Friday, September 28, 2018

Review: The Man Who Came Uptown

The Man Who Came Uptown The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George Pelecanos may be working more on television than books these days, but the man still knows how to write one damn fine crime novel.

Michael Hudson has been in jail awaiting trial for taking part in the robbery, but doing time has been made easier by prison librarian Anna who helped him discover a love of reading. Fortunately for Michael his case is dismissed thanks to private investigator Phil Ornazian who gets the man he robbed to drop the charges. All Michael wants to do is clean up his act and spend his time reading some good books, but the PI didn’t spring him out of the kindness of his heart. In fact, Ornazian has a side business stealing from pimps and other criminals, and now he wants Michael to start helping.

It’s been a fantastic year of crime fiction for me, and this one continues my winning streak. I’d be happy enough to get an average Pelecanos book, but I think this is one of his best, maybe my favorite, even if he’s not doing anything particularly new here.

There’s the usual stuff like all the detail of life in Washington D.C. mixed in with a bit of nostalgia about how things used to be even if the way things used to be wasn’t always great. The characters are also pure Pelecanos, who always likes to stress a strong work ethic and simple pleasures. Michael fits this template as a guy who has realized that he’s been going nowhere fast, and who now has goals and starts planning. He may be starting at square one as a dishwasher, but as long as he can kick back with a book in his spare time, he’s content.

This even applies to Ornazian who you might expect to be a sleazy jerk, but he’s written as not that bad of a guy. He’s got a family that he’s trying to provide for and only robs criminals. Anna is also interesting as a lady with a seemingly perfect marriage who finds herself more than a little intrigued by Michael when they bump into each other after he’s released.

At less than 300 pages it’s also quick and tight as a drum. It’s a great blend of character and setting with a bit of action from the rip-offs that Ornazian pulls with his partner. As a constant reader I also always love it when an author manages to get across what makes it so great, and Pelecanos really sells the idea that Michael has fallen in love with books.

I also got to meet Pelecanos at a signing for this, and he had a lot of interesting things to say including talking about the prison reading program that he’s involved with and was obviously one of the inspirations for this book.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review: Tripwire

Tripwire Tripwire by Lee Child
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“What kind of book is this?” he asked.

I thought about the answer to that a moment.

“What kind of book is this?” he asked again.

There are many ways to respond to that question. I should think about this for a second longer.

“What kind of book is this?” he asked a third time.

It’s the kind of book that has somebody repeating questions a whole bunch of times while other characters ponder things so if you’re already irritated you should probably avoid it.

Ex-military policeman Jack Reacher has been living in Key West where he’s earning a living digging swimming pools, and his idea of a good time is drinking a bunch of mineral water. (No, seriously.) Reacher has no interest in disrupting his quiet routine, but when a private investigator comes around looking for him it kicks off a chain of events which eventually lead Reacher into digging up the secrets of a murderous man in New York City with a dark history that leads back to the Vietnam War.

My experience with this series is weird. I hated the first book, but people I trust told me the series gets much better. Then I saw the Jack Reacher movie and enjoyed it quite a bit so I tried the second book, and it was OK but still didn’t blow my hair back. So here I am trying the third one, and it had about two dozen things that made me roll my eyes. Yet I didn’t absolutely hate it.

I get the appeal of these. The idea of the manliest man to ever walk the face of the earth randomly stumbling into adventures is fun if you like a certain style of action thriller. Child has made big improvements in these early books already like moving from first person to third means that I don’t have Reacher himself telling me how awesome he is on every page. Plus, he’s scaled back the idea that Reacher is a Sherlock Holmes level of detective genius who can make incredible leaps based on the slimmest of clues.

The core story here is pretty good, but as with the first couple of books there’s a constant parade of things that are just so ridiculous or outright stupid that they take me out of the story. One of the biggies is that the main villain in this is a complete cartoon sadist straight out of James Bond with a burned and scarred face as well as a hook used in place of an amputated hand, and it’s so far over the top that it’s hard to take him or the book seriously.

There’s also a very icky subplot where Reacher reconnects with the daughter of his old Army mentor who has recently died. Jodie was a teenage girl, and Reacher was in his mid- twenties when they were around each other back in the day. Yet it becomes very clear that they both had that the hots for each other, and they both still have these old feelings. Child spends a lot of time justifying and rationalizing this plot, and yeah, now they’re both adults and nothing physical happened when she was underage. But it’s just so unnecessary to play it this way.

Why couldn’t Jodie have been in college and Reacher only a few years older when they met and were attracted to each other? Then it’s not an issue at all and makes Reacher far less creepy. (The only thing I can think of is that Child had a Hollywood idea of what a couple in this kind of story looks like, and god forbid we have a lady over thirty hooking up with the hero even though he’s pushing forty himself.)

