Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fight! Fight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cellular Degeneration

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot
Crown Publishing Group

The doorbell rang the other day and when I answered it, there was a very slick guy in a nice suit standing there and a limousine parked at the curb. He started shaking my hand and wormed his way into the house.

“Mr. Kemper, I’m John Doe with Dee-Bag Industries Incorporated. I need you to sign some paperwork and take a ride with me. Don’t worry, I’ll have you home in a day or two,” he said. Then he pulled a document out of his briefcase, set it on the coffee table and pushed a pen in my hand.

“Wait a second. What the hell is this all about?” I said as I tried to pick up the paper to read it, but Doe kept trying to force my hand with the pen down on it so I couldn‘t see what it said.

“Oh, that’s just legal mumbo-jumbo. You’d rather try and read your mortgage agreement than this old thing. Just put your name down and let’s be on our way, shall we?” he said.

There was a brief scuffle, but I managed to distract him by messing up his carefully gelled hair. As he shrieked and ran around looking for a mirror, I finally got to read the document.

“This is a medical consent form. What’s going on?” I demanded as I shook the paper at him. Once he had combed and smoothed his hair back into perfection, Doe sighed.

“Very well, Mr. Kemper. I guess I’ll have to come clean. Do you remember when you had your appendix out when you were in grade school?”

“Sure. That gave me one of my better scars, but that was like 30 years ago. Why are you here now?” I asked.

“You’re probably not aware of this, but your appendix was used in a research project by DBII,” Doe said.

“Really? I assumed it just got incinerated or used in the hospital cafeteria’s meatloaf special. Why would anyone want to study my rotten appendix?”

“Oh, all kinds of research is done on tissue gathered during medical procedures. Most people don’t know that, but it’s very common,” Doe said.

“OK, but why are you here now?”

“Well, your appendix turned out to be very special. It was secreting some kind of pus that no one had seen before. After many tests, it turned out to be a new chemical compound with commercial applications. So a patent was filed based on that compound and turned into a consumer product,” Doe admitted.

“That sounds disgusting. What was it used in? Because I want to make sure to never buy it,” I said.

“It’s the basis for the adhesive on Post-It Notes,” Doe said.

“Are you freaking kidding me? Post-It Notes are based on my old appendix?”

“I’m absolutely serious, Mr. Kemper. Now we at DBII need your help. Unfortunately for us, you haven’t had anything removed lately. So I have to get your consent if we’re going to do further studies,” Doe said.

“But you already got my goo-seeping appendix. I don’t have another one,” I said.

“True, but sales have been down for Post-It Notes lately. So after the marketing and research boys talked it over for a while, they thought we should bring you in for a full body scan. Maybe you’ve got a spleen giving out or something else that we could pull out and see if we could use it,” Doe said.

“This is pretty damn disturbing,” I said.

“Why? You’re an organ donor, right? Same thing,” Doe said.

“I don’t consider someone lucking into an organ if the Chiefs win a play-off game and I have a goddamn heart attack the same thing as companies making money off tissue I had removed decades ago and didn’t know anything about,” I said.

“Fortunately, the American government and legal system disagree. So how about it, Mr. Kemper? Will you come with me?” Doe asked.

“I dunno. What’s my end of this? You already owe me a fat check for the Post-Its.”

“Oh, no. You won’t get any money from the Post-Its, or if any future discoveries from your tissues lead to more gains.” Doe said.

“That’s complete bullshit!”

“Again, the legal system disagrees with you. But this is for science, Mr. Kemper. You don’t want to hold up medical scientific research that could save lives, do you?”

“It’s for Post-It Notes!”

