teenage boy is a raging sociopath, but after a while I did find it hard to believe that a good looking star athlete with plenty of girls chasing after him would really be best friends with the school misfit as well as a loving and respectful son to his parents. 
Then there’s the fact that while the destruction of Arnie’s personality is a big chunk of the book, the actual bloodshed comes at the wheels of Christine, and while King writes several gruesome death scenes and creates some very creepy moments, it’s still just a car.  Even with magical evil powers, you still think you could get away by just going into a tall building and waiting until it runs out of gas. 
Despite the elements that keep it from being considered among his best work, Christine is still a good example of what King does best by mixing human weakness with supernatural elements to create a story that keeps you turning pages.
Also posted at Goodreads.

Friday, December 6, 2013

George Pelecanos Doubles Down With Spero Lucas

The Double
by George Pelecanos

4 out of 5 stars.

My friend Dan has a theory that Spero Lucas is the illegitimate son of Travis McGee, and considering  the similarities between the two, this seems like a reasonable scenario.

Both are ex-military guys who eschew the traditional American lifestyle of steady jobs and families so that they can live on their own terms.  Not only are their attitudes alike, they also have found similar ways to turn a buck by recovering stolen items for a percentage of their value in incidents where the owners can’t use the legal system for one reason or another.  They are capable, sometimes violent, men who make their way with their wits and their brawn while feeling like outsiders from the people living ordinary lives around them.

The big difference is that John D. MacDonald’s creation was a pulp male fantasy in which McGee lived on a houseboat while cruising the Florida coast and picking up scores of beach bunnies with an attitude that would probably get him routinely pepper sprayed today.  Spero likes the ladies and can attract his share, but he’s far less of a man-ho than his spiritual predecessor.

The first book, The Cut, established Spero as a former Marine who saw extensive combat in Iraq.  Back in his home city of Washington D.C., Spero’s time facing death has left him impatient to get on with his life.  He wants meaningful work on his own terms and to enjoy simple pleasures like good music or the company of a pretty woman.  Working as a private investigator for a lawyer provides some steady income, but Spero also takes side gigs.

This time out Spero is helping a woman who barely avoided an Internet scam, but apparently the near-miss put her in the crosshairs of a predatory sexual con man who arranged the theft of a valuable painting she owned called The Double.  As he tries to track down the trio responsible for their own crime wave of scams and robbery,  Spero is also working for the lawyer to find evidence that could clear a man accused of murder as well as poke around the death of a young girl who was a student of his brother.  He also gets involved in a torrid affair with beautiful married women, but while Spero has tried to keep his romantic encounters casual, he begins to crave more than just sex with her.

As always with a George Pelecanos novel, there’s the incorporation of various locales that make his literary DC come alive.  Whether Spero is biking through up-scale neighborhoods or stopping by an auto shop to questions a suspect, Pelecanos has a knack for casually imparting the bits of detail and history that make the city one of the characters in the novel.

Spero seemed like he had a lot of potential as a character in the first novel, and Pelecanos adds the kind of depth to make him really special here.  On the surface, Spero seems to have his act together and knows exactly what he wants, but there are new layers of uneasiness added here.  His relationship with the married lady makes him start to question the bachelor lifestyle he thought he wanted.  This feeds into more inner conflict about the life he’s living.  Spero’s thoughts increasingly turn to his late father, the man who adopted him and his brother and gave them a loving home by his honest hard work and devotion to his family, and Spero is starting to find himself lacking in comparison.

Worst of all is that it starts to seem like the war may have taken a bigger toll on his psyche than he previously thought.  Spero learned how to kill overseas, and he was good at it.  That skill is a valuable tool in his work, but as the saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

Pelecanos has written a lot of great crime novels with memorable characters, but Spero may be his best one yet.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Somebody Put That Bartender Out!

Last of the Smoking Bartenders
by C.J. Howell

3 out 5 stars with magnetic strips for tracking purposes

(I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for this review.)

A murderous drifter roams the desert of the American southwest while setting fire to things like electrical substation.  No, wait.  Actually, the drifter is an undercover agent trying to thwart the plans of the evil organization called the Network who plans to blow up Hoover Dam.  Which story is true? Read the book and decide for yourself.
Tom is convinced that the Network is real and has lived off the grid for years so he appears to be nothing more than another homeless person to most people.  He thinks that the Network is omnipresent and could track him if he made a phone call or handled paper money because of the magnetic strips embedded in the bills so he will only use change.
When Tom meets a small town drunk named Lorne, the two go on a binge during which Tom convinces Lorne that the Network is real when he attacks a couple of their operations he runs across.  Later, Lorne tells Tom’s story to some meth dealing Native Americans on a reservation and they join Lorne for a meth fuelled rampage against the Network.  Or maybe they’re just on a crime spree.  It gets a little confusing.  Maybe the meth and beer have something to do with that.
Meanwhile, Hailey Garrett runs a one-woman FBI office from her house in a remote part of Utah.  Hailey was injured in the line of duty and along with the plastic hip, she got the perk of running her show out in the boonies and picking the cases she wants to investigate.  While Hailey looks into a bit of Tom’s anti-Network destruction, she finds enough evidence to put her on his trail.
This well written book starts out seeming like it could be a James Crumley style tale of a couple of odd characters on a booze-n-drug fueled road trip, but there’s an intriguing shift about halfway through in which the violence that Tom has inadvertently kicked off contrasts with a quieter exploration of the nature of paranoia.  There’s a long section in which Tom struggles to merely get across a large city in the brutal Southwestern heat.  When you’re a smelly homeless guy who has only a bag full of change and couple of cans of food, crossing the suburbs, industrial zones and inner city becomes an ordeal that could literally kill you.  As Tom struggles, he starts to reflect on his past and question whether his mission is real or a delusion.   If it is real, why must he suffer so to do the right thing?  If he’s crazy, why can’t he just stop the madness and find some peace?
There’s a real dilemma for the reader in how much they want to relate with Tom.  If you think that he's insane, then he’s a decent person who lives a miserable life because of the demons in his head, yet then he’s also a danger to others since he’s more than willing to inflict violence on any he sees as Network operatives.  This makes him both terrifying and pitiable at the same time.
The one bit that rang false was the character of Hailey.  It seems unlikely that the FBI would sanction a handicapped agent working solo on whatever cases she gets interested in.  This may or may not be a spoiler so skip the rest of this paragraph is you want to be completely in the dark.  But I wondered if we were supposed to view Hailey like Tom in that she seemed like a person who may not be dealing in reality.  Yet, she interacts with other people throughout the book as an FBI agent so it seems like that’s exactly what she is.  I think.
It’s an offbeat book with eccentric characters and a full measure of ultra-violence, but there’s also a thoughtful account of a person who is living in the cracks of society as he tries to decide whether he can trust himself.
Also posted at Goodreads.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Elmore Leonard Double Feature - The Big Bounce & Unknown Man #89

