Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: Blood Sugar

Blood Sugar Blood Sugar by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want an idea of how gross this book is, the first person narrator has a case of untreated pink-eye, and that’s just the start. But hey, it’s in addition to being completely disgusting it’s also depressing as hell.

I’m selling the hell out of this one, aren’t I? The crazy thing is that it’s a very good book, one of the best I’ve read this year. But it’s not exactly a joy ride.

Robbie is a complete outcast that is hated by everyone in town. He lives in a decaying house that’s filled with junk, trash, bugs, and mice, and his only friends are three young kids. He decides to finally get revenge on the community by lacing Halloween candy with drugs and razor blades, and he wants the kids to help. However, Robbie isn’t exactly a criminal mastermind, and his minions aren’t much better.

Jody’s mother has mental health issues so he’s pretty much raising himself as well as the young mute foster kid, Midge, that his mom took in for the money. Unfortunately, Jody’s ideas of health and hygiene leave a lot to be desired. Jody’s schoolmate Dag comes from a seemingly solid middle class family, but while she may have nicer clothes and a better diet, she has her own issues.

The thing about this book is that it’s so far off from your usual narrative that it’s hard to even describe. On the surface it’s about a lowlife enlisting three at-risk children to help him poison kids on Halloween so Robbie should be the villain of a story told to us by Jody. However, as the plot unfolds and we learn more about the backgrounds of each character you realize that not everything is as it seems. Robbie may be a disgusting dirtbag who is out to kill some innocent trick-or-treaters, but gradually you learn that he’s got a tragic backstory of his own so that you can’t help but feel some sympathy towards him by the end.

There’s also some very clever things going on in regards to the narration and structure of the book. Most of the story come from Jody’s first person account, and since he’s a not-too-bright kid who is a poster boy for neglect his account is mainly made up slang and references to the Lord of the Rings movies he loves so it takes some translation to understand what Jody is even talking about. We also get some interludes that are letters that Robbie writes to various people, and it quickly becomes clear that he has his own problems. There’s also some letters from Dag, and while she’s obviously the smartest of the crew we learn what led her to befriend these people who are so clearly not part of the same social or economic class as her.

It’s great writing that establishes the different voices, and it also pays off as each revelation makes the story become clear. Eventually we understand everyone, even the mute Midge, and their tales are all heartbreaking in one way or another. The book left me feeling sickened, but it wasn’t the gross and filthy details that did it. It was the way these young people were all abandoned or let down so that they ended up in these circumstances while no one around them seemed to notice or care.

OK, so some of it was the gross and filthy details. Seriously, I was glad that  I've had a tetanus shot recently while reading, but it's totally worth it.

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Review: In Broad Daylight

In Broad Daylight In Broad Daylight by Harry N. MacLean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1981 Ken McElroy was shot dead in his pick-up truck while parked on a main street of Skidmore, Missouri. At least two people fired on him, and dozens of people were nearby and witnessed the shooting. Yet not one person checked on McElroy, and his body sat there for an hour until the authorities had finally been called. No one has ever been charged with the murder because nobody in the crowd would tell the police who did it.

Think about that the next time you hear how polite and nice people in the heartland of America are.

What In Broad Daylight does brilliantly is explain how some ordinary people were driven to murder, and why an entire community would refuse to tell the cops who did it. The simple answer is that Ken McElroy was an asshole.

This is a guy who for years had stolen livestock, grain, equipment, supplies, antiques, and anything else he could get his hands on from farmers all around northwest Missouri and other nearby states. Despite being arrested and charged multiple times for various crimes he kept getting away with it by keeping a very good criminal lawyer from Kansas City on retainer as well as intimidating any potential accusers or witnesses.

McElroy would do things like park for hours outside the homes of those he was angry with, and there were several incidents of him threatening people with guns. He also committed multiple acts of statutory rape, and when one underage girl’s parents made too much of a fuss about McElroy 'dating' their daughter, he burned their house down. He shot three men who all lived to testify against him in court, but McElroy escaped conviction on the first two incidents. It was only the shooting of the last man, elderly grocery store owner Bo Bowenkamp, which finally convinced a jury to say that McElroy was guilty of a crime. It was McElroy’s extended campaign of harassment of several locals before and after the shooting of Bowenkamp that made the town’s fear and frustration with the bully boil over.

I grew up in a small Kansas town just about an hour from Skidmore, and I was 11 when McElroy died so I remember a lot of talk about the incident. However, after reading this I realized that I hadn’t known many details, and that I had some fundamental misunderstandings about what happened there.

