Book Review of THE SETUP MAN by T. T. Monday

Okay, so Johnny Adcock, a relief pitcher for the San Jose Bay Dogs and part-time private investigator, is a bit of a jerk.

And he is a millionaire with what amounts to two incredibly cool part-time jobs that pay more in a month than I make in a decade.

And he has a whip-smart and sexy girlfriend who is a venture capitalist and requires nothing more from Johnny than casual sex and witty banter.

And he travels all over the country, playing the greatest sport known to man and staying in plush hotels, and when he isn’t facing his one batter per game–note: that’s what a “set up man” in the bullpen does–he’s chasing down high-end prostitutes and fighting off Mexican gangsters and setting up stings.

Not a bad life, if you can get it.

Yeah, I’m jealous, for Johnny Adcock has the top two jobs on my All-Time Dream Jobs List: Major League ballplayer and private investigator.

In THE SETUP MAN, Adcock is asked by his teammate Frankie Herrera to look into a “problem with his wife.” Pretty standard stuff, until Adcock discovers Herrera’s wife has starred in a porn film, and apparently, someone is attempting to blackmail Herrera with it. As soon as Herrera enlists Adcock’s help, Herrera dies in a car crash. . .and there’s a woman in the car with him: a young prostitute.  From there, Adcock gets drawn into a ring of murder, high-end hookers, Mexican drug cartels, and blackmail. And it’s all fun.

Bottom line, this is a page turner, and even if you don’t know about or like baseball, you’ll get sucked into the narrative because of the sarcastic lead character, good dialogue, and fast-paced plot. Highly recommended.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Setup-Man-A-Novel/dp/0385538456

the set up man cover

 

 

 

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Review of DON’T DARE A DAME by M. Ruth Myers

On M. Ruth Myers’ website, the author claims her books have “strong women–small guns–smart dialogue.”  And Don’t Dare a Dame, the third book in the Maggie Sullivan detective series, makes good on those claims.  And then some.

Set during the Depression Era in Dayton, Ohio, Don’t Dare a Dame starts off in classic P.I. form with Maggie Sullivan taking a seemingly dead-end case. The Vanhorn Sisters, two sweet spinsters, one of them blind, hire Maggie to look into the disappearance of their father, who vanished some quarter of century ago during the Great Flood of 1913.  The investigation immediately turns deadly when the Vanhorn’s stepfather–and Maggie’s chief suspect–commits suicide, and then she gets hauled before the Chief of Police for asking too many questions. From there, the pot really begins to boil as Maggie discovers that the Vanhorn sisters’ suspicions are justified: their father was, indeed, murdered; the only question is: who is the killer?  But before Maggie can identify the killer and bring justice to the Vanhorn’s, her P.I. license, her livelihood, and her life will be put at risk.

Myers definitely makes good on the “strong women” in this novel, especially the protagonist Maggie Sullivan.  Tough and pretty with a smart mouth and a strong moral compass, Sullivan is a “dame” a reader can root for.  This is the passage in chapter one that really sold me on this character when Sullivan takes a bully down:

I hated to persuade him, but Neal seemed like one of those guys who needed taking down a peg or two. I gave him a quick little kitten jab in the snoot. Not enough to break it, just enough to start blood gushing down to his chin and get his attention. . .’Don’t drip on the rug on your way out,’ I said.

Now that’s my kind of detective, but if you remain unconvinced of her toughness, here’s a great exchange between Sullivan and one of her operatives after she’s caught a beating herself:

“Holy smokes, Sis! Someone roughed you up bad.”

“Yeah, but I shot him,” I said to allay his dismay. ..

“Was it Cy Warren’s mugs did it?”

“Nah,” I lied. “Some girls have a fan club. The one they started for me is people lining up to break my nose.”

But it’s not only Sullivan’s toughness and sharp tongue that make this an enjoyable read. It’s also the setting. The descriptions of the area, the secondary characters and how they act, speak, and think, and the police procedural aspects of the novel: all of these elements are authentic and highly readable. And when you add those elements with a formidable lead character and a page-turning plot, it all adds up to a great mystery.

Maggie Sullivan is in the running for my favorite new P.I. series, and I’ve already downloaded Tough Cookie to my Kindle. Don’t Dare a Dame, which was recently named a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie P.I. novel,has everything working for it. Go buy it. You will not be sorry.

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http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Dare-Maggie-Sullivan-mysteries-ebook/dp/B00GJQEGO0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404217688&sr=8-1&keywords=don%27t+dare+a+dame

 

 

Review of THE SPARTAK TRIGGER by Bryce Allen

I love the voice in this novel, which is an addictive cross between Chuck Palahniuk and Mikey Spillane with a bit of spy-fi a la Ian Fleming thrown in for good measure. What this book does (and does well) is follow the classic structure of a detective/spy novel, plot twists and tough guy dialogue included, while simultaneously poking fun at those storied genres. There are insider jokes/familiar troupes on practically every page, and the author’s influences literally pop up and say, “Hello.” Usually, a writer will deliver jokes deadpan and only acknowledge his/her influences via author interview, but Allen calls attention to his in the actual narrative, which makes the book all the more comical and enjoyable. Too, this level of self-commentary adds a layer of depth to the narrative, making THE SPARTAK TRIGGER both a novel and, in its own way, criticism. . .and entertaining criticism at that.

