Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: The Big Nowhere

The Big Nowhere The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the midst of the Red Scare, a violated corpse with its eyes gouged out is found and young deputy detective Danny Upshaw catches the case. Meanwhile, Mal Considine is put in charge of rooting out communists in the UAES. Attached to his team are Dudley Smith, a veteran cop with a mean streak a mile wide, and Buzz Meeks, the dirtiest cop in town and the man whom his first wife had an affair with while he was fighting Germans in WWII...

Here we are, the second book in James Ellroy's multi-volume tale of wholesome family togetherness, the LA Quartet. Sarcasm aside, this was one brutal book.

It's hard to sum up a book with this kind of scope. In some ways, this book is the rise and fall of Danny Upshaw, the rise and fall of Mal Considine, and the redemption of Buzz Meeks, three very driven men. Upshaw will do anything to forget about his dark secret, burning the candle at both ends on two cases. Mal Considine needs a big win on the communist front to get custody of his son from his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Buzz Meeks tries to do the right thing despite a lifetime of doing the wrong ones.

In some ways, this book reads like The Black Dahlia 2.0. Ellroy has a few more balls in the air and more damaged men to put through the meat grinder. I knew the communist plot would dovetail with the death of Marty Goines and the others but I had no idea how.

As with the previous book, the characters make this a powerful read. Upshaw, Considine, and Meeks were all realistic and believable characters, much more nuanced than most crime fiction leads. Watching them go to their fates was like watching a car flying through a red light at an intersection, holding your breath and hoping nothing catastrophic happens. Meeks, who I dismissed as a disposable dirtbag at the beginning of the tale, wound up being my favorite character.

The communist plot didn't do a whole lot for me but the serial killer thread was balls to the wall. As the mystery rocketed toward the finish line, things got pretty tense and I thought about hiding out somewhere to finish it unbeknownst to my coworkers.

Ellroy's writing, the bleak offspring of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, makes 1950s Hollywood seem like a shit-smeared labyrinth built on lies and the bodies of the dead. Despair falls like rain and the case played demolition derby with the lives of everyone involved. By the end of the book, I felt like I spent a few days chained to a radiator and beaten with a pipe wrench.

While I feel spent after reading it, The Big Nowhere is one hell of great read, both as a thriller and as a work of literature. Five out of five stars.

After thought: In a parallel universe, I'm sure this is marketed as the inspiration behind season two of True Detective.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: Last Words

Last Words Last Words by Michael Koryta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Haunted by his wife's death and his last words to her, Mark Novak heads north from Florida to Indiana, to meet a eccentric recluse who either retrieved a girl's body or was the one who murdered her. Can Novak solve the mystery of Ridley Barnes with his sanity intact?

The Prophet was one of the best books I read in 2015 so I was eager to give Michael Koryta another shot. I found this one on the cheap.

First off, I have to say this is a hard one to pin down. Michael Koryta's writing chops are intact and his characters are well-drawn. However, the plot is a kind of a mess.

The setup seemed fishy. Ridley Barnes wants Mark Novak to help him figure out if he killed Sarah Martin or not. Barnes was never wound quite right to begin with and threw a sprocket or two in the darkness searching for Sarah. Furthermore, when you throw in a hypnotist and a bunch of unlikely events, eyes were rolling and I kept eyeing up the Big Nowhere in the on deck circle.

However, the book wasn't a complete shit sandwich. As I said, Koryta's writing is still pretty spectacular. He does a great job with the characters, like actors in a project they know is crap but still give it their all. Also, I've never had a problem with claustrophobia but this book made me feel claustrophobic as hell at times. Spelunking is a big part of the story and Koryta does a phenomenal job with it. I felt like I was in the dark and cold with the rest of the characters.

