Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Review: The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown

The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars



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Bernie Rhodenbarr is not happy about the state of the world. As a used bookseller his business has been pretty much destroyed by Amazon, and that used to be less of a problem because he made most of his money in his second job as a burglar. However, the modern world is now filled with surveillance cameras and various forms of electronic security that can’t be cracked with old school lockpicking. When a rich jerk buys a priceless diamond and brags about keeping it in a nearby penthouse, it’s a score that Bernie would have once jumped at, but one quick look convinces him that he wouldn’t even be able to get into the building.

Bernie grumbles about all this to his best friend Carol over drinks one night, and after going home he then tries to take his mind off it by reading a book by Fredric Brown about alternate universes. Something strange happens the next day though.

The world seems mostly the same, but Bernie’s Metrocard has now been changed to a Subway Card. Even weirder, his bookstore is now doing a brisk business and Amazon doesn’t exist. Bernie also quickly notices that there are far less security cameras and high tech locks around. Only he and Carol seem aware that there’s been any changes, and Bernie can only guess that somehow they’ve shifted to an alternate universe that is lot more hospitable to a guy who sells books and breaks into places. Maybe he could even now manage to steal a priceless diamond.

Getting a new <i>Burglar</i> novel at this point feels like a real treat precisely because of what Bernie himself is saying at the start of the story. It’s nigh on impossible to be a bookseller who just runs an actual store or be a professional burglar in modern times. So when the series is oriented around those as key traits of the main character, you’d think it’d be time to retire or maybe set the book in the past.

So it’s a delight that Lawrence Block found a loophole with the idea of alternate realities, and then just transplants the whole concept to one in which Bernie can not only exist, but thrive. It’s a little odd because Mr. Block isn’t really associated with sci-fi, and to just have this happen in a series that’s been set in ‘reality’ requires a regular reader to shift into a different gear. 

Yet it completely worked for me because the alt-universe thing isn’t the point, it’s just a way for Mr. Block to tell us a story with Bernie again. Not only that, the story eventually becomes a kind of meta-commentary in which Bernie starts to become self-aware about how a lot of his burglary jobs become complicated and involve him playing an amatuer sleuth. Most importantly, this still feels like a Bernie book with him having his conservations with Carol, trying to steal something, and solving a mystery in a low-key grounded kind of way.

Mr. Block has said that he’s retired from writing novels, but fortunately we exist in a reality where a new book like this can appear.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: Real Bad Things

Real Bad Things Real Bad Things by Kelly J. Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a good rule of thumb that you shouldn’t talk to the cops if you’re suspected of a crime, and you really should NOT confess to murder if they haven’t found the body yet.

As a teenager Jane Mooney admitted to murdering her abusive step-father before the cops were even sure that he was dead, and she was released when no body turned up. Jane then fled the small Arkansas town of Maud Bottoms, and she left behind her angry mother, her brother, her best friend, and her girlfriend in doing so. Twenty-five years later, the stepfather’s body has finally been discovered, and Jane has returned home believing that she’ll most likely be arrested immediately. She finds that her mother is still angry, her brother and best friend seem to want nothing to do with her, and her old girlfriend, Georgia Lee, is now a married woman as well as on the town council. And for some reason, the cops don’t seem to be in any hurry to arrest her.

Kelly Ford makes their most of the setting which feels lived in and authentic. From the trailer parks to the backyard barbecue of the more well-to-do folks, this nails all the traits of small town life. Against this backdrop we learn what actually happened with Jane, Georgia Lee and the stepfather back then as well as see how those events shaped their lives in the aftermath. Jane left and lived in other places as an openly gay women but has had a shadow over her adult life. Georgia Lee stayed in place and threw herself so fully into the role of a wife, mother, and local politician that she’s never bothered to ask the question of who she really is and what would make her actually happy, and Jane’s return forces her to finally address all of this.

It’s an excellent character based crime story with solid twists and turns.


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Review: The Fixer

The Fixer The Fixer by Joseph Finder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t know how many times we gotta go over this, people. If you find a bag of money then you should just leave it there. If you take it, bad things will happen.

But since we are a race of slow learners I guess it doesn’t hurt to go over it again.

Rick Hoffman was once an investigative reporter with a promising career, but he left that behind to take a high profile job with a swanky magazine specializing in fluff pieces. Unfortunately, when the magazine downsizes Rick is left unemployed, in debt, and with zero career prospects. He’s so broke that he’s staying in his father’s house which has been falling apart after years of neglect since a stroke put his dad in a nursing home two decades ago.

When Rick discovers over $3 million in cash hidden in one of the walls, he can’t help but give into temptation. He stashes the cash and goes on an ill-advised spending spree at first, but then he’s suddenly kidnapped by some people who threaten him if doesn’t hand it over to them. Rick scrambles for answers by digging into his father’s past as a shady lawyer who acted as a bagman/fixer for a huge construction project just before the stroke left him completely unable to communicate. The more Rick digs, the more dark secrets come out, and the danger gets worse all the time.

I’m a sucker for both stories about finding illicit cash and sleazy fixers so this should have been right in my wheelhouse, but I ultimately found it disappointing. That’s mainly because I didn’t care for the main character at all.

Yeah, I know that this is supposed to be an arc of Rick starting out as kind of jerk who once had potential to be something better and discovering his better nature again. This kind of story demands that the lead character either be so flawed or desperate that they are the kind of person who would take money that will surely bring trouble.

