Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Murder In The Sun

Until Death
by James L. Thane

4 out of 5 murdered clients of a prostitute approve of this book

I’m not going to pretend that this is in any way an objective review…..

Jim Thane has been a longtime Goodreads friend, and I’ve often pointed to him as the example of how we all wish authors would behave on there.  Instead of pimping out his own books, he actually writes great reviews and interacts with others regularly  They don’t call him Gentleman Jim for nothing, folks…

In fact, Jim is sometimes too polite for his own good because he’s barely drawn any attention to the release of this second book featuring Phoenix homicide detective Sean Richardson. As Sean and his partner Maggie are working on one case of brutal murder, a high-end prostitute named Gina comes forward with the information that someone has stolen her little black book containing all her clients and that someone has been murdering these men. As Sean scrambles to uncover the killer, he’s also still grieving for his recently deceased wife, and he finds himself increasingly intrigued by the beautiful Gina.

Like the first in the series, this is a police procedural, and there are enough valid suspects in play to keep a reader guessing until the killer is finally revealed.  There’s also a very cool plot point based on technological twist that threw me for enough of a loop that I had to check with Jim to verify that it was a real thing and not something he invented for the story.

Sean makes for a sympathetic lead character with his grief providing a nice counterpoint to his no-nonsense police persona.  He’s like a more polite Lucas Davenport or a more human version of Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet.   It’s also a refreshing change of pace to read crime novels not set in New York, LA or Florida.

The fine folks at Shelf Inflicted did an interview with Jim Thane that includes one of the funniest and most epic answers ever to a question asked of a crime novelist.

Also posted at Goodreads and at Leafmarks.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Do As I Tell You

by Max Barry

3 out 5 evil poets

“Vartix velkor mannik wissick! Read this review and then email me your credit card numbers!”

If you followed my instructions, then this is the greatest book ever written.  If you didn’t, then it’s a decent thriller with a clever sci-fi hook to it that doesn’t deliver on its full potential.

Lexicon tells two parallel stories.  In the first one, Wil is a young Australian who is abducted at an airport by a mysterious man called Tom who tells him that he is being pursued by a powerful and dangerous group that has dedicated itself to using language to manipulate others.  The best of their people are called ‘poets’ and take on names of famous scribblers like Yeats or Woolf.  A poet can seize control of another person by reeling off a series of special code words that hack the brain and enable them to implant commands.

The other story takes place a few years prior to this and tells of how a teenage homeless girl named Emily becomes a student of a special school where the kids are trained in the art of persuasion to become poets.  The stubborn and headstrong Emily constantly chafes against the strict rules of the school, and she eventually finds herself in hot water.  As Wil and Tom try to stay a step ahead of the poets hounding them, Emily’s story eventually begins to dovetail with theirs and all points converge at an Australian town that was the victim of some kind of industrial catastrophe.

There are some echoes here of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash which also focuses on the idea of language as a kind of virus.  When Lexicon is exploring the ideas of persuasion and a secret group manipulating society by using mass media, it’s pretty interesting.  When it reverts to the thriller potion of people on the run from a vast conspiracy, then it’s a lot more formulaic and not nearly as much fun.

I had some other issues with the book, but I gotta venture into spoiler country to talk about them. so don't continue reading if you don't want to know elements of the ending.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Monster Mash-Up


By Stephen King

3 out of 5 silver ball bearings

Only Stephen King could write an 1100 page book about the innocence and wonder of childhood, and then kick it off with a six-year-old boy getting his arm ripped off by a clown.

Derry, Maine, in 1958 is a bad place to be if you’re a kid.  Child disappearances and murders are occurring with astonishing regularity, and while the adults set curfews and hunt for maniacs, a group of 11-year-old outcast kids know the truth.  A supernatural entity has been terrorizing and killing the children of Derry.  These 7 kids eventually band together into a self-proclaimed Loser’s Club dedicated to destroy the evil they call It.

In 1985 the members of the Losers are called together again in order to fulfill a childhood promise to return to Derry if It ever returned.  However, now they’re adults who have only foggy memories of exactly what they did to stop It the first time.  Can they summon the same belief they had as kids to again face and stop It?

With the creation of It, King threw a kitchen sink full of monsters into this with the villain able to take the form of whatever will scare it’s latest victim the most.  So the kids alternately face everything from werewolves, mummies, lepers, crawling eyes, giant birds and Frankenstein’s monster with It using the form of a demonic clown called Pennywise as the baseline.  The concept that it’s the belief system of the kids that they use as their main weapon against It was a clever idea. So if it’s a werewolf and the kids believe it’s a werewolf, then they also believe that silver can be used against the creature, and It has to abide by those rules.

