Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: IQ

IQ IQ by Joe Ide
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free ARC of this from NetGalley.

There’s no shortage of Sherlocks these days. Both CBS’s Elementary and the BBC's Sherlock are doing fun modern day twists on Holmes. When Robert Downey Jr. can tear himself away from his duties as Iron Man he’s been known to play Sherlock as a steampunkish action hero in the movies. Plus, there always new novels featuring the detective being published. Countless other stories inspired by the character are also always circulating like the medical mysteries that Hugh Laurie solved for years on House. So you wouldn’t think that we need yet another variation of Sherlock Holmes.

Thankfully, Joe Ide disagreed and came up with a fresh new take on the world’s most famous consulting detective that is a helluva of a good story and a welcome addition to Sherlockian style books.

Isaiah Quintabe (a/k/a IQ) is a brilliant young man living in a rough area of Los Angeles where he acts as a kind of public service oriented detective for the community. Unfortunately, his services usually only net him baked goods, and Isaiah has a serious need for some cash. That’s when his old roommate Dodson shows up with the offer to figure out who tried to kill a famous rapper for a big payday. Dodson is a hustler that Isaiah doesn’t really trust, but he reluctantly takes the case. His only lead is a security video of a monstrous attack dog who was let loose on the rapper in his own kitchen, but the trail will lead him to a professional killer who loves his work.

The Sherlock influences are pretty obvious from the start. Isaiah is self-contained young man who can make instinctive leaps of logic based on what he observes whose persona can seem cold and off-putting to others. His partner on the case is Dodson which rhymes with Watson if you didn’t notice. There’s an oversized dog that immediately brings to mind The Hound of the Baskervilles. If that’s all there was then this could have been just a Holmes homage without much else going for it.

However, Ide prevents that by coming up with ways to play off the Sherlock tropes. Instead of Dodson being a kiss ass who marvels at IQ’s brilliance their relationship is a contentious one with a troubled history that we get in a parallel plot that also functions as Isaiah’s origin story. I also liked that IQ’s detective skills don’t come from having obscure knowledge like being able to identify the tobacco of Belgian cigarette. Instead he depends on his ability to reason through LA traffic patterns or researching police alarm times as well as applying a common sense rationality to the way people behave to make his deductions, and it comes across as impressive as well as realistic. The backstory of IQ’s life as well and his history with Dodson makes him far more sympathetic as well as giving him legitimate reasons for what he does than Sherlock ever had.

Aside from the Sherlock connections this is also a fast paced mystery/thriller in its own right. We get the hit man character’s perspective, and he’s also built up as being both a very dangerous threat as well as believable. The way that we’re introduced to IQ and Dodson and then get their backstory delivered in installments dovetails nicely with the main story. It’s all got a logical progression and a clever solution that is very satisfying.

Maybe best of all is that IQ is an interesting character that I want to spend more time getting to know. Hopefully, Joe Ide will again follow the example of Arthur Conan Doyle and give us many more stories with this fascinating detective.

View all my reviews

Review: Everybody's Fool

Everybody's Fool Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Richard Russo wasn’t a great writer he might have made a pretty good physicist because he seems to know all about inertia. Or at least he’s an expert at having his characters struggle against its force whether they're trying to get moving or change direction.

This sequel to Nobody's Fool returns us to the blue collar town of Bath in upstate New York. A change in his circumstances from the previous book has made Donald Sullivan relatively prosperous with no need to work the kind of back breaking jobs he’d done for most of his life, but at 70 he’s just received some very bad news about his health. Sully’s old nemesis, Douglas Raymer, is now the police chief, but no one respects him including Raymer himself. His wife died just as she was about to leave him for another man, and Raymer is obsessed with learning the identity of this guy by using the only clue he has, a remote control for a garage door opener.

In addition to Sully and Raymer we catch up with several other Bath residents. Rub feels forsaken and heartbroken that he doesn’t get to spend all day working with his best friend Sully anymore. Carl Roebuck’s construction company is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and a disgusting unknown substance oozing of the basement in his latest project isn’t going to improve that situation. Ruth used to cheat on her husband with Sully, but even though their affair has cooled off she is growing conflicted about his regular presence in the diner she runs. She’s also worried that about her no-good former son-in-law hanging around now that he’s out of jail despite the restraining order against him. Raymer has to deal with his sassy officer Charice whose sharp tongue often makes him feel even dumber than usual, and her twin brother Jerome isn’t helping his state of mind either.