Yet Rick was just too stupid for my taste. He starts off pretty well in his early moves of stashing the money, but when the danger starts he behaves like a moron. Sure, he does some moves like moving around to different hotels and renting different cars, but this is a guy who gets kidnapped and nearly murdered not once, but twice. But he never does anything like get a weapon, hire bodyguards, leave town, or any other thing that having $3 million in cash would allow you to do.

Instead he just bumbles along while surviving mainly by luck. I also didn’t much care for the way he investigates all this. He’s supposed to be a former hot shit reporter who knows how to dig up dirt, and there is some stuff about him pulling records and finding clues. Yet his interactions with the people he tries to question are these incredibly lame efforts of him trying to trick them into believing he’s working on other stories, and yet when his flimsy lies collapse he just starts demanding answers which they have no real reason to give and usually don’t.

Overall, it was OK as a crime story, but never came close to really getting me interested after the money was found.


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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Review: Things We Do in the Dark

Things We Do in the Dark Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

A wealthy actor/comedian named Jimmy Peralta is found dead in his bathroom. His much younger wife, Paris, is found by police standing beside the bathtub, and she’s covered in blood with a straight razor in her hand.

You wouldn’t think it would take Sherlock Holmes to solve this one.

However, there’s a lot more to the story than it would seem at first glance, and Paris has more problems then just a murder charge to worry about. She’s a woman with secrets, and the publicity surrounding the celebrity death may expose them. Meanwhile, a true crime podcaster is digging into the story of a notorious murderer dubbed the Ice Queen who is about to be released from prison, and his investigation is very personal.

This is the third Jennifer Hillier novel I’ve read, and like her others, I enjoyed it quite a bit. She has a real knack for coming up with plots that seem like they could be Lifetime movies, but she’s got the ability to ground them with enough realism and emotion to keep them from seeming silly. Hillier also doesn’t shy away from including some genuinely nasty edges in the work, and that also gives her books more weight than a similar story might have in lesser hands. She’s also good at distracting a reader by dangling an obvious twist but then revealing it early while keeping the bigger surprises hidden for later.

It's another dark and tangled story from a woman who really knows how to write ‘em.

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Monday, June 20, 2022

Review: City on Fire

City on Fire City on Fire by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars



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Review: Don't Know Tough

Don't Know Tough Don't Know Tough by Eli Cranor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a whole bunch of the writers you’re a fan of are recommending a book, you should probably read it. I did, and they did not steer me wrong. This is a great one.

Billy Lowe is the star player of his high school football team in Denton, Arkansas, but he’s a dirt-poor kid with an abusive step-father, little understanding of social norms, and severe anger issues. When Billy assaults a teammate just as his team is getting ready for the state play-offs, it puts Coach Trent Powers in a tough spot. Trent is a born-again Christian who screwed up his last coaching job in California so he’s brought his family to small town Arkansas to try and quickly win and get a better job elsewhere. If Billy is suspended or arrested, Trent has no chance of winning a state championship so even as pressure mounts, he continues to insist that Billy can be transformed through reason and patience. Things get even more complicated when Billy’s step-father is found dead in their trailer.

That’s an excellent set-up for a crime novel, but what boosts this one up to the next level is the outstanding character work that’s done. We get shifting perspectives, mainly from Billy and his coach, and the differences are stark. In some ways, Billy is little more than an abused animal who has gone feral. His entire family is viewed as trash by the town, and nobody thinks he has any value outside of a football field. For Billy, the only thing he puts any value on is toughness, and he has nothing but constant for those around him he sees as soft. He has his own reasons for lashing out, but to anyone not any Billy’s head, he just seems violent and dangerous.

Powers isn’t exactly the win-at-any-cost type of coach you’d expect either. While he’s in a bad situation he also has his own tough background as a foster kid, and he tries to turn Billy into a decent young man by using the same sort of methods that worked on him. Yes, he’s rationalizing a lot to justify keeping Billy on the team, but he also seems to be buying what he’s selling even as everyone around him thinks he’s crazy to try because you can’t appeal to a rabid dog with reason.
There are several other complex and well-developed characters, and the whole atmosphere of a small town that was happy to use Billy to win football games even as they all treated him like shit on their shoes is incredibly authentic.

Overall, it’s a riveting character-based story that always zigs when you think it’s going to zag.


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Review: The Last Refuge

The Last Refuge The Last Refuge by Chris Knopf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sam Acquilla is a cynical man in his early fifties who wants as little to do with the rest of the world as possible so he’s built up a quiet life that mainly consists of drinking alone.

I think I’ve got a lawsuit against this author for using me as a character.

Sam was once a fairly successful engineer and middle manager for a large corporation, but circumstances and his own nature led to divorce, estrangement from his daughter, and an early retirement. He’s retreated to his parents old house in the Hamptons where he’s lived quietly and simply for several years. When Sam finds his elderly neighbor dead, all signs point to an accident, but Sam finds himself managing her estate and trying to clear up questions he has. Reluctantly, Sam engages with other people and finds himself trying to solve a mystery.

This is a fairly low-key crime novel that succeeds because of an intriguing lead character and a great setting. As someone who has a knack for irritating the shit out of people even as he finds ways to get more out of them than they want to give, Sam is a mystery in his own right which is gradually solved as he recalls more and more of the path that led him to his current state.

The setting is also intriguing as an area which once had plenty of blue-collar workers who built cheap houses on what has become some of the most valuable real estate in the world. Now the older generation has mostly been pushed out in favor of the new money except for a decreasing number of hold outs.

This is the first in a series that I’ll be checking out more of.