One of my favorite aspects about Elmore Leonard’s writing was that by shifting perspectives constantly he had the ability to make you sympathize with a character so that the hero of the story might not be who you thought it was at the beginning of a book.  Fans of television’s Justified who pick up Pronto for the first time will probably be confused as to why the first half of the book makes Raylan Givens look like a doofus being easily outwitted by Harry Arno.  It’s only late in the story that Raylan emerges as the real main character while Harry fades into a whining supporting role.
Leonard would even take a character that appeared sympathetic in one book and make them far less so in another.  Probably the most famous example of this was how the main characters in The Switch became the bickering lowlifes of Rum Punch. (Better known by its movie title of Jackie Brown.)
In the Leonard universe, being cool was the thing that counted most.  Whether the lead was a cop or a crook, all sins were forgiven so long as they were cool about it.  When they became uncool, they became unlikable and almost by default the villains of that story. Jack Ryan from The Big Bounce and Unknown Man #89 is unique because it seems like Leonard couldn’t decide if he was cool or not.
Ryan certainly doesn’t seem like a good guy at the beginnin of The Big Bounce where he’s in hot water after beating up a guy with a baseball bat.  Ryan loses his job picking cucumbers and is lucky not to land in jail.  He follows that up by brazenly stealing a bunch of wallets after walking into a house while the owners are partying on a nearby lakeside beach.  However, a local resort owner sees something worthwhile in Ryan and hires him as a handyman.  Jack isn’t entirely sure how he feels about this job or having someone trust him.  New temptation arrives in the form of a woman named Nancy, the mistress of a wealthy businessman who is tired of hanging out at his lake house and has been entertaining herself by shooting out random windows and running other people off the road in her car.
Nancy entices and teases Jack into engaging in some vandalism and house breaking with her, but she has a bigger goal in mind.  Her lover is going to have a large amount of cash in his house, and she wants Jack to help her steal it. 
The Big Bounce was Leonard’s first contemporary crime novel, but he already had his hallmarks of sharp dialogue and a variety of offbeat characters engaging with each other while working their own angles.  What makes it interesting is how it hinges on which way Jack will turn.  Nancy seems like a kindred soul and that the two should instantly become a Bonnie & Clyde style duo.  However, seeing Nancy’s random cruelty and disregard for other people seems to awaken Ryan’s seemingly dormant empathy.
It’s a very different Jack Ryan that we meet in Unknown Man # 89.  Set years later in Detroit, Jack has gone straight and is a process server with a reputation of being able to find almost anyone.  Mr. Perez comes to town from Louisiana and hires Jack to find a man as part of a complicated stock scheme.   A criminal named Virgil Royal is also looking for the same guy to recover some money he thinks he’s owed.
When Jack meets the missing man’s drunken wife Denise, he finds himself falling for her and starts to screw up Perez’s business.  To keep things on track, Perez brings in a redneck thug while pushing Jack to help him finalize the deal.  Jack begins his own schemes to help Denise keep the money for herself even if she doesn’t want it.
Another element has been added to Jack at this point with his being an admitted alcoholic who has been on the wagon. While he certainly liked his beer in The Big Bounce, there was never a sense that Jack was a drunk so that element seems to come out of nowhere and a bit clumsily used to establish an instant connection between him and Denise as he tries to help her get sober.
There’s an odd arc to Jack through these two books with him starting as a cocky small-time petty crook whose ego has him on a permanent path of self-destruction who eventually comes to appreciate the value of someone giving him a break after meeting a truly bad woman.  Then the subdued Jack Ryan who works an offbeat but honest job finds himself embroiled with criminals and doing some pretty shady stuff in order to help out an innocent woman. Or at least that’s what he says.  It often feels like Jack is rebelling against Perez for his arrogant assumption that Jack has been bought and paid for. So there’s the return of a Jack Ryan acting in destructive ways out of pride, just in service of a nobler cause.
Re-reading the two books back to back illustrates how Leonard's characters were very often not what they appeared to be, or even who they thought they were themselves.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

One Crazy Summer

One Summer: America, 1927
by Bill Bryson

4 out of 5 Lindy Hopping stars

If you think that you had a busy summer, consider 1927:

Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and became a national hero.  Babe Ruth broke his own home run record on a Yankees team that would be remembered as one of the best baseball teams ever assembled.  The Midwest was devastated by extensive flooding and the Secretary of Commerce Hebert Hoover was in charge of recovery efforts. A routine murder trial in New York became a media sensation for reasons no one can explain.  Sacco and Vanzetti were executed and sparked outrage around the world.  Prohibition was still in effect but that didn’t stop Al Capone’s criminal empire from reaching the height of its power. Capone also attended a boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney that would captivate the nation and still be controversial today.  A young engineer with the awesome name of Philo T. Farnsworth made a critical breakthrough that would lead to the development of television, and another entertainment milestone occurred when the first full length motion picture with sound began filming.  After building 15 million Model Ts, Henry Ford’s company ceased production and began creating the Model A. In South Dakota, the work of carving four president’s faces into Mount Rushmore began. Last but not least, four bankers had a meeting in which they made a decision that would eventually start the Great Depression.

And yet Bryan Adams picked another summer to immortalize in song…

Bill Bryson’s book is packed with the details of these events and many more along with plenty of related stories and anecdotes.  It should read like a trivia book of 1927 factoids, but what makes it more than that is the deft way that Bryson establishes the history of what came before as well as the long term impact.  For example, he doesn’t just tell the story of Lindbergh’s historic flight and of his subsequent fame, he also lays out in a succinct manner how America had been trailing the world in aviation up until that point as well as how it changed things afterwards.

