Sunday, October 30, 2011

Heads You Lose

Heads You LoseHeads You Lose by Brett Halliday

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A gas station owner named Clem Wilson calls Michael Shayne for help and is murdered while on the phone. Who murdered the gas station owner and why? That's what Michael Shayne has to know. But can he find out who gunned down Clem Wilson before he's gunned down himself?

Okay, now this is more like it. After the disappointment of Fourth Down to Death, Heads You Lose has redeemed Michael Shayne a bit in my eyes.

The plot to Heads You Lose is so much more complex than it seems at first glance. The wartime setting and the rationing of gasoline proves to be the lynchpin that holds everything together. It took me forever to figure out who killed Clem Wilson and I like to think I have respectable sleuthing skills.

The body count in this one is fairly high and most of the deaths were unexpected. Halliday did a lot of misdirection in this one. Clem Wilson's deserter son wound up being a giant red herring after it sure looked like he was behind his father's murder early on. While I knew there are over 100 of these, I still feared for Michael Shayne a couple times.

No big complaints on this. It's a product of the time it was written so the idea of rationing gas and rubber isn't really relateable. Aside from powerful lady lawyer, the other female characters were standard for detective stories of its day.

Some of the characters were a little weak but as a thrilling detective story, Heads You Lose easily got the job done. I wouldn't say it was amazing or timeless but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Fantastic Four: 1234

Fantastic Four: 1234Fantastic Four: 1234 by Grant Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As Dr. Doom picks off the members of the Fantastic Four one at a time with help from Namor and the Mole Man, Reed Richards is cooped up in his lab. Can he find a way to stop Doom? And will he stop him if he can?

For a Grant Morrison story, 1234 is pretty straight forward. Dr. Doom is manipulating reality and trying to destroy the Fantastic Four. The Thing ends up human minus an arm, Sue gets entangled with Namor, and Johnny falls victim to the Mole Man.

Despite being pretty well written, I didn't find the story to have much substance. Grant Morrison's known for throwing a lot of big ideas around and that's what I expected from this one. Besides hints that Dr. Doom is part of Reed Richards' subconscious, there was very little of that here. Reed's role in the story reminded me of a condensed version of what Blackbolt did in the Inhumans miniseries by Jae Lee and Paul Jenkins.

The artwork was pretty good but I've seen better from Jae Lee both before and since. I guess my main gripe with 1234 is that neither creator really lived up to my expectations. It was still enjoyable but really nothing special.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ska: An Oral History

Ska: An Oral HistorySka: An Oral History by Heather Augustyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ska: An Oral History covers the history of ska music from its inception to Jamaica through the ska boom of the 90's, all the way up to present day.

Lean closer everyone, I have something to reveal. I became a ska fan when I got my first CD player in 1993 and my neighbor gave me a copy of Ska Core, the Devil, and More by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I've remained a fan of the music ever since, though these days I'm more into the more traditional ska sound of The Slackers, Mr. T-Bone, and Dr. Ring-Ding. Anyway, on to the review...

The chronicle starts in Jamaica, naturally. Pioneers like Derrick Morgan, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, Toots Hibbert, and The Skatellites were given their due. Some of the stuff, like Don Drummond murdering his girlfriend and dying in the insane asylum, I was familiar with. Others, like the feud between Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster, I was not.

From there, the English skinhead reggae scene of the 60's is covered, primarily focusing on Laurel Aitken and Judge Dread. The focus shifts to the two tone era of The Specials, the Selecter, Madness, and Bad Manners. It really put me in the mood to dig out the Specials debut album. Actually, I'd say a bit too much time was spent on the two-tone era. I could have done without entire chapters detailing The Beat, The Selecter, and Bad Manners. It seemed a bit like padding.

The third wave was covered, starting with the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim, and moving along with Fishbone, Let's Go Bowling, the Scofflaws, Agent 99, Jump with Joey, and the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble.

Hepcat was mentioned next and I began getting excited. Then radio ska bands like No Doubt and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were mentioned. Deals gone bad was mentioned and then Agent Jay of The Slackers and Isaac Green of The Skalars talked about how the scene died because most of the people going to shows were in bands and nobody was buying records. Which I witnessed first hand in my first couple of years of going to ska shows.

That's pretty much it. The book did a good job of detailing the history of ska but I think it focused on the two tone era a little too much and could have used more than a mention of The Slackers, since they are by far the biggest touring American ska band at the moment. It also wouldn't have hurt to mention that ska has a much bigger audience in Europe and Japan, evident by the turnouts that Mr. T-Bone, The Moon Invaders, and Dr. Ring-Ding see. For being released in 2010, it doesn't feel current to me.

