Friday, December 4, 2020

Review: Whoop! Whoop!

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! by Icy Thug Nutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of crime novels start with things like a gorgeous dame walking into a hard boiled private detective’s office or a world weary cop being called to a brutal crime scene. This one kicks off with a guy thinking his dick has exploded and then later throwing a tray of human feces into another man’s face at a MacDonald’s.

Hey, it’s called Whoop! Whoop!, and the lead character is a Juggalo. It isn’t like I was expecting it to be The Maltese Falcon going into it.

Magnetz is a guy living in Phoenix who can’t hold a job, and he’s pretty much a professional dumbass. The only things he’s got going for him is his adorable young daughter, and his love of the band Insane Clown Posse has given him a family among their dedicated fans, the Juggalos. After a lifetime of bad choices, Magnetz tops himself when he tries to pull a revenge prank and accidentally throws his own crap into another man’s face. Unfortunately, Magnetz got the wrong guy, and the person he shit spackled turns out to be a blood thirsty ex-cop named Murda Killa who just got out of prison, and now Magnetz has to flee for his life and try to find a way out of the mess he created as Murda Killa hunts him.

I’m not a fan of ICP, and I’d generally agree with the idea that a person who throws a bunch of feces on another person pretty much deserves whatever they get. So why read a book that asks me to sympathize with a Juggalo poop flinger? A little bird told me that the author Icy Thug Nutz is actually Johnny Shaw, and that’s a guy I actually trust to tell a story like this and make it funny instead of just gross. Although in fairness, it is pretty gross.

Still Shaw has the knack of writing stupid people doing stupid, disgusting things and making it entertaining. That’s exactly what he’s done here with this fast paced farce, and at a time when I needed some laughs it hit the spot. Even with all the gross insanity going on in this book, Shaw manages to give Magnetz some emotional depth so that you actually do feel bad for the big doofus even if the whole situation was his own fault.

It’s a little odd to read this after Shaw’s last book The Southland, which was a very serious and mature novel that dug into the world of undocumented Mexican workers being exploited in the US. It shows that he’s the kind of writer who can a lot of different things, and he does them all well.

Public Service Announcement: I got a free copy of this for review, and I'm told that it isn't for sale on Amazon. If anyone is interested it can be found on the publisher's website.

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Review: Cottonmouths

Cottonmouths Cottonmouths by Kelly J. Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They say you can’t go home again, but that’s not true. However, when you do go back you may find something new there, like a meth lab.

Emily has dropped out of college and been forced to return to her former Arkansas hometown and live with her parents. Feeling like a failure and with student loan debt now hanging over her, Emily tries to find a decent job, but the best that she can do is working at a fast-food joint. She’s shocked to learn that her former best friend/secret crush, Jody, has also returned to town and now has a baby. Emily has never gotten over her romantic feelings for Jody, and she tries to reconnect with her even when it becomes clear that Jody is involved in something shady. Unable to resist her attraction to Jody even when she sees plenty of warning signs, Emily gets steadily more involved even as she tries to rationalize what’s happening.

This is a rural crime story that really gets the small-town character vibe right. You really feel Emily’s sense of being trapped with no money and no opportunities as well as her embarrassment at having to return home and dealing with people she’d thought she’d left behind. She resents her mother’s judgements even as she also hates feeling like she isn’t living up to her standards.

Emily’s also struggling in dealing with her sexuality because she realized she was infatuated with Jody long ago but by failing to come to terms with who she is she’s never been able to move on and get past that high school first-love thing. She’s at the point where she knows the truth about herself but can’t bear to admit it even if most of those around her already know. Jody is certainly aware of it, and the question is whether she cares for Emily or just uses her feelings to manipulate her.

Another interesting aspect here is how the crime part of the novel is handled. There’s a heart-breaking realism to it all in which running a meth lab isn’t a glamorous life of drug kingpins, stacks of cash, and wars with biker gangs or cartels. Instead there’s a kind of slow inevitable slide towards tragedy with a bunch of poor, desperate people feeling like they don’t have other options making a series of bad choices that keep leading them deeper into trouble.

Kelly Ford is one of the authors I learned about why attending Bouchercon last year when she was on a panel about modern noir, and I’d been meaning to read this for a while. The book lived up to what I was hoping for after hearing her talk about it a bit, and she’s written a bleak portrait of small-town despair and broken hearts.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review: Someone to Watch Over Me

Someone to Watch Over Me Someone to Watch Over Me by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley.

Spenser tries to bring down a rich pedophile who has been protected for years by his wealth and influence. This guy also has a partner in a woman who helps him lure the girls in, and they are often taken to a private island where other powerful men come to party.

That’s just such a disturbing and creepy premise that I’m glad this is a work of fiction and that nothing like that could happen in real life….

In the first Spenser book that Ace Atkins wrote the detective helped a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie find her mother’s killer. Now Mattie is old enough to legally drink, and she’s been working for Spenser and training as a junior PI. It’s Mattie who is asked by a young girl from her neighborhood for help after she had an icky encounter with a rich pervert at an exclusive club. It soon becomes apparent that there’s some very twisted and rotten stuff going on, and that the guy behind it all will use all of his wealth and power to do anything possible to stop any of his victims from going public.

There are several interesting things going on in this one. The main plot was obviously inspired by a true story although Atkins changes things up so that just because we know what happened in real life doesn’t mean you know how this book will end. The idea of a guy like this with a private island and a stunning list of powerful friends who are involved would probably seem too over-the-top to work in a Spenser novel if it hadn’t happened. So you’ve got Spenser going up against people that you really want to see get kicked in the teeth which makes it satisfying when the detective starts rattling their cages.

Another satisfying thing is that we get a lot of Hawk in this one. Atkins has been judicious in his use of everybody’s favorite bad ass best friend character so that he could explore and expand the roles of other supporting players in recent books, and he’s done a great job of it. Still, it’s always comforting to know that Hawk is around, and it was nice to get a little insight into what Hawk does when he isn’t saving Spenser’s ass in Boston.

Bringing back Mattie was another nice touch. Spenser has taken in other people like his surrogate son Paul and his former PI apprentice Z. Sixkill so this follows a pattern. However, Mattie is an incredibly independent woman who doesn’t always see things the way Spenser does, and while the two have a real bond, she also isn’t afraid to start finding her own way versus just following in Spenser’s footsteps.

The one thing I wasn’t crazy about was the subplot of Spenser getting a new puppy after his dog Pearl has passed away. As the series has done in the past, Spenser gets another dog of the same exact breed and again names her Pearl. This always seemed like a cheat by Robert B. Parker to keep Spenser in a timeless limbo, but Atkins here does explore why Spenser does this when Susan questions it as a coping mechanism. It makes some sense, but at this point Spenser is essentially ageless so why not just make it the same Pearl vs. periodically killing one off and getting another one?

Aside from that minor nitpicking, I enjoyed this one from start to finish. Mattie’s part of the plot gave it the kind of freshness that Ace Atkins has been bringing to the series from the start while the stuff with Spenser and Hawk felt very old school, like some of the earliest RBP books. It was a nice combination that appealed to me as a long time Spenser fan while still feeling new and modern.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review: Pulp

Pulp Pulp by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Max Winter was a cowboy outlaw in his younger days. As an old man living in New York during the Great Depression he draws on his experiences as a writer of pulp westerns. With money getting tighter and his mortality looming, Max decides to return to to stealing in order to try and leave his wife something before he dies. Next thing you know, Max is part of a scheme to steal from the American Nazi movement.

Honestly, you had me at old outlaw turns pulp writer, but if you throw in a scheme to rip-off Nazis and now we're talking about a Shut-Up-And-Take-My-Money scenario...