Last Words is a well-written thriller with wonky plot. Michael Koryta's writing overcomes some of the faults but ultimately isn't enough to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. Like I said, it's a hard one to rate. I'm giving it a three because of Koryta's writing ability. It would probably be a two with anyone else at the helm.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Short is found murdered and LAPD detectives Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard catch the case. Can Bleichert and Blanchard bring in her killer before the case destroys them both?

Some time around 2005, my local bookstore owner pushed this on me. At the time, the only detective books I'd read were The Maltese Falcon and a few Hard Case books. It took me a week to get through but it felt like spending a month in jail. The Black Dahlia was a game changer for me, a powerful book that made me see detective fiction in a different light. When it went on sale on the Kindle for $1.99 (and Kemper also started reading it), I figured it was time for a reread.

As I've said many times before, the magic of getting older is that old books become completely new books. I'd forgotten most of what transpired in The Black Dahlia so it was like being tied up and dragged down a gravel road all over again.

The Black Dahlia is the rise and fall of detective Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, and Elizabeth Short, the dead woman who ultimately did him and his partner, Lee Blanchard, in. Bleichert and Blanchard bond over boxing and wind up being partners in Warrants until Elizabeth Short is found dead and mutilated, cut in half on the sidewalk. Both men wind up entangled with Elizabeth Short for different reasons. Blanchard wants to avenge her to make up for the sister he once lost and Bucky takes up when Lee goes missing.

This book is as noir as it comes, full of obsession, lies, death, sex, murder, pornography, and more lies and obsession. As with most books of this type, the mystery is eventually solved but not without costing everyone involved damn near everything in the process.

In the decade since I last read this, I've become desensitized by reading hundreds of crime books and been made more cynical by life in general but this book still packs one hell of a wallop. Much like Bucky, I was pretty obsessed by Elizabeth Short's murder and couldn't put the book down, as cliche as that sounds. Just like the first time I read it, I felt like I'd spent a few nights in jail when I was done, wrung out and ready for a couple beers.

Something else the passage of time has given me is how much Ellroy writes like a much darker Raymond Chandler. Ellroy's similes kick like an unlicensed .45 a cop carries just for emergencies and Dwight Bleichert is one of the most well-crafted characters in crime fiction. Lee Blanchard is not without his nuances, either. The relationship between Bucky, Kay, and Lee really lent itself to some crazy shit.

Honestly, the only thing I can think of to complain about is that Blanchard and Bleichert's names are too similar. The Black Dahlia is a must-read for all serious crime fiction fans. Five out of five stars.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Review: Wise Blood

Wise Blood Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fresh from a stint in the army, Hazel Motes starts a religion out of spite and gets entangled with a preacher named Asa Hawks and his teenage daughter, Sabbath.

I recently read the exquisite The Summer that Melted Everything and kept thinking of Flannery O'Connor. I already had this on my Kindle so I gave it a shot.

Wise Blood is the tale of Hazel Motes and his crisis of faith. Something happened during the war that shattered Hazel Motes' childhood dream of being a preacher and now he's taking it out on the rest of the world. While running around generally being an asshole, he encounters colorful characters like Enoch Emery, the boy with the Wise Blood of the title, Asa Hawks and his daughter, and Hoover Shoates, a con-man who knows a good thing when he sees it.

I'd say Wise Blood was the Rise and Fall of Hazel Motes but there wasn't much of a rise. Maybe The Continued Decline of Hazel Motes would be more appropriate. The book starts out bleak and just keeps getting bleaker. How many other books feature the main character dying blind in a ditch at the end? However, there were some laughs despite the bleakness, many of them at Enoch Emery's expense.

Flannery O'Connor writes some powerful stuff. Her writing reminds me of Jim Thompson's, whom she probably had angry sex with up against a dumpster behind a bar at some point.

Wise Blood's tale of religious obsession made me uncomfortable at times. However, I didn't think Wise Blood was nearly as good as her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Her short stories were much more focused and quicker to the punch. Three out of five stars.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review: Grimweave

Grimweave Grimweave by Tim Curran
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When two marines chase a wounded man deep into the Cambodian jungle, one winds up dead and the other imprisoned. After he is rescued, Spiers tells the story of the creature that killed his commanding officer. In order to get out of the marines, Spiers agrees to go back to the valley as part of a unit to kill the beast. Will any of them make it out alive?