Another of the more successful aspects of this book is how King creates 7 likeable kid characters and then writes them as adults so that they really seem like the same people.  Another part of this that is particularly sharp is just how well he portrays the sheer terror that each character seems to feel at one time or another.  While he presents all as being brave and stepping up when it’s Big-Damn-Hero time, they all also have moments where they’re pushed almost to their limits or beyond.

However, I’ve never been as high on this one as a lot of King fans are.  I originally read it when I was 5 years older than the age of the Losers in their 1958 story so I had just left the age of childhood fantasy behind and wasn’t particularly enthralled with revisiting the concept.  On the flip side of that, this was adult King engaging in a bit of nostalgia porn, and I was far too young to understand the fleeting nature of youth.  Now I’m 5 years older than the Loser’s were in the 1985 portion of the story so it’s like I’m traveling back to the time I should be nostalgic about to listen to an older person’s nostalgia of yet an earlier time.  In short, I’m always out of sync with King’s rhythm when it comes to this one.

It’s some of King’s best work at tapping into the minds of kids as well as the bittersweet nature of looking back at that time as an adult, but it’s also one where he gave in to his worst impulses in letting the story bloat far beyond what was needed to tell the story

There’s a couple of other factors that keep this from being top shelf King for me, but they are filled with spoilers so don’t read any further if you don’t want to know.

Spoilers follow:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Vroom! Vroom!

by Stephen King
3 out 5 fuel injected stars
You never forget your first time, and the memories of my initial encounter with Stephen King when he lured me into the back of a 1958 Plymouth Fury and had his way with me are still clear over 30 years later.
For the record, he wasn’t gentle.
I was a wee lad of 13 when this came out, and Stephen King had established his reputation as America’s boogeyman after his breakout in the ‘70s.  I wasn’t much of a horror fan and despite my growing interest in ‘grown-up’ fiction had no interest in the King novels and movies that were freaking the adults out.  Then one day I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and read a magazine article about King and his new book centered on a haunted killer car.
“That sounds pretty cool,” I thought.  After my appointment, I went to the library which was right around the corner from my doctor’s office.  (Ah, small towns...) I can’t remember if I actually was able to get it then or if I had to put my name on the hold list.  I suspect that a new King novel probably had a waiting list.  In either case, I soon got my grubby little mitts on a copy and read my first Stephen King novel.  The countless hours since devoted to reading his work and the small fortune I’ve spent accumulating his books over the years are a testament to how deeply the hook was set.
Looking back now, that seems kind of odd because Christine is not my favorite King novel.  In fact, it’d be well down my personal list after others like The Stand, The Shining or The Dark Tower series.  Still, it’s a pretty good King novel and was more than enough to put me on the King path that I’ve been on ever since despite the occasional rocky patches.  
I still remembered being surprised at how relatable the story was.  The way I’d heard adults talk made me think that the entire book would be a bloodbath.  Instead, I was shocked to see that King actually focused most of the early part of the book on a couple of small town high school guys who didn’t seem any different from the older teens I knew.  I remember thinking that this was the first book I’d read that had people living in a way that seemed familiar to me.  That’s why when the horror started creeping in from the edges; it made it that much worse.
Geeky loser Arnie and high school stud duck Dennis have been friends since they were children.  As they’re getting ready to start their senior year, Arnie spots a For Sale sign on a rusting piece-of-shit 1958 Plymouth Fury nicknamed Christine by its owner, a nasty old bastard named Roland LeBay. Despite Dennis’s best efforts to talk him out of it, Arnie insists on buying Christine which puts him at odds with his academic parents, especially his domineering mother who has managed to control every aspect of his life to that point.
As Arnie works on what seems to be a miraculous restoration job on Christine, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the car and angry at the world.  Dennis was uneasy about the vehicle from the beginning and gets more suspicious as his best friend seems less and less like himself.  When people who crossed Arnie start turning up dead via bizarre vehicular homicides, Dennis’s dread of Christine leads him to believe the impossible.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as the book about the evil car, but like most good horror there’s a more human theme lurking in the story.  In this case it’s about how childhood friends can drift apart and how inexorable that can be in some circumstances.  Dennis and Arnie wouldn’t be that much different than anyone who gets wrapped up in the changes that adulthood is about to lay on them only to look up and realize that the person who always used to be at their side has gone their own way.  That’s a sad fact of life that King uses as the foundation of the book, only he uses a murderous car as the wedge he drives between them instead of the more mundane distractions that usually do the job.
The other hook that he hangs the story on is based on the old nerd-gets-revenge fantasy.  In this case, despite Arnie’s sweet nature, he’s so incapable of standing up for himself that even Dennis finds him pathetic at times.  When Arnie develops a backbone and begins dating the prettiest girl in school, you can’t help root for him even as you know that the cause of these changes is Christine and therefore can’t be a good thing.
With all this going for it, then why doesn’t Christine rank higher in the King pantheon?  A couple of factors drag it down.  At the time it was published, this was King’s longest book other than his epic novel The Stand and that one was about the end of the world so some wordiness wasn’t out of line. Some of the bloat that would often characterize his later work was beginning to creep into this one.  The set-up of Arnie and Dennis’s history and Arnie’s status as the unlucky geek of their school goes on too long.  Also, the character of Dennis is just a little too good to be true.  Not every teenage boy is a raging sociopath, but after a while I did find it hard to believe that a good looking star athlete with plenty of girls chasing after him would really be best friends with the school misfit as well as a loving and respectful son to his parents. 
Then there’s the fact that while the destruction of Arnie’s personality is a big chunk of the book, the actual bloodshed comes at the wheels of Christine, and while King writes several gruesome death scenes and creates some very creepy moments, it’s still just a car.  Even with magical evil powers, you still think you could get away by just going into a tall building and waiting until it runs out of gas. 
Despite the elements that keep it from being considered among his best work, Christine is still a good example of what King does best by mixing human weakness with supernatural elements to create a story that keeps you turning pages.
Also posted at Goodreads.