“Maybe, but who is to say that the cure for some terrible disease isn't lurking somewhere in your genes? Could you live with yourself if you prevented crucial medical research just because you were ticked off that you didn’t get any money for your appendix? Remember that it’s not like you could have NOT had your appendix removed. At least, not if you wanted to keep living. And I highly doubt that you would have had the resources to have it studied and discovered the adhesive for yourself even if you would have taken it home with you in a jar after it was removed. We’re the ones who spent all that money to get some good out of a piece of disgusting gunk that tried to kill you. So shouldn’t we be compensated? What are you? Some kind of damn dirty hippie liberal socialist?” Doe said in disgust

“You’re a hell of a corporate lackey, Doe,” I said.

“Thank you.”

“Fine. I’ll do it,” I said as I signed the form. “But I want some free Post-It Notes.”

“No deal. Steal them from work like everyone else,” Doe said.


Obviously, I‘m a big fat liar and none of this happened, but I really did have my appendix out as a kid. Plus, my tonsils got yanked and I’ve had my fair share of blood taken over the years. What this book taught me is that it’s highly likely that some of my scraps are sitting in frozen jars in labs somewhere. Yours, too. If any of us have anything unique in our tissues that may be valuable for medical research, it’s possible that they’d be worth a fortune, but we’d never see a dime of it.

Henrietta Lacks couldn’t be considered lucky by any stretch of the imagination. A black woman who grew up poor on a tobacco farm, she married her cousin and moved to the Baltimore area. Her husband apparently liked to step out on her and Henrietta ended up with STDs, and one of her children was born mentally handicapped and had to be institutionalized.

In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer by doctors at Johns Hopkins. During her biopsy, cell samples were taken and given to a researcher who had been working on the problem of trying to grow human cells. Henrietta’s cancer spread wildly, and she was dead within a year. But her cells turned out to be an incredible discovery because they continued growing at a very fast rate.

The doctor at Johns Hopkins started sharing his find for no compensation, and this coincided with a large need for cell samples due to testing of the polio vaccine. The HeLa cells would be crucial for confirming that the vaccine worked and soon companies were created to grow and ship them to researchers around the world. Since then, Henrietta’s cells have been sent into outer space and subjected to nuclear tests and cited in over 60,000 medical research papers

Unfortunately, no one ever asked Henrietta’s permission and her family knew nothing about the important role her cells played in medicine for decades. Poor and with little formal education, Henrietta’s children were confused by what was actually done to their mother and upset when they learned that her tissue was part of a multi-million dollar industry that they‘ve received no compensation from..

Rebecca Skloot has written a fascinating book that clearly outlines why Henrietta’s cells were so important, why she went unrecognized for decades, the pain it’s caused her family, and the way that new medical discoveries over the last sixty years have opened a potential Pandora’s Box of legal and ethical issues regarding tissue collection, research, patents and money. This book brings up a lot of issues that we’re probably all going to be dealing with in the future.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fear the Tooth Fairy

Red Dragon
Thomas Harris

4 out 5 stars.

When it comes to Hannibal Lecter, I’m like one of those music hipster douche bags that everyone hates because I’ll snootily declare that I  knew about him long before most people did and that he’s sucked ever since he got really famous.

I’d read this years before the book of The Silence of the Lambs came out and led to the excellent film adaptation that skyrocketed Hannibal to the top of pop culture villains. Hell, I’m so Hannibal-hip that I’d caught Brian Cox playing him in Michael Mann’s adaptation Manhunter, and I didn’t just see it on VHS like all the other late-comers, I actually saw it in the theater.  Twice!  (I’m pretty sure this is the literary equivalent of claiming to have seen a band in a bar with eleven other people long before their first record deal.)

So after Thomas Harris and Hollywood ran the character into the ground after the second movie, it’s been years of shaking my head and saying, “Man, nothing’s been the same since Anthony Hopkins gave his Oscar acceptance speech.”

