Friday, March 12, 2021

Review: Ocean Prey

Ocean Prey Ocean Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

Ocean Spray? What kind of a name is that for a book? What’s it about? The history of the drink? Or is it a biography of the guy who made the viral video of him skateboarding and drinking Ocean Spray while he lip synced that Fleetwood Mac song? I mean, that was cool and all, but how are you gonnna do a whole book about… What’s that? It’s not Ocean SPRAY, but instead it’s Ocean PREY? Well, that sounds like a John Sandford title. Oh. It is a John Sandford novel.

That makes a lot more sense.

A Coast Guard patrol runs across what appears to be drug runners doing a pick-up of previously submerged dope out of the ocean using a scuba diver off the coast of Miami. A shootout ensues that leaves several Coast Guard guys dead while the bad guys got away. Months later the FBI and local cops still have no clue as to who was behind it, and the prevailing theory is that there’s still a fortune in drugs waiting to be picked up once the heat dies down.

US Marshal Lucas Davenport gets asked to join the investigation by one of his political patrons in DC, and he quickly starts leaning on local dealers trying to get a lead on who might have been involved with the drug ring. As usual in a Davenport case, things start to get sticky, and when Lucas needs more help he turns to his old buddy, Virgil Flowers (a/k/a That fuckin’ Flowers.) to help him crack the case.

I’ve written so many Sandford reviews that I can’t think of a single new thing to say about why this one is another great crime thriller from one of my favorites in the genre. As usual, there’s solid plotting and tension mixed with just enough real world verisimilitude regarding police work and the political factors behind it to make it feel grounded and believable despite a plot that could easily turn into an action movie from the ‘80s. All the things I love about Sandford’s novels are on display here.

However, there are some very different things in this one. For one, ever since Sandford shifted Davenport from a Minnesota state cop to a US Marshal, he’s been sending Lucas on assignments across the country, and that has enabled him to do some different things with this series while still sticking to the parts that made it popular to begin with. Moving from typically land locked Midwestern settings to a Florida one that has a lot to do with boats and scuba diving makes it feel like Sandford is doing new things rather than just repeating himself.

That’s just the window dressing though, and the biggest difference from previous Prey novels comes in the structure itself. In the past, Lucas was the star of the these books, and then there was the spin-off series featuring Virgil Flowers as the lead. They existed in the same universe with some crossover between them, but generally one of the characters was the focus with the other being a supporting player. However, in this Lucas is the focus in the first third with Virgil taking over the next part, and the last act shifts between them both.

I assume that this is because Sandford has said that he’s only going to do the Prey series from now on, and it seems like he’s folding Virgil into Davenport’s story much like Robert Crais began splitting time between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. That gives this book a hybrid feel in that it doesn’t entirely seem like a Davenport novel, and yet it’s not exactly Virgil’s book either.

It’s a little odd. Not bad, just different. Sandford is in his late 70s now, and he’s written about 50 novels after a career as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. If he had decided to retire completely, he’d have more than earned the right to do so at this point. So if I can get some more of his novels because he’s cutting his work load and figuring out a way to combine his two most popular characters in one series, you won’t hear me complaining about it.

Aside from all that, if someone had never read another Sandford book and just picked this one up, I think they’d find it an entertaining crime novel with some great twists as well as an interesting premise with the angle of the bad guys trying to find a way to retrieve a fortune in drugs from the ocean.

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Review: The Queen's Gambit

The Queen's Gambit The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s too bad that this book has been so forgotten. If only somebody would do a really good TV adaptation of it then….What’s that? Oh. Never mind.

After her mother dies Beth Harmon is sent to an orphanage, and it’s just as much fun as that sounds. However, she manages to get by thanks to daily doses of tranquilizers they give to all the girls, and she discovers a natural talent for chess thanks to a gruff janitor who reluctantly teaches her the game. Beth is eventually adopted by a less than ideal couple, but she finally manages to make her way to chess tournaments where she’s an instant sensation despite her fondness for her little green pills and a growing taste for booze. As she grows into adulthood she tries to become a player capable of beating the Soviet grand master who is the world champion, but Beth’s personal demons always threaten to overwhelm her as she struggles to live up to her full potential.

The amazing thing about this story is that it sounds like it could be pure misery porn, but it really isn’t. Yes, the lead is an orphan who has a very hard life in many ways including coping with addictions. Yet author Walter Tevis manages to keep the story from feeling grim, even when the circumstances really are.

I think this is because he’s more interested in how Beth reacts and copes with her problems rather than just dwelling on the ugliness of them. Even when she hits rock bottom and goes on an extended bender, we don’t wallow in the seedy picture of a young lady doing her best to drink herself into oblivion. Instead, by being in her head we see how she slides into this pattern because she doesn’t know how to deal with her issues rather than being some kind of narcissistic exercise in self-destruction.

Another thing Beth has to resolve is that the very nature of chess and studying it often means she spends a lot of time alone and in her own head which as a socially awkward person is how she often likes it, but she also has abandonment issues and also doesn’t really want to be alone. Since she’s her own worst enemy this is often a recipe for disaster. Plus, there’s been some chess masters who had mental health problems so for a woman who has her own issues, she’s uneasy about how going deep into the game might not be the best thing for her.

At the heart of the entire story is what it means to be a genius at anything. Beth has a natural talent that allows her to achieve a lot without much training, but because it’s all been easy for her she has to learn how to apply herself if she wants to become the world champion. When it’s been easy to be the best, it’s often hard to dig in and take the next step because talent will only get you so far in any field. When things get tougher, failure is always a possibility, and if there’s one thing Beth is frightened of, it’s failure.

Tevis also manages to make chess interesting in this. Like a lot of people, I know how to play, but I have no particular talent for it. His accounts of Beth’s games and study of it provide a glimpse into what it must be like to be a player at that level, and I actually found myself looking up some famous chess games and finding them fascinating.

It’s an extremely well written and sympathetic portrait of a woman struggling with her past and her talent. I’d already seen the Netflix show based on it, and it’s pretty faithful so there were no real surprises. Yet, I still found myself getting anxious about Beth and how she was doing both in her chess matches and in her life all over again.

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