It’s that context that makes this more than just a list of events, and he also goes to some effort to add depth in several places like describing how horrifyingly racist American society was in those days with the Ku Klux Klan enjoying a reemergence while even supposedly high-brow publications like The New Yorker would casually use ethnic slurs.  By the time he tells the readers about how outlandish eugenics theories became influential which resulted in tens of thousands of people being legally sterilized in the United States, the reader can understand all too well how it could happen in that kind of environment.

In fact, one of the things that jumped out at me about this is that most of the popular figures of 1927 were basically assholes.  Charles Lindbergh's boyish good lucks and piloting skill got the press to overlook that he was about as interesting as white bread, and he’d show a nasty streak of anti-Semitism later in his life that would severely tarnish his image.  Henry Ford was also a notorious anti-Semite, and he was also the kind of ignoramus that despised people with educations or scientific background.  His refusal to consult any types of experts led him to waste millions on schemes like trying to start a rubber plantation in South America and shutting down his assembly lines to retool for the Model A with no clear plan as to what exactly they’d build.  (After reading about Ford‘s stubborn mistakes, I can’t believe the Ford Motor Company managed to survive long enough to make it to the Great Depression, let alone still be in business today.)  Herbert Hoover led a life that should have made him  one of America’s most fascinating presidents.  He was a self-made success story who had traveled the world as a mining consultant and was credited with a relief effort that fed millions in Europe during World War I.  Yet he seemed to take no pleasure in anything other than work and one long time acquaintance noted that he never heard him laugh once in 30 years.  Calvin Coolidge believed so much in limiting the role of government that he spent most of his presidency napping and would refuse to take even the most of innocuous of actions like endorsing a national week of recognition for the importance of education.

It’s funny that since the book describes so many people as either being unlikable, unethical or downright criminal that one of the few that seems decent was Babe Ruth.  While all of the Babe’s bad habits are laid out here, he also comes across as one of the few that did what he was good at with an exuberant zest for life and generous spirit that was sadly lacking in many of his contemporaries.  The guy may have enjoyed his food, liquor and women to excess, but he never hid who he was.  Plus, he was fun at parties!

Bryson’s look at the events, large and small, that made up one pivotal summer is an interesting read that provides a clear window to the past while being highly entertaining.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Staying Sunny In Philadelphia

Silver Linings Playbook
by Matthew Quick

4 out of 5 crabby snacks.

Pat Peoples has been confined to the ‘bad place’, but he finally gets to leave and live with his parents until he can get back on his feet.  Pat’s main goal is to continue on a path of self improvement including working on being kinder, strenuous exercise and reading books so he'll be a better husband when he finally sees his beloved wife Nikki again after their ‘apart time’.

Pat likes being home, but his moody father refuses to talk to him unless the Philadelphia Eagles win.  Plus, his mother and his therapist are both encouraging him to spend time with Tiffany, a very strange woman who was recently widowed.  It’s almost like no one understands that he’s still married to Nikki.  As he works on becoming a better person, Pat gets to attend the Eagles home games with his brother and makes a lot of friends at the pre-game tailgates.  As they start winning, the superstitious fans think that Pat is good luck, and even his father becomes much friendlier.  As long as he can control his temper and continues to work hard, Pat is sure that he’ll get the kind of happy ending you see in the movies.

Since this is about a guy whose life has been shattered and he doesn’t even know it, you’d think Pat’s story would be incredibly sad.  Instead, the bittersweet humor that Mathew Quick has laced the book with makes it a pleasure to read instead of a depressing slog. Pat’s devotion to the cause of reuniting with Nikki can be simultaneously infuriating and endearing, and while we only get his usually slightly bewildered view point, you can also completely understand how those around him are feeling.

Quick also does a particularly nice job of detailing the highs and lows of sports fandom. Pat bonds with his brother and  becomes part of a community while tailgating. The team provides him a link to his emotionally distant and stubborn father.  Even his therapist is a rabid Eagle’s fan, and this helps Pat to trust and like him.  While the games provide great entertainment and instant connections, there‘s also a big downside to them.  An ugly incident with a rival team’s fan in the parking lot illustrates how sports fans can be merciless.  (It also highlights that wearing a rival team’s jersey to a game in Philly is a spectacularly bad idea.)  Pat’s dad is so wrapped up in the Eagles that a loss can make him even harder to live with.  When Pat makes a commitment to Tiffany that causes him to miss some games, everyone begins blaming him for the losses.

( However, I couldn’t be too critical of the characters being superstitious because I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon waiting for the kick-off a Chiefs’ game while wearing the same red t-shirt I’ve worn for the last 6 games because they’ve won all 6.  As the commercials say, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.)

I also very much enjoyed the movie version of this.  Even though it’s a fairly faithful adaptation there are also several big differences that made reading the novel surprising in several ways so this is one of those incidents where it’s well worth checking out both versions.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Toy Talk: A Fairy Tale With Profanity

Once upon a time, there was a carpenter named Otto who liked toys. Otto noticed that many people liked toys, but that for some reason there weren’t many public meeting places where these people could talk about them. Then he had an idea.

“I could build a large shed and put shelves inside the shed, and I’ll get pictures of all the toys in the land. Then I could invite toy fans to come pick out the pictures of the toys they’ve played with or are interested in, and they can put them on the shelf to display them, and other fans can walk around and look at them. This will spark all kinds of discussions. In fact, what if I give people a system to rate their toys so that passers-by will be able to see at a glance which toys are popular?” Otto told his friend Eliza.

“How much are you going to charge to do this?” Eliza asked.

“Nothing. It will all be free to all,” Otto replied.

“Are you fucking high?” Eliza replied. “Do you know what lumber costs? And how much work it will be to set all this up? Where are you going to get like a jillion pictures of toys? All this just so a bunch of toy freaks can sit around talking about them?”

“If I charge nothing, it will attract the toy fans. And I have some ideas about how I can make money from the toy sellers. The toy fans will have a place to gather with like-minded folk, the toy sellers will advertise there to their biggest potential buyers and be able to tell what kind of toys people like, and I might make a little money on the deal. It’s win-win-win.”

