Friday, December 26, 2014

Screen Saver

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt

4 out of 5 bags of stale popcorn.

(I received a free advance copy of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)

Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt wrote this unflinching account of his battle with addiction during the late ‘90s, but he didn’t spend his days cooking meth with bikers or whoring himself out for crack.  Poor Patton was a movie junkie who found plenty of dealers to get him high in the theaters of Los Angeles.

A double feature of Billy Wilder films at the New Beverly Cinema was the gateway drug that led Patton down a relentless path of devouring movies and cataloging them in a diary as well as notations in several film books he had. His work and his relationships suffered as he became unable to relate to other people’s every day interests that weren't related to movies, and he rationalized his behavior by thinking that it would eventually give him the insight to make a great film of his own.  His descent continued until he hits bottom shortly after seeing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.  Which is understandable because a lot of us never felt like seeing a movie again after that one.

Ah, but seriously folks…

I noted in my review of  Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland that I found the darker elements of that memoir intriguing, but that he’d seemed a little scared of making it  too personal and sincere so he’d inserted segments of pure humor  in it as deflections.  Here we have him recounting a period when he feels like he let his love of movies of get the better of him, and how coming to terms with that changed the way he approached his own career as well as what was really important to him as a person.  Since this is a professional comedian telling the story, it’s still funny, but it doesn’t seem like he’s using humor as a shield like it did in his previous book.

Here’s the tricky part for me about reviewing this:  I’m a Patton Oswalt fan who finds him not only hilarious but also an actor capable of great work in both TV and film.  I love reading about what creative people think about the process of actually turning ideas into something that can be shared.  I’ll also confess to being a movie junkie.  While I’ve never chased the dragon as hard as Patton did, I am the kind of person who is perfectly happy to kill an afternoon at  a special showing of Seven Samurai or spend the better part of a day in a Marvel movie marathon.  When Patton tells a story about seeing Last Man Standing and subjecting the friend he was with to the whole history of how it’s actually the same story as A Fistful of Dollars which is pretty much a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo which was heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, it made me cringe because I said the same exact thing to the person I saw it with, too.

So this book obviously hit a sweet spot for me, but I could see another reader (Someone who doesn’t have their own custom I HATE!  I HATE! coffee mug based on Oswalt’s Text routine.) maybe not liking this book quite so much.  Such a person might point out that Patton is essentially berating his younger self for the time spent on his movie obsession rather than creating his own work as well as lamenting the time he didn’t spend with friends and family.  And they’d have a valid point.

Because for all his self-criticism here, it’s a little odd that Patton doesn’t give himself more credit for what he was accomplishing at the time which was turning himself into a top-notch comedian by performing relentlessly as well as landing regular work in the movies and on TV.  Yeah, maybe he was on King of Queens for years instead of making his own Citizen Kane, but that helped him get to a point where he’s got to do other things like his great and disturbing performance as a sports nut in Big Fan.  And now he’s married and has a daughter that he loves dearly so he figured out that whole work/life balance thing, right?

So what exactly is this guy bitching about?  That he wasted a lot of time in the ‘90s watching movies?  Hell, we all did that.

However, it the book works for you, then you‘ll find a lot more than that.  It’s hard to break down the stew of events and small epiphanies that make us who we are, and that’s what Patton has tried to do here.  He’s describing a period when he wasn't satisfied with what he was doing and was flailing around for answers by immersing himself obsessively in something he loved.  He did finally learn something from all his time watching movies, but it wasn't what he went looking for.  Maybe he didn’t become Quentin Tarantino, but he did grow into being Patton Oswalt.  And like a lot of his fans, I’m happy it worked out that way.

Hey, I just got an email from Alamo Drafthouse telling me that they’re having a screening of The Apartment this weekend.  Maybe I should check that out….

Also posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fresh Mountain Air

The Abominable
by Dan Simmons
Little, Brown & Company

3 out of 5 miracle ropes didn't snap.

This book certainly isn’t abominable, but it doesn’t exactly soar to the height of the peak of Mount Everest either.

In 1925 young Jake Perry is an American mountain climber who has been knocking around the Alps with his new friends, Richard Davis Deacon and Jean-Claude Clairoux. Deacon is a veteran English climber who had been on a previous expedition to scale Mount Everest. After the men hear about the deaths of several people attempting to summit Everest, Deacon comes up with a plan to get funding for another Everest expedition by telling the mother of a young English lord that they will try to find and recover his remains

With Deacon’s experience and several new climbing innovations, the three men hope to become the first  to climb Everest, but the addition of a new member to their party is just one of many surprises they’ll get as they try overcome all the obstacles that come with a high altitude climb.

Dan Simmons threw me for a bit of a loop by starting with an introduction in which he describes how he met Jake Perry as an old dying man who inadvertently inspires his Arctic horror storyThe Terror. This is supposedly an account that Perry wrote that Simmons received after his death and arranged to have a published. The inclusion of Simmons into his own story made me think for a minute that Perry was real until a bit of research showed that Simmons was doing his historical fiction thing again like The TerrorBlack Hills  and The Crook Factory.