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Review: Gutshot Straight

Gutshot Straight Gutshot Straight by Lou Berney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charles ‘Shake’ Bouchon is a wheelman who just got out of jail. Now in his forties, Shake is feeling the weight of a lifetime of bad choices, and he dreams of going straight and opening a restaurant. However, he can’t bring himself to turn down the offer from his old boss and former lover Alexandra, who now runs the Armenian mob in Los Angeles. Shake is supposed to drive a car to Vegas, deliver it to a man who will give him a briefcase in return, and then Shake flies back to LA and gives the case to Alexandra.

It seems like a simple job, but when he gets a flat tire, Shake discovers that there’s a woman named Gina in the trunk of the car. She tells Shake that she’s just a housewife whose husband had gambling debts who ran off, and now Shake has the bad feeling that he’s delivering her to be a hostage who probably won’t get out of the situation alive. Sympathy gets the better of Shake, and he doesn’t hand Gina over and instead they make off with the briefcase. Now he’s double-crossed the leader of the Armenian mob on the West Coast, and angered the most dangerous man in Las Vegas. The only thing they have for leverage is the case which is filled with something very weird and very valuable.

If you read that plot set-up, and said to yourself, “Hey, that sounds an awful lot like the Jason Statham action movie The Transporter, you’d be right. In fact, that’s what I thought, and I had a brief moment of disappointment that Lou Berney, a writer I like quite a bit, would borrow a plot like that.

However, I should have had more faith. What Berney did is to use that feeling of familiarity to set the reader up so that you’d feel like you’d know where it’s all going, but then he veers sharply in a new direction. It’s a switcheroo that works well because when the twists and turns start coming, I was blindsided in the best way.

It’s an extremely brisk crime novel filled with vivid characters and a lot of humor. It reminded me of the late, great Elmore Leonard in all the right ways while still having it’s own unique vibe. It also moves along briskly without a wasted page and wraps up in less than 300 pages.

With every Lou Berney novel I read, I wish I’d started reading him sooner.


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Friday, April 22, 2022

Review: They All Fall Down

They All Fall Down They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seven strangers, each with their own secrets, accept an invitation to spend a weekend at a luxurious mansion on a remote island.

What could possibly go wrong?

This is a very solid and entertaining mystery/thriller that does an interesting modern take on an Agatha Christie style novel. What really makes it hum is that our first person narrator, Miriam, is obviously not reliable, and it's obvious from the jump that she has some serious issues even as she struggles to put on a brave face and delude herself into believing that this is her chance to turn her life around.

Good stuff. I'll check out some of the author's work in the near future. 3 1/2 stars.

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Thursday, March 24, 2022

Review: Briarpatch

Briarpatch Briarpatch by Ross Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Benjamin Dill is investigating some shady international arms dealers for a US Senate subcommittee when he gets a call that his younger sister Felicity, a police detective in their Southern hometown, has been killed by a car bomb. Since Ben’s old buddy Jake Spivey just so happens to be one of the arms dealers they want to talk to, the ambitious senator that Ben reports to offers to pay his travel expenses if he deposes Spivey while he’s there.

Hey, dead sister or not, if you get a chance to travel on the company credit card instead of your own dime, you gotta take it.

When Ben gets back home, he learns that his sister had bought some real estate she shouldn’t be able to afford on her salary and that she had named him as the beneficiary on a large life insurance policy she took out just weeks before. With the implication that Felicity might have been a dirty cop, Ben starts to ask questions even as the police department assures him that they’ll find her killer soon. As he digs into his sister’s death, Ben also meets Jake Spivey who hints that his arms dealing had been done for the CIA, and that he’ll deliver information on another dealer who is now an international fugitive in exchange for immunity. Ben finds himself trying to sort out both local and national political agendas while dealing with the various agendas and lies of all the people around him.

The only other Ross Thomas novel I’ve read is The Porkchoppers, but I already love the way he mixes grungy back-room politics with crime. This was published just a few years before the Iran-Contra scandal so the backdrop of shady arms deals seems perfectly plausible, as is the local good-ole-boy-network of the local town. Thomas also makes every place feel authentic by building up the fictional history of this town as Dill visits various locations, and there’s a story attached to every place he goes. The whole atmosphere is delightfully squalid in a Reagan-era kind of way.

There’s also a colorful cast of characters, and Ben Dill is a great lead who is determined to avenge his sister even if he has few illusions about the moral character of everyone, including himself. Jake Spivey is a lot of fun as a poor redneck who went looking for a fortune, and after making it returns to his hometown to flaunt his wealth and build a power base.

This won the 1985 Edgar Award for Best Novel, and it absolutely deserved it.

(Oh, and I’ve also watched the recent TV show based on the book, and while it isn’t as good as this, it had a lot of things I liked about it.)


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Review: Gangsterland

Gangsterland Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A rabbi and a Mafia hitman walk into a bar. The joke is that they’re the same person.

Sal Cupertine is a contract killer for the mob in Chicago, and for decades he managed to remain in the shadows. That all changes after he walks into a FBI sting operation and ends up killing several agents. Now at the top of the most wanted list, Sal is smuggled to Las Vegas by the mob who also fake his death.

