Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: The Turnout

The Turnout The Turnout by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

The thing about Megan Abbott that continues to amaze me even after reading a bunch of her books is how she can get me interested in things I would have said wouldn’t hold my attention at all like cheerleading and gymnastics. Now she’s set a story around a ballet school and once again, I was riveted.

Dara and Marie Durant weren’t raised like most kids. Home schooled by their mother who was a ballet instructor the girls were pretty much raised to dance, and once their parents died in a car crash they took over their mother’s school. Dara married her mother’s best student Charlie who had been living with them for years, and the three of them live together in their childhood home. However, when Marie moves out of the house, and then a new person enters the school in the form of a manly-man contractor named Derek it seems like changes are going to happen whether Dara wants them to or not.

Ms. Abbott does characters with complex relationships extremely well, and she might have done some of her best work yet with the Durant sisters. The most intriguing them to me was how they’ve been in statis. It goes beyond just living in their old house and running the school their mother started because they haven’t changed or upgraded anything since, and Dara in particular seems determined to preserve that status quo as if every aspect was worthy of being in a museum. When Marie starts to rebel against this situation, Dara takes it as Marie trying to abandon both her and their mother’s legacy.

In fact, if this story were about 20% more quirky and 15% less dark, it sounds like the set up to a Wes Anderson movie with an eccentric family stuck in the past and having issues dealing with the future. However, since it’s a Mighty Megan Abbott production things take a turn with secrets being revealed, and the question becomes if Dara and Marie can ever get back to their old routine. And even if they could, should they?

All around great family drama with some crime elements that also drops in a lot of detail about a ballet school from the best way to break in a pair of ballet shoes to how awful the students can be to someone who gets a lead role in the school’s annual production of The Nutcracker.


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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Later

Later Later by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young boy sees dead people. No, not THAT young boy, and Bruce Willis is not involved.

Jamie Conklin seems like an ordinary kid being raised by his single mother in New York during the late ‘00s, but Jamie has the gift/curse of being able to see and communicate with people who died recently. While it causes him to sometimes see the grisly aftermath of somebody’s demise, it also allows him to do things like help a grieving neighbor whose wife just died learn where she had left her wedding ring. Jamie’s mother has wisely told him not to talk about his ability, but when she desperately needs to talk to a dead man, Jamie is pressed into service. Unfortunately, Jamie’s mom also tells her girlfriend, a cop who doesn’t do things by the book, and when she gets into trouble on the job she wants Jamie’s help and won’t take no for an answer.

Like the other times that Uncle Stevie has done a book for Hard Case Crime, this has a supernatural element and isn’t the kind of straight up hard boiled story they usually do. I also didn’t care much for King’s other recent books where he’s tried to blend thrillers with horror which left me fully prepared to dislike this one. So I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it.

For one thing, it is not The Sixth Sense rip-off that a quick plot summary makes it sound like, and King blends the supernatural with a crime story more naturally than he has in other things. It helps that it’s short, especially by Uncle Stevie standards, at less than 300 pages. Things move along at a brisk pace, and that makes it a solid page turner. He just had a cool idea for a story and banged it out with no padding to it at all.

I was also pleased that King did such a nice job at writing it from Jamie’s point of view. It seems like he’s really struggled to write younger lead characters these days, and his protagonists who are supposed to be in their 30s or 40s often come across as elderly people. Writing kids is something King used to do really well, and it was nice to see that he still has that touch.

This is one of those times that I really wish Goodreads let us do half stars because this would be the perfect example of a 3.5 for. Pretty good, a lot of fun, and well worth a look, but not quite great enough for a full 4. Overall, it was a nice reminder of the old Uncle Stevie magic even if it’s not going to make anyone forget about The Shining.

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Monday, May 10, 2021

Review: Phantom Prey

Phantom Prey Phantom Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lucas Davenport goes goth.

