Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review: The Sweet Forever

The Sweet Forever The Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s the spring of ’86 in Washington D.C. and while Reagan may technically be in charge of the country, cocaine is ruling the streets.

Marcus Clay is trying to run the record stores he owns and catch as many of the college basketball tournament games as possible on TV. Unfortunately, the record business could be better, he and his wife are separated, and his best friend and employee Dimitri Karras has a growing coke habit. When a drug runner wrecks his car right outside one of Marcus’ shops somebody snatches the money out of the car before the cops show up, and that kicks off a series of events that eventually find Marcus and Dimitri mixed up with drug dealers and dirty cops.

This is set 10 years after King Suckerman which also featured Marcus and Dimitri, but much like that one this isn’t just their story. In fact, they’re almost supporting players in this although much of it is filtered to us through their experiences. As always, Pelecanos manages to create an authentic sense of time and place by constantly working in the music, clothes, cars, and television shows of the time, but those are just the details. Where he really shines in telling us what it’s life is like for these characters whether it’s Dimitri going out for a drug fueled night of partying or a dirty cop struggling to deal with his wife’s mental health issues.

The story of the money is the connective thread that makes this a crime novel, but what Pelecanos is really doing is telling us the story of D.C. at a certain time and place. There’s a sense of impending doom over this one with many characters noting how the drugs and street crime are taking over the city, and crack was on the horizon. Pelecanos has characters casually mention rumors that the mayor is a drug addict as well as a local basketball star which are hints at how much worse things will get if you’re familiar with their true stories.

This is Pelecanos following his usual template, and he was already very good at using that to write compelling stories.

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Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: Gravesend

Gravesend Gravesend by William Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you live in a neighborhood called Gravesend you should probably expect things to be kind of depressing, but damn…

Ray Boy Calabrese is being released from prison after sixteen years for causing the death of Conway’s brother, and Conway wants revenge. Meanwhile, Conway’s old school classmate Alessandra has returned home from LA following the death of her mother, and Ray Boy’s nephew Eugene has heard all the stories about his bad ass uncle and dreams of being a neighborhood legend like him.

I’d read William Boyle’s excellent The Lonely Witness without realizing that it’s a follow-up novel to this one, and while they can be read as self-contained stories I wish I’d read this first because it does add some layers to it. Better late than never though, and this one is just as good, maybe even better in some ways, than that one.

This isn’t the kind of crime novel that the set-up makes it sound like. It’s much more of a Richard Price style of thing with the characters and place being far more important than the plot or action. Boyle does an exceptionally good job at establishing this Brooklyn neighborhood which feels more like a small town then a part of New York in many ways. The characters are all extremely well-done, and all of them feel like confused and sad human beings rather than stereotypes in a book which they easily could have been.

That’s two books from Boyle that I thought were top-notch, and I can’t wait to get to the third which is being released soon.

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Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 2

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 2 Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 2 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mile Morales has only been Spider-Man for a few days, but he’s already finding out that being a masked superhero is a complicated business. Especially since his shady super-villain uncle has figured out who the new Spidey is.

This is pretty much set-up for what’s to come, but it’s very well done. Miles continues to be an engaging character that you can’t help but like as he struggles at learning how to do the whole Spider-Man thing. There’s also some intriguing groundwork laid for future stories with things like J. Jonah Jameson seeing a new masked vigilante to vilify while Aunt May and Gwen Stacy are shocked to see someone else taking on Peter’s old role.

There’s also some nice character work being done with Uncle Aaron in his role as the Prowler who uses a combination of blackmail and appealing to Miles’ desire to put some bad guys in jail to suit his own agenda. Miles has been told by his parents that Aaron is a bad guy, but now we’re starting to see it even if he can’t yet.

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Review: My Detective

My Detective My Detective by Jeffrey Fleishman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

I know the dating scene can be tough, but if you’ve resorted to murder as part of your plan to hook up with your dream guy then maybe you should give Tinder another try.

Sam Carver is a LAPD homicide detective working the case of a prominent architect who got his throat cut. What Sam doesn’t know is that the killer is a beautiful woman who is infatuated with him after she read a story about him in the local paper. Dylan Cross has scores to settle and romance with Sam on her mind so she’s come up with a plan to get her revenge while stalking him.

This is kind of an odd one. I guess I’ll call it character based crime fiction because it mainly shifts first person perspective from Sam to Dylan, and through this we get their history and personalities. Sam was a bit of bohemian in his younger days, playing in rock bands and backpacking around Europe before he settled into the role of detective which is due in no small part to being haunted by the memory of his father’s murder which was never solved. Dylan was a college tennis star and rising architect in an industry dominated by men. Both have an appreciation for the finer things like classical music and art. Thanks to Dylan they’re now linked together by murder.