After plastic surgery, Sal learns that he’s expected to take on the identity of Rabbi David Cohen as part of the organization for a local gangster who is running schemes connected to a synagogue including disposing of bodies in the Jewish cemetery. With a near photographic memory and an instinct for reading people, Sal quickly falls into the role of a rabbi even as he is making is own plans to somehow reunite with the wife and son he left back in Chicago. However, Jeff Hopper was scapegoated for Sal’s murders of his fellow FBI agents in Chicago, and Jeff is convinced that Sal is still alive and is determined to find him. Sal/David also finds that he’s still got to deal with the dangerous web of mob politics.

I had mixed feelings on this one. There was a lot I liked with a unique story, good characterizations, and some black humor. The idea of a mob hitman pretending to be a rabbi sounds like a goofy plot from an ‘80s action-comedy movie, but Goldberg sets up the premise well and makes it seem plausible. There’s some interesting stuff with Sal learning things about Jewish culture, but this isn’t a story of a bad guy who gets a change of heart. More like Sal is still a killer deep down, he’s just adopting to a new community he has respect for.

However, it also seemed just a little drawn out and slow with a lot of time spent on the internal reflections of both Sal/David and Jeff Hopper with both men piling up regrets by their choices that led them to that point. It got a little repetitive with points rehashed again and again.

I started to feel like the entire books could have been a prologue, and in the end, you find out that this is indeed only the start of a story. I knew there was at least a second book to this, but I wasn’t prepared for how little gets resolved here. So the whole novel just felt like sequel set-up.

Still, I liked it enough that I will check out the next one, but if it doesn’t give me more sense of resolution and satisfaction than this one did, I’ll be very disappointed.


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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Review: The Investigator

The Investigator The Investigator by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

And so begin the adventures of Lucas Davenport Jr.

Wait, I guess it’s technically the adventures of Letty, the adopted daughter of super-cop Lucas Davenport, but calling her Davenport Jr. is still accurate because she is definitely a chip off the old block. In fact, she may be even more dangerous than her father.

Letty has come a long way since we first met her when she was a desperately poor kid who had to depend on herself rather than her alcoholic mother. Her life got much better once Lucas Davenport and his wife took her in, but she’s remained an independent pragmatist capable of making tough choices and taking action when its needed. Now in her early ‘20s and just out of college, Letty is working in the office of a US senator, but she’s bored with it and thinking of moving on. After she pulls a couple of bold moves to help catch an embezzler, the senator wants Letty to check into an odd problem and offers her a spot with Homeland Security as an investigator.

Some petroleum companies in west Texas think that someone has been stealing crude oil from them, and there’s a suspicion that a right-wing militia group might be responsible. The amount of money involved is small for an oil company, but it’d fund a lot of domestic terrorism so Letty gets teamed up with an ex-soldier named John Kaiser to try and sort it out. Letty and Kaiser start by investigating the disappearance of an oil company employee who had been looking into the thefts. Soon enough Letty and Kaiser figure out that something big is in the works, and they may be the only people who might be able to stop a catastrophic attack.

Letty was introduced as a character in the Prey novels almost 20 years ago, and I’ve often suspected that Sandford would someday do a book or series with her in the lead. (In reality, Letty would be in her 30s by now, but Sandford characters exist in a slowed down version of reality.) She’s been a big part of several of the books, often driving her adopted father crazy by her stubborn insistence on doing things her way, but also saving the day a couple of times. Despite the Prey books having one successful spin-off series with the Virgil Flower novels, I was always a little uneasy about how Letty seemed destined to be the hero of a Sandford thriller someday. I’m not sure why, it just seemed like nepotism even if these are all fictional characters.

However, at one point in one of the recent books Lucas and Letty had a conversation which indicated that she wasn’t interested in a career in law enforcement so it seemed like maybe Sandford was letting us know that the long teased Letty-book would never happen. Yet here we are so I don’t know if this was always the plan, or if something changed, but it did seem a little odd to me.
 
I got nervous right at the start of this one when Letty is pulling a break-in to investigate the embezzling going on at one of the senator’s campaign offices. She has several tricks to get into an office building that Sandford has used before in both the Davenport and Kidd novels, so I was instantly worried that this was just going to be a rehash of things done before with just a new character in the lead.

As usual, I was wrong to doubt Sandford.

While that opening was familiar, Letty quickly establishes herself as a different person than Lucas, Virgil Flowers, Kidd, or any other Sandford hero. Like all of them, Letty is smart, resourceful, and capable of pulling a sneaky and/or illegal move when necessary, but what sets her apart is that Letty has what might best be described as a mean streak. Yeah, Lucas could be a real bastard when necessary, and capable of outright murder when the situation calls for it. But Letty takes that a step further and seems even more ruthless than her father at times.

The plot of this one also seems like Sandford kicked things up a notch. There’s the usual cat-and-mouse thing where he follows the bad guys for part of the book and tells us some of what they’re planning, but just enough is held back to give us some twists and turns. The last act is one of the biggest and most ambitious things to happen in any of the books. A few years back, I might have said that it seemed unlikely, but these days, it sounds horrifyingly plausible.

Through it all, we’ve got Letty doing a lot of good detective work as she’s hot on the trail of the militia, and while she’s already a force to be reckoned with, there are still things for her to learn as well so she doesn’t seem too perfect as an action hero. The partner Kaiser provides a nice counterpoint to her as a veteran soldier who knows a lot about some aspects of the job, but he isn’t really an investigator so lets Letty take point.

It's just once again Sandford doing what he does so well, creating a high-octane mystery-thriller that keeps you turning pages. If the next book also stars Letty, I won’t be disappointed.


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Friday, March 11, 2022

Review: Chasing the Boogeyman

Chasing the Boogeyman Chasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going back to your old hometown can be murder.

