Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: The Turnout

The Turnout The Turnout by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

The thing about Megan Abbott that continues to amaze me even after reading a bunch of her books is how she can get me interested in things I would have said wouldn’t hold my attention at all like cheerleading and gymnastics. Now she’s set a story around a ballet school and once again, I was riveted.

Dara and Marie Durant weren’t raised like most kids. Home schooled by their mother who was a ballet instructor the girls were pretty much raised to dance, and once their parents died in a car crash they took over their mother’s school. Dara married her mother’s best student Charlie who had been living with them for years, and the three of them live together in their childhood home. However, when Marie moves out of the house, and then a new person enters the school in the form of a manly-man contractor named Derek it seems like changes are going to happen whether Dara wants them to or not.

Ms. Abbott does characters with complex relationships extremely well, and she might have done some of her best work yet with the Durant sisters. The most intriguing them to me was how they’ve been in statis. It goes beyond just living in their old house and running the school their mother started because they haven’t changed or upgraded anything since, and Dara in particular seems determined to preserve that status quo as if every aspect was worthy of being in a museum. When Marie starts to rebel against this situation, Dara takes it as Marie trying to abandon both her and their mother’s legacy.

In fact, if this story were about 20% more quirky and 15% less dark, it sounds like the set up to a Wes Anderson movie with an eccentric family stuck in the past and having issues dealing with the future. However, since it’s a Mighty Megan Abbott production things take a turn with secrets being revealed, and the question becomes if Dara and Marie can ever get back to their old routine. And even if they could, should they?

All around great family drama with some crime elements that also drops in a lot of detail about a ballet school from the best way to break in a pair of ballet shoes to how awful the students can be to someone who gets a lead role in the school’s annual production of The Nutcracker.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Later

Later Later by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young boy sees dead people. No, not THAT young boy, and Bruce Willis is not involved.

Jamie Conklin seems like an ordinary kid being raised by his single mother in New York during the late ‘00s, but Jamie has the gift/curse of being able to see and communicate with people who died recently. While it causes him to sometimes see the grisly aftermath of somebody’s demise, it also allows him to do things like help a grieving neighbor whose wife just died learn where she had left her wedding ring. Jamie’s mother has wisely told him not to talk about his ability, but when she desperately needs to talk to a dead man, Jamie is pressed into service. Unfortunately, Jamie’s mom also tells her girlfriend, a cop who doesn’t do things by the book, and when she gets into trouble on the job she wants Jamie’s help and won’t take no for an answer.

Like the other times that Uncle Stevie has done a book for Hard Case Crime, this has a supernatural element and isn’t the kind of straight up hard boiled story they usually do. I also didn’t care much for King’s other recent books where he’s tried to blend thrillers with horror which left me fully prepared to dislike this one. So I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it.

For one thing, it is not The Sixth Sense rip-off that a quick plot summary makes it sound like, and King blends the supernatural with a crime story more naturally than he has in other things. It helps that it’s short, especially by Uncle Stevie standards, at less than 300 pages. Things move along at a brisk pace, and that makes it a solid page turner. He just had a cool idea for a story and banged it out with no padding to it at all.

I was also pleased that King did such a nice job at writing it from Jamie’s point of view. It seems like he’s really struggled to write younger lead characters these days, and his protagonists who are supposed to be in their 30s or 40s often come across as elderly people. Writing kids is something King used to do really well, and it was nice to see that he still has that touch.

This is one of those times that I really wish Goodreads let us do half stars because this would be the perfect example of a 3.5 for. Pretty good, a lot of fun, and well worth a look, but not quite great enough for a full 4. Overall, it was a nice reminder of the old Uncle Stevie magic even if it’s not going to make anyone forget about The Shining.

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Monday, May 10, 2021

Review: Phantom Prey

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

Lucas Davenport goes goth.

Alyssa Austin is a wealthy widow that returns home to find a bloodstain on her wall and that her adult daughter Francis has vanished. With no body and no leads, the police can’t do much with the case. After a friend of Francis is murdered by a mysterious goth woman known only as Fairy, Alyssa turns to her friend Weather for help.

Weather just so happens to be married to Lucas Davenport, one of the top cops with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as well as being the governor’s chief rat catcher. Weather pushes Lucas to look into it both as a favor to her friend and to get him out of his annual post-winter funk. Lucas starts reluctantly at his wife’s nagging, but soon finds himself intrigued by the mystery of Francis’s disappearance.

As Lucas starts talking to people in the Minneapolis goth community, he's also running an extended stake-out on the pregnant girlfriend of a dangerous Lithuanian gangster who skipped town in case he comes back for her. Lucas also has to deal with a mountain of political bullshit due to the upcoming Republican National Convention.

I’ve sung John Sandford’s praises in plenty of reviews here on Goodreads, and I don’t have much to add to them. He’s several notches above the typical thriller hacks who own the best seller lists because he creates intriguing stories with characters you can relate to and he routinely builds momentum and suspense to the point where a reader may find themselves on their feet instead of in their chair because the tension won‘t allow them to sit still.

One thing that caught my eye here was the way Sandford portrays Davenport’s attitude about his job. It's a thriller cliché to have the hero horrified and burned out by the crimes they investigate, yet they continue to do it because only they have the knowledge and skill to stop the killer, etc. etc. Lucas isn’t like that. He enjoys his work both for the mental aspect of figuring things out and the adrenaline rush of throwing on a bulletproof vest and crashing through a door. While he’s flirted with a clinical depression at times, a genuine mystery to solve can snap him out of it like in this book where his wife is tired of him moping around after a long dull winter and basically kicks him in the ass to get him revved up again. He’s not cold or immune to the suffering of others, but he can ration out his empathy so that he’s not consumed by it.

I also realized I’m probably not giving Sandford enough credit in the writing department. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning print journalist and sometimes his plain prose hides genuine cleverness. Like this:

“Lucas slurped the coffee, which tasted sort of brown, like a cross between real coffee and the paper sack it came in.”

This is another highly entertaining entry in the Prey series. It’s not quite up to the recent level that Sandford has hit with the crazily good Buried Prey or the Virgil Flowers story in Bad Blood, but it’s a great example of how Sandford thrillers stand out from the pack.

Next: Lucas vs. the Republicans in Wicked Prey.

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