Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review: Dream Girl

Dream Girl Dream Girl by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an aging man, there’s few things that can scare me more than the idea of falling down the stairs. So this one was keeping me up nights in a cold sweat.

Gerry Anderson is a writer whose biggest success, a novel called Dream Girl, is the source of endless speculation about if the lead character was inspired by a real person despite Gerry’s absolute insistence that it wasn’t based on anybody. Gerry has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore to care for his ailing mother, but she dies soon after he buys a swanky new apartment. After receiving a mysterious piece of mail, Gerry takes a tumble down the stairs and breaks his hip.

Bedridden in his fancy apartment, Gerry has to rely on his assistant and a gruff night nurse for his care. That’s when he starts receiving phone calls from a woman claiming to be the actual inspiration for Dream Girl. An unnerved Gerry continues to insist that isn’t possible since the character was entirely fictional, but he finds it hard to prove his claims of being contacted.

As he tries to sort out his confused state of mind, Gerry begins reflecting on his life, and while he would be the first to tell you that he’s always been a man who did his best to stay out of trouble, it becomes apparent that he’s left a string of women who might have grudges in his wake. Is it a disgruntled former lover tormenting him? Is it all just something he invented in a haze of pain killers and sleeping meds? Or is the dementia that his mother suffered from hitting him at an earlier age?

I’ve only started reading Laura Lippmann in the last few years, but I’ve absolutely loved her writing. This is another example of why because it was an exceptionally tricky thing to pull off. On one level, it’s a story about a man trapped in a bed for most of the book, and it all hinges on putting the reader into his perspective. That means not just relying on the flashbacks scenes that eventually tell us who Gerry is, but also providing a steady stream of consciousness as his mind wanders. Not only does Lippmann makes this interesting, she makes all of it necessary.

The character work done on Gerry is excellent because when we’re introduced to him, he seems like a pretty decent guy. A writer who came from a humble background, and the kind of guy who would leave his beloved New York lifestyle to care for his aging mother. Gradually, we start to understand that even when Gerry seems like he’s doing something for somebody else that there’s usually a selfish motive behind it even if he’s lying to himself about it.

The mystery of who is claiming to be the actual Dream Girl starts to take a back seat to the holes in the history that Gerry has invented for himself, and in the end he’ll have to confront who he actually is and what he’s done. While I was able to guess a few things, there were still revelations made that made my jaw drop.

There’s a few other works of fiction that seem similar, as if Lippman drew inspiration from a few sources, but it all comes together in a first rate work that feels original and unique.

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Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t believe I drank 8 whiskey sours while reading this book!

It’s 1969 and former TV star Rick Dalton’s career is on a downhill slide while his next door neighbors, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, are the new cool kids of Hollywood. Meanwhile, Rick’s stuntman/driver Cliff Booth has a run in with some freaky hippies who keep talking about their leader, Charlie.

This one is a real oddity. You’ve got the writer/director of a successful movie releasing a novel based on it, but the book doesn’t exactly follow the film. In fact, the climax of the movie is casually revealed about one-third of the way through the book as something that eventually happens without going into details or mentioning it again.

I’ve often thought that Quentin Tarantino’s films are kind of Rorschach tests in that people can and will read into them what they want. While he certainly deserves criticism for several things, and I often find his personality tiresome, his movies fascinate me. Particularly this one which I thought was one of his best and had really interesting themes about a time when Hollywood was both changing and remaining the same. I also thought it had a lot of interesting things to say about movie violence vs. violence in reality. Since I had a lot of theories about what QT was actually saying about it, I enjoyed finding more details in the book that seemed to confirm that. Especially about Cliff Booth.

If you’re into the movie, it’s worth a look, but you’re also not really missing out on anything if you just want to stick to the film version. If you don’t like QT or the film, it’s not gonna change your mind. Overall, it’s kind of like a literary version of deleted scenes. They can be interesting, but were most likely cut for a reason.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: The Heathens

The Heathens The Heathens by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

In these troubled and complicated times, it’s nice to be able to read a book set in a small town in Mississippi where the people still have old time family values and the problems of the modern world never intrude on them.

And if you actually believe that I can tell you don’t really know anything about American small towns at all.