In 1988, Richard Chizmar graduates from college and moves back in with his parents while waiting for his fiancĂ©e to finish a medical internship before they get married. Chizmar is an aspiring writer and while living with his folks he plans on working on several stories as well as publishing a new horror magazine he’s developed. Just as he’s moving home, a teenage girl is abducted from her bedroom and killed just outside her house. This begins a string of young girls being murdered by a serial killer who become known as The Boogeyman.

As a fan of mystery and horror, Chizmar becomes fascinated with the murders, and he has a friend at the local newspaper who gives him details that haven’t been revealed to the public. When he starts receiving prank phone calls and has a couple of scary incidents, Chizmar eventually comes to believe that The Boogeyman has to be somebody he knows.

This is an odd duck because Chizmar is a real person who uses an actual period in his life as the setting for a fictional plot inspired by true crime. It’s also the nostalgic love-letter to Chirzmar’s old hometown as well as a way of paying tribute to his parents who he obviously loved a great deal. All of that is nice and sweet, and then here comes the MURDERS!

The fictional killings and their effect on the town is genuinely horrifying and chilling at times. It really does read like a true crime book with Chizmar cutting back from his own life and experiences to a dispassionate reporting style based on witness accounts of the crimes themselves. The true crime influence is obvious in these parts, and it seems like a lot of this was inspired by the Golden State Killer case which had its own tragic ending for author Michelle McNamara when she wrote about it in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

While I was reading it all, I was fascinated and completely engrossed for the most part. However, over the course of the book I realized that Chizmar as a character in this story really wasn’t doing much of anything other than talking to people and getting the hell scared out of him a couple of times. While he is very curious about it and does end up talking to a police detective on several occasions, he’s not actively trying to play detective.

And in the end, Chizmar doesn’t actually DO anything. Even when the final revelation of the killer comes it’s not really all that shocking. (I figured it out by plot logic rather than clues in the book.) Even with a wrap-up scene there’s a lot of loose threads left dangling.

If this all had really happened, and it actually was a true crime story, then this account of Chizmer being there at the time would be pretty stunning. It’d also be understandable if not everything is explained. And again, I get that Chizmer was going for that true crime feel, but knowing that it’s fiction made it feel in the end that this was weak sauce and kind of pointless.

To his credit, there’s a theme that plays off the fictional Chizmer’s fascination with the murders to highlight one of the unsavory aspects of true crime in the way that far too often real tragedies that shatter lives are treated as puzzles to be solved for entertainment. Still, since the character doesn’t take that too far, I was once again left shrugging my shoulders about why I was supposed to care.

Despite all these misgivings, I enjoyed myself for the most part while reading. I was just left feeling dissatisfied after finishing it. I’d understand if somebody absolutely loved it, and I’d equally understand if someone hated it. I think it’ll work for some, but may fall short for others.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Review: Like a Sister

Like a Sister Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

When a woman’s sister is killed, she’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of her. She was your sister, and you’re supposed to do something about it…. OK, so Lena Scott isn’t Sam Spade, but the sentiment remains the same.

Lena is a grad student in New York who has issues with her family. Her father, Mel Pierce, is a bigwig in the music business, but Lena wants nothing to do with him. Lena used to be close with her half-sister Desiree Pierce despite their differences in personality. Lena shuns the spotlight that comes with being Mel’s daughter, but Desiree embraced it to become a minor celebrity thanks to reality TV and her Instagram account. Desiree’s party lifestyle also included the usual bad habits, and after one close call too many, Lena had enough and cut off all contact with her sister.

When Desiree is found dead all indications point to an overdose, but Lena is sure that there’s more to her sister’s death then that. Following a trail of clues from social media as well as her personal knowledge of her sister, Lena starts trying to learn the truth as she deals with cops, music stars, Instagram influencers, reporters, and her own father.

I loved a lot about this one, starting with the character of Lena herself. Naturally she’s got guilt and thinks that maybe she wasn’t there when Desiree needed her. However, she’s also being incredible stoic and refusing to show her grief which she calls “…putting on the Super Black Woman cape” as she keeps a brave face to deal with both the practical matters one has to handle when a loved one dies as well as doggedly chasing any clue about really happened to Desiree.

Through the first-person narration we follow along as Lena seems to set everything aside to bluntly deal with whatever is in front of her in the moment even as we know how torn up she is by all of it. Despite the dark circumstances, Lena can also be a very funny narrator at times with sly observations and a dry wit, and there were several laugh-out-loud lines.

The mystery of is also handled in intriguing fashion. This isn’t a murder that will be solved in the drawing room of an English mansion or the mean streets of New York. Instead, Lena uses her sister’s Instagram account to track Desiree’s activities before she died and figure out who might have the answers she’s looking for as well as using social media to research and track suspects. Trying to find Desiree’s phone becomes a critical piece that Lena desperately wants to find because she knows that her sister’s whole life revolved around the device.

The plot has a lot of twists and turns to it, and I was fooled at several points as to where the book was going. None of the red herrings seem like cheats though, and when all is revealed, you realize that even the misdirects mattered. It’s a solid story that plays fair with its clues and ends in a satisfying fashion.

Kellye Garret did an admirable job of writing a mystery that mixes heart and humor and has a great lead character you can’t help but like. It’s also a solid template for how to do a 21st century whodunit.

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Review: The Apollo Murders

The Apollo Murders The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In reality, the last manned mission to the moon was America’s Apollo 17, but the jumping off point for this story is that there was actually an Apollo 18 done as a secret military operation. How do you keep a space mission involving thousands of people a secret?

