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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