Brubaker and Phillips score yet again with his short, but powerful tale. The run these guys have been on is nothing short of astounding, and this one has a bit of Unforgiven flavor with the old man trying to live with his violent past thing. First rate stuff all around that combines a cool story with an intriguing character done up with artwork that sets the tone of it all perfectly.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Review: Suicide Squad, Volume 3: Rogues

Suicide Squad, Volume 3: Rogues Suicide Squad, Volume 3: Rogues by John Ostrander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm having a lot of fun going through these collections. The '80s tone where a lot of costumes and powers still had old school goofiness to them even as the stories started orienting around real world political and social issues is an interesting era that makes for some wild stories.

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Monday, September 28, 2020

Review: Suicide Squad, Volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey

Suicide Squad, Volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey Suicide Squad, Volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey by John Ostrander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm having a lot of fun with this Ostrander run. It's a great example of that late '80s time where they were mixing more serious political topics with full on superhero silliness at times so Ronald Reagan is a supporting character as the Suicide Squad gets missions like trying to kill a South American drug cartel leader, but then there's another story that involves going to another dimension and battling weird demonic creatures.

Captain Boomerang continues to be both the most ridiculous and annoying character. I'm pretty sure that Amanda Waller just keeps sending him out on every mission hoping that he'll be killed someday. Fingers crossed.

There's also a couple of appearances by Batman, and the way he's portrayed here reminded me that DC was in the middle of that phase where he had to be an absolute asshole to everybody. Because it's gritty and mature!

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Review: My Life as a Villainess

My Life as a Villainess My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Did I once meet Laura Lippman and try to mansplain one of her own characters to her?

Yeah, I did. Sort of. But I swear it was an accident!

More on that in a moment…

Here we’ve got a novelist doing a series of essays, and the topics include family, marriage, motherhood, friendships, aging, accomplishments, tragedies, regrets, sexism, and social media. While those subjects are universal, Ms. Lippman’s perspective on them is unique. After all, I don’t think there are that many former reporters turned award winning crime writers who married the guy who created The Wire.

The most impressive thing about this is by focusing in on her specific circumstances Ms. Lippman can then provide insights that apply to a lot of us. For example, her and her husband had become acquainted with chef Anthony Bourdain, and his death was a hard blow for them. People all over the world mourned Bourdain, yet it’s her personal connection to him that leads to a touching examination of not just losing a friend, but also grieving celebrities we never met.

In Game of Crones Ms. Lippman talks about becoming a mother. Obviously, motherhood is something that many women experience, but she had her child in her fifties so she’s outside the traditional model. She fully admits that doing this was maybe the ultimate example of white privilege. Yet by explaining why she chose to do it and how she balances her writing with raising her daughter even as her husband is absent for months at a time as part of his work, she once again highlights something that many people can relate to even if her specific circumstances are different than most people.

That brings up another interesting aspect which is that despite being well off and telling stories about meeting famous people and traveling the world, Ms. Lippman still comes across as down to earth and not an entitled jerk. It helps that she goes into her middle class background, and how she struggled to find work as a low paid reporter at the start of her career while eventually writing her first books in the early mornings before work. There’s a sense of having paid her dues as well as self-awareness and gratitude about how things worked out that make you happy for her instead of jealous. (OK, I was a little jealous when she talks about being friends with several crime writers I admire.)

The thing that struck me most is that even though a large part of this discusses her fears and what she thinks are her shortcomings is just how remarkably self-assured Ms. Lippman comes across. While she can mock herself and find no shortage of flaws with her own character, she’s a woman who set out to become the very person she is now, and she is pretty pleased with the results. She doesn’t think she has all the answers, and she has the same self-doubts that any sane person does. Yet, while she’ll acknowledge them, they don't paralyze her, and she doesn't let herself be stopped by other people's opinions. This gives her a distinct perspective as someone who has thought a lot about what really matters to her, and that's an oddly rare trait.

Despite this confidence the one observation I might have made before I met her is that Ms. Lippman seems overly harsh in her self-criticism. The title essay about being a villainess comes from a story she tells about how she divorced her first husband, who had supported her novel writing from the start, just as she was about to hit the big time as an author. She admits to ruthlessly exploiting what she knew about him during the divorce as well as not being fully honest about her feelings that the marriage was over when they separated. She also goes on at length about her failings as a friend as well as tendency to hold grudges.

I might have once argued these are just the same kind of things that a lot of people struggle with in their lives, and that doesn’t make her a villain. However, it’s thinking that Ms. Lippman was being needlessly hard on herself that led me to the incident in which I found myself mansplaining her own character to her….

I went to the 2019 Bouchercon in Dallas, and one of the authors I was hoping to meet was Ms. Lippman because I’d just finished her two most recent books and absolutely loved them. I saw her and some other writers on panel about unlikable characters, and the lead from Lady in the Lake came up. The book is set in the ‘60s and involves a woman named Maddie suddenly divorcing her husband and leaving her child with him. She finds work as a reporter and begins to dig into the recent murder of a woman. Over the course of the story Maddie shows a streak of ruthless ambition and willingness to screw anybody over to get what she wants.

As I recall, during the panel Ms. Lippman was the only writer to declare that she thought her character was ‘unlikable’. I found that interesting because I had very mixed feelings about Maddie and went back and forth as to whether she was sympathetic or not. Yes, she does questionable things, but she’s also a woman trying to make it on her own in a time when that was even harder than it is today.

After the panel I went to a signing session, and as Ms. Lippman autographed my books, I told her I was a new fan, and how much I loved her writing. She thanked me, and I had happened to catch her a moment when no one else was in line so we started chatting for a moment. I mentioned that I had heard what she said about Maddie on the panel, and that I was a little surprised that her opinion about the character was so much tougher than my own.

She noted a couple of the specific things that Maddie did in the book that she felt weren’t forgivable, and this is where I went off the rails. I wasn’t trying to be the guy who argues with the woman who created the character. I wasn’t trying to argue at all. I was nervous and excited to have the opportunity to talk to Ms. Lippman, and what I was trying to say was that I thought she had done such a great job in making Maddie a real and complex character that despite her flaws, I still felt real empathy for her.

Almost a year later, I can articulate that pretty well as I write this review. What I did in the moment was to come across as insistent that Maddie wasn’t as bad as her creator was saying, and when I realized I was botching it, I panicked. And dear reader, that’s when it happened.

I interrupted Laura Lippman and started talking over her, and it very much sounded like I was saying that she was wrong.

The only saving grace was that I saw the look in her eyes, realized what I was doing, and I managed to shut my big stupid mouth and say, “I’m sorry, please go on.”

She was incredibly polite, and she finished the thought I’d so rudely tried to talk over. Then another fan came up to get her books signed, and so I thanked Ms. Lippman again. Then I fled in shame. I looked for an opportunity to see her again that weekend so that I could apologize, but unfortunately, I never got a chance. Now I had to read her essay Men Explain The Wire To Me with my fingers crossed hoping that there wasn’t a brief mention of the idiot in Dallas who tried to tell her about her own character. *whew*

So that’s why if Laura Lippman declares that she’s a villainess, I’m just going to nod and agree.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Review: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even if Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips never published another project together they are still going to go down in comic book history as one of the great creative partnerships of all time. Fortunately for us all, they keep doing new books, and this short graphic novel is one of their very best.

Elle is an addict at a fancy rehab facility who doesn’t seem all that interested in getting clean as she scoffs at other patients and flaunts the rules. As the title of this indicates she also romanticizes famous drug addicts and seems to have modeled her life on their behavior despite having an upbringing that is one giant cautionary tale.

That’s all I want to say about the plot of this one, and that short summary doesn’t do justice to the genius work that Brubaker & Phillips have done here. It’s just an amazing piece of art that is bigger than any label or genre that some might try to put on a crime comic. Check it out.

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Review: Broken

Broken Broken by John Rector
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

It’s like the old gum commercial said about twins: “Double your pleasure, double your fun.”

At least until one of them is brutally murdered.

