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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