“Sounds pretty slim to me. But I like toys, too. What the hell, I’ll help,” Eliza said

So Otto cleared some land behind his house and built a large shed. Inside the shed, he put rows upon rows of shelves, and every shelf had a slot in front in which someone could put small wooden stars and write a label for them. Finally, he hung up a large sign over the entrance that said: Toy Talk – Free to All.

There were only small crowds of toy fans that showed up in those early days, and Otto would give the same spiel as they entered.

“Welcome to Toy Talk! We’ve created this place so that fans of toys can meet and talk about them. You can use as many shelves and toy pictures as you like. To help you organize the toys you already own or are interested in, we’ve given the shelves some basic names, but you can also add your own labels. Please use the star stickers we’ve provided, too. 1 for the worst and 5 for the best,” Otto would say. “Also, we have provided free pens and paper so that you can all write up reviews on the toys and tack them up next to the pictures. If you see a review you really like, you put this little I Liked It! sticker next to the review and you can write your own little note underneath the review if you have a comment.”

“Are there any rules?” some would ask.

“Yeah. We’d like you to stick to talking about toys. If you get into arguments where you use the really bad words or get abusive to another user, we’ll ban you. We wrote all this up and posted them on the wall over there, but it’s pretty long so most people don’t read it. Basically, it just says don’t be an asshole. I’m generally a pretty easy going guy who likes free discussion. But let’s be honest, it’s my shed so if you start pissing me off for any reason, I’ll change the rules to do what I want. What are the chances of that happening though?” Otto said sincerely.

“Only 5 stars? Can we have half-stars?” someone would inevitably ask.

“Dude, seriously? I built all this shit I’m letting you use for free, and your first question is about half-stars? Get the fuck out of here,” Otto would say.

Soon word of Toy Talk spread and more toy fans would came to the shed. The ones that liked certain types of toys began gathering into groups and discussing the subtle nuances of their favorite play things. Volunteers helped Otto organize the huge amounts of pictures. The reviewing became quite popular and the competition for I Liked It! stickers became such a driving force that Otto tallied up results weekly and posted the results on the bulletin board. Much silliness ensued because of this, but by and large they became a source of great entertainment for many in the Toy Talk community. Best of all, many of the toy lovers made new friends.

As Otto had thought, the toy manufacturers and sellers saw opportunities in the shed. Some began advertising their wares there and were interested in which toys were popular or disliked and so Otto was able to share the trends he noticed for a fee. Some toy makers set up their own shelves so that they could interact with fans of their work and share their thoughts on toys. Free advance prototypes of some toys became available to reviewers.

Then, Otto and Eliza, who had fallen in love during their hard work on the shed, got married. Even the most heartless and cynical Toy Talk users found this kind of sweet.

If this was a different kind of tale, that would be the happy ending. Unfortunately, this is not that kind of story.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

That F'ing Flowers....

Storm Front 
by John Sandford
Putnam Adult

3 out of 5 stars made of counterfeit lumber.

Minnesota state investigator Virgil Flowers is working diligently on a case involving Florence ‘Ma’ Nobles and her sons selling counterfeit antique lumber. Of course, part of the reason that Virgil is working so hard is that Ma is very attractive and flirting shamelessly with him. So when a call comes in from his boss Lucas Davenport with another assignment, Virgil is more than a little miffed.

It’s no big deal, Davenport tells him. A Lutheran minister named Elijah Jones who is dying of cancer stole an ancient inscribed stone called a stele from an archaeological dig in Israel and smuggled it home to Minnesota. The Israelis want it back and have dispatched an antiquities expert to makes sure that happens. Virgil just has to play tour guide, pick up the terminally ill minister and locate the stele. Davenport assures Flowers that he’ll back on his counterfeit lumber case in to time at all.

Virgil really should know by now that Davenport lies…

Jones plans to auction the stele off to the highest bidder to get the money needed to care for his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s after he dies, and it turns out the old man is pretty wily. The stele’s inscription has historic implications that could be very damaging to Israel so Hezbollah has sent a representative to try and obtain it for propaganda purposes. A couple of tough Turks with fearsome reputations also show up. Two spotlight hungry media whores who pretend to be scholars also want in on the action, and the Israelis have a couple of dirty tricks at the ready. Even Ma Nobles gets mixed up in hunt for the stele, much to Virgil’s consternation.

Soon there’s more allegiances declared and alliances broken than on a season of Survivor, and an increasingly frustrated Virgil can’t seem to make any of these double crossing idiots understand that someone’s gonna get killed if this foolishness doesn’t stop.

Sandford has a lot of interests other than writing and one of the them is archaeology. Per his bio on his web page, he has funded and participated in a large dig in Israel since the late ‘90s so it’s a little surprising that this is the first one of his books to feature an archaeological angle to it. Despite the international flavor with various groups and countries interested in the stele, this still has the same grounded style that you usually get in a Sandford novel. There are some great bits late in the book with Virgil interacting with the shadowy figures of some unnamed American security agency, but Flowers remains the kind of guy far more interested in reading a fishing magazine than worrying about international intrigue and national security.

There’s an almost playful attitude in this one, and while the story is treated seriously, it wouldn’t have taken much to turn this into an outright farce, kind of like one of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels. Sandford’s always had a sense of humor, but this is the first one of his books where he almost seems to make light of the stakes involved. There also isn’t much of the usual momentum and tension you get in a Lucas Davenport or Virgil Flowers novel. This isn’t a bad thing since it seems like a bit of departure from the others and with this many books in play, I like that Sandford doesn’t feel obligated to stick to the formula that has worked so well for him in the past.

It isn’t my favorite Sandford novel but it’s a fun one.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Questing For Fun

The Quest
Nelson DeMille
3 out of 5 stars.

Apparently Nelson DeMille wrote the first version of this book back in 1975, and it’s about people having an adventure while trying to find the Holy Grail. Even though I’ve been reading DeMille since the ‘80s, I’d never even heard of it. So despite his best-selling career writing thrillers about cops, spies and terrorists, I’m gonna assume that the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code really chapped DeMille’s ass, and that he decided to rewrite and rerelease this to get in on that gravy train.