Maggie and Lilly are estranged twins who had a falling out because Lilly refused to leave her abusive husband Mike. It’s been a year since Lilly and Mike left the girls’ hometown, and the sisters haven’t spoken since then. When Lilly turns up beaten to death, Mike is instantly arrested for the crime. Now Maggie has to journey to the fading tourist trap of a town they were living in to try and find some personal effects that belonged to their mother that Lilly had taken. However, while Mike admits that he beat Lilly the night she died he also insists that she was still alive when he left her.

This is one of those plots that sounds like a cheesy Lifetime TV movie when you describe it, but there’s a lot more going on here. This isn’t just a straight up thriller like it sounds, but instead it’s more of a psychological suspense novel driven by character work. Much of the story comes to us from a the manager of the apartment building where LIlly and Mike were living, and there’s just something off about this guy from the jump that give the whole book a creepy vibe.

The sequences from Maggie’s POV cover her anger, grief, and loneliness that she she hides behind a veneer of toughness. This is a woman who just wants to do what she came there to do and then get the hell out, but she finds herself drawn to some of the people she meets like a helpful sheriff, a psychic who isn’t stingy with her pot, and an aging private detective.

At less than 300 pages John Rector delivers with a swift no-nonsense efficiency that still manages to suck you into a moody and atmospheric novel that seems seems equal parts crime thriller and tragedy.

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Review: Zero Hour: Crisis in Time 25th Anniversary Omnibus

Zero Hour: Crisis in Time 25th Anniversary Omnibus Zero Hour: Crisis in Time 25th Anniversary Omnibus by Dan Jurgens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As an oversized hardcover comic collection with over 1000 pages, this is the kitten squisher to end all kitten squishers. Seriously, if you need some kittens squished, this would be the book you’d want to use for the job. 

It’s taken me months to get through this thing, not just because of how long it is, but because it’s so big that I had to be in the right mood to sit at the kitchen table because it's not like you could read it while laying on the couch.

A funny thing about this one, it’s a DC crossover event that was originally published in 1994. I’m much more of a Marvel fan than DC (Except for my boy Batman.), I think crossover events are generally stunts to boost sales that have seriously hurt storytelling, and this came out at a time when mainstream comics had gotten so bad that fans quit reading which nearly caused the entire industry to implode. And yet I asked for this as a gift last Christmas.

Why? I’m not really sure myself. I’ve been watching a lot of the TV shows and cartoons they do these days so that has my DC interest up. Plus, Zero Hour was right about the time I bailed on reading comics back in the ‘90s so it’s kind of a time capsule to go back to. It just kinda sounded like an interesting artifact to re-examine.

So how was it? Weeelllll….. As I said before, this was kind of a bad time for superhero comics, and there is an incredible amount of material about characters that never caught on who I”m pretty sure have been left to the discount bin in comic books stores. So there isn’t nearly enough of the major characters like Batman and Superman that you’d think. Plus, this was yet another huge part of DC’s obsession with repeatedly trying to revamp their continuity and create a timeline that ‘made sense’ which is something they insist on doing once a decade that looks more and more like a fool’s errand every time they try.The plot revolves around a big timey-wimey crisis that is ending all of the DC realities, and it’s pretty much just nonsense even by comic book standards.

The most interesting aspect is that because it’s about worlds colliding, we get a lot of different versions of characters over the years at times, like Superman running into a whole bunch of different Batmen or Catwoman getting a glimpse of her various incarnations. One of the best side stories involves the Tim Drake version of Robin meeting and working with the much younger Dick Grayson as Robin to catch a thief.

My favorite was an absolute gem of a Green Arrow issue in which the entire story is done without captions or dialogue and shows via clever structure of the panels two parallel stories in which GA pursues the same criminal, but it ends two different ways. I could have used a lot more like that one in this.

Overall, it’s a big mishmash of ‘90s DC characters doing a lot of different stuff so it’s not without it’s charms, but anybody who didn’t know anything about the characters’ histories would most likely be loss. It’s also going to be a fairly big investment so not recommended for casual fans unless you find it cheap.

Still, I had some fun with it, and it did take me back to the days when Superman had come back from the dead and Batman had recovered from a broken spine. Not a bad trip down memory lane overall.

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Thursday, August 20, 2020

Review: Poe Dameron: Free Fall

Poe Dameron: Free Fall Poe Dameron: Free Fall by Alex Segura
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

If you’re a Star Wars fan it’s a real best-of-times/worst-of-times situation these days. We’ve gotten some great new stuff, but also a couple of real duds. Plus, much like how the worst thing about capitalism are the capitalists, the worst thing about Star Wars fandom turned out to be Star Wars fans.

So I wasn’t exactly dying to pick up a new young adult tie-in book, but I’d recently read Alex Segura’s first crime novel, and I thought Poe Dameron was an interesting but underused character in the latest movies so decided to give it a shot. And it turned out to be a very fun Star Wars story.

This starts out with teenage Poe living on Yavin 4 with his father. Both his parents fought for the rebels against the Empire, and his mother was a great pilot who taught him to fly before she was killed while on a mission for the New Republic. Now Poe’s father just wants to live a quiet life as a farmer, and he’s kept Poe from leaving for the adventure he craves. Hmmm… a young man dreaming of space adventure who is trapped on the family farm…. I wonder why that sounds familiar..?

Anyhow, after Poe pulls a knucklehead stunt that lands him in hot water with the authorities and leads to a blowout argument with his father, he impulsively takes a piloting job for several shady characters looking to get off Yavin 4 quickly. It turns out that these people are Spice Runners of Kijimi, one of the most dangerous criminal gangs in the galaxy, and a zealous New Republic officer has a personal vendetta against them so she’s hot on their trail. Poe wanted excitement, but he’s uneasy with his new role as a criminal. However, his growing relationship with the mysterious young lady Zorii makes him hesitant to leave.

Segura takes an interesting approach to this one because it plays out in a series of stories that often begin with Poe in the middle of his latest job gone wrong with the Spice Runners that then fills us in on how it came about. The time jumping helps build a complete narrative arc that leaves Poe with some gaps that could be filled in later (Something the Star Wars franchise loves doing.) while also giving us the depth and backstory that the movies never did. One of the few things I liked about Rise of Skywalker was the brief hint of Poe’s past, and this fleshes that out.

Since it’s a short YA novel we’re not getting the kind of deep dive into Star Wars lore that some nerds demand, but overall I found it to be a fast and enjoyable adventure. It’s obvious that Segura is a fan and knows the universe well, and he brings a young Poe to life with energy and enthusiasm.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Review: The Southland

The Southland The Southland by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

If America keeps going like it has been for the last few years then we won’t have an illegal immigration problem because nobody will want to come to this shithole country anyhow.

U-S-A!! U-S-A!! U-S-A!!

The Southland focuses on three unauthorized Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles. Luz works several menial jobs and was able to finally bring her teen-aged son, Eliseo, into the US. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a sullen, angry, lazy kid who just complicates her precarious existence. Nadia had to flee Mexico and she’s got far more dangerous people than ICE agents looking for her so she’s trying to stay off of everybody’s radar. She copes with her situation by drinking heavily with her American friend and roommate, Gillies. Ostelinda was lured to America with the promise of a good job, but she is told that she has a debt to work off. Now she’s essentially a slave in a factory who hasn’t even been outside in over a year.

When Eliseo goes missing after an argument with Luz, she’s desperate to find her son, but since she can’t turn to the authorities she pays Gillies to find him. Gillies doesn’t plan on doing anything other than using Luz’s money to buy more booze, but at Nadia’s insistence they being looking for the missing teen. Meanwhile, Ostelinda is trying to find a way to escape the factory by outwitting the American woman who runs the place.

I’ve been a fan of Johnny Shaw’s for better part of a decade now, and this is undeniably his best book yet. His previous stuff was always entertaining and frequently hilarious, but there’s a real maturity and gravity to this one that makes it feel he tried very hard to get to a next level here. It’s not that his earlier stuff hasn’t featured real world issues, but he’s generally used humorous dialogue and a sense of chaos brought about by various dumbasses doing dumbass things to drive the plots. With the three main characters facing serious consequences for any misstep that could get them deported or worse, there’s no room for buffoonery, and that makes this book feel deadly serious throughout it all.

