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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