Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Review: November Road

November Road November Road by Lou Berney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If someone offered me the choice between taking a long road trip with a couple of kids or being murdered by the mob, I’d have to really think it over.

It’s November 1963, and Frank Guidry is living well in New Orleans thanks to his top position with Carlos Marcello’s mob outfit. However, one of Frank’s recent chores was leaving a car in a parking garage in Dallas very near the spot where President Kennedy would be assassinated just days later. It doesn’t take a genius to make the connection especially when several other people on Carlos’ payroll start turning up dead. Frank just became a loose end, and he flees west with lethal hit man Paul Barone hot on his trail.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Roy has been trying to raise her two daughters in a small Oklahoma town which isn’t easy thanks to her drunken loser of a husband. When Charlotte has enough she takes the girls and starts heading to California, but she’s consumed by guilt and uncertain if she's done the right thing. After Frank meets Charlotte at a motel he realizes that traveling with a lady and two kids would make him a lot less conspicuous so he engineers circumstances so that they all go together. Frank is surprised when what started as a con to help him get away begins to turn into a real relationship with Charlotte and the kids. But that pesky hit man is still right behind them…

I read Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone earlier this year and enjoyed it quite a bit. Then I heard a tremendous amount of good buzz about this one before it released, and I’m pleased to report that it lives up to the hype.

In the wrong hands this concept could be just some cheesy tale about a ‘bad man’ who sees the error of his ways after becoming part of a family, but the strong character work done with Frank, Charlotte, and deadly Paul Barone is where this really shines. You thoroughly understand all of them, and despite the historical backdrop it all feels grounded and realistic with Frank and Charlotte struggling to deal with how their lives have been forever changed while Barone has to deal with a variety of setbacks as he just tries to complete his mission.

I particularly liked how Berney used the JFK assassination as the jumping off point, not the center of the story. It’s obviously the thing driving the plot, but what’s presented comes across as a believable scheme by one pissed off mobster instead of some vast shadowy tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. So we’re not dragged into some Oliver Stone style fever dream.

The work done on the settings and time is top notch, too. We get an authentic sense of the places like New Orleans, Las Vegas, crappy motels, and roadside tourist traps. It all builds the mood of what it must have been like back then. There’s nice touches of how the mob operated at the time, too.

It’s a damn fine piece of crime fiction, and I’ll be tracking down more of Berney’s work.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review: Fatal Blow

Fatal Blow Fatal Blow by James L. Thane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s another brutally hot summer day in Phoenix, and homicide detective Sean Richardson has to spend it fishing a headless and armless torso out of a canal. The only good news is that it still has the feet including a toe ring, and this clue leads Sean and his partner to suspect that a missing housewife, Becky Miller, is probably the victim and her cheating husband looks awfully guilty.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to note that James Thane is a longtime friend of mine here on Goodreads so I’m not even gonna try to pretend that this is an objective review. Please take my word that if it stank I’d just quietly ignore it, but fortunately it’s pretty good so I can talk about it.

There’s two parallel stories at work in this. One is the first person narration from Richardson which mixes a straight-up realistic police procedural with some on-going developments in his personal life which has been built up over the last couple of books. The other third-person story focuses on Becky in the weeks leading up to the discovery of the body in the canal. Regular readers of crime fiction can probably guess where the story is going yet there’s a couple of good twists and turns in there, and the ending was a nice surprise.

Overall, it’s a solid piece of crime fiction that has a good page turning vibe to it, and while it’s obviously a little gory with the whole chopped up body in the canal thing it doesn’t wallow in that like some books would. It’s also got an interesting shifting tone to it. The police stuff is a straight line narrative that you might see on something like Law & Order, but the Becky plot dealing with the crime has a much messier and emotional feel to it. It’s an unusual way to play it, but I particularly enjoyed Becky’s story which had a lot of clever crime elements. There’s also some nice detail work done that makes the reader really feel the desert heat as the characters roam around the city.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Review: The Banker’s Wife

The Banker’s Wife The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is money the root of all evil or does it make the world go round?

The answer to that is yes.

Annabel is American living in Geneva with husband Matthew whose job with a secretive Swiss bank keeps him away from her too much, but the trade off is the wealthy lifestyle they’re living. Marina is journalist engaged to Grant who comes from a very rich family, and his father is about to become a candidate for the presidency of the United States. It might seem like both these ladies won the trophy husband lottery, but Annabel is bored and lonely while Marina feels like she’s have to have to give up the job she loves to really be part of Grant’s family. Yeah, I know. Rich people problems.

However, things take a turn for both women. Annabel’s husband is killed in a small plane crash with home of his wealthy clients, and she starts questioning exactly what he was doing at the bank. While on a vacation trip to Paris, Marina does a favor for her old friend and editor by picking up a USB drive with encrypted data, but this errand leads to her ending up with information on money laundering done for international criminal types. Both Annabel and Marina quickly find out that these are not the kind of people who like you asking questions about their business.

This is a solid thriller whose biggest strength is in the idea that there’s a vast ocean of blood money being hidden and utilized by some of the world’s most powerful people. If you’ve been paying attention to current events that’s a story with the ring of authenticity to it. I mean, a rich asshole with presidential aspirations and shady international business connections isn’t much of a stretch these days, and it gives the whole book an honest hook to it.

It’s well written by airport thriller standards, and the presentation of the lives that Annabel and Marina are leading is very well done. There’s some interesting thematic stuff in that Annabel truly loves her husband is now filled with regrets about the independent lifestyle she gave up even if she is living in the lap of luxury. It fits nicely with Marina’s story since she’s on the verge of essentially making that same choice.

Unfortunately, the weaker side comes with the thriller stuff. There’s a few scenes with characters being followed and some lightweight chase scenes, but this isn’t an action story. It’s more about paranoia and dread which is fitting for a book about the money and power lurking behind world events, but I could have used more of a sense of danger to it.

And frankly it seems like a book that real world has outpaced in terms of how much trouble we’re all in. The characters here have faith that a free press and government oversight can ultimately stop and punish people who break the law like this. It doesn’t take into account that the evil rich doing this stuff are now the ones in power, and that institutions we counted on to protect us have been corrupted or neutered.

So it’s a decent read with an interesting idea and above average characterization, but it comes across as too naive a story to really accomplish what it might have just a few years ago.

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