There’s a couple of things that set this apart from Nobody’s Fool. The first book took place over several months and took its time getting you into the small town rhythms of Sully’s life. Everything here occurs over an eventful 48 hours that begins with a funeral and includes a construction accident, deadly reptiles, a tree pruning mishap, lightning strikes, and a crime spree. Russo does a nice job of filling us in on the back stories of the previous novel while catching us up on what’s happened since, but as with Nobody’s Fool or Empire Falls the real charm lies not with the story but with the characters.

You’d think that with small town folks like these would be fairly dull, but Russo gives us the rich inner lives of each person he shifts the focus to so that each of them feels like the hero of their own epic story. Even a pretty simple and stupid guy like Rub, whose biggest dreams are of free cheeseburgers, becomes a minor tragedy as he reflects on how much he misses working with Sully every day and faces the realization that things will never be like that again. However, Russo is also constantly throwing in touches of comedy that keep things from becoming maudlin and morose.

Sully is as big a draw here as he was in the first novel. There he was an aging rogue who was determined to live his own way even if he acknowledged that his stubbornness was preventing him from ever getting ahead. Older now and facing his own mortality Sully has started to reflect a bit more on what his actions mean for the lives of others.

Raymer is the second major piece and maybe more of an accomplishment for Russo. Moving an existence character like Sully forward ten years has the advantage of starting with a known quantity. Raymer was a very minor figure in the first book who was portrayed as a complete idiot. Turning him from that into a sympathetic guy who constantly thinks of himself as a fool who is failing at everything was no easy task. He could have come across as self-pitying or tiresome, but I found myself engaged and rooting hard for Raymer to pull his act together.

As with other two Russo books I’ve read it did seem to go on a bit too long, and there were a few too many story twists and turns. Still, he’s got an incredible knack for writing about these small town people and immersing us in their lives to the point where I’m interested and entertained by pretty much anything they’re doing. It’s a great follow up to Nobody’s Fool with the same warmth and humor.

One thing did bum me out while reading this. Nobody’s Fool was adapted into a very good movie starring Paul Newman as Sully. Newman died in 2008 so obviously he couldn’t reprise the role, but that film also had Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was just starting out at the time, playing Raymer. Reading this now I was repeatedly struck by the thought this would have been a fantastic part for Hoffman to come back to. More’s the pity.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah, the post-war years. America’s golden age when things were so much better than they are today. When no injustice ever occurred, and no one was unfairly treated. Every pay check was a fortune, every meal a banquet, and the worst crime was the odd rapscallion stealing a pie off a window sill. Or maybe sometimes the bisected body of a woman who had been brutally tortured would be left in an empty lot which would put a wildly corrupt police force in a frenzied media spotlight as they fruitlessly tried to solve the murder.

It really was a simpler time…

This was the book where James Ellroy stepped his game up from promising mystery writer to a creator of epic historical fiction by mixing a famous unsolved murder with seedy LA history via flawed fictional characters. Our narrator is Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichart, a former boxer turned LAPD officer just after World War II. Bucky agrees to fight another cop named Lee Blanchard as part of a departmental publicity stunt. The boxing match makes them partners, but it’s Lee’s girlfriend Kay who unites all three of them into a family. It’s a dead woman that eventually starts to tear them all to pieces.

In reality Elizabeth Short was just another young woman who came to LA with stars in her eyes, but her unsolved murder became one of those crimes that stuck in the public consciousness. Ellroy has talked and written a great deal about how he poured a lot of his own unresolved feelings about his own mother’s unsolved murder into the Dahlia case, and if there’s one thing you’re sure of by the time you’re done reading it’s that he knows what it’s like to be obsessed and haunted by dead women.

Ellroy is also fascinated by the shady history of LA and its police department, and he uses that knowledge to craft a fantastically violent and corrupt world where the cops are often worse than the criminals they’re arresting. Almost everyone involved the investigation has their own agendas, and the methods used to get what they want are brutal. Nobody gets out clean when it comes to the Dahlia, least of all those who give the most while trying to learn who killed her.

This is a great crime story with a hard boiled edge that was one of the books that made me a huge fan of James Ellroy.

View all my reviews

Review: Revolver

Revolver Revolver by Duane Swierczynski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One crime. Three generations. And a whole lot of Bloody Marys.