If you’ve read any of those books and you know that a big chunk of this is about trying to climb Mt. Everest in the ‘20s then you might guess that there’s going to be a massive amount of detail about mountain climbing techniques and equipment from that era. And you’d be absolutely right!

Some people would probably be bored to tears by this, but most who have read any of those other books by Simmons probably had a pretty good idea that there would be long explanations of the terrain, food, clothing, equipment, etc. etc. The question for many readers will be is if the detail helps sell the experience of the book or if they think that it just turns into Simmons showing off his research skills.

The problem for me wasn’t so much the infodumps. I’m a Simmons veteran so I knew what I was getting into, and I knew that I’d be getting an education in mountain climbing by reading this. It was that not only did Simmons give you that much detail, he’s awfully damn repetitive about it. For example, Simmons writes that Deacon has come up with a new kind of rope and exactly how it’s breaking strength is superior to the other ropes of the time. OK, so they’ve got better rope. Easy enough to understand. Yet Simmons feels the need to repeatedly remind us every time a hunk of rope is used that the Deacon’s ‘miracle rope’ is much better the old ‘clothes line’ rope. I got it after the first 20 times, Dan Simmons. You didn’t need to keep telling me.

And it isn’t just the rope. Perry’s team has acute future vision because they manage to use groundbreaking new ice climbing methods as well as improved equipment in every phase of their expedition. Even their tents and clothing are such a quantum leap above the gear of the day that I was wondering why they bothered trying to climb Mount Everest when they could have just founded North Face and made a fortune instead.

Maybe this wouldn’t have been quite such an irritation to me if the main part of the story would have kicked in a little earlier and been a bit more believable. I was invested in finding out if they were going to be able to summit Everest when Phase Two begins late in the book, and everything goes in another direction.  WARNING - SPOILERS FOLLOW IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS:

King's Electric Guitar Of Horror In The Key Of E


by Stephen King

4 out of 5 rubes would buy this book at a carnival.

From the synopsis on Stephen King’s website:

"This rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written."

That’s a bold statement that sets the bar very high for Revival. So does it clear it?

Almost. I think. If it doesn’t then it comes damn close which still makes this a pretty impressive achievement for Uncle Steve at this point in his long career.

Jamie Morton first meets Reverend Charles Jacobs when he’s a 6 year old kid in Maine during the early ‘60s. Jacobs is a popular minister with a pretty wife and infant son, and he loves fiddling with electrical gadgets. Jamie and Jacobs have a bond from the moment they meet that is cemented later when Jacobs aids a member of Jamie’s family. After a tragedy drives Jacobs out of town, Jamie profoundly feels the loss, but time marches on. When he becomes a teenager Jamie discovers he has some musical talent and as an adult he makes a living as a rhythm guitar player in bar bands. But Jamie hasn’t seen the last of Jacobs as their paths cross again and again over the years and each strange encounter leaves Jamie increasingly worried about what Jacobs is up to.

I’ve seen complaints from some readers that this is too slow and that the ending doesn’t live up to the hype. I can understand why. The readers’ impressions of it are probably going to be determined by how well the punch King spends the entire book setting us all up for landed. If it was a glancing blow, then you’ll shrug it off. After all, there are no evil clowns or haunted hotels or telekinetic teenagers getting buckets of pig blood dumped over them. The book could almost be one of those VH1 Behind the Music bios about Jamie Morton if King doesn’t pull off the last act for you. 

But if that punch lands solidly… If, like me, King catches you squarely with that jab of an ending, then you’re going to be lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling with a bloody nose and spitting broken teeth as you mumble, “The horror….the horror…”

I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, and it could end fairly high in my personal ranking of King novels after some reflection. Probably not top five, but maybe top fifteen or even top ten. However, I think it’s got a serious chance of being the one I find the most disturbing of them all.

What made that ending so powerful?  WARNING - SPOILERS FOLLOW!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Taking the Wheel

The Getaway Car
By Donald Westlake
University of Chicago Press

4 out of 5 beers with salt.

“No matter where he was headed, Don always drove like he was behind the wheel of the getaway car."

- Abby Adams Westlake

Apparently the late Donald Westlake wrote as fast as he drove.  After his big break came in the late ‘50s by getting paid $600 to write a porno, he went on  to author over 90 novels under various pseudonyms.  He earned three Edgar Awards, an Academy Award nomination for screenplay, and the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writer’s Association.

He’s probably best known for creating two thieves who couldn‘t be more different.  One was a hard-boiled ruthless anti-hero and all-around son-of-a-bitch named Parker that Westlake published under the pen name of Richard Stark.  The other was the luckless John Dortmunder, a sad sack that you couldn’t help but feel sorry for even as you laughed at his comic misadventures.  That’s the essence of Westlake to me, that he could have two characters who have exactly the same criminal job yet their personalities and stories couldn’t be more different, and I always want to read more stories about both of them.