Look, if you’re gonna read this book, you need to stop asking questions like that.

Kaz Zemickis was a test pilot who was also training to be an astronaut when an unfortunate collision between his plane and a seagull leaves him with one eye. Now Kaz is working as a liaison between Washington and the Apollo 18 mission. This is challenging because he’s essentially changing their whole mission plan at the last minute.

Instead of just going to the moon and collecting some rocks, the astronauts need to photograph and hopefully sabotage a Soviet space station equipped with new cameras that will be able to take high resolution spy pictures of the US once it’s manned. Once that’s accomplished, they’re supposed to go to the moon and check out a previously unexplored site that the Soviets are investigating with a lunar rover, and if possible, the astronauts are supposed to sabotage the rover as well. If they can squeeze in a little science in between all this sabotage, scientists have discovered some weird holes in the moon that they’d like checked if possible.

Unfortunately, one of the astronauts dies in a training accident, and must be replaced with a back-up. Meanwhile, the Soviets have made an interesting discovery on the moon with their rover, that they’d very much like to keep to themselves. The Russians also have some leverage over one of the astronauts on Apollo 18.

This book was written by a former test pilot and astronaut who has a ton of experience in space and in working with the Russian space agency. I am NOT a former test pilot and astronaut, but I am a giant space nerd who has checked out a bunch of books and documentaries about manned space flight. I’ve also seen Apollo 13 like 12 times.

So while not an expert like the author, I’d like to think I know a little more than the average bear about the subject, but I wouldn’t presume to say that the author got any of the technical or historical details wrong about this. In fact, per his notes at the end some of the things I thought were insane were true.

What I will question is the basic premise and way this book is structured just from a thriller standpoint. For starters, we’re told from the jump that Apollo 18 is a military mission that is going to be a secret. Yet, we’re never told what that mission was. (Bear in mind that the stuff about the Soviet spy station and rover comes into the picture when they change their mission at the last minute.) The world knows that the US is going back to the moon, but the details of the mission aren't being revealed. Yet, the training seems to be about doing the standard moon stuff of grabbing some rocks, making some observations, taking some samples, setting up some experiments, and trying to get back to Earth without dying. The story tells us that Nixon got funding for another moon launch by using military funding, but we're never told what they were originally going to do that was different from other moon missions.

I also question that NOBODY in this story ever brings up a legal, political, or ethical concern that the US is essentially going into space to sabotage Soviet property. Since this is the Nixon administration making this call, I’m not saying that they wouldn’t try it, but it seems odd that absolutely nobody ever brings up that we’re essentially using a ultra-expensive Apollo mission to commit an act of war.

Also, nobody brings up that they're launching a rocket they told the world would be going to the moon to do secret military things. So when a Soviet space station fails immediately after the US capsule hits orbit, and the a Soviet rover fails right after Apollo astronauts land nearby, it's pretty obvious what happened. Maybe Russia couldn't prove it, but it would certainly cause accusations to be made and an international incident.

The next part is where it really gets messy, but I’ll keep it vague to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say that things don’t go well when Apollo 18 tries to sabotage the Soviet station, and there is absolute chaos for a few minutes as well a high probability that the space capsule has been damaged. A bunch of other shit has gone wrong as well, but despite it all, the astronauts go ahead and hit the Go-To-The-Moon button to do their burn for lunar orbit. Even when NASA gets involved again, they learn that the capsule has so many issues that it makes the Apollo 13 mission look like a cakewalk by comparison.

And yet they still decide to land on the fucking moon rather than just orbiting once and coming back immediately!

There’s a lot more that happens and other than the technical details, most of it seems so outlandish that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously. Plus, much like most action movies these days the ending seems way to long and drawn out with even more utterly unbelievable twists and turns with a bunch of events occurring that would most likely result in the US and Soviet Union immediately launching nukes at each other. There’s also some blatant sequel set-up that makes me pretty sure that the author plans for this to be some kind of Tom Clancy style thrillers using spaceflight as the hook with the Kaz character acting as Jack Ryan.

I should be the kind of reader who would go nuts for a historical-fiction/alt-history/conspiracy-thriller/set-in-space kind of book, and I was more than willing to go along with some of it at first. But there’s just too much of everything in this. Too many characters, too much detail, too many plot twists, too many outlandish events, etc. It’s all just too much for me to suspend disbelief and roll with it, and that’s what this kind of story needs for it to really work.

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Review: The Hunting Party

The Hunting Party The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What if there was an Agatha Christie style mystery, but without a Hercule Poroit or Miss Marple style character around to solve it?

A group of people in their 30s have been friends since their days at Oxford, and one of their traditions is having an annual get together over the New Year holiday. This year they go to an exclusive and remote Scottish hunting lodge. As a huge snowstorm moves in and cuts them off from the rest of the world, one of them is found dead. It’s obviously murder, and the list of suspects isn’t long.

This is a pretty standard set-up, but as I said at the start, the interesting thing is that there’s nobody really playing detective here. Instead the plot is unraveled via a series of shifting perspectives that also jump around in time from the trip to the lodge until the day after the murder. Slowly we start to get the whole picture of how this group is filled with secrets, old grudges, and several reasons not to trust each other. There’s also a few other people around like the strange couple from Finland, the manager of the lodge who has fled to this job as a way of not dealing with a recent tragic loss she’s suffered, and the surly gamekeeper who is a combat veteran suffering from PTSD which has left him with a hair trigger temper. So the suspect pool isn’t just limited to the Oxford buddies.