I didn't comprehend just what a total sonofabitch that Ken McElroy was. He got referred to as the town bully, but that doesn’t really tell you the scope of his criminality, how bad his intimidation tactics were, and how easy it was to get on his bad side.

As an example, McElroy’s beef with Bo Bowenkamp began over a simple misunderstanding when McElroy’s four year old daughter tried to walk out of the store without paying for a few pieces of candy. This minor incident drove McElroy into an extended rage that had him harassing the Bowenkamps for months by parking outside their store and home. He’d frequently fire shotguns over their house in the middle of the night. People stopped shopping at the store out of fear that McElroy would see them and start coming after them, too. Eventually, McElroy shot and nearly killed Bowenkamp one night in back of the store.

McElroy even pulled this stuff on cops and got away with it. One state trooper had regular clashes with him, and he arrested McElroy for the Bowenkamp shooting. While on trial and out on bail for that crime he began parking outside that cop’s home and once pointed a shotgun at his wife. McElroy only stopped after the trooper used a friend of his to deliver a message that if McElroy didn’t quit that the trooper was going to catch him out on a gravel road one dark night and deliver some instant justice.

So if cops were that threatened, imagine how the citizens of Skidmore felt. I’d always been under the impression that the killing of McElroy was simple mob justice by organized vigilantes. However, the people of Skidmore had endured years of Ken McElroy’s reign of terror. Time and again someone would turn to the law for help only to be told that nothing could be done, or even if he got charged his lawyer would get him off while McElroy made the life of anyone involved a living hell.

The crowd there the day that McElroy was killed was even due to continued efforts to do things legally because they’d gathered as solidarity and security for four men who were going to testify about McElroy’s brandishing a rifle in the bar while threatening to kill Bowenkamp. This was part of an effort to get McElroy’s bail revoked while his appeal of the conviction was pending. However, were enraged when McElroy’s lawyer got yet another postponement, and this turned into an impromptu meeting about options and organizing themselves to watch and protect the four men until the court date. That’s when McElroy, who had heard about the gathering, decided to show his ass yet again by driving into town and having a beer.

That turned out to be the final straw that drove a couple of people to take advantage of the opportunity to finally be rid of the guy. Then the town closed ranks because they felt that the shooters had finally dealt with a problem that the legal system had failed to resolve time after time. This wasn’t frontier mob justice done in haste, it was a bunch of frightened and angry people pushed far past the breaking point.

I’ll give a lot of credit to Harry MacLean for the way he depicts this part of the world. As I stated before, I grew up in a small town like Skidmore in that area during the same time frame, and he absolutely nails life in farm country during the ‘80s. From describing the landscape to the weather to the depictions of the local people, this really took me back. In fact, my home town is even mentioned, and one of the cops who crossed paths with McElroy was a man I knew.

My one complaint is that MacLean goes a little easy on the people of Skidmore although I generally agree that this was a failure of the system, not a bad town. While MacLean does touch on the local Midwest farmer mentality of people-should-take-care-of-their-own-problems and how that was part of how McElroy managed to isolate his targets, he also kind of lets them off the hook for not looking out for each other more until McElroy was finally convicted of shooting Bowenkamp. That’s when people started to finally push back. Obviously, the main problem was McElroy and how he manipulated the legal system, but if the town had collectively stood up to him sooner it might not have come the bloody end it eventually did.

So who killed Ken McElroy? The book gives the most likely candidates, but as MacLean points out, knowing who actually pulled the trigger doesn’t really matter. The story here is in how Ken McElroy was allowed to behave the way he did for so long, and how he managed to push an entire town of people so far that almost every one of them felt like he had it coming.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot

Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot by Reed Farrel Coleman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jesse Stone takes a few days off from being police of chief in Paradise to attend a reunion of his old minor league baseball club that has been put together by Vic Prado, one of his former teammates who made it to the majors where he had a successful career. Vic is the guy who made the throw that got Jesse hurt and ended his own dreams of baseball glory. He also stole Jesse’s girlfriend at the time and later married her.

And you thought your high school reunion was awkward….