Another thing is that the book constantly contradicts itself and then goes out of its way to underline that it’s doing so in the most forehead slapping way possible. For example, at one point Reacher thought he knew how some thugs would come after him and Jodie. Yet they use a different tactic which takes him by surprise and almost works. Afterword, Reacher calmly notes that he hadn’t thought about them doing that which was almost a fatal mistake. Yet later in the book when it looks like an assumption that he made was wrong Reacher has a complete meltdown about it where he bemoans the loss of his once perfect record at following his hunches and wonders what he’s supposed to do in life now that his skills have so obviously failed him. So Reacher shrugs off making an error that almost gets them killed, and yet when a blue sky guess he made that has no immediate potential impact looks like it might be wrong he falls apart.

There’s lots more like that, but I’m going to spoiler tag these next few. I’m not giving up the ending, just some things that happen along the way. (view spoiler)

There’s another factor that made me cringe a few times while reading, but this wasn’t Child's fault. The book was published in 1999, and the main villain has an office in the World Trade Center which is where a lot of the action takes place. Plus, at one point Reacher pays cash an airline ticket to New York using a fake name. Those were big reminders that the world was a very different place back then, and while there’s no way Child could have known what was coming it does give the book an uncomfortable vibe at times.

There are other nitpicks to make, but these are the major ones that took what started out as a very solid action thriller/mystery and turned into a hot mess. Child has storytelling skills, and at their best these books are a hoot. But did no editor every look at this and suggest some changes that would tighten up the story and keep him from highlighting the things that don’t make sense? It would have helped a lot.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Review: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Sisters who kill together stay together.

Eli Sisters and his older brother Charley are a couple of killers working for the Commodore in 1850s Oregon. Their latest assignment is to journey to San Francisco during the latest gold rush and kill a chemist named Hermann Warm. Along the way they kill some people and Eli learns how to brush his teeth.

I’d been meaning to read this one for years, and the trailer for the movie finally got me off my ass. Unfortunately, I found myself a shade disappointed in it. Which is weird because one of all-time favorite books is Lonesome Dove, another well written and highly acclaimed western filled with sudden violent death as well as casual brutality amidst some humorous moments so this would seem to be right in my wheelhouse.

I think it’s a matter of degrees. There’s plenty of dark stuff in this genre that I love such as the aforementioned Lonesome Dove, Blood Meridian, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and the HBO series Deadwood. However, there’s other quality things of a similar nature like Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant that for me slide into areas that feel more like misery porn or torture based horror movies. That’s what this one seemed closer to.

So I know it’s good, but it’s just not my cuppa tea.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Give Me Your Hand

Give Me Your Hand Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She blinded me with science!

Kit Owens is a bright high school girl didn’t think much about her future until she met Diane Fleming when Diane’s dreams of a career in chemistry rub off on her. The two young women become both study buddies and rivals that push each other to excel until Diane confides a dark secret that shatters their friendship. Years later Kit is working in a lab and hoping to score one of the few slots available in a prestigious project when Diane is hired by her boss. Kit struggles to deal with the return of Diane to her life, and the fallout from that has unintended consequences.

Mighty Megan Abbott takes on a lot in this one and delivers on almost all of. What’s most impressive to me is how well she establishes the tone for each aspect. Whether it’s detailing Kit’s life with limited prospects as an underachieving kid in a dead-end town or getting into the nuances of the cutthroat politics hidden under a thin veneer of civility in the lab you completely understand and buy into every bit of it. When Abbott has Kit realizing how close she is to either achieving a critical next step in her career resulting in a vastly improved lifestyle or is about to come up short after all her hard work to get there you know exactly what’s driving her.

At the heart of all it is this complex relationship between Kit and Diane, and that’s where the noir part comes into it. I especially liked the revelations at the end that explain so much of what occurred throughout the rest of the novel.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: Cut Me In

Cut Me In Cut Me In by Hunt Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Literary agent Josh Blake is having a bad day at the office. He’s hungover, one of his secretaries is late, and very pushy aspiring writer won’t take no for an answer. Oh, and he also finds his partner murdered in his office and their most valuable contract that’s about to be worth a fortune in movie rights is missing.

Sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays!

This is a hard boiled mystery novel that has everything you’d expect from this kind of thing written in the ‘50s. Ed McBain writes up a solid noir character in the jerkish Blake who is more concerned with the missing contract than the dead partner. There’s a suspicious cop, some surprisingly polite thugs, and several gorgeous dames thrown into the mix, and it works well enough as an entertaining story. Good, but not inspired would be my usual judgement on it.

Yet there’s a surprising little bit right at the end that puts a whole new light on everything, and lifts it up a notch. I won’t quite go 4 stars on it, but it’d be an easy 3.5 if Goodreads would let us do that.

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