Alyssa Austin is a wealthy widow that returns home to find a bloodstain on her wall and that her adult daughter Francis has vanished. With no body and no leads, the police can’t do much with the case. After a friend of Francis is murdered by a mysterious goth woman known only as Fairy, Alyssa turns to her friend Weather for help.

Weather just so happens to be married to Lucas Davenport, one of the top cops with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as well as being the governor’s chief rat catcher. Weather pushes Lucas to look into it both as a favor to her friend and to get him out of his annual post-winter funk. Lucas starts reluctantly at his wife’s nagging, but soon finds himself intrigued by the mystery of Francis’s disappearance.

As Lucas starts talking to people in the Minneapolis goth community, he's also running an extended stake-out on the pregnant girlfriend of a dangerous Lithuanian gangster who skipped town in case he comes back for her. Lucas also has to deal with a mountain of political bullshit due to the upcoming Republican National Convention.

I’ve sung John Sandford’s praises in plenty of reviews here on Goodreads, and I don’t have much to add to them. He’s several notches above the typical thriller hacks who own the best seller lists because he creates intriguing stories with characters you can relate to and he routinely builds momentum and suspense to the point where a reader may find themselves on their feet instead of in their chair because the tension won‘t allow them to sit still.

One thing that caught my eye here was the way Sandford portrays Davenport’s attitude about his job. It's a thriller cliché to have the hero horrified and burned out by the crimes they investigate, yet they continue to do it because only they have the knowledge and skill to stop the killer, etc. etc. Lucas isn’t like that. He enjoys his work both for the mental aspect of figuring things out and the adrenaline rush of throwing on a bulletproof vest and crashing through a door. While he’s flirted with a clinical depression at times, a genuine mystery to solve can snap him out of it like in this book where his wife is tired of him moping around after a long dull winter and basically kicks him in the ass to get him revved up again. He’s not cold or immune to the suffering of others, but he can ration out his empathy so that he’s not consumed by it.

I also realized I’m probably not giving Sandford enough credit in the writing department. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning print journalist and sometimes his plain prose hides genuine cleverness. Like this:

“Lucas slurped the coffee, which tasted sort of brown, like a cross between real coffee and the paper sack it came in.”

This is another highly entertaining entry in the Prey series. It’s not quite up to the recent level that Sandford has hit with the crazily good Buried Prey or the Virgil Flowers story in Bad Blood, but it’s a great example of how Sandford thrillers stand out from the pack.

Next: Lucas vs. the Republicans in Wicked Prey.


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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Review: Heaven's a Lie

Heaven's a Lie Heaven's a Lie by Wallace Stroby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Crime fiction fans know this rule well: If you come across a bag of money, don’t take it.

Fortunately, Joette Harper is apparently unfamiliar with stories like No Country For Old Men and A Simple Plan. Otherwise she would have known better, and we wouldn’t have this great book to read.

Joette has been riding an epic streak of bad luck. Her husband died, she lost her job at a bank when it got bought out, and her mother is fading fast in a nursing home. With a mountain of medical bills to pay she’s lost her house, and the only job she can find near her mother is as a desk clerk at a crappy motel. While working one night she witnesses and a car accident and while futilely trying to save the driver’s life, she finds a bag with almost $300,000 in the flaming wreckage. Acting on impulse, Joette takes the bag and hides it from the police, but she doesn’t realize that it’s drug money stolen from a very dangerous man named Travis Clay who wants it back.

Once he’s established the set-up, author Wallace Stroby then takes us through a story that is familiar, but he manages to subvert expectations at several points. It’s mainly the character work that sets this one apart, and with Joette in the lead we’ve got a smart woman who is the kind of person who would risk her own life to try and save a stranger from a burning car, but her circumstances have made her desperate enough to take the cash. This isn’t a greedy person, she’s just someone who really needs this money, and that makes you sympathize with her from the jump. She’s also smarter than a lot of the characters we get in these situations as she immediately stashes the cash in secure locations and does a good job of covering her tracks.

