Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: Razorblade Tears

Razorblade Tears Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At this point, I feel like meeting S.A. Cosby at the 2019 Bouchercon was the crime fiction fan equivalent of seeing the Beatles at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. This guy is just that good, and it seems like the whole world is realizing it right about now.

Ike Randolph is a black man who runs a successful landscaping company. Buddy Lee is a white guy who can’t pay the rent on his crappy trailer. Despite being completely different on the surface, the two men do have some things in common. They’re both ex-cons with a history of violence, their sons were married to each other, and neither man could really deal with their kid being gay. When the couple are violently murdered, neither Ike nor Buddy knows how to process their grief nor deal with their failure to accept who their sons were. When you are men like Ike and Buddy there’s only one obvious way to deal with their feelings – Team up and go on a bloody revenge rampage.

This seems like a straightforward plot about violent men seeking justice for their loved ones, and as someone who thinks John Wick is great cinema, I’m always up for that kind of story. However, there is a lot more than that going on here with issues like race and homophobia in the forefront. Ike and Buddy aren’t just dealing with external threats like a biker gang, they’re also deeply wounded internally as they try to cope with how they each treated their son for being gay. Ike is even more of a powder keg than Buddy, and as a black man there’s an irony in how he has both been treated badly just for being who he is while he couldn’t help but treat his own son terribly at times. Now he’s filled with regret and shame, yet he still has a hard time accepting that his boy was gay.

While the book is also filled with violent characters doing violent things, this isn’t a fist-pumping Hell-Yeah! kind of fun where you are encouraged to cheer on the punishment being doled out. There’s a real sense here that no matter how seemingly righteous the reason, there’s always a price to pay for inflicting harm on others. Also, no matter how careful you are there are always unintended consequences for this kind of behavior that can boomerang on you viciously, and that’s exactly what happens to Ike and Buddy.

Cosby reminds me of writers like Joe Lansdale and Johnny Shaw in the way that he can do a rural crime story and mix violence, humor, heart, and some deeper themes in the story. While the comparison to writers like those is easy, Cosby has his own unique point of view and the talent to make it clear, and that’s why he’s a great fresh voice in crime fiction.

My previous reviews of S.A. Cosby:
My Darkest Prayer
Blacktop Wasteland

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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review: Dream Girl

Dream Girl Dream Girl by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an aging man, there’s few things that can scare me more than the idea of falling down the stairs. So this one was keeping me up nights in a cold sweat.

Gerry Anderson is a writer whose biggest success, a novel called Dream Girl, is the source of endless speculation about if the lead character was inspired by a real person despite Gerry’s absolute insistence that it wasn’t based on anybody. Gerry has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore to care for his ailing mother, but she dies soon after he buys a swanky new apartment. After receiving a mysterious piece of mail, Gerry takes a tumble down the stairs and breaks his hip.

Bedridden in his fancy apartment, Gerry has to rely on his assistant and a gruff night nurse for his care. That’s when he starts receiving phone calls from a woman claiming to be the actual inspiration for Dream Girl. An unnerved Gerry continues to insist that isn’t possible since the character was entirely fictional, but he finds it hard to prove his claims of being contacted.

As he tries to sort out his confused state of mind, Gerry begins reflecting on his life, and while he would be the first to tell you that he’s always been a man who did his best to stay out of trouble, it becomes apparent that he’s left a string of women who might have grudges in his wake. Is it a disgruntled former lover tormenting him? Is it all just something he invented in a haze of pain killers and sleeping meds? Or is the dementia that his mother suffered from hitting him at an earlier age?

I’ve only started reading Laura Lippmann in the last few years, but I’ve absolutely loved her writing. This is another example of why because it was an exceptionally tricky thing to pull off. On one level, it’s a story about a man trapped in a bed for most of the book, and it all hinges on putting the reader into his perspective. That means not just relying on the flashbacks scenes that eventually tell us who Gerry is, but also providing a steady stream of consciousness as his mind wanders. Not only does Lippmann makes this interesting, she makes all of it necessary.

The character work done on Gerry is excellent because when we’re introduced to him, he seems like a pretty decent guy. A writer who came from a humble background, and the kind of guy who would leave his beloved New York lifestyle to care for his aging mother. Gradually, we start to understand that even when Gerry seems like he’s doing something for somebody else that there’s usually a selfish motive behind it even if he’s lying to himself about it.

The mystery of who is claiming to be the actual Dream Girl starts to take a back seat to the holes in the history that Gerry has invented for himself, and in the end he’ll have to confront who he actually is and what he’s done. While I was able to guess a few things, there were still revelations made that made my jaw drop.

There’s a few other works of fiction that seem similar, as if Lippman drew inspiration from a few sources, but it all comes together in a first rate work that feels original and unique.

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Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t believe I drank 8 whiskey sours while reading this book!

It’s 1969 and former TV star Rick Dalton’s career is on a downhill slide while his next door neighbors, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, are the new cool kids of Hollywood. Meanwhile, Rick’s stuntman/driver Cliff Booth has a run in with some freaky hippies who keep talking about their leader, Charlie.

This one is a real oddity. You’ve got the writer/director of a successful movie releasing a novel based on it, but the book doesn’t exactly follow the film. In fact, the climax of the movie is casually revealed about one-third of the way through the book as something that eventually happens without going into details or mentioning it again.

I’ve often thought that Quentin Tarantino’s films are kind of Rorschach tests in that people can and will read into them what they want. While he certainly deserves criticism for several things, and I often find his personality tiresome, his movies fascinate me. Particularly this one which I thought was one of his best and had really interesting themes about a time when Hollywood was both changing and remaining the same. I also thought it had a lot of interesting things to say about movie violence vs. violence in reality. Since I had a lot of theories about what QT was actually saying about it, I enjoyed finding more details in the book that seemed to confirm that. Especially about Cliff Booth.

If you’re into the movie, it’s worth a look, but you’re also not really missing out on anything if you just want to stick to the film version. If you don’t like QT or the film, it’s not gonna change your mind. Overall, it’s kind of like a literary version of deleted scenes. They can be interesting, but were most likely cut for a reason.

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