Set during the mid-1970s, three reporters are in Ethiopia trying to cover the civil war. Henry Mercado is an older British gent who spent several years in a Soviet gulag and credits his survival to his finding faith in Jesus while there. Henry is accompanied by the much younger and beautiful Vivian Smith, a Swiss photojournalist, and they invited veteran American correspondent Frank Purcell along to get a first-hand look at the fighting. Purcell is wary of dangerous situations thanks to a year spent in a Cambodian prison camp, but a few too many cocktails at the hotel bar and a long look at Vivian convinced him to go along.

While spending the night in the ruins of a spa, a wounded Italian priest staggers out of the jungle with an incredible story to tell of how he has spent 40 years imprisoned after coming across a mysterious monastery in the jungle that he claims housed the Holy Grail. The priest’s info gives the three journalists a starting point to try and locate the monastery, but traveling in Ethiopia during a war is a dangerous undertaking.

If you read the official summary of this it states:

"Thus begins an impossible quest that will pit them against murderous tribes, deadly assassins, fanatical monks, and the passions of their own hearts."

That is a complete lie that is trying to market this as a rollicking adventure such as other stories about looking for the Holy Grail like Brown’s book or Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. It’s false advertising that seems to be biting the publishers in the ass based on the reviews from DeMille fans I’ve read.

While there is danger to the group, it mostly comes in the form of one crazy Marxist general, a badly maintained airplane and the Ethiopian jungle. The murderous tribes are much discussed but never seen. The fanatical monks are just a bit of stage dressing, and as for ‘deadly assassins’, I don’t know what they're talking about there.

Like a lot of DeMille’s work, there’s a lot of talk and discussion about potential dangers, but the actual moments of the heroes in jeopardy are few and far between. A long interlude in the middle of the book revolves around doing research at the Vatican where the biggest threat is the love triangle that could end the quest. There are no ninja monks shooting poison darts or albino assassins running around killing people. Mainly they eat a lot of meals and drink a lot of wine and talk about what they’re going to do.

It’s not a terrible read. I find DeMille’s stuff generally enjoyable even in ones where not a helluva lot happens at times other than his protagonist sitting around being suspicious of the motives of others. The early stuff with the priests and the journalists being caught up in the Ethiopian civil war was exciting and compelling, and the third act with the actual hunt for the Grail wasn’t bad. I also learned a lot of interesting stuff about Ethiopia that I didn’t know.

But the middle section is almost entirely dialogue about research, relationships and faith which killed a lot of momentum and went on far too long. Overall, this didn’t provide much excitement for a book marketed as a thrilling adventure about the hunt for a religious artifact. Indiana Jones made it look like a lot more fun when he did it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Grave Diggers & Wild Hogs

The Thicket
by Joe R. Lansdale

4 out of 5 stars

(I received a free copy of this from NetGalley.)

At the tail end of the cowboy days in East Texas, sixteen year old Jack Parker and his sister Lula have a helluva bad week.  After their parents die in a smallpox epidemic, their grandfather is murdered by a gang of bank robbers who kidnap Lula.  The only help that Jack can find is a grave digging black man with a drinking problem named Eustace and the midget bounty hunter Shorty.  Along with a giant hog, they set out to rescue Lula.   Jack tries to hold to his Christian beliefs that the gang should be caught and tried, and he is horrified at Shorty and Eustace’s willingness to kill and ignore common decency in the name of a greater good, namely their own.

As they meet more victims of the gang along the trail and see how cruel they truly are, Jack starts to realize that there’s no way to get Lula back without getting blood on his hands and that his traveling companions may have a better understanding of the world than he does.  His young puritan ways are also tested when he meets Jimmie Sue, a hooker with a heart of gold who takes a liking to him.

There are elements of this story that will probably sound familiar to anyone who has read or seen one of the two film versions of True Grit with a young person venturing into a hostile wilderness with some salty frontier types, but Lansdale also adds some bizarre and violent turns that feel more like Django Unchained at times.

My favorite part was the character of Shorty.   He may be the smallest member of the posse, but he’s the smartest and hell on wheels with a gun in his hand.  He’s also a misanthrope who came by it honestly after a lifetime of dealing with people who treat him like a freak or a child, and he gets most of the best lines in the book.

It’s also got all the hallmarks of Joe Lansdale with a profane sense of humor that provides plenty of action but with a sense of responsibility about the damage done by all the violence.  In fact, my one complaint about the novel is that it’s a little too Joe Lansdale.

If you’ve read his Hap & Leonard series, then a lot of this will seem somewhat familiar in that you’ve got some characters who while being ‘the good guys’ are perfectly content to dish out punishment if they feel it’s been earned while someone provides a softer hearted conscience that urges some compassion.  In fact, this isn’t even the first Lansdale book to feature a midget involved in a vicious pistol whipping along with a strange wild animal bonding with people since he worked similar stuff into Rumble Tumble.

However, if the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s a typical Joe Lansdale story, then you know you’re still getting an entertaining tale.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Didn't These Guys Ever See Fargo?

Out of the Black
John Rector

4 out of 5 kidnapped stars.

(I received a free ARC of this from NetGalley.)

Matt Caine must have crossed a black cat’s path before walking under a ladder and opening an umbrella indoors while breaking a couple of mirrors because he is one unlucky son-of-a-bitch.

His wife was killed in a car crash that badly injured and traumatized their daughter, and Matt had to take out loans against his house to pay the medical bills.  When the banks threaten to foreclose, Matt borrows money from his old buddy Murphy who dabbles in loan sharking, but he can’t find steady work and the interest on the debt is piling up.   Murphy doesn’t want to hassle Matt, but it’s bad for business to let someone slide and his partners are getting antsy.

Matt’s in-laws are making noises about taking his daughter away because his grief and a case of PTSD from his time in the Marines have left him unfit and unable to provide for his daughter.  When his friend Jay starts talking about a foolproof plan to kidnap the wife of a wealthy man for a payday that would solve all his problems, Matt knows that it’s a bad idea, especially since Jay is an untrustworthy junkie.  As his options dwindle, he eventually convinces himself that it’s his only way he can keep his daughter.  The kidnapping plan goes about as well as you’d expect as Matt’s lucky streak continues.

In John Rector’s The Cold Kiss, he took the old crime story scenario of someone finding a bag of money and trying to get away with it and made a fresh story out of it.  He does a similar thing here with the idea of a decent guy forced by circumstances into taking part in a crime in which things go screwy.  It’s a fast-paced story with a relatable main character and some good twists and turns along the way.