The structure of it is really the star of the show with author Lucy Foley doing a very good job of providing different voices to several characters who become the ones guiding us through the current story and histories. She pulls off several tricky things such as keeping the identity of the victim a secret for a good chunk of a book without seeming clunky so for a while we’re not ever sure who might be dead and who might be the killer. There’s a lot of red herrings in the mix which are necessary for a book like this although there are a few too many. However, none seem obvious, and it helps keep the reader from guessing which way the plot is going for a good long while.

The ending plays fair and has a satisfying answer, but again, there’s just a bit too much to all of it. I also had a big problem with the aftermath detailed in an extended epilogue in which the author seems to forget a couple of huge things from the climatic moment of the story when wrapping it all up.

Still, it’s a really solid mystery with some good character work. I’d give it 3 and half stars if I could, but…..you know. I also listened to the Audible version which had some great narrators doing various parts.

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Monday, January 31, 2022

Review: Secret Identity

Secret Identity Secret Identity by Alex Segura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won a free advance copy of this from the publisher.

It’s hard to believe these days when multiple blockbuster movies and popular TV shows are based on superheroes, but there have been several times over the years when it looked like the comic book industry was swirling the drain.

1975 was such a time, but that hasn’t stopped Carmen Valdez from pursuing her dream of being a comic book writer in New York. Unfortunately, the closest she’s come so far is working as a secretary for the publisher of struggling Triumph Comics, and her boss has made it clear that he’d rather buy work from washed up male writers then give a young woman a chance. When a friendly colleague named Harvey asks her to help him come up with a new hero to meet a deadline, Carmen works with him to quickly develop a female superhero they call the Lethal Lynx. Harvey promises that if the publisher likes the new character he’ll give Carmen her share of the credit.

However, Carmen is shocked to learn that Harvey misled her and submitted several scripts she primarily wrote under his own name. Before Carmen can confront Harvey about this, the young man is murdered, and Carmen can only watch helplessly as the character she’s created becomes popular and is handed off to hacks. There’s a suspicious police detective who thinks Carmen knows more than she’s saying and another personal problem when a former friend she has a complicated history with shows up in New York. Eventually, Carmen thinks the key to figuring out who murdered Harvey and proving that she co-created the Lynx lies in Harvey’s shady history in the industry.

I started reading comic books as a kid in the ‘70s, and I’m a fan of the mystery crime genre so no surprise that this book hooked me immediately. This feels like an authentic look at the comic book scene of the ‘70s, and the vibe that this is a grungy subset of publishing that isn’t respected, even by most of the people working in it. Alex Segura has worked in comics so the details feel right, and the references all come across as part of the detailed background rather than cheap wink-and-nudge references to make fanboys giggle.

There’s also a cool feature with actual comic book pages featuring Carmen’s Lynx stories scattered throughout the book, and artist Sandy Jarrell does a great job of making these panels have a cool ‘70s style. If they actually wrote and published a Lethal Lynx comic book, I’d be very interested in reading it.

The thing that really makes the whole book work is Carmen as a character. She’s the daughter of Cuban immigrants, a woman trying to break into an all male industry, and she’s got another big secret that makes her feel like an outsider. All of these factors drew Carmen to comic book superheroes in the first place, but she’s also just a fan as well as a writer with a natural instinct for what makes a compelling character. This is as much a story about a young woman struggling to make her dreams come true as it is a murder mystery, and I very much cared about what happens with Carmen. Since it's well known how various comic book creators were cheated out of credit and money over the years, I was sometimes more worried that Carmen might never get her rightful recognition than I was that she wouldn’t find the killer.

It’s a quality mystery novel as well as a love letter to comic books, but even if you don’t care about superheroes, I think a lot of people would find the story of a young woman trying to become who she’s meant to be in ‘70s New York enjoyable as well.


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Review: Leviathan Falls

Leviathan Falls Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do you write a review of the last one of a nine book series without spoiling the entire thing in the process?

Very carefully.

So here we are at the end of all things, and I’m not just talking about the finale of this story. While people continue to battle among the stars, a far more dangerous enemy has been awakened and seemingly won’t rest until humanity has been wiped out. There might be a way to fight back, but it would essentially mean destroying the human race to save it. At the heart of it all are the surviving characters that fans of this series have come to know and love, but what’s left of the crew members of the Rocinante are not what they used to be. Age, violence, regrets, and grief have all taken a toll, and even the ship itself is long past it’s prime. Despite it all, nobody is ready to give up and die just yet.

This series hooked me with the first book, and it’s been a franchise that never let me down. New books appeared regularly, and each one pushed what started as a space opera mixed with a conspiracy story into a sprawling epic that got deeper and richer as it progressed. It always had the beep-boops and cool pew-pew space war stuff mixed with politics and espionage that any nerd could appreciate, and the plots were also clever, tense, and intriguing.

While that stuff always worked, what really made this shine was that it was about people. Not perfect people, that’s for sure. Our heroes had their fair share of flaws, and there’s a cynical streak to this story that feels more true every day. Almost nobody can set aside their own agendas and old grudges to take the long view and realize that there were bigger things at stake. At one point in this latest one, there’s a declaration that “Optimism is for assholes.” And considering the last couple of years, I don’t think I’ve ever nodded more at a line in a book.