It’s not just that Shaw took a hot button issue and based a novel on it. He’s always had a feel for creating working class characters, and with his three leading ladies this time he’s outdone himself. Although each one shares the similarity of being an undocumented immigrant, they feel distinctive and real. Luz is a hardworking mother who feels like she’s failed her son. Nadia is a woman with a tragic history trying to outrun her past. Ostelinda is an innocent caught up in a bad situation who somehow finds small moments of grace to keep her spirit from breaking.

First he makes us care about these women, and then Shaw shows us how screwed they really are. They’ve all become part of a system that is happy to exploit them for their labor even as the people in charge vilify them. They are powerless against any random white asshole who gets irked at them. So Luz has to sit quietly on a bus as a man screams racist slurs at her. Nadia doesn’t dare complain when a boss cheats her on the amount of a promised wage. Ostelinda is told that she’s lucky to have a safe place to live and work while being a slave.

This also shows up in the plot of the story. Luz can’t afford to drop everything and look for her son so she has to do her sleuthing around her work schedule. Nadia doesn’t dare make too many waves when she’s investigating either lest she draw the wrong kind of attention. This is a far cry from the usual crime story where it’s the detective throwing their weight around and causing trouble as a way of drawing out the bad guys. It’s a lot harder to find someone when you don’t want anyone to notice that you’re looking, and when you don’t dare call the cops even when you’re dealing with real criminals.

It’s a crime story that also provides emphatic insight into what undocumented workers face in America these days. It’s not pretty. It’s not a lot of fun. But it’s an important story, and Johnny Shaw has told it about as well as it could be done.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Review: Silent City

Silent City Silent City by Alex Segura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is why I don’t do favors for people at work. First, it’s just loaning them a pen, and the next thing you know you’re trying to find somebody’s missing daughter which pisses off a mysterious killer.

Pete Fernandez is a guy who once had a lot of promise, but he’s been on the skids since the death of his father. His drinking is out of control, his wife left him, and he’s barely clinging to his job on the sports page of the Miami newspaper. That’s when a coworker asks him to look for his missing daughter, Kate. She also works for the paper and Is an acquaintance of Pete’s so he agrees to take a look to see if Kate may be in trouble or if she is just ignoring her estranged father. However, after finding her apartment ransacked and learning that Kate was researching a story about a legendary hit man nicknamed The Silent Death, Pete has plenty of reasons to regret that decision.

This first book in the Pete Fernandez series is enough to get me hooked. Alex Segura is a writer who has been on my radar for a while, and after seeing him at Bouchercon last year I made a point of moving up my to-read list. He had a lot of interesting things to say, and I thought it was cool that he splits time between writing crime novels and working on Archie comics.

I’m particularly impressed with the way that Pete is depicted. This is a character who is a flat out mess. In the wrong hands Pete could be an insufferable loser who wallows in self-pity, but Segura makes him a tragedy. He knows he’s screwing up, but he can’t figure out a way to change his circumstances so he just goes to the bar every night without realizing that’s a big part of his problems. He’s not the kind of character you hate, he’s the kind you root for even as you want to tell him to get his shit together.

The plotting does some zigging and zagging so that it doesn’t play out in typical fashion. Another nice aspect is how it manages to keep Pete in the midst of this mess without coming across as him being overly stupid or seeming contrived. What looks like a simple favor becomes quicksand that Pete can’t escape from once he dips a toe in even though he is not trying to play the hero.

Overall, it reminded me a lot of the ‘90s crime novels I loved, and it was no surprise to see Segura credit writers like Pelecanos, Lehand, and Ellroy in the acknowledgements because you can see the influence even as he is finding his own voice. It’s a great start to a promising series.

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Sunday, July 12, 2020

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My life has become a single on-going revelation that I haven’t been cynical enough.”

This is the kind of cheery thought one is apt to have when facing a narcissistic megalomaniac who has gained power by convincing some people that all their problems can be blamed on other groups while setting humanity on a self-destructive path it may not be able to recover from.

Geez, I thought I read science-fiction to escape reality.

The Expanse series took an epic dark turn in the last one, and this book is mainly about dealing with the fall-out from that as well as trying to resolve the new threat that arose. The short term stakes involve a fight to control the outposts outside of Earth and Mars, but the longer view will determine nothing less than the fate of humanity itself.

Like the other books this has a self-contained story that features all kinds of political intrigue and strategy as well as a healthy dose of interesting characters riding around in spaceships being all Pew-Pew!. Which is what The Expanse does really well as a general rule. The new wrinkle here is that because this is the aftermath of catastrophic events that there’s a tone of shock and even a certain wistfulness in this one. Things will never be what they once where and everyone knows it. This makes the conflict here literally a fight for the future, and all the characters are under enormous amounts of pressure because of it.

There was one element I wasn’t entirely happy about. (view spoiler) On the other hand there’s still story to be told so I’m trying to set aside any feelings of mild disappointment I have about the ending here because it’s likely that there is more pay-off coming.

As always after finishing one of these I’m left wanting more and am already counting the days until the next book releases. It helps that we’ve got the second season of the TV show coming to fill the gap between books.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review: The Revelators

The Revelators The Revelators by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

A completely immoral man has taken charge of the government, and the wave of corruption and racism he unleashed is completely undermining the rule of law. Welcome to America. Oops. I meant – Welcome to Tibbehah County, Mississippi.

I can’t imagine how I mixed that up…

As Sheriff Quinn Colson is recovering after being shot, the new shithead governor is cutting deals with criminals and the filthy rich while blaming everything wrong with the world on immigrants and liberals. So Quinn is sidelined while the new local crime boss, Fannie Hathcock, expands her operation with the assistance of the crooked temporary sheriff appointed by the gov. If that’s not enough to worry about, Quinn also has a pregnant wife about to deliver a baby, the old friend he sent to prison for selling automatic weapons just got released, and he’s getting a touch too fond of the painkillers he’s been taking…

Ace Atkins has been working up to this point for several books, and while current events were certainly a big influence on it, he never loses the story threads and themes he’s developed over the course of the series. As always, while Quinn is the focus there’s a lot of time spent with other people so that Tibbehah County is a complete world in which every character has their own story. Whether it’s Quinn’s nephew struggling to help a young immigrant girl whose mother has been arrested and is about to be deported, or Fannie Hathcock ruthlessly running her small empire, it all feels like this is a bunch of real people whose lives get tangled up in various ways as they pursue their own agendas.

The structure of the series has been to tell a fairly self-contained story in each one while leaving some threads dangling to pick up in the next book, but this has more of a wrap-up feel to it with Atkins delivering some definite conclusions to several of the plots that have been on the boil for a while now. The payoffs are well done overall, and as usual, nothing in Tibbehah County goes exactly according to plan.

The only problem is one I’ve seen in other books based on the political events of the last few years. Essentially, I think crime writers tend to do stories about justice being done in some fashion, and they just couldn’t imagine how bad things would actually get when they were working on these books a year or two ago. (Life comes at you fast these days.) So in this current hellscape when it often feels like the entire justice system has broken down, and there’s no scandal that can’t be spun on Fox News, a book like this can end up feeling kind of naïve and simplistic.

As I’ve noted in other reviews with similar problems, I don’t blame the authors for this because think about what I’m really saying here. – The problem with a book in which a criminal governor takes over a state and fills it with corrupt officials is that it isn't cynical enough because reality has proven to be so much worse.

That’s pretty fucked up.

So again, I don’t really count it as a strike against the books or Atkins’ plotting. It’s just that it’s really tough for creators to come up with stories that could have imagined the depths we’d sink to so fast with little hope of the good guys winning.