This book collects a lot of non-fiction odds and ends from Westlake’s papers including letters, an excerpt from an unpublished autobiography, and introductions to various other works.  There’s a fun essay he wrote in which he imagines a meeting between himself and his various pen names, and his wife also has a humorous piece on how Westlake’s personality would change when he was writing under one of his aliases.  Westlake also had a lot to say on the mystery genre, and there’s one incredible act of bridge burning in a published essay on how he had quit writing sci-fi because the industry was essentially dead from an economic perspective for writers like him.

Taken as a whole, all of these provide a lot of interesting insight into Westlake’s views on writing as both an art and a business as well as how he viewed his own career.  And because this is Westlake, it’s got chuckle worthy comments on practically every page even though he remarks at several points that he never considered himself particularly funny and seems highly amused that he was best known under his own name as a comic mystery writer.  Lawrence Block makes it a point in his touching introduction to explain that he didn’t think Westlake told jokes, but that he was a witty man who tried very hard to make his writing amusing.

The thing that really stands out is that Westlake hustled.  He didn’t sit around waiting for a muse to inspire or him or rewriting a single line over and over.  He had bills to pay so he produced constantly. Authors like him who churned out words to make a living often have a pragmatic and workmanlike approach to their work.  That’s a recipe for people with less talent and more cynicism to become hacks.  For a writer like Westlake that discipline and craftsmanship makes him one of the greats.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Virgil F. Flowers Vs. The Board of Education


by John Sandford
Putnam Adult

4 out of 5 school boards banned this book.

Anybody who ever served on a school board and had to listen to people complain about the curriculum or the budget or what the cafeteria served could probably relate to this book in which a small town board votes to start murdering people. That’s one way to keep parents from whining about their kid’s grade point average….

Minnesota state cop Virgil Flowers has come to a rural community at the request of his old fishing buddy Johnson Johnson to look into someone who has been stealing dogs to sell to research labs. As he tries to track down the missing pooches, a local newspaper reporter is murdered, and Virgil finds clues that it’s linked to a massive embezzlement scheme by the local school board. Virgil’s investigation riles the board and soon more bodies are dropping as they attempt to cover up their scam.

This is a prime example of what Sandford does well. He cooks up an interesting criminal scheme, lets us see what the bad guys are up too, introduces one of his main characters, and then the game begins. While the stakes are deadly serious, there’s also plenty of humor along the way with cop thugs Shrake and Jenkins making an appearance to back Virgil up and give him a lot of grief in the process. 

As a longtime fan of the Lucas Davenport series, I continue to appreciate the way that Sandford contrasts Virgil as being the more laid back and the softer of the two who is more concerned with right and wrong. Yet Virgil also has a sly way of flouting the rules to get his way that infuriates many and is why he is generally referred to as ‘that fuckin’ Flowers’, and he’s more than capable of pulling some sneaky moves to get things rolling his way.

The school board scheme is a great hook to hang a story like this on, and Sandford does a nice job of laying out how a small town criminal conspiracy like that would work as well as the carnage that could happen once things start going sideways. The subplot with the missing dogs is also a good one with Virgil having to try and keep angry owners from going vigilante.

The more books Sandford puts out, the more impressed I am at his ability to deliver entertaining thrillers that keep the elements fans like while still providing enough fresh ideas to prevent them from becoming formulaic and stale.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Heart Cries Out Perfidia

by James Ellroy
Published by Knopf

3 out 5 bullets to the face.

“Hello, Mr. Ellroy.”

“Mr. Kemper, I hear that you are somewhat familiar with me?”

“I am.”

“Please tell me what you know. Be succinct.”

“You are haunted by the unsolved murder of your mother which occurred when you were a child and led you to become obsessed with crime and women. You frequently dreamed of scenarios in which you could save damsels in distress. You let your rich fantasy life rule you and with no ambition or discipline you became a homeless drunk and drug addict in your teens. You eventually hit bottom and got sober. You used your fascination with true crime and post-war Los Angeles to create what you called the L.A. Quartet. You started with a fictionalized version of the Black Dahlia case, and one of the books, L.A. Confidential, became an acclaimed movie. You wrote a trilogy called Underworld USA Trilogy that followed bad men doing bad things in the shadows of recent American history. You investigated the death of your mother with an ex-cop and published the results as a memoir. You wrote a second autobiography in which you admitted that much of what you wrote about your state of mind in the first book wasn’t true. You recently published a new novel called Perfidia that you state is the start of a new Second L.A. Quartet.

“What are your impressions of Perfidia? Please be brief.”

Perfidia begins the day before Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese. Many of the characters are ones you used in other books like Dudley Smith, a corrupt police officer who was a large part of the L.A. Quartet, and Kay Lake from The Black Dahlia. Others are based on real life people like William ‘Whiskey Bill’ Parker, another LAPD officer who would go on to become the chief of police. A new addition is a brilliant police crime scene technician, Hideo Ashida, of Japanese descent. The murder of a Japanese family coincides with the news of the attack, and the investigation takes place as L.A. is consumed by a mixture of patriotism and paranoia. Corruption enters the scene immediately with many people scheming on ways to profit from the war even as the ships are still burning at Pearl Harbor.”