Since I felt like Harris was just cashing in and had pretty much ruined Hannibal in the process, I hadn’t felt the urge to revisit Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs in some time.  I was more than skeptical about the NBC prequel TV series Hannibal, but great reviews and the involvement of Bryan Fuller got me to check it out.  Not only has it been  incredibly good and returned Hannibal Lecter to his creepy best, it’s clever use of events referenced as back-story in Red Dragon had me digging out my copy to refresh my memory.  Even better, the show has given me a new appreciation for an old favorite and reminded me what I found compelling about it to begin with.

Will Graham was a profiler for the FBI until he was badly injured while identifying a certain gourmet serial killer whose name conveniently rhymes with ‘cannibal’ which certainly made life easier for the people writing tabloid headlines.  Will has retired to a happy new life with a wife and stepson in Florida until his old boss Jack Crawford comes calling and asks for help.  There’s a brutal new killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy by the cops due to his habit of biting his victims.  He’s killed two families after breaking into their homes and seems to be on schedule to do it again at the next full moon.

Will is reluctant to come back not just because he’s already been gutted once by a madman, but he also fears that trying to think like a mass murderer isn’t the best thing for his mental health.  It turns out that his concerns are justified after a tabloid journalist essentially paints a target on his back for the Tooth Fairy.  Even worse, Will has to confront the man who nearly killed him and being confined to a cell doesn’t mean that Dr. Lecter can’t still do some serious damage.

Even as someone who was on the Hannibal bandwagon for a quarter of a century, it’s shocking to re-read this and realize how small of a part he actually plays in the story.  Yes, he’s terrifying and his presence hangs over Will like a dark cloud, but he’s still a supporting player.  Francis Dolarhyde (a/k/a The Red Dragon a/k/a The Tooth Fairy) may not have Hannibal’s culinary skills, he’s one damn scary and slightly tragic villain, and Will Graham makes for a damaged but compelling hero in the story.

I think one of the things I love best is just how much time is spent on how Will thinks.  As a man with extremely high levels of empathy and a vivid imagination, Will’s ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes is a gift and a curse.  Thinking like deranged killers has left him questioning if he might not be one of them, and it spills over all his emotions like a toxic oil spill.

By understanding their madness, Will can find the logic in their thinking, and it’s following that internal logic that allows Will to find the evidence they need. The breakthrough Will eventually makes is one of my all-time favorite examples of pure detection in the genre.  It was in front of the reader the entire time, but it’s such an elegant solution that fits together so perfectly that Harris doesn’t have to engage in obscuring it with red herrings.

As a thriller that led to countless imitators and even the eventual collapse of the franchise due to it’s own success, it’s been often imitated but rarely equaled.

Check out my review of the new Hannibal TV series at Shelf Inflicted.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Talking Zombies

My Goodreads buddy Trudi, who is also a blogger at Busty Book Bimbo, and I were both fairly shocked at the latest developments in The Walking Dead Vol. 17 - Something to Fear.  We had a conversation about whether the comic has gotten too dark for even a zombie apocalypse.  You can read it at Shelf Inflicted, but there are spoilers galore for both the comics and TV show.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Drinking Detective

Nick's Trip
by George Pelecanos
Back Bay Books

Nick Stefanos walked away from his job as head of advertising for an electronics retailer to become a private investigator. At least that was the plan, but with the detective business being slow, Nick is also working as a bartender in a dive that lets him regularly indulge in his main hobby of binge drinking.

You might think that getting hired by his old friend Billy to track down his missing wife would get Nick to put a cork in the jug, but you’d be wrong.  Billy was doing business with a small-time gangster that Nick has a family association with through his late grandfather.   When not drinking, smoking cigarettes or listening to music. Nick tries to find Billy’s wife as well as poke into the murder of a newspaper reporter who was a friend of his.

Nick is a character that I recognize pretty well since he’s essentially me in my early 20s.  Minus the private detective thing.  Probably a lot of us could recognize ourselves in him during that time where we realize that we’re about to wave goodbye to our younger selves and don’t have a clear idea of what we’re supposed to do next.  The difference is that Nick is in his 30s and should have grown out of this by now.  He sentimentalizes his younger days of running wild through DC like a much older man and clings to the memories of things like a drunken road trip with Billy as if they were the only good things he’d ever experience.

