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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