The antagonist Travis Clay could have been a cliché or an Anton Chigurh rip-off as a violent man seeking his money, but while he fits that profile in some ways, there’s again a sly nudging of things off the typical beats. Usually there’s a kind of pragmatic ruthlessness to characters like these, but Clay gets obsessed with the idea of recovering the money which leads him down increasingly bloody avenues that start to cut off his options even as he is pressuring Joette.

It all works and builds a nice tension so that even as the book builds tensions and seems headed towards an expectable outcome, you start to realize that things aren’t going to work for anybody like they planned.

Wallace Stroby is a writer I like a lot and who I think should be getting a lot more attention. His Chrissa Stone novels starting with Cold Shot to the Heart was one of the better series about a professional thief you’ll find this side of a Richard Stark novel, and his last book Some Die Nameless was a great thriller as well. This is just the latest example of why crime fiction fans should be reading him.

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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: Five Decembers

Five Decembers Five Decembers by James Kestrel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from the author.

It’s a Hard Case Crime novel set in Hawaii just weeks before the infamous Pearl Harbor attack occurs on December 7, 1941. I pretty much feel like that’s all I need to say to convince people to check it out.

But fine, if you want to know a little more, then keep reading…

Joe McGrady is a police detective in Honolulu who is called to a gruesome double murder. Things get complicated when one of the victims turns out to be a relative of a prominent Navy admiral and the other is a young Japanese woman. With tensions high, Joe’s boss just wants the case solved as quickly and quietly as possible, and McGrady ends up hot on the trail of the killer across the Pacific. However, the outbreak of World War II derails the investigation as well as Joe’s life.

This is one of those books that’s tricky to review because I don’t want to say much more about the plot because it takes some surprising twists that end up being the best part of the of the story. So I don’t want to spoil those, but then I can’t really dig into some of the particulars.

What I can say is that this is a novel built on making readers feel like they’re in a particular time and place, and James Kestrel does a superior job of that. From describing the streets and people of Honolulu in 1941 to several other locations, you get all of the atmosphere without it feeling like a bunch of regurgitated facts from a history class.

The plotting is also very well done as it mixes the realistic grind of detective work with some of the historical details of the setting. For example, one clue revolves around how there were no Packard dealerships in Hawaii at the time so that type of car was very rare on the islands, but trying to track down a particular one means spending hours reviewing car registration records. There’s a lot of great procedural bits about trying to track down a killer in the era before computer databases and modern forensics. Even the methods of communication play a part with cables being a key element to how things unfold.

Character work is another strong element with Joe McGrady being the kind of complex figure you want at the center of this kind of story. As an ex-soldier with no family to speak of, Joe is a loner who didn’t grow up in Hawaii so he’s seen as an outsider even by his fellow cops, and it’s evident from the start that he’s not entirely trusted by them. The feeling goes both ways as Joe deals with the agenda of his boss and others. His one real connection is his growing feelings towards the woman he’s been seeing, Molly.

The story also plays off the readers knowing that World War II is about to start to good effect. Kestrel drops a few well-placed ominous hints that foreshadow that the whole world is about to go sideways even as Joe is hoping to get the case wrapped up in time to spend a romantic Christmas with Molly. It makes the whole thing one of those books where you’re tensed up the entire time, and just wish that you could warn everyone in it what’s coming.

It’s a fantastic crime novel that takes the classic tale of a determined detective hunting a killer and turns it into the tragedy of one man who gets caught up in epic historical events.

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Monday, April 19, 2021

Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For over a year now a lot of us have been working from home, and now I feel like a real rube because what I should have done was get a Lincoln and have somebody drive me around all day while I did my job.

Mick Haller is a defense attorney who uses his car as an office as he shuttles between courts and jails seeing various clients. While not not completely crooked, Mick is certainly bent, and he has no problem using every trick he knows to keep his clients out of prison. When a wealthy young man is accused of brutally assualting a woman during an attempted rape, he hires Haller and insists that he’s innocent despite the evidence. At first, Mick sees this new client as nothing more than a big pay day, but as new things come to light Mick finds himself personally involved in ways he could never have dreamed of.