Man, it's hard to settle on a rating for this. I'm giving it a three. I'd give it a four but the writing seemed choppy in places, especially during the transitions between topics.

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Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys

Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse DonkeysBeyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys by Jordan Krall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Henry Price makes a delivery to a nudist colony and becomes entranced by a naked woman wearing a donkey mask. Gary Lancaster is obsessed with a movie called The Apocalypse Donkeys, a film that may or may not be real, and blueberry pancakes. Bill Stapleton is an aging former daredevil who knows someone is sleeping with his wife. But how are the men linked by the mysterious green hummingbird?

Jordan Krall continues to impress me. I first became a fan of his after Fistful of Feet, his bizarro western. Subsequent books of his like Squid Pulp Blues and King Scratch have reinforced my opinion of him as an author to watch in the future. Then this book came along.

I've read a lot of bizarro fiction in 2011 and this one may have taken the cake. How many other books have you read that prominently feature a naked woman in a donkey mask, a green hummingbird, blueberry pancakes, and a nudist colony? And I didn't even mention references to Small Wonder, that 80's sitcom featuring the little girl robot, or the 66 Ford Futura, the car they used to construct the Batmobile in the 1960's Batman show.

The book starts off just a little odd and becomes positively nightmarish by the end. The nature of identity is explored, as are aspects of voyeurism. The scene near the end with Gary and the coven of naked donkey-masked women was my favorite part of the book.

That's about all I have to say. Krall's rendered me speechless. It's an easy four but expect a helping of uneasiness while you read it.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed

The Prettiest Girl I Ever KilledThe Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed by Charles Runyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The sleepy town of Sherman seemed normal until Curt Friedland returned to clear his brother's name and get him out of jail. Now, a lot of accidental deaths are starting to seem like murder and housewife Velda Bayrd seems to be caught in the middle of things...

First off, The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed is among the earliest serial killer novels. It stands up fairly well and has a nice "Who is the wolf in sheep's clothing" feel at times.

Velda Bayrd is unusual in that she's the heroine of a noir novel and isn't a femme fatale or a doormat. She's pretty interesting character, drawn to Curt Friendland despite being in a comfortable, albeit boring, marriage.

The writing is very workmanlike but it serves the purpose well enough. I like that Curt Friendland's almost a sociopath himself, driven to clear his brother's name at almost any cost.

The reveal of the killer was a bit of a letdown. There weren't enough likely suspects introduced to make my sleuthing efforts worthwhile. Still, the killer was pretty chilling once he was revealed and his background was explored a bit.

The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed is an easy 3 and I'll be keeping an eye out for more paperback originals by Charles Runyon.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011


LaBravaLaBrava by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Former Secret Service agent Joe LaBrava meets an actress he fell in love with at age twelve. Now she's being blackmailed by a redneck and his Cuban partner. Or is she...? Can LaBrava get to the bottom of things before he winds up dead?

When it comes to Elmore Leonard books, they're either awesome or just okay. This one is definitely closer to okay.

The plot was pretty good. LaBrava, a photographer and former FBI man, gets entangled with Jean Shaw, an actress he's pined over for years and a blackmail scheme. As always with Leonard, the dialogue and machinations were the stars of the show. Leonard paints a vivid picture of Florida's sleazy underbelly. The characters of LaBrava, Franny, Richie, and Rey were all pretty well rounded. I thought I had the ending figured out but it went in a slightly different direction.

It wasn't a great Elmore Leonard because everything felt a little too easy. I also thought the twist was tipped a little too early. Once I knew all the players in the blackmail game, I was ready for it to be over.

Still, even a mediocre Elmore Leonard is still pretty good. I liked it but I didn't love it.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fourth Down to Death

Fourth Down to DeathFourth Down to Death by Brett Halliday

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When Mike Shayne is hired by the owner of a football team to find out of one of his lineman purposely let his star quarterback get hurt, he gets a lot more than he bargained for...

First off, I'm not going to lie. I could tell you that I've been wanting to try another Mike Shayne mystery since Hard Case reprinted Murder is my Business but I really picked this one up because of the cover. I'll pause while you get an eyeful.

I hate to say it but the cover was my favorite part of this book. Fourth Down to Death is dated as hell, both in its 1970 setting and it's treatment of the female characters in general. Were the early 70's as misogynistic as I'm imagining? There's a rape-y subtext for part of the book and Mike Shayne strikes two women in the face, neither even close to being a danger to him.