“That’s a summary. I asked for your impressions.”

“There is a lot here to appeal to your fans. The wartime setting with a mystery that blends fiction with history against a L.A. that is completely corrupt is something that you know how to utilize to provide a gritty noir atmosphere. Your plotting with the characters aligning and betraying each other almost at whim is as dense and intricate as ever. Your style of short sentences in a stream of consciousness patter as the perspective shifts from character to character is still sharp, and you retain the knack of writing scenes of brutal violence that seem to pass in moments yet leave lasting effects.”

“That’s the positive side. Please tell me where you think the book was lacking.”

“While some longtime fans will be delighted at the way you’ve incorporated so many characters from your other books, it also brings some of the problems inherent to prequels into the mix.”


“If you know that a character is alive and has a career with the police department in a book set after Perfidia, than I know that they will not die or lose their job in this book despite anything that may occur. This naturally removes some of the drama.”

“Naturally. Please continue.”

“If not done well, the characters may act in ways or accumulate knowledge that seems at odds with the other incarnation. For example,(view spoiler)

“I understand the point. Move on."

“Usually your books take place over a period of months or years. This allows for on-going events and new information to change the perspectives and motives of characters. Since this novel occurs entirely in the weeks immediately after Pearl Harbor, the time frame is greatly condensed from your usual work yet you incorporate as many betrayals, shocking revelations and changes of allegiances as your other books. This makes all of the characters seem rushed and erratic. Plus, everyone in the book seems to have an amazing ability to look into the future. None of the major players seem that concerned about the war with the Japanese. All of them somehow immediately know that the war will be won and that there will future tension between America and Russia.”

“Are there any other things you consider shortcomings of the book you would like to share?

“You also use some of the same phrases and tricks here that seem in danger of becoming tropes of your work.”

“State some examples.”

“Using short sentences to indicate a series of actions. For example, ‘Dudley winked. Dudley scratched. Dudley howled….’“


“And characters making instant judgments and psychoanalysis of each other that is 100% accurate.”


“And repeatedly using the word ‘and’ as a way of continuing the flow of information.”

“Very droll, Mr. Kemper. And?”

“And you really got into this thing where a lot of the dialogue is someone demanding information in a blunt and condescending fashion. You used to save that for when one had a definite edge on another, like J. Edgar Hoover interrogating an underling, but it seemed like it happened on almost every page in this book. These conversations also frequently have one person delivering a set of orders.”

“You have communicated your viewpoint, Mr. Kemper. You will write up a review on Perfidia. You will give it no less than three stars. You may bring up the points you have outlined here, but you will still credit my work as still being an enjoyable read. You will also praise my ability to create damaged characters operating in amoral ways for selfish reasons at a street level and use them to illustrate broader themes on subjects like the effect of History on the individual. Once you have completed this review, you will post it on Goodreads. If you don’t do this, I’ll engage in another trope of mine, and have you shot in the face repeatedly. Do you agree, Mr. Kemper?”

“One three star review of Perfidia coming right up!”

Also posted at Goodreads.

The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinky - Try To Take Over The World!

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

by David Shafer
Mulholland Books

3 out of 5 self-help gurus would give a seminar based on this book.

This book has been compared to the likes of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson and Chuck Palahniuk. I don’t think that’s doing it any favors because while it isn’t bad, it never got close to those guys at their best for me.

This is essentially one of the fusions in which the author mixes Serious Lit-A-Chur with the DNA of a genre novel which in this case is a conspiracy-cyber thriller with a little sci-fi for flavor. Leila is a Persian-American working for a non-profit NGO in Myanmar when she accidently stumbles on something that triggers the wrath of an operative of a worldwide shadow government. Mark and Leo were friends in college, but their lives have taken them on very different paths. Mark is a bullshit artist who lucked his way into fame and fortune by becoming a self-help guru who advises an uber-wealthy Mr. Burns type of asshole. Leo is an underachieving slacker whose substance abuse kicks his paranoia into overdrive. Circumstances make all three of them aware of a sinister plot involving on-line data collection that is getting taken to a new terrifying level. And of course there is an underground group trying to stop it.

The thing here is that anyone hoping for a conspiracy novel probably isn’t going to be satisfied. Yeah, there are some cool moments, and the evil plan is impressive in its scale as well as its feasibility, but there are no big action scenes of note. Instead the focus is on the thoughts and feelings of the three leads as they examine what they find lacking in their own lives even as they have to deal with the moral choices the situation forces on them.