And that’s kind of it. There’s not really much else going on other than Dylan killing a few people, Sam going over the evidence, and then they both brood about things. There’s not much detecting going on and very little action, either. It’s also awfully one sided with Dylan knowing everything about Sam thanks to her magical hacking ability and his habit of writing down all his thoughts and feelings on his computer.

This could have worked as a thriller with some crazy stalker getting obsessed with a detective and carrying out murders to create a bizarre connection between them, but here that’s undercut because Dylan isn’t full-on crazy town banana pants. She actually has very good reason for being angry with her victims, and the plot is designed to create sympathy for her. However, her fantasies about Sam undercut it as a revenge story, too.

I also had a hard time with the lack of reality with Sam’s role as a cop in this. Even though he’s a homicide detective in a huge city he only has one case he’s working on, and Sam somehow has enough juice to refuse to work with a partner instead of being told to shut up and quit being such a diva. He tells his lieutenant that he’s going to fly to New York to interview the ex-wife of the victim, and for some reason his boss doesn't tell him to use the phone and spare the budget. There’s the trope of the lieutenant complaining about how the mayor is on his ass because of the prominent nature of the victim. It’s also never explained how Dylan knows that Sam will be the detective who works the murder in the first place, but I guess since he's apparently the only police detective in LA that it was a safe assumption.

Despite all of this, there were things in this book I liked. It’s got a nice tone to the melancholy observations about LA and modern life, and both Sam and Dylan are interesting as characters. I just wish they’d found a few more interesting things to do in a more realistic and less TV-movie-of-the-week kind of way.

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Review: Taken

Taken Taken by Robert Crais
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I ever get kidnapped I want Joe Pike looking for me.

Private detective Elvis Cole gets hired to find a young woman because she dropped out of sight for a few days. The mother suspects that her daughter is with a boyfriend that she disapproves of, and that this is a case of college aged kids just off having some irresponsible fun. However, Elvis quickly figures out that the couple were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were swept up as part of scheme in which illegal immigrants crossing into the US are kidnapped and held for whatever ransom their loved ones can scrape together. Cole enlists the help of his partner Joe Pike and has a plan to locate the missing kids, but things go sideways and Cole ends up being held, too. With the help of a fellow mercenary Pike begins a methodical hunt for his friend.

This one has all the hallmarks of your typical Cole & Pike novel. Elvis runs around doing some clever detective work while Pike shows up at opportune moments to unleash hell, and Crais has mastered using that formula with these characters to deliver exciting crime/action novels. Unfortunately, I think Crais fell into a trap of his own making here that hurts the story.

It’s clear from the title and book jacket summary that Elvis is going to get kidnapped and that Pike will have to find him. I saw Crais in an interview at Bouchercon back in 2011 in which he mentioned that the book he was writing at that time involved Elvis being taken and Pike getting him back. So that’s obviously the hook he started with and built the novel around. It’s a good idea for a story so I understand why Crais committed to it early on.

However, to really do that idea then Elvis should probably get snatched by the end of the first act, and that means that rest of the story would be on Pike’s shoulders with Elvis being a supporting player. Crais has done that before in a couple of Pike-centric book so it shouldn’t be a problem, but for some reason he wanted Elvis to be a big part of this one doing his usual detective thing. So to keep the core idea of Elvis being kidnapped in place while still making him an active figure in the plot Crais structured the book so that it flash forwards to the point after Elvis has been taken with Pike on the hunt along with the parallel story of Elvis trying to find the woman.

The problem is that by telling us that Cole is going be kidnapped from the jump it just makes his story a foregone conclusion which robs it of its drama. At the same time even with the flash-forwards he doesn’t get the Pike on the hunt piece really moving until the third act. Since that’s the story I was told this book was about and because the structure keeps reminding me that it’s coming, I was kind of tapping my foot the entire time I was reading and just wishing that we’d get to the fireworks factory already.

I probably would have liked this better if Crais had just fully committed to Cole kidnapping plot and had it happen much sooner and told the story in a linear fashion. Or he could have sold this book as it just being another Cole/Pike case about them looking for a kidnapped woman and saved the Cole kidnapping as a plot turn at the end of the second act. Crais is pretty good at throwing unexpected twists in at times, and that could have been a real doozy. Then the third act could have been Pike’s relentless hunt to find his friend, and it would have been a lot tenser.

As it is, it felt like Crais really fell in love with that elevator pitch of “Cole gets taken. Pike has to find him.” But then he couldn’t bear to just let Cole play that role. So he tried to have his cake and eat it, too.

It’s still a pretty solid book in an entertaining series, but I still feel a little disappointed in the way it played out.

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