Setting that aside, it’s always a pleasure to check in with Quinn and what’s going on in Tibbehah, and it was nice to get some satisfying conclusions to several of the on-going stories with the prospect of a doozy of a new one now hanging out there.

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Review: Nut Jobs: Cracking California's Strangest $10 Million Dollar Heist

Nut Jobs: Cracking California's Strangest $10 Million Dollar Heist Nut Jobs: Cracking California's Strangest $10 Million Dollar Heist by Marc Fennell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I thought I was getting an offbeat crime story about the clever theft of millions of dollar worth of nuts that were stolen from various California farmers via an elaborate scheme in which the legitimate shipping process was used to swipe truckloads of almonds. What I got instead was 4 hours of irritation.

I’ve noted before that the Audible Originals that I’ve listened to aren’t really audio books, they’re podcasts. Apparently the folks at Audible got my memo because Marc Fennell flatly refers to it as “a podcast for Audible Originals” in his introduction. However, while the structure and style are trying to rip off that Serial style it's still delivered in one big chunk so I’m not sure why that intro was repeated multiple times as if these were episodes delivered week to week. Yeah, it has different chapters, but you could do some kind of break indicating that instead of having Fennell reintroduce himself and the show with the full musical theme several times.

Fennell also comes across as incredibly stupid and/or naïve for repeatedly bringing up how amazed he is that anybody would steal nuts. Then when he learns that some kind of organized crime was involved he’s even more shocked. Which then leads to maybe the most idiotic question I’ve ever heard posed: “Does it surprise you that people would want to steal millions of dollars worth of nuts?”

It shouldn’t surprise anybody to hear that people would want to steal millions of dollars worth of ANYTHING. Particularly when it’s an untraceable commodity that could then be quickly turned around and sold for full market value. News flash - Where there's an illegal buck to be made, then you can usually count on some kind of organized crime figures to try and get in on it.

I suspect that Fennell is playing up the Gee-Whiz!-This-Is-Crazy! factor for the podcast, and he uses being an Australian in America to put some extra mustard on it. It also doesn’t help that he  hits that same note repeatedly when doing things like freaking out about the guns that some security guards he interviews carry as he does a whole Wow!-America-Is-Crazy! angle. I live here, Fennell, so I’m well aware of it.

My biggest gripe is that this is a perfect example of false advertising. Out of the 4 hours of this, I think there’s probably less than 45 minutes actually talking about the nut heists in detail. Which is too bad because when that’s the focus it’s an interesting account of a complex criminal scheme. Unfortunately, what Fennell really wanted to do was to use that crime story as a Trojan horse to sneak in an audio essay about how our food is grown, transported, marketed, and sold to us.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody who knows anything about capitalism, but it turns out that the whole thing is dependent on big money interests using a variety of low paid workers while destroying the environment to provide overpriced items for a market they created. As a famous quote goes, "I am shocked, SHOCKED to find out there's gambling going on in here!"

And that’s an important story, but it’s not what I signed up for when I clicked on something that said it was going to be about stealing nuts. At this point in the hellish year of 2020 I really wasn’t in the mood to hear another yet example of how everything is fucked. I got Twitter for that.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“This is as good as it gets. Can’t expect everyone to be on the same page. We’re still humans after all. Some percentage of us are always going to be assholes.”
- Naomi Nagata - Nemesis Games

"Boy, that escalated quickly... I mean, that really got out of hand fast."
- Ron Burgundy - Anchorman: The Legend of Run Burgundy

After their latest misadventure the Rocinante is in need of extensive repairs that will keep the ship sidelined as the crew finds itself with a variety of personal matters that need their attention so they split up and head to different spots all over the solar system. Unfortunately, one of them gets caught up in an elaborate trap that will have a devastating and long-range impact.

The Expanse novels have been about big events potentially changing the future of humanity, but these things have been done against a backdrop that fundamentally hasn’t changed. The political and military organizations have remained mostly stable, and a large part of the story is about the reaction by those powers to what's going on. What happens here is particularly sneaky on the part of the authors who make up the James S.A. Corey name because this is the point where they’ve kicked over the table and upset the entire game.

That makes sense because by their 9 book timeline this is where we cross the halfway point so we’re firmly in the second act which is where things traditionally get dark for the heroes of any kind of story. What’s shocking here is the extent of the damage done, and it’s made even more disturbing that even those who have generally been portrayed as being the most powerful and savviest characters get caught flat-footed.

Once again, that makes sense in the greater context of The Expanse because one of its on-going themes is how short-sighted selfish people can always draw attention away from larger threats and find a way to fight over things even as humanity should be on the brink of a new age of limitless exploration and expansion. This is especially been built up as part of an increasingly good job of developing villains.

At the start of the series the third party subjective nature of shifting the point-of-view around a handful of characters sometimes made the threats seem vague or to come out of nowhere. Since the third book the authors have done a much better job of finding ways to put a face on the bad guys, and they’ve got a knack for creating a particular brand of smug self-absorbed jerkfaces who are masters of developing rationalizations for their actions.

Another selling point here is that at this point in the series we’re fully invested in our main characters. (Or at least I assume that anyone who is reading the 5th book of 500+ page novels cares at least a little bit about these guys.) By scattering the crew of the Roci around and making them the narrators who carry the story, it not only brings a lot of the epic scale down to a more relatable level, it also sets up a near guarantee in emotional investment. Even as they’re going through different trails and tribulations they all have one goal, to get back to their ship and each other. That's the hook that carries off this whole thing because it's what all the readers want, too.

I could nitpick a bit about how some of the coincidences seem a bit much or that the novella The Churn probably should have been boiled down to backstory for this one rather than selling it as a extra by itself. But overall I’m just having too much fun with this series to gripe much other than bitching about how now I gotta wait until the summer of 2016 for the next book. I just hope I don’t get Dark Towered on this thing….

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Review: Blacktop Wasteland

Blacktop Wasteland Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

You know how some cars have a handhold mounted above the doors on the interior, and you hear people call them the “Oh-Shit-Handle” because if you’re a passenger and something crazy happens you might find yourself clutching it while screaming expletives?

This book should come with an Oh-Shit-Handle because it’s that kind of ride.

Beauregard “Bug” Montage was a professional criminal whose planning skills were second only to his driving abilities. However, he left that life behind to be a husband and father, and he started his own automotive repair shop in rural Virginia. Unfortunately, business has gotten slow, and the bills are piling up. That’s when an old associate who burned Bug on a previous heist shows up with the promise of an easy score. Feeling that he has no other options, Bug decides to do the job even though he has grave concerns about who he’ll be working with.

What could possibly go wrong?

I wrote about how S.A. Cosby came to my attention at the 2019 Bouchercon in my review of his first book, My Darkest Prayer and with his second book he continues to deliver.

The idea of a former criminal trying to go straight who takes one last job has certainly been done before in crime fiction. Cosby hits all the familiar beats with the planning, the heist, the twist, all the other elements you’d see in a Richard Stark novel, and he does them well. As just a crime novel this makes for a helluva page turner.

Where the book hits the next gear (Get it?) is in the character work done with Bug, and it’s all about the relationships. First, there’s the daddy issues with Bug being haunted by his unresolved feelings for his father, a criminal who vanished at a critical moment in Bug’s youth. Then there’s the hateful dying mother he feels obligated to support. Finally, there’s the wife and kids he dearly loves and is trying to make a brighter future for.

Like many a character in a crime fiction like this, Bug claims he’s doing it all for his loved ones, but there’s a part of him that also loves the outlaw life. It also fits his violent tendencies better than being a family man, and one of the key things that Cosby digs into here is the notion of a person split between two conflicting lifestyles that are fundamentally opposed. In the end the book is really about Bug coming to terms with who he really is, who he wants to be, and what kind of damage he’s already done to the people he loves.