I was far more intrigued by the personal stories and history of Leila, Mark and Leo than I ever was by the conspiracy story-line which, while ambitious, is still at its heart a secret-group-of-powerful-rich-assholes-try-to-take-over-the-world story. In fact, I probably would have liked this book a whole lot more if Shafer had just skipped the conspiracy and done a whole book about the three main characters somehow meeting up and interacting.

I know that the conspiracy was symbolic, representing the way that some will willingly give up secrets and freedom for a comfortable life, but it kept reading as if were to be taken as seriously like this was a Tom Clancy novel. The clichés of the conspiracy thriller are here, but they don’t feel deconstructed or satiric. That made my brain keep thinking that there would be a car chase or a shootout at the usual places even though I knew that wasn’t the kind of book Shafer wrote.

So the whole thing ended up in a weird one-foot-in/one-foot-out state for me in which I felt like the book was too character driven to be an entertaining genre thriller, but the conspiracy thriller aspects distracted me from the much better character angles as well as some of the broader points he was trying to make. 

Also posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Who's Your Daddy?

Cry Father
by Benjamin Whitmer
Gallery Books

4 out of 5 stolen Corvettes.

(I won a copy of this from a Goodreads giveaway.)

I really want Benjamin Whitmer to become a wildly popular writer, but not because he deserves to be recognized for his talent, which he does.  Instead I’ve got more selfish reasons.  I met Mr. Whitmer a few years back at Bouchercon in St. Louis and bought a copy of his book Pike (Click here to see my Goodreads review.) that he was nice enough to sign for me. Pike was a very good novel that far too few people have read.  If Mr. Whitmer turns into The Next Big Thing, then I’d have a signed first edition copy of something that I can sell on E-Bay.

So if you people would think of somebody besides yourselves for once, you could help me out (And I guess it’d be good for Benjamin Whitmer, too.) and go get  a copy of Cry Father.   In addition to doing a good deed, you’d be getting a damn good book in the process.  It’s win-win for all us!

Need another reason to read it?  How about this terrific opening line:

"Patterson Wells walks through the front door to find Chase working on a heap of crystal meth the size of his shrunken head."

Still not convinced?  OK, maybe telling you a little about the book will win you over. Patterson Wells' working life involves trying to clean up disaster zones by clearing trees after devastating storms.  His personal life is a disaster zone that he most certainly does not want to clean up that is based around his grief at the loss of his young son.  When not working, Patterson retreats to a cabin on a remote mesa of the San Luis Valley in Colorado where he can drink and write letters to his dead child.

One of Patterson’s few friends out on the mesa is Henry who is sometimes visited by his son Junior who prefers to give Henry regular ass kickings rather than Father’s Day cards.  Junior runs drugs for some people in Denver, and his idea of a good time is starting a bar fight. Patterson takes it on himself to try to stop Junior from beating on Henry, but the two men end up in an unlikely quasi-friendship based around their mutual love of self-destruction, liquor and cocaine.

Whitmer does a superior job of putting the reader inside the heads of Patterson and Junior so that both men are understandable and relatable. Patterson is the father who feels like he failed his child and Junior is a son who feels like his father failed him.  However, their behavior may be less about than the things they’ve suffered and more about the way they’re wired.  Both men have opportunities to change their lives for the better but prefer to hold onto grief and grudges even as they acknowledge the futility of them.

Another aspect that makes this book work is the atmosphere of it.  From lonely hermit cabins to polluted housing developments to dive bars with blood on their floors, Whitmer paints a backdrop of blue collar settings that are filled with tweakers, bikers, strippers and other assorted upstanding citizens.

Because the story involves drug dealers and a bit of gun play, the easy classification would be to call it a crime story, but like writers such as Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, Whitmer is proving himself to be someone who can have several deep layers in his depictions of the places and characters of rural America.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Magic Man

The Magician's Land

by Lev Grossman

4 out of 5 stars falling out of the sky.

For being a genre-fusing deconstruction of the fantasy novel, this sure had me on the edge on my seat.

It all started with teenage Quentin Coldwater attending a magical school, finding out the fantasy land from his favorite novels was real and then journeying there. Following various quests and a whole lotta heartbreak, Quentin is back in the real world and gives himself a very personal mission to complete even while his friends back in Fillory learn that the end of that world is very nigh.

Quentin has been a Rorschach test of a character since the beginning. Is he a spoiled ass who can never be happy or appreciate the amazing opportunity he has? Or maybe he’s a dreamer so sensitive to all the ways that the world and people in it fail us that he can’t help but constantly look for someplace better? Or is a potential hero tripped up by the expectations that his fantasy nerdom have instilled him with?

There’s some truth in all of those and no shortage of readers who couldn’t stand Quentin or his friends. I had problems with him, too, particularly in the first half of the second book where it seemed that Quentin had regressed, and I would dearly have loved to give him a slap to the back of the head.

However, I always had the feeling that Lev Grossman was taking us somewhere with Quentin, and that I couldn’t really know the guy until I knew how he turned out in the end. Here’s where that belief paid off for me with Quentin, now 30 years old, finally acting like an adult, and there’s some genuine sadness in the idea that Quentin may have finally outgrown his childish things.