It turns out that after baseball Vic has gotten involved in a shady financial scheme with a dangerous Boston gangster for a partner, and now that the walls are closing in he was hoping to ask for Jesse’s help. However, Vic’s plan goes off the rails almost immediately which gets a young college girl killed and her wealthy boyfriend kidnapped back in Paradise. As Jesse tries to figure out what’s going on he’ll have to deal with the asshole father of the missing boy, a dangerous hit man, and a mysterious new love interest who has her own agenda regarding Vic. If that isn’t enough, seeing Vic opens up a lot of old emotional wounds that make it even harder than usual for Jesse to keep the cork in the Scotch bottle.

This is a fairly odd situation. Robert B. Parker started this series late in his career, and while he tried to make Jesse different his best known creation, Spenser, he was so locked into certain themes and his own sparse style that Jesse came across as just an internalized drunk who was unhealthily obsessed with his ex-wife. Which might work if you’re trying to make a flawed lead character, but RBP also couldn’t really let go of trying to make Jesse a Spenser-esque hero, either.

Then after RBP’s death his family had Michael Brandman carry on the Jesse Stone series, and since Brandman had been a producer/screenwriter on a pretty good set of TV movies based on the books that seemed like a solid choice. However, the three books Brandman did weren't good with Jesse coming across as a terrible cop who abused his authority for minor matters while ignoring bigger crimes.

I assume the fan response to Brandman was why Reed Farrel Coleman replaced him, and the results are promising in this first attempt. The biggest difference is in character work because RBP pretty much just worked off established templates in his later books so everybody seemed thin and one note. Here, Coleman spends time building up all the major players so that they all have inner lives and a distinct point of view. Coleman manages to build up some nobility and sympathy for a villain who seems irredeemable at the start, and even an entitled star athlete like Vic who is entirely motivated by self-interest has a world view a reader can understand.

In Coleman’s hands Jesse finally seems like a wholly realized person, and not like some shambling Frankenstein’s monster made up of random bits leftover from RBP's files and unproduced screenplays. He’s still an internalized guy who is struggling to cope with alcoholism, but he’s more self-aware of his flaws instead of seeming like a robot fueled by Scotch. While Jesse still has many of the tough-guy traits you’d expect in this kind of series, he also seems more like a decent guy doing his best rather than someone who thinks he’s above normal human interactions.

It’s not a home run of a book. The plot wanders somewhat, and I found the way that several of the bad guys suddenly develop consciences late in the book unbelievable. I also wasn’t wild that while wrapping up most of the story that it ends on a big cliffhanger.

Still, this was a Jesse Stone book that I mostly liked so maybe the third writer is the charm. 3.5 stars.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: One Small Sacrifice

One Small Sacrifice One Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw Hilary Davidson at Bouchercon in 2011 when she was promoting her first novel. She had some interesting things to say so I made a mental note to get a copy. 8 years later I finally got around to reading her 5th novel.

Hey, I’ve been busy!

Alex Traynor went to a war zone as a photojournalist and came back to New York with a whopping case of PTSD that had him self-medicating with the help of his friend and drug dealer, Cori. Unfortunately, Cori died after falling off the roof Alex’s apartment under suspicious circumstances. NYPD detective Sheryn Sterling is convinced that Alex killed Cori in the midst of a drug fueled freakout, but Alex’s girlfriend Emily provided an alibi. However, now Emily has gone missing while Alex relapsed and had a lost weekend. Sterling is determined to not let Alex get away with it again, but Alex has no memory of what happened to Emily. So where is she?

This is a nice take on a mystery because we’ve got a dogged detective pursuing the truth even as her prime suspect is doing the same, and for a good chunk of the story we’re not sure which one of them we should be rooting for. There’s some good twists, and the ultimate resolution manages the tricky task of not being obvious while not entirely coming out of left field either. I particularly liked one of the bigger revelations we get at the end.

It’s a little repetitive in spots as if Davidson doesn’t entirely trust the reader to remember the characters' histories, but it doesn’t get annoying. It’s also just a shade too long with an extra bit at the end that I didn’t really need, but again, it’s not too much to overlook.

I’d go 3.5 if I could, but I’ll round up to 4 since it took me way too long to finally check out Davidson’s work. Better late than never.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice

Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice by Michael Brandman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pop quiz. If you were the chief of police in a small town, which of these issues would be your top priority?

1) A movie production has started filming, and in addition to all the logistical headaches that creates, the lead actress is worried about her safety because she’s trying to divorce her drug addicted husband who has physically assaulted her in the past.

2) Officials at the local water company may have been rigging the meter readings to overcharge customers which would be a criminal conspiracy that affected the entire town.