The plot was overly-complicated for what it was and I wouldn't say it was actually solvable except by process of elimination. Maybe someone who's more into the ins and outs of gambling would appreciate it more. I just know that my eyes glazed over whenever the point spread was mentioned and I kept waiting for the vixen on the cover to show up.

It's not without it's moments, though. Shayne took a shit-kicking but kept getting up. He reminded me of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer quite a bit. Both of them should have been suffering from post-concussion syndrome by the end of their series.

If you're curious about the Mike Shayne series, you'd be better served to read Murder is my Business. The best part of this one is the cover.

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Snuff (Discworld, #39)Snuff by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and his wife Sybil take Young Sam and go on vacation to Sybil's ancestral lands in the country. Fortunately for the Commander, crime soon rears its ugly head and he soon finds himself ensnared in a web of lies, smuggling, and murder! Can Vimes get to the bottom of things before he finds himself at the bottom of the river known as Old Treachery?

I always forget how good Terry Pratchett is during the year or years between new books. To the outsider, it would be easy to dismiss the Discworld books as silly fantasy novels. While they are silly, the Discworld books always deal with real issues as well. In this case, slavery and drugs. Snuff raises questions of what it means to be sentient, human rights, and the evils of looking the other way when something bad happens.

Pratchett's writing reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse's more with each passing book. I lost count of the clever lines. I even noticed reference to Tombstone ("I don't think I'm going to let you arrest me today."), Deadwood, and Jane Austen.

The characters are what drive the Discworld stories. Good thing, because they could easily degenerate into mindless silliness otherwise. Sam Vimes and his relationships with his family and the people of Ramkim were what made the story. Vimes' pep-talks with Feenie about what it means to be a copper, his caring tolerance for his son's fascination with poo, and his feelings toward the goblins showed why Pratchett is more than just a fantasy writer.

The plot itself was pretty good. A goblin is murdered while Sam Vimes is on vacation and he starts pulling at threads to find out why, leading him to discover smuggling and corruption. The disgusting religion of the goblins is explored and, by the end, society is changed. Goblins haven't been touched upon very much in the Discworld series so far and I'd say Pratchett did a great job developing them in Snuff.

I can't pretend this book was perfect, though. The last fifty pages dragged a bit. That's about the only gripe I have, actually. It's the best Discworld book in years and if Pratchett doesn't manage to write another City Watch book, it'll be a good way to end things.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Choke Hold

Choke Hold (Hard Case Crime, #68)Choke Hold by Christa Faust

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Working in a diner, Angel Dare thought she left her past behind her, both her former career as a porn star and as a vigilante taking down the men that left her for dead. All that changed when a former co-worker, Thick Vic Ventura, walked into her diner to meet his son, an up and coming MMA fighter, for the first time. Seconds later, Vic is mortally wounded by gunmen and asks Angel to take care of his son. Can Angel protect Cody and keep one step ahead of the men that want both of them dead?

Over a year ago, before Dorcester started going tits up, I pre-ordered this book, the second in the Hard Case line by Christa Faust. It was worth the wait.

This time out, Angel Dare's path intersects with the seedy underbelly of the mixed martial arts world. Much like the porn industry, there's a lot of unsavory elements lurking in the shadows and Cody is caught in the middle.

Angel is much as she was in the previous book: tough, crass, and more than a little randy. The dynamic between her, Cody, and Cody's trainer, Hank, was well done, as was Angel's conflicting feelings about Cody. The main characters went from the frying pan to the fire so many times it was almost like reading one of Norvell Page's old Spider pulps. The action was fast and frequently brutal.

Since Choke Hold takes place around the MMA world, you might think it has less smut than the previous Faust offering, Money Shot. You'd be wrong. Angel has needs, after all. One of my favorite parts near the end of the book is when Angel and company wander into an adult film convention while on the run from the bad guys.

The ending was shocking and more than a little abrupt. If I had a complaint, that would be it. Then again, it's a Hard Case so you know things will likely not end well.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I enjoyed this even more than Money Shot. The return of the Hard Case Crime series is a success so far in my book.

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Night Lines

NightlinesNightlines by John Lutz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The twin of a murdered woman hires Nudger to track down her murderer, a possible serial killer. But why is her mother trying to keep Nudger from his investigation?

Nightlines is a pretty good crime/mystery story. While part of it is solvable by the reader, it still caught napping. Parts of it are hilariously dated. The plot hinges on people using phone company service lines to hook up with strangers. Nudger uses a payphone several times. I can't talk that much about the plot without spoiling too much of it. It's a fairly standard "catch the killer before he kills again" plot but with some added wrinkles and a couple twists at the end.