While he’s more mature, he’s still a magician and one thing Quentin hasn’t lost is the wonder and possibilities of the fantastic. Now it’s just tempered with the realism of a guy who is a crusty veteran of many battles and seasoned interdimensional traveler. Grossman also shifts perspective to several other supporting characters in a variety of circumstances from an attempt to steal a magically protected object to witnessing a final apocalyptic battle in a world tearing itself apart. 

The other characters have gone through similar arcs so that they seem less like hipsters tossing around ironic comments about being in a fantasy story and more like magicians fighting for things they care about who are still capable of throwing out some one-liners about being in a fantasy story.

This final book in the trilogy pays off on a lot of levels and manages to wrap up most of the loose ends without seeming so tidy that it came in box with a bow on it. All of it feels rich and detailed, and best of all, it feels like it mattered.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Southern Justice

The Forsaken 
by Ace Atkins 

4 out of 5 chicken fried steaks.

If the FX network is looking for another book series about rural crime to develop into a TV show to replace Justified after its upcoming final season, it could do a helluva lot worse than buying the rights to Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series.

As Tibbehah County tries to recover from a devastating round of tornadoes, Sheriff Colson and his chief deputy are being investigated for their actions in the previous book. Corrupt county commissioner and redneck kingpin Johnny Stagg is behind this investigation as part of his effort to control Quinn and use him for his own purposes. This connects to the leader of a biker gang Stagg fears who is about to be released from prison. The gang has returned in force to pave the way for his return, and all of it ties back to a crime that occurred in 1977.

Atkins scores again with another great tale that sees Quinn unearthing some ugly secrets tied to his family history. I especially enjoyed how Johnny Stagg has gradually been built up into the Boss Hogg of this series. As a sleazy local politician who likes to claim the moral high ground even as he runs a strip club and is trying to build a drug pipeline, Stagg has become one of the most interesting characters in the series. He’s a sidewinder, never coming at Quinn directly, and he’s a master of small town manipulation. The series has subtly become an on-going cold war between Stagg and Quinn, and the more we find about the history of Tibbehah County, the more we realize that Stagg has been a cancer rotting it out for some time.

Quinn remains the steady moral center of the series with his code of a former Army Ranger mixing with the rural good manners of a Southern gentleman. It’s a nice touch that Colson remains more soldier than lawmen, often leaving the nuances of police work to his chief deputy, Lillie. His growing frustration with the locals who are often too stupid or too blind to recognize what Stagg also seems to be fitting for a guy who finds himself back in the small town he swore never to return to.

Like the last book, this one leaves a fair number of plot threads dangling, but it’s clear that Atkins is doing this deliberately as part of telling a larger story about the secret history of his fictional patch of Mississippi.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Moving Sucks

Moving Day
by Jonathan Stone

3 out of 5 moving vans.

I noticed the ads for this  on Goodreads and thought the premise sounded interesting, but I wasn’t in any great hurry to check it out. Then it was one of those super cheap deals on my Kindle so I figured I’d give it a shot. 

And that’s how they get you. Well played, Amazon. Well played indeed.

This does have a great hook for a story. Seventy-two year old Stanley Peke and his wife Rose have accumulated a house full of valuables and memories over the years, but they want to move to a smaller more manageable place in California so they hire a moving company to transport their stuff across the country. After almost everything they own has been packed, loaded and driven off, the Pekes learn that they’ve been the victim of a clever scheme in which a gang of thieves show up before the real movers and take off with an entire house worth of loot.

Next time just buy your friends some pizza and beer to con them into helping you, Stanley.

Most people would cash their insurance check and grieve for the loss of the mementos that can’t be replaced, but Stanley isn’t your average silver fox. He spent his childhood hiding from Nazis in the woods of Poland and came to America after the war with no family and not a penny to his name. The theft of the things he spent a lifetime acquiring as part of his building a family is something that he refuses to abide and when he sees a chance to track down the thief who led the crew Stanley decides to get it all back without involving the cops. However, the ringleader Nick had his own hard-luck upbringing as an orphaned street kid which has left with a ruthless nature and the firm belief that whatever he steals is now his so the clash between the two strong-willed men become about more than who ends up with the stuff.

This is marketed as a thriller, and there are definitely a lot of those elements and enough action to make it part of that category. But it actually doesn’t read like a thriller for most of the book. A large part of it is spent inside Stanley’s head as he reflects on his past, how it shaped him and the life he’s lived since. Stone was far more concerned with Stanley and Nick as characters than how the plot would be resolved.

That makes the book more ‘literary’ (For lack of a better term.) than what I was expecting, and at first I was pleasantly surprised at the many facets that Stone was exploring with Stanley about being a Jewish survivor of the Nazis who came to America and lived the ultimate immigrant success story.