Tim Curran is the mutt's nuts and since spider creatures are involved, how could I not snap this one up? Before anyone gets their spoiler panties in a bunch, there's a spider on the cover and the title has the word 'weave' in it, you know something spidery is going to happen. Deal with it.

Like most of the reviews I've read, the first things that come to mind with Grimweave are Aliens or Predator, military vs. monster tales where you know there's a good chance only a couple people will survive. Nuking the site from orbit would have been a great option.

Tim Curran knows how to keep things tense. Even before any of the vermin are revealed, the jungle is a spooky place. From there, Curran deals out the gore and the grotesque arachnoid horrors slowly but surely, each encounter worse than the last. I also have to hand it to Curran for making the menace more than just the spider creature the cover depicts.

As I've said before, I think horror works best in short doses and Tim Curran is the king of the horror novella. This wasn't my favorite horror novella of his, however. The characters were kind of weak, even for a story of this type. I thought it maybe leaned a little too heavily on its Aliens/Predator roots. All things considered, I'm giving this a three out of five stars. It's three or four hours of creepy-crawling gory fun.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: The Mind is a Razorblade

The Mind is a Razorblade The Mind is a Razorblade by Max Booth III
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a man wakes on a river bank, half-dead with two corpses, no memories, and unpredictable telekinetic powers, people have a lot of explaining to do...

The guys from Kraken Press sent me this to read at some point and it's taken me two years to finally get around to reading it.

The Mind is a Razorblade is one of those tales where I had no idea what was going to happen next. When you start with an amnesiac protagonist, all bets are off. The book has a noir feel to it much of the time and the what-the-fuckery level is pretty high. Also, spiders. There are a lot of spiders in this book.

Actually, the less I say, the better. As Bob pieces things together, there are a lot of laughs, gore, and unexpected twists. I don't want to spoil anything but the harvesters are pretty creepy and you know you're probably not in the best of situations when someone hands you a cooler with a human heart in it.

At various times, The Mind is a Razorblade reminded me of the movie Dark City and some of the hard boiled classics. Also, I was reminded of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, mostly because of the wise ass lead stricken with amnesia.

The Mind is a Razorblade is a fun thriller for those who don't mind excessive weirdness. 3 out of 5 stars.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: The Man in the Rubber Mask

The Man in the Rubber Mask The Man in the Rubber Mask by Robert Llewellyn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Man in the Rubber Mask chronicles Robert Llewellyn's career, from a struggling stage actor to a struggling actor playing Kryten on Red Dwarf.

Red Dwarf is one of my top ten favorite shows of all time and I'm on series 3 of my latest re-watch. One of Robert Llewellyn's novels popped up in my recommendations so I decided to read this instead.

While Kryten isn't my favorite character on Red Dwarf, I do feel his addition to the crew in the beginning of the third series was what took the show to the next level for me. While reading the book, I had Kryten's voice in my head.

The Man in the Rubber Mask talks about Robert's early days as a stage actor and comedian but most of the book focuses on Red Dwarf, and rightly so. Although he's had success with Scrapheap Challenge/Junkyard Wars, Red Dwarf will go down as the work he's most remembered for.

The behind the scenes stories of working on Red Dwarf were pretty entertaining, though the makeup process to transform Robert into Kryten sounds like torture. Llewelyn's comedic timing makes the book a joy to read. The failed American version of Red Dwarf sounds like it would have been a train wreck and I'm glad it wasn't picked up.

Like a lot of biographies, it felt a little thin. I could have used more entertaining anecdotes from the making of Red Dwarf. For a huge Red Dwarf fan, this is a fun read. I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone who wasn't a fan of the show, though. Three out of five stars.

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