There are a couple aspects of the book I enjoyed immensely. Primarily, the character of Nudger is what sold the book for me. Nudger's not your typical detective. His office is above a donut shop. He's lonely and scared a lot of the time. He doesn't carry a gun. He chews antacid tablets constantly. He throws up at crime scenes. And he's not the guy the bombshells go for. He's got so little going for him that I wanted to buy him a beer or give him a hug. His relationship with Claudia was really touching and believably done.

The other part of the book I really dug is that John Lutz is on his way to making St. Louis as much a character in the book as New York is in Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series. When Nudger complains about the traffic on 270 or talks about taking 44 to 55 and getting off on Memorial, it makes me smile. I'm not even that familiar with St. Louis and I recognized a lot of the places Nudger goes on his investigation. At one point, Nudger was on Kingshighway and I kept hoping he'd stop at Uncle Bill's Pancake House for lunch.

I've mentioned Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder in connection with Nudger a few times. They have a lot of similarities, both coming from tragic pasts, but I think Nudger may be a bit easier to relate to. If they were both stray dogs, Matthew Scudder would be the one you're afraid to pet while Nudger would be the one that's had the shit kicked out of it too many times and you feel sorry for it and give it the rest of your ham sandwich.

If you're looking for good detective yarn, Nudger's got what you need. Just don't expect him to be a superhero. He's more like the guy you let crash on your couch.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Deputy

The DeputyThe Deputy by Victor Gischler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All part-time deputy Toby Sawyer had to do was keep an eye on Luke Jordan's body. Now the corpse has vanished and people are coming out of the woodwork to put a bullet in Toby's head. Can Toby survive the night with his job and his life intact?

When I got my metric ton of free books at Bouchercon, Kemper mentioned that Victor Gischler was a good writer seconds before he went into his tantrum that I scored a free John Sandford. I have to say that that was one of many occasions when that curmudgeonly Kansan pointed me in the right direction.

Toby Sawyer's a screw-up, no two ways about it. He shows up to the crime scene wearing sweat pants and a Weezer tshirt with his badge pinned to it, wondering how he can wear his holster without his sweat pants falling down. That pretty much sums up his character. He lives in a trailer with his wife and infant son, has a girlfriend on the side, and doesn't have a lot going for him. It took me a little while but I really started getting behind Toby as he slowly stepped up and gifted the wrong-doers with hot lead.

Since The Deputy is told from the first person, I was as in the dark as Toby for most of the book. Tensions ran higher and higher the deeper I got into the book. So much shit gets piled on top of Toby that I didn't think he'd be able to dig his way out. The breakneck pace reminds me of The Wheelman quite a bit. Every time it looks like Toby's going to get a chance to rest, more bad guys come crawling out of the woodwork.

I can't really say much about the plot without ruining the book. It's well done but, like I said, I was in the dark as much as Toby was for most of the book.

The Deputy is a great example of modern day noir. It's not a perfect book by any means but it's an exciting way to spend a few hours. It's an easy four star book.

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Night and the Music

The Night and The MusicThe Night and The Music by Lawrence Block

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the first time ever, all the short stories featuring Matthew Scudder are collected between two covers.

Matthew Scudder has been my favorite detective for a few years now and I'm always ready for more of his stories. The Night and the Music is all I could hope for and more. From the touching intro by Brian Koppelman to Lawrence Block's notes at the end, I was once again entranced.

The stories presented are from various points in Matthew Scudder's career. It could easily serve as either a jumping on point for new readers or a nice summation of the series. You've got Matt solving staged suicides, setups, and mysterious deaths. There are stories of Matt during his seldom talked about days on the police force and even one of his jobs with Reliable, rounding up bootleg Batman merchandise. The later stories are my favorite. As Matt enters the later years of his life, he spends more time thinking about the old days. He and Elaine run into someone he arrested years before while vacationing in Italy. Mick Ballou and Matt talk about death and Mick asks Matt to be his best man.

The final story in the collection threatened to yank silent tears from my manly ducts. Mick has closed Grogan's and he, Matt, Elaine, and Kristin gather for one last night of stories. As Mick and Matt reminisced about the earlier times in that fabled bar, I remembered experiencing the same moments with them in the early books. If Lawrence Block never writes another Matthew Scudder book, One Last Night at Grogan's would be a beautiful way to end the series.

I can't recommend the Matthew Scudder series enough and The Night and The Music is no exception!

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