I’ve got a weird thing going with Michael Connelly. He’s an incredibly popular crime writer, and I’m a guy who loves crime fiction. His ideas and characters seem like they should be right in my wheelhouse, and this is another example of that. Yet, despite having several of my reading buddies cite Connelly as a favorite of theirs I remain mostly immune to his charms. Which is weird because I like plenty of other books that are similar in tone and concepts to what Connelly does. I guess it’s just like J.K. Simmons said in Whiplash, it’s not quite my tempo.

So while I enjoyed this one and found the character of Mick Haller intriguing, I just kind of wish that there was something MORE to the book, even if I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is I found lacking. I guess one point was that I was more into the angles that Haller played in the early part of the book than I was once the main plot got rolling. In fairness, the whole last act does hinge on Haller pulling off an unorthodox courtroom stunt so it’s not like Connelly just forgot that Haller was a lawyer. It’s more like he got more interested in the crime plot than the character, and so I wished Mick was a little bit less of a standard male lead in a thriller and more sleazy lawyer in the last act.

Still, I got no major complaints, and it’s got some aspects I really liked.


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Review: A Writer Prepares

A Writer Prepares A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this from the author for review.

First there was Batman Begins and now we have Block Begins.

Lawrence Block seems like a permanent fixture in crime fiction to me so it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when someone couldn’t wander into any bookstore or library and find several shelves filled with his works. However, everybody has to start somewhere, and in this memoir of the early days of his writing life Mr. Block tells us how he got his.

It wasn’t exactly a straight line even if he knew what he wanted to do from the time he was fifteen years old and got encouragement from an English teacher. A job at a shady literary agency provided invaluable experience and contacts to start his career churning out material under various pen names, most of it erotica, but even after he had his start Mr. Block bounced around between college and sometimes worked other jobs even as he was paying the bills with his writing.

This isn’t a traditional memoir. As Mr. Block explains, he began it in 1994 and wrote most of it one quick burst, but even though he had a publisher for it he set it aside and didn’t pick it up again until late in 2019 when he was going through old material to donate to a college. Rereading it sparked his interest, and he finished it up while leaving most of what he wrote back then intact.

A writer looking back at his career in his 50s, and then revisiting that in his 80s is unique and fascinating. One of the more interesting aspects is how Mr. Block’s attitude towards his early work-for-hire output has changed. Back in the ‘90s he refused to acknowledge or sign anything he’d written back then. These days, he cheerfully has these books reprinted either via e-books or via publishers like Hard Case Crimes. While never going so far as to say that he was ashamed of this early writing, he had various reasons for not wanting to take credit for it either back then. So explaining that shift is one of the things that benefits from letting the book sit for that long.

This is also most definitely NOT a biography. While certain aspects of his personal life come it’s always in relation to explaining something related to his writing. So there are some things mentioned like the death of his father and starting a family during his first marriage, but those aren’t the focus. It’s treated mainly as the backdrop to give a reader an understanding of what the situation was when Mr. Block made a choice regarding his writing.

There’s also a lot of fun stories and details about things like how the work-for-hire game was played, and how the Scott Meredith agency profited off of keeping wannabe writers on the hook for more reading fees. One trick that Mr. Block shares is how he sometimes used dialogue which often features a character wandering off the point as a a way to easily stretch out a page count for a book. This ultimately became part of his writing style.

Hard core fans should also be aware there isn’t anything about how he came up with his later creations like Matt Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, or Keller. Here, the culmination of the story is how he was originally inspired to start his Evan Tanner novels, and how they became the next stage where he left

What we end up with isn’t so much a full historical account of Mr. Block’s life or writing. Rather it’s him looking back at his youth from two different perspectives, and how the experiences then shaped him into the write he would become. What I loved about is the casual and sometimes wandering nature of it. It’s as if a reader sat down with Mr. Block over a cup of coffee and got to listen to him tell a bunch of stories about the old days. As a longtime fan of his, that’s a real treat.

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