The problem is that this is all gone over a little too much with clear conclusions drawn and laid out for the reader. Stone wants to make sure we understand every angle and by kicking over every rock he really hasn’t left the reader anything to think about. It’s not a case of full-on anvil dropping (Although the ending is pretty on-the-nose.),  but there’s little sub-text left by the end of it

So it’s got the pieces of a good crime story with an interesting lead character that was aiming to be a bit more than your average thriller, but it is so concerned with making sure that we got the point that it laid out all it’s themes like a road map which left me feeling like someone who considered me slightly stupid had been slowly explaining himself to me for several hours.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Failing the Driving Test

Mr. Mercedes
by Stephen King

2 out of 5 blue umbrellas

Warning! Some Stephen King fans (Of which I am one.) may be angered by this review and feel the need to tell me one or more of the following:

1) I missed the point.
2) I haven’t written a best selling book and therefore have no right to be critical of someone who has.
3) I should quit being so nitpicky and just relax for gosh’s sake!
4) It’s called FICTION, not REALITY, idiot!
5) I should burn in hell for all eternity for daring to impugn the honor of their favoritest author ever and this super awesome book!

So to save us all a lot of aggravation, be aware that I’m going to be calling out Uncle Stevie for the what I consider to be the failings of this one. If you can’t handle reading someone being critical of an author or book you like and feel the need to make a comment in the spirit of what I’ve outlined above, I urge you to instead go find a review that liked the book instead of enlightening me as to how mortally offended you are that my opinion doesn’t match yours. 

And now back to your regularly scheduled book review of Mr. Mercedes….

In the midst of the economic meltdown going on in 2009 a crowd of desperate people looking for work are spending the night lined up outside the doors of a job fair so that they can be first in line when it opens. In the wee hours a maniac wearing a clown mask and driving a Mercedes suddenly plows into the crowd killing 8 people and injuring many more. 

A year later retired cop Bill Hodges is spending his retirement watching crappy afternoon TV shows as he occasionally looks down the barrel of a revolver. Hodges was the primary detective on the mass murder at the job fair, and his failure to catch the driver is one of his biggest regrets. When he receives a taunting letter from Mr. Mercedes, Hodges decides to pursue the killer himself rather than informing the police. Hodges is soon locked in a deadly battle of wits with the Mercedes killer who is a brilliant but troubled young man named Brady Hartfield.

This is a departure from King’s typical supernatural stories because it’s strictly a crime thriller of the type you’d expect more from somebody like a John Sandford than the Master of Horror. (It also made me wonder why he didn’t do something more like this for his Hard Case Crime offerings.) There’s even an indication made that this was not taking place in the extensive King multiverse when someone makes a comment about how the clown mask worn by Mr. Mercedes reminds him of a TV movie featuring a killer clown lurking in sewers which goes against the usual flow when even his newer books like 11/22/63 acknowledge It as being part of the same world.

In the early stages I was excited about the prospect of King doing something off his usual beaten track, but there was a couple of major problems and a lot of minor details that left me more irritated than entertained. 

First and foremost is the issue that runs through the whole book in that Hodges knows he’s dealing with someone willing and capable of engaging in wholesale slaughter yet never seems to consider what twisting the tail of a rabid dog could do. Plus, if a thriller is going to set up some kind of mano e mano contest between it’s hero and villain then it needs to figure out some way to provide believable reasons as to why the fight has to remain between the two of them.

Even though King goes to considerable efforts to try and rationalize why Hodges feels like he has to go after Mr. Mercedes without involving the cops, the results have varying degrees of success. When things start going sideways, and it’s made very plain what kind of danger Brady poses not only to Hodges but to other innocent people, to have Hodges continue to feel justified in not telling everything he knows to the cop makes him seem reckless and oblivious to the consequences even as King pays some lip service to the guilt that the retired cop is feeling.

This could have worked better if he had played up the angle that Hodges had become an obsessive Ahab chasing his personal white whale, but King tries to keep his main character as a likable white knight. That gets increasingly hard to buy into over the course of the book. It’s made clear by the supporting characters that assist him and willingly lie and break the law to help him without a second thought that we’re supposed to be rooting for Hodges, and that King wants us to think of him as a genuinely good person. By the time that the plot has been twisted into a pretzel with the effort to try and keep the fight between Brady and Hodges without making Hodges look criminally negligent, it’s increasingly hard to not be completely frustrated with him. This is especially bad at a climatic moment of the book. 

That’s all I can say without spoilers, but take the failure of Hodges actions and motivations, add in a plot hole, a glaring mistake by King and the biggest cliché in crime thrillers and it adds up to a book that feels like a wasted opportunity.

You can read more about these problems after the jump, but there will be extensive SPOILERS:

Crossing the Border

by Lawrence Block

3 out of 5 professional gamblers would bet on this book.

Madonna warned us how dangerous it was to keep pushing your love over the borderline….

Lawrence Block books have been the spine of the Hard Case Crime line, and Borderline shows his pulp/porn roots off in all their glory by reprinting one of his old short novels originally titled Border Lust written under a pseudonym along with three short stories from the same era.