In addition to all this, the writing just absolutely cooks. There’s great action, gritty violence, humor, heartbreaking moments, and while reading there were some driving sequences where I found myself pressing my foot on the floor as if I could stomp the brake to slow the car down. I grew up in a rural area, and I may have broken a few speed limits on country roads in my youth so Cosby’s descriptions of what that rush is like really hit home for me,

It’s a fantastic follow up to his first novel, and it makes me more sure than ever that Cosby is a writer to watch.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Review: Dead Girl Blues

Dead Girl Blues Dead Girl Blues by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this from the author for review.

This is a great book, but also a fairly tough read.

That’s not because there’s a graphic account of a shocking crime in the opening chapter although anyone who picks this up should be aware that they are in for one dark ride. And it’s certainly not because of the writing because this is Lawrence Block we’re talking about it, and that guy could make a lawnmower maintenance manual a page turner.

What makes it uncomfortable is that it asks some tough questions. Like does committing one terrible crime make a person evil even if they go on to be an upstanding citizen for the rest of their life? I suspect that a lot of people would be inclined to chalk it up to youth or one bad decision made in the heat of the moment.

The wrinkle here is that the first person narrator isn’t holding back, and we know exactly just how much he enjoyed the act as well as how he continues to fantasize about it for years afterwards. There’s no guilt, nor any empathy for the victim. In fact, it seems like the main reason he doesn’t do it again is that he feels like he was lucky to get away with it once so deliberately holds himself in check.

However, it isn’t exactly as black and white on the part of the main character, and the tricky thing that Block pulls off here is putting us in this guy’s head for an entire book so that you understand him. I’m not saying that you sympathize with him. That’s nigh on impossible after that first chapter. Yet, you do get a feel for how he’s just one of those people who has a head full of bad wiring, and there’s something to be said for his self-awareness that makes no excuses or rationalizations. While he originally drifts onto the path that becomes his new life as an average Joe, he also deliberately makes choices to make that happen and is careful to avoid putting himself in a position where he may not be able to help doing it again.

So again, while we’re dealing with a monster, he knows he’s a monster, and he’s not giving in to his worst impulses. Does it matter that his reasons for behaving himself are still driven by self-interest?

If you ask that question then you also need to consider how many seemingly decent people only obey the rules out of fear of getting caught. The narrator discusses many other crimes he sees in the news, and one that catches his attention is the story of a man who killed a woman years ago and went on to live a seemingly normal life and never did it again. So it makes you wonder just how many people you see walking around your neighborhood who may have left a body in a shallow grave in the woods.

Block also makes good use of some recent resolutions of real cold cases to add in a feeling that the curtain is coming down on the main character after decades of getting away with it. His thoughts and plans about what he might do if he feels like he’s finally caught are bone chilling and go in a surprising direction that add more uneasiness about what so-called average people might do in similar circumstances.

The only quibble I have with the book is that I’m not entirely sure that the timeline holds up if you start thinking about the age of the narrator and other characters in relation to him at certain points, but that’s minor nitpicking in an otherwise fascinating book.

Again, this might not be for all crime fiction fans because there are parts that are tough sledding. It might not even be for all Lawrence Block fans. He seems to be very aware of that, and he posted an interesting account of how he came to write and publish this one. It certainly shocked me at the start, and then surprised me even more with different direction the book takes after that. In the end it’s a meditation on dark impulses and trying to live with them that is going to haunt me for a good long while.

Some people have already noted that this is one of Block’s best books, and you can add me to that list.

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Review: The Winter of Frankie Machine

The Winter of Frankie Machine The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Reread update. I'm pleased to report that Don Winslow has become much better known and respected since I originally wrote this review in 2010.**

“It’s a lot of work being me," Frank Machianno often thinks, and he’s got a point. Despite being in his early sixties, Frank is the slightly fussy owner of several small businesses that keep him hopping. Among them is the bait shop on San Diego’s Ocean Beach Pier where Frank is a local fixture, and he still makes time for the Gentlemen's Hour when several old timers gather to surf. Since his daughter just got into medical school it looks like Frank is going to be busy for the foreseeable future to pay those bills, and that's just fine with him.

But Frank isn’t just a hustling businessman. He once was known by the nickname Frankie Machine by the local branch of the Mafia that he worked for, and his name is still respected and feared. Even though he left that life behind years ago Frank reluctantly gets roped into doing a favor for the boss’s son. Things aren’t as advertised and both the mob and the feds are soon after him. Frankie Machine is going to have to confront old friends, old enemies, old grudges, and a new generation of mob wannabes to figure out who is gunning for him and why.

Don Winslow is one of the modern crime writers who started with a series, but then shifted into more character based stand-alone novels, kind of like what Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos have done. Even though he’s very talented, it doesn’t seem like he’s getting the same amount of attention as Lehane and Pelecanos are getting for similar work, and that puzzles me because Winslow definately belongs to be mentioned among the best of the modern crime authors.

Winslow has used the San Diego surf culture as a setting several times now, but he’s really created something unique with Frankie Machine. Surfer, former Marine, Vietnam vet, Mafia hitman, father, bait salesman, businessman, opera fan and civic minded local hero seems like a lot to roll into one character, but Frank is a fascinating figure.

The novel also uses a lot of flashbacks to explain Frank’s complex history, his life as a gangster and his ultimate disillusionment with organized crime. Frank lived through a lot of ups and downs as a mob guy from the peak of 70’s era Vegas to the hard times of the ‘80s as the feds finally started tearing traditional organized crime apart. There’s plenty of realistic action, but the heart of the story is Frank’s thoughts of his past and the conclusions he draws about his life of violence.

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Review: The Darkling Halls of Ivy

The Darkling Halls of Ivy The Darkling Halls of Ivy by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

Lawrence Block has gone back to school. Just like Rodney Dangerfield only there is no Triple-Lindy.

Block’s introduction explains how despite him being a college dropout he somehow ended up as writer-in-residence teaching at a college which then led to him compiling this anthology of stories with an academic theme. Unfortunately, that’s the only LB writing we get in this collection, and while there are some good stories in it there aren’t really any great ones, and there a few I found to be outright duds.

Sticking with the positive side of things – The first story Requiem for a Homecoming by David Morrell has an interesting structure in which a screenwriter is a guest of honor at his old college, and he has an interest in an old murder that occurred when he was a student. Joe R. Lansdale provides a bit of futuristic sci-fi tale that takes a horrifically funny look at what the college experience could be in the future. Goon #4 by Tod Goldberg was my favorite story about a guy who retire from international security/thug work to go back to school and finds himself applying some of his skills and philosophy to college life. It’s got a great sense of deadpan black humor that takes a nice twist in the end.

There’s some skippable stories, but enough quality to make it worth a look.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Review: Broken

Broken Broken by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Broken is one of those rare books with six novellas offering something something different in each for crime fiction fans.

Do you want a dark and bloody tale about the cost of revenge? The title story Broken will cover that. How about a cat-and-mouse game between a slick professional thief and a dedicated cop hunting him? Crime 101 is what you’re looking for. Looking for a few laughs? The San Diego Zoo features a cop dealing with a chimpanzee with a revolver that has several hilarious lines and moments. Sunset is about trying to track down a bail jumper, but it’s also a reflection on aging, friendship, and loyalty. Another morality tale features some good hearted pot dealers screwing up Paradise despite their best intentions. Finally, The Last Ride uses a ripped-from-the-headlines plot that asks hard questions about what’s going on in America at the moment when disobeying the law might be the only way to be a decent person.

Like most writers Don Winslow’s style has evolved over the years as well as his subjects. He can write a more humorous and low stakes story based in San Diego surf culture, or he can dig into the gory details of Mexican drug wars. While there’s generally a conversational tone to his writing that feels like somebody is telling you a story, each one feels like it’s a different person in a different setting. For example, Broken has the same in-your-face cop attitude that was like his novel The Force so that seems like some wiseguy New Yorker is telling it to you over a shot and a beer in a dive bar. Yet others like Paradise have a more laid back SoCal feel so that one feels like you’re talking to a surfer at a beach party.