In 1965 Philadelphia police officer Stan Walczak and his partner are shot to death in a bar. 30 years later Stan’s son Jim is a homicide detective who is torn between working the case of a high profile killing of a young woman vs. tracking down the man he believes killed his father who was recently released from prison on another charge. Cut to 2015 where Jim’s daughter Audrey is a forensic science student who wants to investigate the murder of her grandfather as a project for school and unwittingly begins asking questions that bring up a lot of dangerous secrets.

Duane Swierczynski is almost always a fun read, and this time out he’s adding a bit more depth. This is mainly a family drama with a crime story. The best parts of the book are where it explores the three main characters. In Stan’s story we find a man who sees himself as a working class guy who just wants to do his job, and then go home to drink some beers and read the paper. He doesn’t want to be a hero or rock the boat, but that’s the role being thrust on him by his new partner, George Wildey. He’s also got more than a few hang-ups that this new partner is black. Jim wants to be the good detective and reliable family man that he seems to be, but he’s haunted by the death of his father and often finds himself in a bar rather than going home after work. Audrey is the family black sheep whose academic career is about to go down in flames, but she seems more concerned with finding her next Bloody Mary than anything else.

Swierczynski also does a top notch job of making his three Philadelphia time periods seem vivid and alive. Whether it’s explaining the history and look of a particular neighborhood, racial tensions, the background music, or the food being eaten it all feels like you’re walking the streets with the characters.

The one thing I was a shade let down by was the overall mystery part. There’s some fairly complicated secrets underlying the whole story, and that’s the part of the book that feels both a bit too elaborate but also short changed at the same time. None of the main characters really do all that much to advance the plot, and almost everything they learn is just told to them at various points by other characters with only their general poking around providing the impetus to that. By the end I’ve got a lot of questions remaining that aren’t addressed.

It’s a solid and entertaining read with a lot of things I very much enjoyed although it could have used a bit more investigation and explanation for my tastes. Call it 3.439 stars.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 1, 2016

Do I Know You?

You Will Know Me You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 2016 Summer Olympics are getting ready to start this week, and after reading this I’ll be leery of any heartwarming features about athletes and their families because it seems like they won’t scratch the surface of the toll it probably took on all of them to get there.

Devon Knox is an extraordinary young gymnast with a real chance to become an Olympian, and her parents, Katie and Eric, have made this goal the focus of their entire lives. However, the shocking death of someone connected to their gym causes a disruption that unveils secrets, lies, jealousies, and manipulations that threaten to undo everything.

As with her other recent novels Megan Abbott once again uses a backdrop dominated by adolescent girls as the basis for the story, but this one has a more decidedly adult point of view with most of the story is told to us via Katie’s third party perceptions. As a mother who has sacrificed enormous amounts of time, effort, and money to support Devon no one could question her dedication, but Katie sometimes worries about what their relentless pursuit of this single dream has cost their family including the often overlooked younger brother Drew.

The book digs deeply into the whole sub-culture of gymnastics and creates the environment and characters so vividly that the reader is completely immersed in it. Whether it’s explaining how a minor misstep can hurt a score or describing the various injuries common to the girls it all feels incredibly authentic. Explaining that world to us is probably the easiest challenge Mighty Megan had in this one because once again it’s her incredible knack for putting us in the head of a conflicted character who has to face up to some ugly truths where the book really shines because that’s where it asks how much you can know someone else even if they’re the ones closest to you.

I especially like the theme about greatness requiring sacrifice and the questions that get explored that idea. Devon might be able to do something that very few can, but does that mean she should have had to give up a normal childhood and teenage experiences? Is she doing this because it’s her dream or because so many adults around her have their own reasons for wanting her to succeed? Should the Knoxes have dedicated so much of themselves towards a single goal of one child, or does a parent of a kid with an extraordinary talent have a responsibility to do anything to see it fulfilled?

This might be the best book that Megan Abbott has done, and it’s because of the way that she weaves all that together in a story that is crime story, family drama, and reflections on the real cost of the pursuit of excellence in almost any endeavor.

View all my reviews

We Didn't Start the Fire

The Fireman The Fireman by Joe Hill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, that was a spoonful of nonsense.

It had a promising start with the outbreak of a disease known as Dragonscale which first manifests as dark marks on the skin. Getting a free tribal tattoo might not sound that bad, but the real problem is that eventually infected people burst into flames and burn to death. The damage caused by walking blowtorches and the fear of being infected have society teetering on the brink of collapse.