In El Paso, Texas tourists looking for sleazy kicks cross the border to Juarez, Mexico. A professional gambler plays poker, a divorcee with a critical case of hot pants is looking for kicks, a down-on-her luck beatnik (a/k/a damn, dirty hippie) winds up working a sex show and a budding serial killer prowls for new victims. 

This is a solid little piece of pulp with an edgy nastiness to it, like popping a piece of candy in your mouth and finding out it was actually a hunk of broken glass. It’s also filled with enough graphic sex scenes to make a porn star blush. Add in the some brutal murders and it’s obvious that Block was operating squarely at the intersection of Sex & Crime that was where these kinds of old paperbacks lived. However, talent shines through and Block made all of the characters feel interesting and real including a nice piece of work getting inside in the head of his sicko killer.

It also reminded me a lot of Small Town, a book Block wrote about a group of New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11, in the way that it blends someone looking for kinky thrills stirring up other characters and adding in a serial killer. Pulp in one era is a respected novel by a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers Association in another.

Two of the short ones, The Burning Fury and A Fire At Night, are crime stories that don’t do anything spectacular but again show that Block can probably crank out a good piece of writing in his sleep. 

Stag Party Girl is a longer mystery in which private detective Ed London, hired to protect a groom from a jealous ex-girlfriend before his wedding, investigates the murder of a woman killed in shocking fashion right in the middle of the bachelor party. The resolution of the mystery seems far-fetched, and London is a pretty typical PI character for the most part. But there’s something in the smaller moments here when the detective is talking to people that seem like Block was figuring out a style he’d later use for his great Matt Scudder character. It’s almost like London is Matt’s ancient ancestor.

I enjoyed the book as a whole, but it’s definitely of its time and genre. If you like old school pulp and/or are a big fan of Block then it’s worth a read.

Also posted on Goodreads.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Spenser Huddles Up

Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot 
by Ace Atkins

4 out of 5 autographed footballs.

Considering the image conscious nature of the National Football League and the recent legal problems of a certain former member of the New England Patriots, I was more than a little shocked that Ace Atkins was able to use the actual team name as well as reference real people like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for a story that involves a talented but trouble prone player. I would be willing to bet that more than a few lawyers from the NFL, the Patriots and the publisher got to bill some hours while they worked out some kind of arrangement.

Spenser goes to work for Kinjo Heywood, a star linebacker for the Pats. Kinjo has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, but he claims that men have been following and harassing him. Spenser thinks this may be linked to a night club shooting that Kinjo was investigated as being part of, but he was eventually cleared by the police. Things take a darker turn when Kinjo’s young son Akira is kidnapped and no ransom demand is immediately made.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating that Ace Atkins has turned out to be an excellent choice to carry on with the Spenser series after the death of Robert B. Parker. Atkins has brought a new energy and edginess to a series that had gotten pretty formulaic and stale, but it’s all been done in subtle ways that still respect the elements fans love about the character.

Spenser is still the same smart-mouthed tough guy with a code who can cook a delicious dinner from scratch while enjoying a couple of beers, but Atkins has modernized him a bit like when Spenser notes that an hour of computer research gets him more than running around all day used to. He even uses a GPS tracker to tail a suspect at one point although he still thinks of it as ‘cheating’. There are also some jokes about Star Wars, hobbits and Twitter that make Spenser seem more up-to-date than he had in RBP’s later books although he still retains his old school nature.

The supporting characters are also feeling more lively and engaged these days. Hawk is a bit rougher around the edges and a little meaner than he had been in the later books so that he feels like a different person, not just another version of Spenser. Z, the protégé Spenser took on in RBP’s final book, is fast turning into one of my favorite parts of the series, and even Susan Silverman is a lot more likeable now. She even gets one of the best ‘Hell, yeah!’ moments of the entire book.

Kinjo is also an interesting twist on the old RBP standard of having Spenser’s clients usually turn out to be terrible people It would have been really easy to play him as just the kind of stereotypical famous bad-boy athlete that is all over ESPN these days. However, Atkins (A former college player at Auburn who was once on the cover of Sports Illustrated.) does a great job of making Kinjo a real and sympathetic person, not just a cliché. He’s actually a decent guy who loves his son deeply and brings a level of dedication and talent to the game that Spenser can respect, but he’s still got some of the ego and flaws that come to many people who achieve fame and fortune.

Another factor I like about how Atkins is a bit different from RBP is that he’s leaving some loose ends and subplots unresolved which I assume will come into play later. These are still self-contained and satisfying stories but leaving a few things simmering on the back burner adds a little tension and anticipation as to what we might get in the future.

The idea of a writer being hired to continue the work of someone who passed away can be a touchy one, and in a lot of cases, probably not a good thing. However, with three remarkably solid and entertaining books now done by Ace Atkins, I’m certain that they couldn’t have found anyone better to carry on with the Spenser adventures, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Also posted on Goodreads.