In the previous book A Firing Offense, it seemed that Nick walking away from a job he didn’t like to take up the private detective game was a guy having the guts to change his life.  However, events here make that decision murkier.  Nick doesn’t do much to make his new detective business work other than put an ad in the Yellow Pages, and when he tries to get a job at big agency, he walks out when he finds it’s full of guys in suits.  You know, adults who have to stay sober and do their jobs all day.  So his leaving his old job to be a detective now kind of seems like a kid running off to be a cowboy or join the circus.

Even if Nick’s occasional boozy irresponsibility and aging bad boy act sometimes make you want to slap him in the back of the head and tell him to grow the hell up, he’s still a good guy that you root for to get his act together and solve the case.

Also posted at Goodreads.

It's All Rainbows and Unicorns and Zombies

The Walking Dead Vol. 17 - Something to Fear
by Robert Kirkman,
Image Comics

Rick’s group of survivors thought that their recent success in wiping out a huge herd of zombies along with The Walking Dead.
finding that there were other communities nearby that they could start trading with had provided the first rays of sunshine in the long dark night that is

However, long time readers shouldn’t be surprised that was just writer Robert Kirkman setting us up like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick.  If you’re familiar with this series and still ended up flat on your back after he yanked the ball away, you got nobody to blame but yourself.

Following the classic lesson of George Romero, Kirkman again demonstrates that while zombies may be dangerous, it’s other people that are really terrifying.  When Rick learned that the neighboring community had problems with a group called the Saviors, he thought that his battle-tested crew of crusty veterans was more than a match for some gang working a post-apocalyptic version of the protection racket.  Unfortunately, Rick is wrong.

So very, very wrong.

The Saviors turn out to have a lot more members than anyone knew about, and their leader, Negan, is a vicious bastard who will make Rick wistfully think about the good ole days when he only had to deal with the Governor.

So once again all is lost, and if you think it might get better soon, the next collection will be titled Abandon All Hope.*  You know, just in case you hadn’t already…

*(I learned that they've changed the title of the next volume to What Comes After and ruined my joke.  Thanks for nothing, Kirkman!)

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Shelf Inflicted

Some of my fellow Goodreads users have banded together to do some blogging about books and other things like movies, TV and music.   It's kind of like a super villain hero team.  Only without a high-tech secret headquarter or skin-tight outfits.

So head over to Shelf Inflicted and check it out.  We're just getting started but should be adding content all the time, and I've just posted a review of Harlan Coben's latest best-seller Six Years there.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Guns And Babies Are Recession-Proof

The Lost Ones
by Ace Atkins
Putnam Adult

In Tibbehah County, Mississippi, a newly elected sheriff tries to track down a couple who were abusing and neglecting a pack of infants before selling them on the black market, and there’s a Mexican drug gang in the area looking to do a bulk gun deal.

And yet some people think that country life is boring.

This terrific follow-up to Ace Atkins' The Ranger finds Quinn Colson retired from the Army and trying to adjust to life as a lawman.  If he wasn’t busy enough dealing with baby sellers and illegal arms deals, his ne’er -do-well sister has breezed back into his life with a heart full of Jesus, and there’s a red-headed female ATF agent who has gotten his attention in ways that go beyond the call of duty.

If this was just a straight-ahead action thriller, that’s a pretty good set-up right there.  But what moves this up a notch and gets it an Edgar Award nomination for best novel is the way that Atkins has created a believable cast of characters in a small town setting and uses the connections between them and Quinn to give the story some depth.

Quinn’s relationship with his sister Caddy, including a dark secret the two share, adds some history.  Childhood buddy and gun dealer Donnie Avery is a fellow veteran who wants to live life to the fullest after getting blown up overseas, and he‘s willing to do a huge arms deal to impress a beautiful Mexican woman.  Donnie reminds Quinn of his hell-raising past and what he could have become.  