Still, while The Expanse never felt like a shiny Star Trek style future, it also didn’t feel entirely hopeless. There were times when good people came through in big ways, and even a few points when total jerks had moments of clarity. No, it wouldn’t last, but it felt like enough hope that humanity might just stumble through whatever catastrophes it creates for itself. Through it all, we had a core group of characters, and as happens in the best of fiction, they all came alive for me.

I also appreciate that the authors who make up the James SA Corey name have been very clear about this being it. There will not be any spin-offs, prequels, or anything else done by them with this franchise other than the books and handful of short stories they wrote. It’s rare to read a story these days that feels completed, and that’s what this is.

They didn’t just finish the story, they finished it well.


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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Review: Five Decembers

Five Decembers Five Decembers by James Kestrel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heads up! This one goes on sale today. Don't miss it.

I received a free advance copy of this from the author.

It’s a Hard Case Crime novel set in Hawaii just weeks before the infamous Pearl Harbor attack occurs on December 7, 1941. I pretty much feel like that’s all I need to say to convince people to check it out.

But fine, if you want to know a little more, then keep reading…

Joe McGrady is a police detective in Honolulu who is called to a gruesome double murder. Things get complicated when one of the victims turns out to be a relative of a prominent Navy admiral and the other is a young Japanese woman. With tensions high, Joe’s boss just wants the case solved as quickly and quietly as possible, and McGrady ends up hot on the trail of the killer across the Pacific. However, the outbreak of World War II derails the investigation as well as Joe’s life.

This is one of those books that’s tricky to review because I don’t want to say much more about the plot because it takes some surprising twists that end up being the best part of the of the story. So I don’t want to spoil those, but then I can’t really dig into some of the particulars.

What I can say is that this is a novel built on making readers feel like they’re in a particular time and place, and James Kestrel does a superior job of that. From describing the streets and people of Honolulu in 1941 to several other locations, you get all of the atmosphere without it feeling like a bunch of regurgitated facts from a history class.

The plotting is also very well done as it mixes the realistic grind of detective work with some of the historical details of the setting. For example, one clue revolves around how there were no Packard dealerships in Hawaii at the time so that type of car was very rare on the islands, but trying to track down a particular one means spending hours reviewing car registration records. There’s a lot of great procedural bits about trying to track down a killer in the era before computer databases and modern forensics. Even the methods of communication play a part with cables being a key element to how things unfold.

Character work is another strong element with Joe McGrady being the kind of complex figure you want at the center of this kind of story. As an ex-soldier with no family to speak of, Joe is a loner who didn’t grow up in Hawaii so he’s seen as an outsider even by his fellow cops, and it’s evident from the start that he’s not entirely trusted by them. The feeling goes both ways as Joe deals with the agenda of his boss and others. His one real connection is his growing feelings towards the woman he’s been seeing, Molly.

The story also plays off the readers knowing that World War II is about to start to good effect. Kestrel drops a few well-placed ominous hints that foreshadow that the whole world is about to go sideways even as Joe is hoping to get the case wrapped up in time to spend a romantic Christmas with Molly. It makes the whole thing one of those books where you’re tensed up the entire time, and just wish that you could warn everyone in it what’s coming.

It’s a fantastic crime novel that takes the classic tale of a determined detective hunting a killer and turns it into the tragedy of one man who gets caught up in epic historical events.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Review: Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby

Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

This is a real good news/bad news situation. The good news is that this is probably the best Spenser book that Ace Atkins has written yet. The bad news is that it’s the last one he’s doing. *sigh* Let’s focus on the good news for the moment.

Carolina Garcia-Ramirez won a stunning upset in a Congressional race, but while her outspoken support of progressive policies has made her a new hero for the left, the right wingers hate her guts and aren’t shy about saying so. When some of the threats seem to be more serious than the typical social media bile, Spenser is hired to provide protection and do some sleuthing to see if someone in CGR’s inner circle might be a mole. It doesn’t take long before Spenser finds clues indicating that a white supremacy group is plotting against CGR. As usual, Spenser turns to Hawk for help, but this time Hawk has a favor to ask in return. He wants Spenser to track down a woman he hasn’t heard from in years.

So obviously this one was inspired by a real person and the reactions to her, and that’s a little tricky because Spenser has always been extremely apolitical. That hasn’t changed with Atkins writing it so that while Spenser admires CGR for several reasons, that’s on a human level, not a political one. Spenser also won’t abide racism so making the bad guys a bunch of white power assholes means that this is still a straightforward good guy vs. bad guys story with a few ripped-from-the-headlines elements instead of the book feeling like a political manifesto even as Atkins uses the opportunity to highlight how the worst of the worst have felt free to really be themselves these days.

All of that made for a compelling plot, but where this one really crackles is with the very Spenser-ness of it all. The dialogue and banter is quick, clever, and frequently funny. The action is sharp, especially in a climatic scene. Some Spenser history comes up. Some delicious sounding food is consumed, and some booze gets drank. There’s still dates with Susan, work-outs with Hawk, and a dog named Pearl.

The Hawk sub-plot of him asking Spenser to find a woman was an interesting wrinkle in all this. Atkins had cracked the door open a little on Hawk. Not so much that it gave away too much about a character, who is cool precisely because of the mystery about him, but just enough that it made him feel fresh and even a little more dangerous. What comes out of that is another piece to a great book.

Maybe it’s because I knew that this was the last Spenser that Atkins is doing, but it all seemed extra sharp to me this time. I hated to finish this one because it meant that something I’ve very much enjoyed for ten years now is coming to an end. As swan songs go, this is a great one, and hopefully whoever takes over Spenser next can do half as well.

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