Friday, December 6, 2013

George Pelecanos Doubles Down With Spero Lucas

The Double
by George Pelecanos

4 out of 5 stars.

My friend Dan has a theory that Spero Lucas is the illegitimate son of Travis McGee, and considering  the similarities between the two, this seems like a reasonable scenario.

Both are ex-military guys who eschew the traditional American lifestyle of steady jobs and families so that they can live on their own terms.  Not only are their attitudes alike, they also have found similar ways to turn a buck by recovering stolen items for a percentage of their value in incidents where the owners can’t use the legal system for one reason or another.  They are capable, sometimes violent, men who make their way with their wits and their brawn while feeling like outsiders from the people living ordinary lives around them.

The big difference is that John D. MacDonald’s creation was a pulp male fantasy in which McGee lived on a houseboat while cruising the Florida coast and picking up scores of beach bunnies with an attitude that would probably get him routinely pepper sprayed today.  Spero likes the ladies and can attract his share, but he’s far less of a man-ho than his spiritual predecessor.

The first book, The Cut, established Spero as a former Marine who saw extensive combat in Iraq.  Back in his home city of Washington D.C., Spero’s time facing death has left him impatient to get on with his life.  He wants meaningful work on his own terms and to enjoy simple pleasures like good music or the company of a pretty woman.  Working as a private investigator for a lawyer provides some steady income, but Spero also takes side gigs.

This time out Spero is helping a woman who barely avoided an Internet scam, but apparently the near-miss put her in the crosshairs of a predatory sexual con man who arranged the theft of a valuable painting she owned called The Double.  As he tries to track down the trio responsible for their own crime wave of scams and robbery,  Spero is also working for the lawyer to find evidence that could clear a man accused of murder as well as poke around the death of a young girl who was a student of his brother.  He also gets involved in a torrid affair with beautiful married women, but while Spero has tried to keep his romantic encounters casual, he begins to crave more than just sex with her.

As always with a George Pelecanos novel, there’s the incorporation of various locales that make his literary DC come alive.  Whether Spero is biking through up-scale neighborhoods or stopping by an auto shop to questions a suspect, Pelecanos has a knack for casually imparting the bits of detail and history that make the city one of the characters in the novel.

Spero seemed like he had a lot of potential as a character in the first novel, and Pelecanos adds the kind of depth to make him really special here.  On the surface, Spero seems to have his act together and knows exactly what he wants, but there are new layers of uneasiness added here.  His relationship with the married lady makes him start to question the bachelor lifestyle he thought he wanted.  This feeds into more inner conflict about the life he’s living.  Spero’s thoughts increasingly turn to his late father, the man who adopted him and his brother and gave them a loving home by his honest hard work and devotion to his family, and Spero is starting to find himself lacking in comparison.

Worst of all is that it starts to seem like the war may have taken a bigger toll on his psyche than he previously thought.  Spero learned how to kill overseas, and he was good at it.  That skill is a valuable tool in his work, but as the saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

Pelecanos has written a lot of great crime novels with memorable characters, but Spero may be his best one yet.