I wish a bit more about Matt’s history as a Marine had been explained because other than a comment from his mother-in-law about his wife had told him about his nightmares, we don’t get much more than that.  While he knows his way around a gun, there’s nothing in the action stuff to suggest that he’s been in combat before.  There’s also a cute neighbor who is a little too good to be true that loves his daughter and is always available to babysit when he needs her to.  Of course, she’s also attracted to Matt who is too conflicted about his dead wife to act on it.

I’m focusing too much on the flaws here and nitpicking this more than I meant to. It really is a solid story with good action and a fast pace to it that should make any crime fan happy.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Light My Fire

Clean Burn
by Karen Sandler
Published by Exhibit A
Available Aug. 27

3 out of 5 burning stars.

(I received an ARC of this from NetGalley.)

Janelle Watkins sure is a HOT mess!

Get it?  Because this book is called Clean BURN and it has about fire and arson?

Oh, never mind.  I don’t know why I even bother trying to entertain you people.

Anyhow, Janelle used to be a cop in San Francisco who had a knack for finding abducted children, but a freak injury ended her career and left her with a bad leg.  She also has personal issues like being haunted by visions of a boy she failed to save and an unhealthy fascination with fire that includes a habit of burning herself with matches for funsies.

Janelle now works as a private investigator who gimps around handing cases involving cheating spouses, and she wants nothing to do with missing kids until a personal plea leads her back to her old hometown of Greenville where her former partner and lover Ken is now the sheriff.  Being in Greenville triggers a lot of unpleasant memories of her childhood as well as the awkwardness of dealing with Ken.  At first Janelle just wants to leave as soon as possible, but a series of fires and several missing kids draw her into an investigation that has her working with Ken again.

Since this is a crime novel featuring a damaged main character, it’s going to work or fail depending on how much you sympathize with Janelle.  Overall, I found her pretty compelling.  She’s messed up, but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity and generally she’s still trying to do something worthwhile even though her own life is a disaster.

However, giving Janelle the quadruple whammy of being an abused kid, having an old case that haunts her, dealing with a painful physical injury and an unhealthy obsession with fire was a little over the top.  Her level of self-loathing and insistence that something is wrong with her seemed a bit much at times considering that the worst thing she does is burn herself with matches, but self-hatred often doesn’t need a logical reason so this didn’t hurt the book much.

The rest of the story is a pretty standard thriller, but it’s competently done.  The crazy character Mama makes for a decent enough villain, and the kids in jeopardy angle adds tension to it.

The plot contained a few elements that had me nitpicking.  Despite being a small town with a near constant string of arsons and a missing kid, Ken seems to be able to just deal with all of this via a few radio calls and able to knock off work or chauffer Janelle around whenever he feels like it when it seems like a county sheriff would be living at the office and crime scenes.

There was also an odd scene where Ken takes Janelle to a dance that is being done to raise money for the funeral expenses of a kid who drowned in a river.  I’ve seen small town fund raising for tragedies that have included pancake breakfasts, auctions, bake sales and just donation cans placed around local businesses.  However, I’ve never heard of a having a dance where the people going into drink and party drop a couple of bucks on the parents of a dead kid sitting at a table by the door.  Maybe someone would do a concert of some kind to raise money, but the idea of having a full-on dance in front of the parents who just lost their son the day before seemed insane to me.

Aside from the minor gripes, this was a solid thriller with a main character I’d be interested in reading more about.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Revolution For Couch Potatoes

The Revolution Was Televised: 
The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever
by Alan Sepinwall

4 out 5 stars in HD.

Last Tuesday, I was reading the chapter about The Sopranos in which the author highly praises James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony.  The next day, Galdolfini died.  That’s one of those odd coincidences that I could really do without.

TV critic Alan Sepinwall writes the popular HitFix blog What's Alan Watching? and here he takes a look at a dozen shows that revolutionized television since the late ‘90s.  Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were all groundbreaking in their own ways and proved that there were audiences for well-made shows that pushed boundaries and revolutionized the way TV got made and watched.

Each show gets it’s own chapter in which Sepinwall gives the history of how the show came about, summarizes it’s storylines, relays behind-the-scenes tidbits and anecdotes and then examines the elements that made the show special and how it pushed the medium forward.  Interviews with creators, producers, writers and network executives provide background and thoughts from inside the industry as to how these shows changed the business.

Many of the stories behind the creation of the shows would make for interesting books just by themselves.  Lost came from one ABC executive who figured he was about to be fired and rushed the most expensive pilot in TV history into production, and Mad Men was the result of AMC’s desire to get some kind of critically acclaimed show that would generate buzz on the air because the network feared some cable providers were going to drop them. The universal theme for most of these shows is that creative people who had felt stifled by their experiences in Hollywood delivered when circumstances finally gave them an opportunity to do something different.

Sepinwall keeps his critic’s hat on though and gives frank appraisals of mistakes like the Friday Night Lights train wreck of a second season or 24's frequent lapses into stories involving amnesia, cougars or torture.  He also details how fan dissatisfaction with of some of the finales like Lost, Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos can affect their feelings towards the series as a whole.

Since he gives the broad story details, and there are plenty of spoilers so if there’s a show you've been meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to yet, it’d be best to skip those sections, but since each chapter is pretty much self-contained when it comes to those points, it’d still be possible to read around that and not lose the overall theme of what Sepinwall is looking at here.

This isn’t just some dry analysis either.  Sepinwall has a good sense of humor and has been writing about TV long enough to come up with interesting ways to translate what we see on a screen into words.  Here’s what he has to say about one show's breakneck pacing:

"You didn’t so much watch The Shield as get beat up by it for an hour before it went off to grab a few beers and find a pimp to hassle."

If you’ve read Sepinwall’s blog, a lot of these stories and themes will seem somewhat familiar because they’re points he’s touched on when he’s written about these shows before, but this was a chance for him to do an overview on an era of TV that came as many circumstances changed the old model of doing business and helped fuel a wave of creativity.   Sepinwall’s enthusiasm for good TV is contagious and thanks to this book, I’m sure I’ll be cracking open some DVD sets and hitting HBO Go in the near future to revisit a lot of these myself.