There’s also a feeling that this a retrospective of Winslow’s career with most of the surviving major characters from his previous books showing up throughout the stories. Seeing these older characters pop up and learn about their fates was a pleasure, and it gave me the urge to reread most of Winslow’s books.

It isn’t just about Winslow’s past though because we also get a couple of great homages to crime writing legends Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler. The San Diego Zoo is dedicated to Leonard and most definitely feels like one of his novels while Sunset is kind of a surfer based remake of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

It’s a fantastic set of long stories that I’d rank among Winslow’s best work.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Review: Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell

Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell by Tom Clavin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

I will try to restrain myself and not include any quotes from the movie Tombstone in this review. It won’t be easy.

The interesting thing to me about the infamous gunfight near the O.K. Corral and its bloody aftermath is how the event has been subject to interpretation. Depending on which version of history you believe either several lawmen were valiantly standing up against a gang of criminals or a bunch of crooked officials used their badges to murder some innocent ranchers to seize control of a town.

Tom Clavin follows the most generally accepted facts and seems to have come down on the side of the Earps. While they were no angels and came to Tombstone seeking fortune, the Earps look like choir boys compared to the large numbers of rustlers, thieves, and killers who were driven west by the Texas Rangers who banded together in a loose affiliation in Arizona. Time after time the Earp brothers tried to do things according to the book only to be frustrated by how the cowboys and their pals like the corrupt Sheriff Behan skirted the law.

Clavin does a particularly nice job of giving the overall history of the area as well as the major and minor figures. He uses the facts to build a narrative that explains how the law, politics, business, crime, and the affections of one woman put the two sets of rivals on a collision course. While well researched it also hums along as a hell of a story so there’s no dry ole dusty history vibe to it.

However, while it’s interesting and well written, I also didn’t learn anything particularly new other than a few stray bits of trivia. I also think that Clavin does put a bit of romantic sheen to the Earps with Wyatt in particular coming across as the hero who first tries to do the right thing and then goes on a revenge rampage once his family was attacked following the gunfight. That’s the general perception these days, and again, there’s an argument to be made for that interpretation. On the other hand, while I think the Earps were in the right overall, I also think that this is a story that proves that even seemingly righteous violence has a way of coming back and biting you in the ass, and there's not much consideration of that idea in the book although there is one chapter about how the gunfight might have been avoided if things played out just a little differently. Clavin also tries to spin Wyatt’s ‘vendetta ride’ as an overall victory when in truth the whole thing kind of fizzled out with no big winners or losers. It seems like everybody just lost the stomach for it and went their separate ways eventually.

If you’re interested in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral this would be a great book to understand it. There’s no new real info in it, and Clavin definitely thinks Wyatt was the hero of the whole mess. Still, he provides a pretty fair and objective view of it while making the whole time and place come alive in his writing.

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Review: Catch and Release

Catch and Release Catch and Release by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You know what I find soothing as I stay indoors during an international pandemic? Tales of crime and murder! Hey, don’t judge me. We’re all just trying to get through this.

I’ve long believed that Lawrence Block is one of our greatest crime writers, and I’ve read a ton of his books so I thought I was familiar with all his tricks and tropes. However, something I picked up on for the first time in this collection is just how often he delivers an absolute killer of a last line. Seriously, even if you see an ending or a twist coming he usually just CRUSHES that final sentence to deliver a solid jolt that is the perfect moment to end on. It’s like how a great comedian can keep you laughing for a whole bit, and then deliver the perfect punch line to end it on that leaves you howling.

This is a fairly eclectic collection that features stories with some of his most famous characters like the one that features Block himself having a conversation with bookseller/burglar Bernie Rhoedenbarr in A Burglar’s Eye View of Greed. Then there’s two stories featuring Matt Scudder with Mick Ballou Looks at a Blank Screen and One Last Night at Grogan’s. There’s also another tale, Clean Slate, that eventually got expanded in the novel Getting Off.

It’s not just Block doing his regular characters or familiar material. There’s several one off stories that like the titular Catch and Release about a fisherman who applies his fishing philosophy to his other hobby. A Chance to Get Even features a desperate poker player who doesn’t know when to quit. A fan takes his allegiance to a particular tennis player very seriously in A Vision in White, while Dolly’s Trash and Treasures gives us an inside look at the mind of a hoarder. How Far is a one act play that I’d love to see performed someday.

Welcome to the Real World will be extremely relatable to anyone who has ever shanked a golf ball into the woods. Part of the Job is good one with a nice hook, but Block explaining how it was discovered by a fan in an old magazine while he has no memory of writing or publishing it is more interesting than the story itself. Scenarios and Without a Body were my least favorites. They’re both fine, but both seem more about the gimmick in each story than anything particularly new or intriguing.

My favorites that don’t involve Matt Scudder are the matched pair Speaking of Greed and Speaking of Lust. A big part of the reason I like them is that they sound like the set-up to a joke. “A priest, a cop, a soldier, and a doctor were playing poker while a sleepy old man keeps farting…” Only instead of it being a joke it’s actually a framing device for each character to tell a story about greed and lust. Per Block’s explanation it was part of a plan to write a series based on the seven deadly sins, but he ran out of ideas after just those two. It’s a great set-up and each of the stories is intriguing in its own way with this poker game taking on a vaguely spooky and sinister air as things progress. I reminded me of a cool anthology TV series  like Twilight Zone.

The funny thing about why I read this is that somebody pointed out to Block on Twitter that the audio version he narrated was available on Spotify. Block wasn’t sure how or why it ended up on there, but he cheerfully promoted it, and I was happy to listen to him read me some tales as I was stuck at home. It was far more enjoyable than watching the news.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Review: Little Secrets

Little Secrets Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Marin Machado has the kind of life that everybody on Instagram pretends to have.

Or at least she used to…

Marin is a very successful hair stylist whose clients include the rich and famous, and her husband Derek is a handsome self-made millionaire. Their life style is all glamorous comfort, and their fairy tale existence includes their four year old son Sebastian who they both adore. Unfortunately, it all falls apart in an instant when Marin loses track of Sebastian in a crowd of holiday shoppers, and the surveillance cameras make it clear that he was abducted by a man dressed as Santa Claus. Despite a highly publicized investigation there’s no clue as to what happened to the child after that.

Eighteen months later, and Marin is halfheartedly trying to pull her shattered life back together. Unwilling and unable to let go of the thin hope that Sebastian might still be alive she hires a private investigator to keep looking after the cops have shelved the case. In the course of digging into the backgrounds of everyone involved with Sebastian the PI discovers that Derek is having an affair with a young woman. With the last bit of her once wonderful life falling apart in front of her Marin turns to her old friend, the slightly shady Sal, for comfort. And Sal just so happens to know a guy who ‘fixes’ problems….

I read Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts after being impressed with her on several panels at Bouchercon last year, and two books in I’m completely sold. Her prose is compelling, and she has a knack for creating characters who do bad things yet you still find yourself rooting for them. In a book that has a lot of stuff going on she still manages to delve into Marin’s mindset as well as eventually giving us the mistress’s side of the story. While Hillier doesn’t shy away from digging into every parent’s worst nightmare she also keeps the rest of the plot at a constant boil so that it doesn't feel like misery porn.

What impressed me most about both books is that the premises almost sound like cheesy TV movies you’d see on Lifetime, but they don’t play out in familiar ways at all. Instead Hillier spins the plot into dark and twisted directions that would make a TV executive break out in a nervous rash.

I know that there’s a lot of people who just can’t handle missing child plots, and honestly, if that’s a problem for you then you might give this a pass because while there’s no graphic scenes involving children the book does hinge on delving into the hell of what a parent would go through. I also suppose that this is one where some might ding it for having ‘unlikable’ characters, but again, while they may be flawed I found them sympathetic and understandable.

