Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Atkins Diet

The Redeemers
by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam's Sons

4 out of 5 slabs of barbecued ribs bought at a truck stop.

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

I love being on the Atkins diet…

No, not that Atkins diet.  (You can have my carbs when you pry them from pudgy dead hands.)  I’m talking about the Ace Atkins reading diet in which you get to gorge yourself on two of his books a year. The first course is the Spenser book he does for the Robert B. Parker estate which keeps the iconic detective alive and well.  The second is Atkins’ own creation of Quinn Colson, a former Army Ranger who returned to his Mississippi hometown and became the sheriff.

Or at least Quinn was the sheriff.  The Redeemers begins with Quinn voted out thanks to Johnny Stagg, the local power broker who has his fingers in just about every crooked and corrupt scheme going on in Tibbehah County.  While Quinn ponders his next move he’s also dealing with a variety of family matters including the return of his estranged father, his drug addicted sister, and his increasingly messy love life.  

Meanwhile, a local businessman named Mickey Walls has a grudge against his former father-in-law Larry Cobb that he intends to settle by stealing the large amount of cash that Cobb amassed through various shady business deals.  Walls asks his friend Kyle to help loot Cobb's safe, and he also recruits two small time crooks to crack it open.  The robbery kicks off a chain of consequences that Quinn gets pulled into even though it’s not his job.

One of the strengths of this serious is the portrayal of small town life by Atkins, who currently resides in Oxford, Mississippi.  He knows the rhythms of a rural community, and he uses that along with his writing talent to build an intricate web of connections that tie the locals together.  He does this with a clear eye, that both celebrates and critiques the lifestyle as he weaves first rate crime stories through it all.

He’s also got a knack for creating memorable characters, and my favorites this time were the two lowlife thieves that Walls hires to crack the safe.  Peewee Sparks is a disgusting pig of a man who steals to fund his trips to New Orleans where he can binge of strippers and prostitutes.  His apprentice is his dimwitted nephew whose life lesson all come from being an Alabama football fanatic.  These two scumbags provide a lot of entertainment as they roll around in Peewee’s van which has portraits of Alabama pigskin legends painted on it.  You have to think that Atkins, who played football at rival Auburn, took great delight in creating these morons.

The plot also provides a lot of resolution to some of the on-going storylines that have been built up over the previous four books so that this is a series that feels like it’s going somewhere while introducing new complications that can be explored in future books.  

Also posted at Goodreads.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Smartest Guy In The Room

The Fold
by Peter Clines

3 1/2 out of 5 chocolate croissants.

Mike Erikson might be the smartest person on Earth, but he’s content to use his high IQ and eidetic memory as a small town school teacher. However, his friend Reggie is a big deal at DARPA and has been trying to hire Mike for years, and now he finally finds a job that Mike can’t resist because of its groundbreaking nature. 

DARPA has been funding a top secret project called the Albuquerque Door* in which a small group of scientists have successfully been able to fold space-time so that a long distance could be traveled by a person taking a single step. The scientists claim that the Door is working perfectly but want more testing, and they have insisted on not providing any of the work behind their discovery until it’s ready to be taken public. Reggie thinks that there’s something not quite right with the project and sends Mike out to investigate in the hopes that he can use his unique talents to sniff out what’s wrong. 

*(Is it just me or does an Albuquerque Door sound like the kind of thing you’d be scared to look up on Urban Dictionary at work?)

I’m tempted to say that this is like Sherlock Holmes showing up on an episode of Fringe, but Mike is a lot nicer than Sherlock and there isn’t a cow in the lab. Mike himself is one of the biggest selling points of this story because the way that his mind works is well done and fascinating in its own right. There’s also some really compelling reasons as to why he’s downplayed his gifts and stuck to being a school teacher. Putting a unique character like this in a situation with a huge scientific breakthrough and a group of people who seem to be hiding something makes for an entertaining story that eventually makes the most of its premise.

While Mike makes for a sympathetic guy that you want to root for, the scientists he deals with are a bunch of jerkfaces. The way that they act for most of the book is one of the things that irked me about it. For quite a while every question or statement that Mike makes is usually met with a hostile question or snarky challenge even as he’s being as polite and accommodating as possible. In fact, I thought Mike was being just a little too nice because as the government guy who is determining whether their new budget will get approved, he should be throwing a little weight around instead of just eating all the crap sandwiches that get flung at him regularly.

There is an argument to be made that since Mike is essentially a rookie and that the scientists have reasons for acting this way that it makes sense for the plot. However, just the way that they respond to almost everything Mike says becomes a bit tiresome. For a bunch of people tearing a hole in the fabric of reality, there are a lot of arrogant and dismissive comments along the lines of “That’s unpossible!” even after Mike has been shown to be right time after time. 

Despite those irritations with the secondary characters, this is still a fun and kinda kooky sci-fi thriller with an intriguing main character that mostly delivers on the potential of its main premise. There’s an indication that this may not be the last we see of Mike, and I’ll be willing to check out more. 

Also posted on Goodreads.

Losers Weepers

Finders Keepers
by Stephen King

3 out of 5 Moleskine notebooks

The good news is that it isn’t as bad as Mr. Mercedes, and that there’s actually a halfway decent plot lurking in here. The bad news is that this makes it more clear than ever that Stephen King does horror a helluva lot better than he does crime thrillers.