Also posted on Goodreads.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


The third book of Duane Swierczynski's Charlie Hardie trilogy was recently released.  Here's the three reviews I wrote as each one came out.

#1 - Fun & Games 

One reason I never bought into any of the conspiracy theories that swirl around celebrity deaths like Princess Di or Marilyn Monroe is that they always seem to be based on the notion that there are these shadowy figures that can orchestrate murder on demand and cover it up without leaving a trace. Hell, when Nixon wanted the Watergate black bagged, he had to use incompetent bastards like G. Gordon Liddy and a ragtag group of Cuban exiles, and he was president of the United States. If there really was a network of efficient criminals to do some dirty deeds, you’d think Nixon would have had them on speed dial.

However, while I don’t believe in the idea of vast conspiracies with armies of hired killers, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy stories about them. Duane Swierczynski  has come up with a highly entertaining spin on the whole conspiracy theory thriller genre.

Charlie Hardie used to work for the cops but these days he’s a professional house sitter. The job lets him indulge in his hobby, binge drinking. When Charlie shows up for a gig in LA, he doesn’t even get his bottle of bourbon open when he’s attacked by a woman hiding in the house. Even more shocking is that she is Lane Madden, a B list actress who frantically claims that people are trying to kill her. Charlie thinks he’s just dealing with another drugged out celebrity until some very bizarre and dangerous shit starts to happen very quickly. It turns out that Charlie has interrupted the Accident People as they were in the midst of their latest project, killing Lane Madden.

The Accident People are a group that specialize in killing high profile targets and providing an air tight cover story so that no questions will be asked. In Lane’s case, their plan to off her via a car accident went off the rails when Lane managed to escape and hide. 

Swierczynski  put a unique twist on the shadowy conspiracy operatives in this with the Accident People. They are made up of a lot of former film people with a ’director’ coming up with the narrative about how they want the death to play out, and then using actors and technical people to make it happen. They've also got access to a variety of lethal weapons like poison gas and drugs that induce heart attacks. It’s a little over the top (What conspiracy thriller isn’t?) but it at least puts a thin layer of plausibility and explanation as to just where the hell one would an obtain a covert network of people able to get away with murder.

Fast, dark and fun, this was some high octane reading. Duane S. springs some big surprises in this, and it keeps you guessing throughout. This is the first part of a trilogy so there’s a bit of a cliffhanger at the end. If you’re in the mood for a crime thriller that reads like a good action movie, this fits the bill.

#2 Hell & Gone

Duane Swierczynski has ideas so brilliant and brutal that one day the rest of us will have to tool up and kill him. - Warren Ellis

Swierczynski seems to be making the transition from cult favorite to getting more main stream attention, so Ellis will probably try to make good on this threat in the near future. Since I’m enjoying the hell out of his work, I am volunteering my services as a bodyguard. What I lack in training, experience and competence, I make up for in my utter willingness to pepper spray absolutely anyone (including small children and the elderly) who’d give Mr. Swierczynski any grief.

Hell and Gone is the second part of a trilogy. In the first book, Fun & Games ex-cop Charlie Hardie is a house sitting drunk who has a very bad encounter with the Accident People. The AP’s are a branch of a Vast Conspiracy that does a variety of nefarious things, and their specialty is the elimination of high profile targets like politicians or celebrities via untraceable ‘accidents’. Charlie threw a monkey wrench into one of their operations in L.A. but didn’t manage to escape so he figured he’d be dead in about 12 seconds.

But instead of killing him, Charlie is given a weird job offer. The Vast Conspiracy decides to make him the warden of a secret prison instead. With no other options, Charlie plays along hoping to find a way to escape. Unfortunately, the prison is a decaying underground complex at an unknown location that would make a pretty good setting for a video game. The handful of inmates are extremely dangerous and require a Hannibal Lector level of security, and the guards are only slightly more trustworthy than the prisoners. And the special sauce on this shit sandwich is that if any one tries to get out through the original entrance, it’d trigger a ‘death mechanism’ that kills everyone in the prison.

Fun and Games was a fast-n-furious action novel with heaping helpings of ultra-violence and humor. Hell and Gone is less actiony and more of a mind fuck, but it’s still powered by it’s breakneck pace and the sheer awesome insanity of its plot. This is the literary equivalent of taping a bunch of bottle rockets together, lighting the fuses and then tossing them into the middle of your 4th of July barbecue. It’s chaos, but it’s entertaining as hell. And if Swierczynski did what I think he did at the end of this one, the final book is going to be even crazier.

Also, Swierczynski is one of the authors I got to meet at Bouchercon earlier this year, and he seemed like a very nice guy who patiently answered my questions about superheroes. I may even brave the latest DC continuity reboot and pick up his Birds of Prey comics which I’ve heard good things about.

#3 - Point & Shoot

With his Charlie Hardie trilogy, Duane Swierczynski has successfully created a perpetual momentum machine that feeds off it’s own outrageous plot twists and increasingly crazy action to the point where it becomes self-sustaining in defiance of every rule of physics and literature that dictate it should have long ago exploded in the faces of its readers,  killing or maiming them all.

It’s impossible to recap this without spoilers, and spoilers should be avoid at all costs.  So suffice it to say that it’s about a guy named Charlie Hardie who once did some work for the Philadelphia police department before tragedy had him change careers to being a drunken house sitter.  Then fate had him cross paths with a vast conspiracy known as the Accident People.  This is the group behind almost every shady death of a celebrity or politician.

Charlie fouled up one of the AP’s plots and his life has been a hellish nightmare of being used in their increasingly elaborate schemes with interludes of occasionally breaking free to try and stop then and invariably trigging more of their wrath.  Here at the end of the road, Charlie is confronted with yet another mind blowing twist as well as an insane escape situation and then a desperate road trip to try and protect his wife and son.

The thing about these books is that they’re just flat out fun.  The increasingly convoluted conspiracy plot and over-the-top action should make them ridiculous, but Swierczynski makes it work by just showing a relentless balls-out commitment to piling blocks of batshit insanity on top of batshit insanity to the point where there’s this giant pyramid of blocks of batshit insanity standing there.  Yeah, it’s made out of batshit insanity, but it’s still a pyramid.  And it’s glorious.