Then there’s a fight with the corrupt local politician Johnny Stagg to save the county some money and maybe help out another old friend and veteran in the process. The high school sweetheart who once broke his heart is married to someone else and pregnant, but there’s some unfinished business between the two that Quinn doesn’t fully understand.  His mother has been raising his nephew during his sister’s frequent absences, and Quinn tries to be a father figure and limit the damage done to the kid  by Caddy’s infrequent appearances.  His chief deputy is one tough lady, and their relationship is another one that could get extremely complicated if Quinn isn’t careful.

It’s the details of a crowded life of a guy who returned to the small town he meant to leave forever and has begun to enjoy the things he once tried to escape that set this apart from others in the genre.  Add in some wild criminal plots and an ex-Ranger sheriff who is still getting used to the idea of driving up to a trailer and serving a search warrant rather than sniping everyone there from the trees, and you get one great rural crime novel.

Also posted at Goodreads.

It's Still Got That New Blog Smell....

One of the many books stashes in the house.
Does the world really need another blogger? Probably not, but I'm starting this one due to circumstances beyond my control.  For years now I've been posting book reviews on Goodreads and achieved a modest amount of success there.  I thought I'd happily keep doing that until the day came when I was killed by a stack of books toppling onto me as I threaded my way through the stacks in the house to get a sandwich and a beer.  (At least that's how the fortune teller told me I'd die.)

However, Goodreads has now been bought by a rather large corporation, and while I don't necessarily consider this the Amazon-pocalypse that some do, I also don't think that companies spend a billion dollars to buy something if they don't plan on making some changes.  Since I was not included in what the new business plans of what those changes might be, I'm starting the blog as a safety net in case the worst happens.

But if I'm going to go to the trouble to start a blog, I'll try to think of ways to spice it up a bit and stretch myself a bit more than I normally would at Goodreads.

What kind of books will I review?  Crime novels are my favorites including hard-boiled noir and modern thrillers.  I've got a special place in my heart for private detective novels and characters like Matt Scudder, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Phillip Marlowe and many, many more.  I'm also a comic nerd so you can expect to see superhero collections and various other graphic novels on here.  I like some sci-fi, but you probably won't get a lot of fantasy reviews.  When the mood strikes, I may also pick up some serious modern Lit-A-Chur.

Why should you care what I think about a book? Or anything else for that matter?  No particular reason.  I'm just another blogger out here shouting on my own particular digital street corner.  I've read a lot of books and plan to read many more, and I've spent more time than a normal individual should thinking about what makes a story work..  I've posted hundreds of reviews on Goodreads and picked up a few friends and followers along the way so I'd like to think I'm doing something right.

Or I'm just completely full of shit.  Oh, that reminds me. There will be profanity on this blog.  So if you're easily by that sort of thing, best click away now before it gets worse.

Who am I other than an amateur book reviewer?  I'm a married 43 year old corporate cube farmer to pay for the books and buy food for the small herd of cats that the wife and I have somehow accumulated.  We live in Overland Park KS which is a suburb of Kansas City, but one thing you should know about me right up front is that I hate The Wizard of Oz.  Seriously.  If you were thinking posting a comment that was something like "I guess you're not in Kansas anymore!" or "Where's Toto?", you should back away from your keyboard now before this gets ugly.  It's the first day.  Who wants all that drama?

I will also offer this standard disclaimer about my reviews:

Warning -  If you decide to read something because of a review I wrote, then you should take into account that I'm an uneducated hillbilly living in the wilds of Kansas, and that I'm half-deranged from all the improperly distilled corn liquor I drink. So consider the source, and I'll accept absolutely NO responsibility if you hate it.

I think that covers the basics.  We'll make the rest up as we go.