Overall, it's an exceptionally tense and well done character based thriller that constantly surprised me. What more could you ask of a thriller?

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Review: Masked Prey

Masked Prey Masked Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Wait a minute. This is the THIRTIETH Prey novel?!? That can’t be right because I remember buying the first Prey book when I was about twenty so that would make me….


I better get this review done before I drop dead of old age.

The teenage daughter of a US senator is running some internet photo searches to see if any pics from her Instagram account have been shared when she stumbles across a chilling discovery. Someone has posted secretly taken photos and of her and other children of prominent politicians on a web site featuring racist propaganda as well as providing personal details on the kids. While there are no overt threats the implications are clear, and the fear is that some nutjob with a rifle will take the hint.

Deputy US Marshal Lucas Davenport is brought in by some of his political pals to quickly and quietly try to pin down the source of the pictures. With few clues to go on Lucas has to start talking to members of organized alt-right groups, but since most them are armed and make no secret about their hatred of the government it’s hard to whittle down the list of suspects. As Davenport tries to figure out who was behind the whole thing, a quietly angry man inspired by the site starts to make plans including committing his first murders.

This one starts with an intriguing and timely premise, and for most of the book it's John Sandford delivering as usual so I had no complaints. However, some serious cracks show up in the third act that undermined the foundation of the book for me.

First off is the political angle. Sandford has long been carefully walking through the minefield of having his lead character linked to prominent politicians without Lucas being particularly political himself. That’s served the series well because it provides the story logic as to why this one cop/federal agent keeps being involved in all these high profile cases without Sandford alienating anyone.

However, these days it’s getting increasingly hard to believe that Lucas can continue to dance between the raindrops while having powerful friends from both sides of the political divide. The idea that he doesn’t have any real political enemies coming after him while being able to solve the problems of other highly politically connected people is getting increasingly hard to buy, especially because his cases usually make national news. Somebody would be trying to tar and feather him these days.

The other problem I had with this one is due to a shift in the ending. When the series started Lucas was more of a lone wolf who was more than willing to do some highly illegal stuff to get what he considered justice. That’s faded over time, and since he’s become a federal agent he’s much more of a team player so that we haven’t seen Davenport running a shady solo operation for a while now.

Without giving anything anyway… It seems like Sandford made a conscious decision to bring back some of the old Lucas for the climax of this one, and we once again see Davenport pulling sneaky and underhanded moves to get the outcome he wants. The difference this time is that in the previous books Lucas was always very careful about covering his tracks, and his manipulations to set things up were generally subtle. This time his scheme is glaringly obvious with none of the cleverness or caution that we’ve seen him use in the past in similar situations.

None of the shortcomings ruined the book for me. It’s still Sandford doing a Prey novel so it’s highly enjoyable to read, but tight plotting and thinking through ramifications of actions have long been a hallmark of this series so it’s jarring to feel like the ending of one was a little sloppy.

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Friday, April 10, 2020

Review: Hollywood Homicide

Hollywood Homicide Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First comes the review, and then if you keep reading you’ll get the funny story of how I crossed paths with the author of this one. How’s that for a teaser?

Dayna Anderson had 15 minutes of fame thanks to starring in a string of TV commercials for a fast-food chicken place. However, after losing that job she’s now struggling to get by, and she’s desperate to make some quick cash to prevent the bank from foreclosing on her parents’ house. Inspiration comes after Dayna sees a billboard offering a large cash reward for tips on the hit-and-run death of a young woman, and Dayna realizes that she and some friends had almost been struck by a reckless car that was most likely the same one that killed the girl.

At first Dayna is just hoping that finding out the details will help jog her memory so that she can give the cops a clue and get paid, but soon she finds herself drawn into the mystery. Once Dayna sets out to find the killer not even the quickly dwindling minutes on her phone plan can stop her investigation.

Amateur sleuths usually aren’t my favorite sub-genre of mysteries, but I had a really good time with this one. Kellye Garrett has a great sense of comedic timing in her writing, and I had many a laugh-out-loud moment. (I listened to the audio version, and the narrator Bahni Turpin helped the jokes land as well.) She also uses the celebrity obsessed culture of Hollywood to great effect and gets a lot of mileage out of Dayna’s humorous observations about it. It’s also a nice touch that Dayna isn’t just pointing and mocking. She was part of that world, and still has an interest in it so while she may poke gentle fun at her best friend’s relentless seeking of fame it’s done with affection.

I also enjoyed Dayna because after reading about a ton of super-macho tough guy detectives it was refreshing to have someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing as a lead character. Not that Dayna comes across as stupid, just inexperienced, and enthusiasm often gets the better of her common sense. That helps add to the comedic elements, but her pure determination and a wealth of knowledge from watching true crime shows keep Dayna hot on the trail of the killer even as she’s clueless about her own love life. She’s a classic underdog that you can’t help but root for.

Overall, it’s a funny and entertaining mystery with a great lead character that has some sharp observations about Hollywood.

And now for the bonus story…

I was at Bouchercon in Dallas last fall, and in addition to seeing some of my favorite writers I watched several interesting people I had never read before on panels so I made a point out of buying a copy of their books and trying to meet them at some point. That’s already paid off with books by authors like Eryk Pruitt, Jennifer Hillier, and SA (Shawn) Cosby.

Unfortunately, none of those authors was Kellye Garrett.

In fact, I had never heard of her or seen her on any panels. So I probably sounded completely rude and ignorant when I happened to meet her in the hotel bar one night and asked her what kind of stuff she wrote. The extra embarrassing thing for me is that although I didn’t know it at the time she had just come from the Anthony Awards where she had been nominated for Best Novel. She politely told me about this series and handed me a promotional card for one of the books.

Afterwards, I started following several of those authors on Twitter, and Kellye’s name kept coming up. That’s where I saw that her books were about to be released on Audible so I had this on deck when I read My Darkest Prayer. I noted in in my review that that Shawn Cosby had been a huge presence at Bouchercon.

And who should just so happen to comment on that review? That’s right. Kellye Garrett. She was shocked to hear that we had met at that Bouchercon. (I was relived that she didn’t say, “Oh, you were THAT asshole?!?) Then it was my turn to be shocked when she complimented me on some of the reviews I’d done on the Spenser series she’d read before.

After that I felt like I was destined to read this book, and I'm glad I did.

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Review: Batman: Tales of the Demon

Batman: Tales of the Demon Batman: Tales of the Demon by Dennis O'Neil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Way back in the ‘70s when I was a kid who rode his pet dinosaur to school I started reading comic books. One of my favorites was a super-sized Batman collection that featured his first encounter with Ra’s al Ghul, and I probably reread it at least a hundred times. Later, when I was in my 20s, a broken water pipe at my parent’s house soaked some stuff I had stored with them, and that comic was one of the things that was ruined. Oh, and that book which had sold for $2 originally now goes for around $150. More’s the pity.

I didn’t fully appreciate how important that book was in my journey to full blown comic book nerd until much later. Not only was it the introduction of a major Batman villain, but it also came at a time when Denny O’Neil was in the middle of rehabbing the Caped Crusader’s image after he’d become a symbol of camp goofiness. As a stupid kid all I knew of Batman came from Superfriends cartoon and Adam West TV show. So this darker, more adult version of crime fighter driven by childhood trauma was shocking to me.

I also didn’t realize until later how the Neal Adams art locked an image in my brain that became the default setting of MY Batman. To this day that’s what I measure all other versions against.

Revisiting the story after all these years was a treat, and I was shocked at how so many of the panels were burned into my brain. This has some additional early Ra’s stories as well, and while I still think the ones with Adams’ art are the best there’s a lot of fun stuff here courtesy of O’Neil’s writing.

There’s some dated ‘70s silliness to the stories, but this was an important transition phase from the days of Batman using a handy can of shark repellent to the super gritty Dark Knight Returns. It was a great stroll down memory lane for me, and I won’t be storing this copy under any water pipes.

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