All three reviews also posted at Goodreads.

Fun & Games
Hell & Gone
Point & Shoot

Shelf Inflicted Updates

Things are humming along at Shelf Inflicted, the joint blog that features a variety of posts from some of us Goodreads hooligans.

I recently reviewed Joe Hill's NOS4A2, Michael Koryta's The Prophet, the latest Spenser Wonderland from Ace Atkins and an account of a road trip I took to see Atkins, Koryta, Megan Abbott and others in St. Louis.  I also took a look at the first seasons of FX's The Americans and CBS's Elementary.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dirty Politics

Silken Prey
by John Sandford
Putnam Adult
Exit polling indicates this book is 4 out of 5 stars.

Lucas Davenport has faced all kinds of dangerous homicidal maniacs in his long career, but he may have finally met his match when going up against a beautiful billionaire with political ambitions and a couple of ex-military killers on her payroll.

Incumbent Republican Senator Porter Smalls hasn’t let his conservative politics keep him from having a couple of sex scandals, and he just got caught with child pornography on his laptop.  It seems like his challenger, the uber-wealthy heiress Democrat Taryn Grant, will easily win the election.

However, Minnesota’s governor fears that the Smalls has been framed and not only could that kick off an unacceptable escalation of dirty politics, it could also turn into a major scandal that would rock the Democratic party.  So the governor quietly calls in Davenport and asks him to quickly determine if the kiddie porn was planted on Smalls’ computer. Lucas has a long history of dealing with the political and media angles on behalf of his bosses, but this one could be a whole new level of trouble with both political sides just waiting to cry shenanigans at any hint of wrongdoing.  When a missing political operative and a government connection to the porn become part of his investigation, Davenport finds himself in a political minefield.

As usual in a Prey novel, the readers know who the bad guys are from the beginning and in this one Taryn Grant and her bodyguards have the potential to be among the worst that Davenport goes up against.  Taryn is smart, rich, ambitious and completely nuts with a narcissistic personality disorder. One of her ex-special forces henchmen will do anything for money, and the other will do anything for her.

Fortunately, Davenport has a lot of friends to call on like his artist buddy Kidd who is also a computer expert and has a more interesting history than Lucas realizes.  Virgil Flowers also gets called in to lend a hand as Lucas scrambles to learn the truth before election day.

I found this to be one of the more interesting installments in the long-running Prey series.  The political challenges of a case like this added an extra dimension as did a villain who wields a helluva lot of power and influence.  Getting other Sandford main characters like Kidd and that fuckin’ Flowers was a very nice bonus that made Lucas’s world seem a lot larger.

My only complaint is that while the ending provided a satisfactory conclusion, it also left a big element hanging which could be paid off in another Prey novel down the line, but it made me like I'd been left hanging on that element.

Once again Sandford proves himself to be one of the kings of the thriller genre.

Also posted on Goodreads.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fight! Fight!

by Frank Bill
4 out of 5 bare-knuckled stars.

You say you’d like to spend a weekend getting drunk out in the countryside while watching a bunch of rednecks beat each other bloody with their bare hands?  I’ve got just the place.   Toss a cooler loaded with  beer into the back of your El Camino, do a bump of that crank you scored off that stripper back at the club, make sure that pistol under your seat has a round in the chamber, crank up that 8-track tape of Lynard Skynard and then hit the gas so you can join your fellow sports fans at the Donnybrook.

The first few pages of this book feature a guy nicknamed Jarhead robbing a gun store and cracking the owner’s head with the butt of a shotgun, and the craziest part is that Jarhead is the most sympathetic character in the book.  There’s also Chainsaw Angus, a vicious street fighter and former lumberjack who earned his nickname when his face met the business end of one of his saws. His sister Liz partners with Angus in his new career of cooking meth, but since they hate each other Liz uses sex to rope in a new partner to take the latest batch and kill her brother.  A Chinese martial arts expert is after Angus to collect on a debt he incurred by killing someone.  A cop with a lot of ugly family secrets is out for revenge, and there’s someone who appears to be an honest-to-god prophet.

All of these characters and many more wind up double-crossing and fighting each other, and all of their paths converge at a bare knuckle brawling contest run by a sadistic backwoods kingpin.

You don’t have to take my word at how insane all of this is.  Among the many blurbs praising the book are these words of wisdom from an expert:

“Good lord, where in the hell did this guy come from?  Blasts off like a frigging rocket ship and hits as hard as an ax handle to the side of the head after you’ve snorted a nose full of battery acid and eaten a live rattlesnake for breakfast.  One of the wildest damn rides you’re ever going to take inside a book.”

- Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff

Just to put this into perspective, that is Donald Ray Pollock, the guy who took hick lit to a whole new violent level saying that Frank Bill blew his mind.  That’s kind of like if Hunter S. Thompson was in a bar watching another customer and said, “Sweet Jesus, but I’ve never seen anyone drink that much!”

As in his great short story collection Crimes of Southern Indiana, Bill mixes wild characters with over the top violence in a rural setting to good effect.   This is part of the country where the citizens have little education and few job opportunities, and they’re all heavily armed.  Add rotgut booze and narcotics to the mix and you’ve got a whole bunch of powder kegs that Bill detonates one after another.

Even though I enjoyed the hell out of this, there were a couple of problems with it.  First is that just as in Crimes of Southern Indiana, Bill tends to overplay the ultra-violence.  Call it the Garth Ennis Effect.  In the right hands, graphic violence can add to a story outside of the gore just for gore’s sake like the torture porn that passes for horror these days.  Bill has the Ennis touch of using it for maximum shock value and to make you feel the bone-crunching reality of it, but he quite never knows when to dial it down so after a while it can get repetitive.  Almost every single interaction of characters in this book results in some kind of moment of pain. It adds to the fast pace of the storyline, but if you know that someone is getting their ass kicked or killed in some fashion in every scene, it loses it’s power.

I also didn’t realize that this is apparently the first book in a larger story so I was a little disappointed that the ending had little overall resolution and was mainly set-up for the next phase.

Still, these are minor quibbles about a book that I read with wide-eyes while frequently shouting, “Holy shit!” and “OUCH!”

Also posted at Goodreads.