As usual, there’s trouble in Tibbehah County, and Sheriff Quinn Colson has to deal with it. The most pressing problem is that a barfly named Gina Byrd has vanished, and when evidence of foul play turns up, her troubled teenage daughter TJ is the prime suspect. TJ is the kind of tough-as-nails poor kid who has no use or respect for the law so despite her claims that she’s innocent, TJ goes on the run with her boyfriend, her best friend, and her younger brother. When they encounter a rich girl with her own problems and a very active Instagram account, TJ’s crime spree goes viral while she continues to claim that her mother’s boyfriend is the real guilty party.

Quinn has another complication because his former deputy turned US Marshal, Lilly Virgil, was a friend to the missing woman who automatically believes the worst about TJ and goes on a personally motivated hunt for the girl and her half-assed gang despite Quinn’s belief that their might be some truth to TJ’s story. Meanwhile, an old enemy of Quinn’s has returned and is quietly rebuilding a crime empire as he tries to use the media firestorm around TJ to his own advantage. Adding to the mess are the utterly disgusting and psychotic father & son house painters who also moonlight as thugs for hire. 

Ace Atkins had spent several books bringing several plots to a head which culminated nicely in the last book so this seems like a turning point in the series. There’s still a lot of the same characters, and previous events still have on-going consequences, but this feels like a new phase in the adventures of Quinn Colson is beginning. It’s a helluva good start, too.

Atkins continues to nail the whole vibe of a small town from its low key charms and the complex relationships among people who know each other all too well. He also shows clear vision when exploring the flaws like stomach turning hypocrisy or stubborn nostalgia for times that weren’t really all that great.

There’s another potentially interesting factor in play here because Atkins sometimes likes to slyly play off other fiction. For example, in one of his Spenser books he recreated a scene from True Grit, and he also used a darker version of The Dukes of Hazard as a kind of template for a Quinn Colson novel. Here, I get the distinct impression that the inspiration may have been an ‘80s movie called The Legend of Billie Jean although it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen that one so take this observation with a grain of salt.

Overall, it’s Atkins doing his usual thing of telling a rural crime story with social commentary mixed in, and there's damn few writers who can do it as well as he does. 

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Friday, June 25, 2021

Review: Out on the Cutting Edge

Out on the Cutting Edge Out on the Cutting Edge by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And so begins the second phase of Matt Scudder.

Block had written about Matt trying to get sober in the mid-‘80s with 8 Million Ways to Die, and then he had done a flashback novel when Matt was still boozing during the ‘70s in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes so there’s been a pretty substantial gap in Matt’s timeline when this story starts up in 1989. (Thanks to winning an ARC of the upcoming A Drop of the Hard Stuff, I can report that Scudder fans will get some more info about what Matt was up to.)

Matt is over three years sober and has become a regular fixture at AA meetings. He still works as an unlicensed private detective and has been trying to track down a missing girl. With no leads in that case and without a steady girlfriend or the circle of bar buddies he used to hang with, Matt is a little bored and lonely. A former small time crook named Eddie approaches Matt after an AA meeting and asks if he would hear his fifth step, a confession of the things that he feels badly about it. Matt agrees, but then doesn’t hear from Eddie. When he goes looking for him, Matt finds Eddie dead under odd circumstances. Was it an accident or murder?

Matt meets a couple of new friends in this one. The first is a woman that he starts dating and likes very much, but he’s quietly conflicted about her drinking. The second is a man who will become a very important figure in the Scudder series: Mick Ballou. (Oddly, he’s called Mickey in this first one. I always remember him as being referred to as Mick.)

Ballou is a bigger than life Irish gangster who likes to wear his father’s old butcher apron to an early mass in the meat district of New York, and it’s probably best that you not ask him about any fresh stains you see on it. Mick also may or may not have once carried an enemy’s head around in a bowling bag while he was bar hopping. Oddly, the hard drinking criminal and the alcoholic ex-cop feel a kinship, and this one hints at the long friendship that eventually develops between the two.

Matt’s life without drinking and the introduction of Ballou mark this as a change to the series, but it’s still the same incredibly well-written account of a low-key but complicated detective.

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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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