3) One bratty rich girl keeps driving while texting despite repeated warnings.

If you answered #3, congratulations! You’d be just as bad a cop as Jesse Stone.

To be fair, the rich brat did cause a serious traffic accident, and her parents are major league assholes so it is a legit problem. However, while facing the other two issues Jesse chooses to delegate most everything related to the movie production to one of his officers while arranging for a guy he once pursued as a dangerous criminal to be the actress’ bodyguard. Plus, even when he suspects the water commissioner of shenanigans Jesse doesn’t call in some accountants or utilities experts to perform an audit and investigation, he just kind of casually happens to talk to the people at the water company involved in the fraud. Hell, he doesn’t even check his own water bill to see if anything looks off.

Instead, most of his focus and action is directed towards dealing with the young lady who is a chronic texter while driving. Again, I know this is a serious problem, but even when Jesse manages to get some legal action taken against her he also continues to involve himself with the idea of turning the girl around for the better. Noble, but as I’ve outlined here, he’s really got better things to do. So no surprise that everything goes to hell on him.

This seems to be all part of a weird situation with this series at this time. After Robert B. Parker’s death his family chose Michael Brandman to continue it, and since Brandman had been the writer/producer of a series of pretty good TV movies based on these books that made a lot of sense. Yet in these first two books he did Jesse really comes across as a cop who abuses his power over trivial matters while ignoring major situations.

It’s not surprising to me then that Brandman only did one more of these before the series was handed over to Reed Farrel Coleman. The writing is decent enough and mimics the style of Parker, but the plotting choices make Jesse out to be pretty awful at his job.

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Monday, October 7, 2019

Review: Thor, Volume 2: Who Holds the Hammer?

Thor, Volume 2: Who Holds the Hammer? Thor, Volume 2: Who Holds the Hammer? by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The identity of the new Thor is finally revealed, and it’s….*gasp* WHO?!?

Just kidding. This came out almost 5 years ago so that info has already fallen so far into the realm of common nerd knowledge even the reveal of the cast of the next Thor movie gave it away.

Since this a modern comic we can’t go more than 15 minutes without changing the title slightly and releasing a new #1, and with Secret Wars looming this version of Thor had a limited shelf life. Still, I very much enjoyed this particular run with a mysterious woman wielding the hammer as original Thor struggles to deal with his new unworthy status. It’s short but we get a pretty great battle between new Thor and the Destroyer that was sent by Odin just because he’s being an incredible asshat about a woman having the name and power of Thor. (Imagine that.) The annual included here has 3 lightweight but fun stories too.

Now I guess I’m onto the next title which is called Thors. We’ll see how long that lasts.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Review: The Unworthy Thor

The Unworthy Thor The Unworthy Thor by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Freedom and murder for all!”

Yeah, that’s what the hellhound says in this one, but I gotta admit that it’s a catchy slogan that I’d like on a t-shirt.

The god formerly known as Thor has had a rough time of it. First, he heard a revelation that instantly made him unworthy so that he lost his hammer, and then he got an arm chopped off although he got a pretty nifty replacement. (Hopefully, he won’t run into Rocket who would try to steal it.) He’s so bummed that another superhero now has Mjolnir as well as the power of Thor he even gives up his name and starts calling himself Odinson. Well, at least he’s got a big goat to ride around on…

I found this mini-series entertaining despite a pretty mopey ex-Thor. That’s mainly because it’s got some great guest stars like Beta Ray Bill, who is such a stand-up guy that he even offers Odinson his own hammer, and Thori, the murder loving hellhound. The Collector shows up in a good villain appearance along with some of Thanos’ minions, and everyone is trying to get yet another hammer, the one that the Thor from the Ultimate universe used to wield that somehow dropped into this version of Marvel reality.

It’s also interesting to read this and see how certain elements of it were used in the Thor: Ragnarok movie. Like Thor getting a hair cut!

It all makes for a fun comic read although I found the final revelation about what Odinson was told that made him instantly unworthy of Mjolnir pretty weak and kinda confusing. It’s not about anything that ex-Thor did. Instead, it’s more of a broad general statement that’s always been true. It didn’t change anything other than maybe the way that Odinson thought about himself. So that makes it almost sound like being worthy isn’t a judgement that Mjolnir makes about the character of the person trying to wield it, but more of a matter of self-confidence. Which doesn’t really fit the way I’ve always understand the mythos around the whole thing. On the hand, it’s a comic book so why not?

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