Harper is a young nurse who discovers that she has contracted Dragonscale and she’s pregnant. If that isn’t bad enough her jerk-face husband Jakob goes coocoo for Coco-Puffs and thinks they should just kill themselves. During a desperate moment Harper finds help in the form of a mysterious guy dressed as a fireman who leads her to a hidden community of infected people who have found a way to survive the disease. Unfortunately, discord within that group proves as dangerous as the vigilante Cremation Squads that have started murdering the infected.

It’s a strong premise, but unfortunately there’s a number of factors that drag it down. First and foremost is that it’s way too long. Hill can’t seem to commit to one main story, and he keeps adding on to it like a late-night TV commercial promising, “But that’s not all!” This causes a lot of drift with a long swath of the book not even touching on what’s going on in the outside world and forgetting what should be major characters for long periods of time. It’s also like one of those action movies that never seems to know when to end that goes on 20 minutes past the point where it should have wrapped things up.

I also wasn’t a fan of Harper, and since this whole story is built on the idea of a plucky heroine trying to survive a civilization ending plague then I needed to have at least have some respect for her. Unfortunately, she comes across as twit who never seems to wise up until something terrible happens. Which it does. Repeatedly. I lost count of the number of times where she is shocked by the bad intentions of someone and says things like, “You can’t!” It’s the apocalype, lady. They can, and they will. Her infatuation with Mary Poppins, and Hill’s constant use of it and its songs are also way overdone.

In fact, there’s just too much goddamn music in this book overall with constant quoting of lyrics and talking about various musicians. It's a crutch Hill leans on far too often. Plus, it’s all Jurassic Rock with a smattering of ‘80s pop in there with even an old VJ from MTV having a role to play. It’s 2016, Joe Hill. I don’t need your main character, who is supposedly in her early twenties, lecturing me on what the preference for the Rolling Stones or the Beatles says about a person.

Another piece that flies off this jalopy of a book once it gets up to speed is the nature of the disease itself. There’s a lot of effort spent to convince us that there is a rational scientific reason that people would turn into Zippos, and I can suspend disbelief enough to go with that concept. But when more and more is added to the point where we’re into ideas like people being able to generate and control fire without their clothes burning and even more weirdness then you don’t need Neal deGrasse Tyson to call bullshit on it. Just as he couldn’t seem to commit to one story or another Hill can’t seem to decide if he wanted a more grounded concept with some science behind it or if he wanted to jump full-on into the supernatural pool.

Hill also opted to run home to Daddy in this because the entire book is absolutely rotten with Easter eggs of Stephen King’s work. A few references can be fun, but when Hill essentially ‘borrows’ a character from The Stand including a cute little name trick to underline it then it’s crossed the line. (Harold Cross? For a character who is essentially Harold Lauder? That's weak.*) After a while it started to seem desperate, as if Hill knew things weren’t going well and hoped he might use fan familiarity of his father's books to invoke some of his magic. Hill also seems to have inherited his father’s trait of having a bunch of characters claim that they’re are critically short of time only to have them waste most of it with idle chit-chat and banter that is supposed to be funny and make you like the characters. It’s not, and it doesn’t.

So at this point Hill is 2 for 4 with me, and after this I’m going to need a really good reason to pick up his next one.

* And I didn't think about this until I read Edward Lorn's review where he pointed out that there's also a deaf character named Nick. Come on, Joe Hill. You're better than that.

View all my reviews

The Little Death

Die a Little Die a Little by Megan Abbott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Megan Abbott’s first novel is a nifty little noir set in post-war LA. School teacher Lora King is extremely close to her brother Bill who is a police detective. When Bill meets Alice Steele he falls head over heels for her, and the two are soon married. Alice shows a tireless energy and enthusiasm for life as a homemaker that would make Martha Stewart feel like a lazy slob, but Lora finds herself becoming suspicious of some her new sister-in-law after getting clues indicating that she had a shady past before meeting Bill.

It’s a great turn to have a cop in a mystery novel in an era dominated by men, but he’s mainly used as a supporting character that two woman revolve around. It’s also interesting how Lora finds herself becoming intrigued with what she learns about Alice’s seedy history and starts indulging in her own wild side. The writing shows the Mighty Megan knack for getting inside the head of a conflicted person as well as making both the suburbs and seedy nightclubs come alive with a variety of characters. This is a solid start to a great writer’s career, and I particularly liked the ending.

I’m calling 3.5 stars just because I think she did it even better in her later books.

View all my reviews