The story starts out with an acclaimed author named John Rothstein who pulled a J.D. Salinger and hasn’t published anything in decades. Morris Bellamy is a huge fan of Rothstein’s most famous creation, a disaffected rebel without a cause named Jimmy Gold, but he thinks that Rothstein ruined the character in the final book of a trilogy by having him become just another suburbanite working in advertising. Since this is occurring in the ‘70s, Morris can’t go on Goodreads to complain about it so instead he breaks into Rothstein’s house and murders him. He also takes over 160 notebooks filled with all the writing that Rothstein has done since quitting public life as well as over $20,000. Before Morris can read the notebooks, which include new material about his favorite character, he gets waylaid on another charge and sent to prison. For 35 years Morris dreams of getting out and reading the notebooks that he had hidden before being arrested.

In 2009 a teenage boy named Peter Saubers and his family move into Morris’ old house. The Saubers have fallen on hard times after his father lost his real estate job in the market crash of ‘08 and then had the bad luck to get run over and badly injured while standing in line at a job fair. Pete stumbles across the notebooks and the cash, and he uses the money to help his family through their financial crisis. He also reads the notebooks which turn him into a nut for literature and another fan of Jimmy Gold. Several years pass, and Morris is released from prison which puts him on a collision course with Pete. That’s when retired police detective Bill Hodges gets involved along with his trusty assistants, Holly and Jerome.

One thing that Stephen King knows how to do very well (Other than spoiling major character deaths on Game of Thrones via Twitter. Thanks again, Uncle Stevie…) is writing about books. He’s often examined them from both sides in his work: as the act of writing/creating and from the standpoint of being a fan of reading. King knows there something magical in both aspects, but in his world there’s also black magic so he's also looked into that from both angles as well. 

With Morris Bellamy, King has created what’s probably his own worst nightmare, the fan who feels an ownership of a character and becomes violently angry when he feels like the author is mistreating him. There are shades of Annie Wilkes in this although the key difference is that Annie understood that her favorite character was a creation and wanted to control what happened to her while Morris sees Jimmy Gold as a real person that Rothstein has been a poor guardian of. This contrasts with Pete, the reader who is content to fall under the spell of an author and admire well-written things, and who feels guilty that he’s had to hide this literary treasure from the world in order to help his family.

The book is at it’s best when it’s about these two as polar opposites because it isn’t just about the conflict and tension of who possesses the notebooks, it’s King writing about the love of reading, and that’s a subject he does very well. I did question the coincidence of Morris and Pete both growing up in the same house years apart and both being the kind of guys who will absolutely fall in love with a literary character like Jimmy Gold, but that’s a minor quibble. 

The real issues come when King tries to take this story and make it part of his on-going trilogy featuring Bill Hodges. I found Mr. Mercedes to be a mess, and Hodges was a big part of that as a hodge-podge (Pun intended.) of poorly conceived motivations and plot twists that made the character seem irresponsible and reckless. (Something that King even acknowledges in this one when Hodges reflects on his backstory and admits that he nearly got a bunch of people killed “by going Lone Ranger”.) He doesn’t do anything that egregious here, but the problem is that he is completely unnecessary.

Hodges doesn’t even appear in the story until almost halfway through the book, and when he does the main plot comes to a screeching halt as King has to explain exactly who he and his friends are as well as the backstory of Mr. Mercedes. Then his only real contribution comes at the very end and could have easily been done by a new character. The main reason that Hodges is in this book at all seems to be to set up the third book, and there’s even an element at the end that feels like the bonus post-credits scene in a Marvel movie. 

In fact, the appearance of Hodges underlines that King, for all his vast storytelling talents, just really doesn’t have a handle on the kind of plotting and pacing required for a tense crime thriller. I’ve joked before that King has two speeds: dead slow and all-hell-breaks-loose. He very often can make that work, but it’s telling that a lot of his books take place over extended periods of time from weeks to months to years. King is at his best doing a slow burn, and there’s no question that he knows how to do suspense and a sense of dread in his usual kind of stories, However, he just has no natural feel for making that work in crime fiction.

For example, this plot is structured around two characters, Morris and Pete, and the readers know their whole story and can see where the trains are going to collide. However, once he brings Hodges and his friends into the story, he tries to turn it into a mystery with them trying to solve the riddle of what Pete has been doing. As the action ramps up at the end, a big chunk of the story is Hodges trying to figure out what we already read so there’s absolutely no tension to it. A good thriller often has the hero trying to figure out something the reader knows, but there should be some kind of climatic pay off. Like some bit of info held back, the revelation of which should provide a satisfying A-HA! kind of breakthrough that is critical to driving the plot forward. (The pivotal clue in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon is a great example of making this work.) But here we’ve just got Hodges putting together what we already know and trailing uselessly in the wake of the real action.

King also sometimes has trouble with plotting when he can’t say that some supernatural force is helping push things along. There’s a great illustration of that here when Morris is trying to clean up a particularly nasty mess he’s made at one point, and he has every reason to remove a certain item. He even thinks that he should take it with him, but then he leaves it only because of a powerful hunch. Sure enough, he later has an opportunity to use that object to his advantage through events he could not have predicted, but the mere fact that it’s in the room shows that King decided to disregard the logic of the crime genre which dictate that you should always get rid of the evidence just to use it as a plot point later. Then to add insult to injury that object almost immediately become irrelevant after this twist which highlights how it wasn’t really necessary to begin with. So King introduced an element that he knew didn’t make a lot of sense, didn’t bother to come up with a convincing reason that it could have been logically kept in play, and then immediately dropped the whole thing so it was pointless anyhow.

King himself has even gone on record in a recent interview about how he’s had a hard time with these books and doesn’t understand how mystery writers do it regularly. While I like that he gave something new a try, I also think that he’s just not suited to doing this genre, and that he’s usually at his best when he has some kind of fantastic element to lean on.