Saturday, September 27, 2014



"Dead people never stop talking and sometimes the living hear."
I'm really torn with this one. I feel like I should possibly try reading it again. The book is a big sprawling epic that explores a huge colorful cast of fictional characters, all linked to the aftermath of the true life 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley (known only as "The Singer" right before the Smile Concert in Jamaica.

It's a really fascinating story, well-researched and well-conceived by brave up-and-coming Jamaican author Marlon James. It's actually one of the most interesting stories I've read in a long time, told over a span of decades, and combining politics, gang violence, drug wars, journalism, and the CIA. The characters are interesting and detailed, the star of the show being Nina Burgess, who starts in the story as a lost young woman who once had a one-night stand with the singer and at the beginning is now lingering outside of his Jamaican mansion hoping to confront him about her unborn baby and possibly get some child support. But by the end of the book she will have evolved numerous times in a grand character arc.

So why a C+? The book and the prose becomes bloated and tedious. Marlon James, undoubtedly a great writer, seems enamored by his own writing and seemed to be flexing his muscles for all to see all throughout the book. His prose has loads of poetic style but sometimes it got distracting. But every other reviewer who's read an advanced copy seems to love it. Maybe I shouldn't have started reading this while in the midst of a big job that takes up 12 hours a day and took up most of my attention. That could have really affected my patience. Because although I really enjoyed the story itself and its characters, I felt bogged down with the writing, which wasn't helped by the fact that there were a ton of constantly switching POV characters (there's a cast list of about 70 characters at the start of the book!) . I really wanted to like this more but it might have been the wrong time to read it. I will try to tackle it again. I get a sense that the book deserves it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

THE WAYS OF THE DEAD by Neely Tucker


The Ways of the Dead is set in 1999, during a time when the internet had yet to take over the media, and newspapers are still the primary source for news. After the teenage daughter of a high-powered Washington, DC judge is killed in an inner-city alley, the murder seems pretty open and shut after three black boys are arrested for the slaying. Of course they did it, right? But a head-strong DC Metro reporter smells something fishy and suspects a link between this case and a number of unsolved murders of minority women in the neighborhood. 

We've all gotten so used to reading about private detectives or police officers investigating the mysteries in crime novels. This time it was a refreshing change to read about a newspaper reporter doing the legwork and using his skills to solve the crime. The book is the debut novel of Neely Tucker, who is himself a Washington DC area reporter, who uses his knowledge to lend a real authenticity to the day to day work of the newsmen in the book. I also love reading books set in DC, as I lived there while going to college. This one was especially enjoyable as I lived in the Park View area that is prevalent in the novel. 

There are two things that make this book worth reading. The first: Tucker has a great knack for writing dialogue that sounds the way that real people talk. It flows, feels totally authentic, but has a little extra flair. His writing style reminds me the most of Richard Price, with a little hint of George Pelecanos, two of my favorites. The second, and probably the most impressive thing about the book is the main character, Sullivan "Sully" Carter. I got a kick out of reading about him and he definitely deserves a series. Sully was blown up when reporting on the war in Bosnia (with the scars to prove it), lost his true love there, drives a Ducati sports bike he didn't exactly acquire on the straight, would prefer to drink bourbon for each meal of the day, has contacts all over the city from city prosecutors to urban gang lords, and has a dogged determination in his work.
"You never stopped moving. That was the thing. You just kept pushing, driving, asking, sticking your nose in people's faces, taking the shit, the insults, fighting back the depression and the sense of hopelessness and then, out of the void, sometimes somebody told you something."
But the major problem with this novel is the plotting. The plot itself is nothing special and seems no different than any of your run of the mill modern mysteries.  The pacing is uneven and there are also too many coincidences and convenient plot points set to push the story forward. Sully is conveniently the only person in the story who believes that there is more than meets the eye in the murder, even though it seems pretty obvious. This prevented me from enjoying the book fully, but I believe with Tucker's talent for dialogue and armed with a great character like Sully. He could turn out some great work in the future if teamed up with a solid story.

Sunday, September 14, 2014



*Book 5 of the Matthew Scudder series*

That's it. If I never read another Lawrence Block novel (I shudder at the thought), this book on it's own solidifies in my mind that Block is one of the best crime novelists out there.  But this is so much more than just a "detective novel." It's a vividly written character study of the struggle to overcome alcoholism. 

In this, the fifth book in the famed Matthew Scudder series, Matt gets hired by a beautiful hooker to convince her pimp to let her get out of the life. It eventually turns into a murder investigation. But the mystery is almost completely secondary. Since the start of the series, Matt has had a steady downward arc in regards to his drinking. In the beginning he was comfortably in denial, confident in his control. But it's gotten worse with each book. And now, even though he tries to attend AA meetings, he has hit bottom. Terrified at what he's failed to see in himself and determined to stay sober, he ends up throwing his all into searching for a killer, dedicating himself to the case more than ever before. Not necessarily to do the right thing, but because it gives him something to take his mind off of his liquor jones. You get the sense that the case is the only thing that saving him from falling off the wagon again.

The personal struggle is what puts this high above the previous Scudder books (which were all good). There's just more at stake for Matthew. Block's great writing really shines when describing Matt's struggle: detailing the denial of his lack of control, the bargaining that he goes through with himself about why he should take a sip, his feelings about the AA meetings, and his realization of how serious the problem has actually become. Matt sees liquor everywhere; temptation follows him around every corner of the investigation.

And Matt isn't the only well-drawn character. I really enjoyed reading about Jan, Matt's love interest and the person who (in the previous novel) opened his eyes to his alcoholism and the solutions, as well as Chance, the level-headed pimp that totally bucks the stereotype. I enjoyed so much of this book and it's the best installment so far in a series that will hopefully only get better.

Saturday, September 6, 2014



This tale follows the title character, a career hitter for local Cape Town gangs. He and his knife have been doing good work for about 30 years, 20 of those behind bars, killing efficiently and without remorse. Then one day, he just doesn't want to do it anymore. Maybe you can call it rehabilitation, or maybe you can just call it a simple mid-life crisis. He discovers a love for gardening and is soon paroled. Suddenly in a new, tough outside world that's moved on since he's left it, he tries his best to stay out of trouble But trouble finds him after he takes a job pulling weeds in a rich lawyer's yard, and befriends the man's 6-year-old daughter. Ishmael soon finds another reason to take up a knife after discovering that the lawyer takes nightly trips into his daughter's bed at night.

This Kindle novella is a REALLY brutal one, but powerfully written. I had a hard time reading about some of the violence and terror inflicted upon children, but the struggle that Ishmael goes through to do the right thing, and his relationship with little Cindy, kept me reading. It's tightly paced and nerve-wracking. The author never makes the big mistake of apologizing for Ishmael's terrible past or asking us to forgive him.. Instead he just asks that we believe in rehabilitation.
The book also includes a bonus short story called "Falling," another hard-hitting story of the struggle for redemption. In this one, the main character is a cinematographer (which is what I do for a career, so I got a kick outta that!), who, through bad choices now, only shoots low budget porn flicks, and sparks a connection with one of the actresses.

I had never heard of this author before. I discovered that he's written a handful of thrillers set in inner city Cape Town that sound really intriguing! Time to add another writer to the to-read list! But his novels might not be for the faint of heart...

Friday, September 5, 2014

THE DROP by Dennis Lehane


Years ago, I read and enjoyed Dennis Lehane's short story, "Animal Rescue," in the collection, Boston Noir, about a lonely bartender in a Boston mob bar that finds a beaten puppy thrown in the trash. That story became the basis for the upcoming movie The Drop, adapted by the author himself. So when this book was released, I thought it might've just been the short story collection repackaged for publicity or something. But low and behold, it turned out that the short story was originally part of a nearly-finished novel manuscript! Lehane used the material he developed for the screenplay and now finished the full-length book.

The Drop is a short novel; it's fast and reads very much like a movie, with lots of snappy dialogue and limited scene setting and description. In this way, it might feel less developed than Lehane's other work. But as usual with this writer, the characters stood out to me in this one. Although not as developed as those in Mystic River or The Given Day, I didn't think they were any less well-conceived. I empathized with both main characters Bob and Marv. I really wanted to read more about the cop character of Torres and see the relationship with him and Bob further developed. He was intriguing and I think his character deserves more story. Maybe in another book? The fast pacing and the interesting cast of characters makes this a quick and solid addition to the author's work.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014



Sand sucks. 

The sand in this novel is so oppressive, invasive, and omnipresent, that after finishing the book, I felt like I needed to take a shower. Maybe two.

"His words were absorbed by the sand and blown by the wind, and there was no way of knowing how far they reached."
The book is the basis of one of my favorite Japanese movies, and it's story is so eccentric, I wanted to see how it worked as a novel. It's the tale of a man, who disappeared and was declared dead after he journeys on his own to study some bugs at an isolated beach town, and ends up in a mysterious woman's house at the bottom of a sand pit. The novel details what happens to this man at the bottom of that hole.

"The whole surface of her body was covered with a coat of fine sand, which hid the details and brought out the feminine lines; she seemed a statue gilded with sand."
The story is totally unique, bleak, and claustrophobic. It's filled with Sisyphean themes, and (as another reviewer put it) it focuses on the erosion of many different things: not just the earth but also the wearing away of boundaries as well as the wearing away of sanity. Aspects of the writing style was not to my taste though, drifting away from the narrative for numerous pages as the main character starts musing on a multitude of topics. But it's worth reading because this intriguing book is truly an original.

"While he mused on the effect of the flowing sands, he was seized from time to time by hallucinations in which he himself began to move with the flow."

Monday, September 1, 2014

CUTTER AND BONE by Newton Thornburg


There is a mystery at the center of this novel. But Cutter and Bone is less of a whodunit and more of a melancholy look at post-Vietnam disillusionment and weariness. The story follows two best friends who couldn't be any more different: Richard Bone, who abandoned his wife, children, and corporate job to live a dead-end life as a man-whore, mooching off of lonely women, and Alex Cutter, a severely wounded Vietnam vet, who seems desperate not to let anyone close to him. After Bone tells him that he might have witnessed a rich tycoon murder a teenage girl, Cutter becomes obsessed with it and dedicated to the idea of blackmailing him. 

The truth of whether or not the tycoon really did commit the crime becomes almost completely unimportant, as is any kind of quest for justice. What becomes significant for the main characters is that the blackmail scheme gives some purpose to their dead-end lives, and for Cutter, it gives him a chance to strike back against what he sees as a symbol for all of the crap that has happened in his life. 

It's a really well-written novel about desperate characters searching for significance.