But all English major stuff aside, this book does the most important thing a novel should do: it makes you want to turn pages; it draws you into its world and makes you want to stay there. Bottom line, that is my most fundamental requirement for fiction, and based on that, I highly recommend reading this one.

http://www.amazon.com/Spartak-Trigger-Bryce-Allen-ebook/dp/B00J27G8PI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403983764&sr=8-1&keywords=the+spartak+trigger

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Book Review: DOVE SEASON by Johnny Shaw

In my mind, this novel can be broken down into two parts, and both of them are satisfying, but for different reasons.  Part One is about Jimmy Veeder, a good guy drifter with a sense of humor, who returns to the Imperial Valley in California to visit his dying father, Big Jack Veeder.  The highlights of this section are Shaw’s descriptions of Imperial Valley and Mexico, which is right on the border nearby.  Here is one of my favorite sections from the beginning of chapter six:

All the fun stuff is in Mexico. . . Hell, you can buy Cuban cigars. You can go to a bullfight, a dog fight, or a cock fight if that’s your pleasure. What is fun and illegal in the U.S., Mexico gladly offers in a semi-legal, slightly dangerous way. If the law looks the other way, then is it really illegal?

In this passage, Shaw comically sums up the moral and legal ambiguity of Mexico and what role America and Americans play in that ambiguity; pretty much throughout Part One, he manages to skillfully provide commentary on the complex relationship between the two countries, but without being preachy, long-winded, and, most importantly, without sacrificing the narrative thread. Another aspect of Part One I enjoyed was the relationships between Jimmy (the son) and Jack (the father).  Even in a crime novel, death bed scenes, especially death bed scenes between parent and child, could very easily come across as trite or just plain boring to read. But these aren’t.  Big Jack, a veteran and a farmer, is kind of the strong-silent type, but he has a wonderful sense of humor, especially about death.  Here’s Big Jack on death, from chapter three:

Dying is a bitch when you don’t believe in God. But I ain’t going to start now just because I’m scared. I’m afraid, and the only way I know how to kill fear is distraction. I want to die happy. I want to die laughing.  . .Let’s not let this get dark and sad and morose. Leave the crying to the women.

Throughout Part One, there are funny exchanges like this between Jimmy and Jack, the best of which happens when Jack asks his son to find him a prostitute, which, in a way, serves as the transition from Part One to Part Two.

Part Two of the novel is the crime element of this particular crime novel, and this is when the narrative really picks up speed.  Jimmy and his friend Bobby head into Mexico to locate Yolanda, a prostitute that Big Jack has a mysterious relationship with.  I never like to talk specifics about plot, but I can say this journey into Mexico brings death, kidnapping, and gangsters into the mix, which is always fun. I especially enjoy the character Tomas Morales, a stone-cold businessman who Jimmy used to look after when Tomas was a little kid. Morales is into all manner of illegal activity, but he assists Jimmy in finding Yolanda.  In this section of the novel, the reader really gets to know Jimmy, and the misadventures he gets into with Bobby are great fun.  As is their dialogue.  Here’s Bobby’s response when Jimmy asks him to go to Mexico and help Jimmy locate a hooker for Big Jack:

Your dad is fucking awesome. I am so in on this. Beats the shit out of bringing flowers. Jack wants a piece, let’s tear him off some chonch.

That made me laugh.  I also enjoyed the relationship Jimmy has with Angie, his ex-girlfriend who works at Big Jack’s hospice center. Tough as nails and every bit as funny as Bobby, Angie keeps Jimmy, a slacker by nature, focused and centered, and it is always fun to read.

Bottom line, this is an excellent book with a funny yet flawed main character and a fascinating setting.  The Mexico/US border is always fertile ground for great stories, and Johnny Shaw has certainly added a great new one.  I’ve already downloaded PLASTER CITY, which is another book in the Jimmy Veeder series. I give DOVE SEASON my highest recommendation.

http://www.amazon.com/Dove-Season-Jimmy-Veeder-Fiasco-ebook/dp/B004FPZ272/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403267409&sr=8-1&keywords=dove+season

dove season

Review of TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION by P.D. James

Aside from digging her work, particularly the Commander Adam Dalgliesh books, James has many brilliant insights on both British detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers as well as American hard-boiled fiction by Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.  Anytime a master of the genre writes what amounts to a How To Write and/or Interpret Great Detective Fiction book, a mystery novelist would be well-advised to read and take notes. . .which I did. I’ve cobbled together my favorite bits below.

James on using setting, from pages 129-131:

Place, after all, is where the characters play out their tragicomedies, and it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that we can fully enter their world…the setting is where these people live, move and have their being, and we need to breathe their air, see with their eyes, walk they paths they tread and inhabit the rooms the writer has furnished for them.

James on Raymond Chandler’s contributions to the detective genre, from page 86:

He showed crime writers that what is important goes beyond an ingenious plot, mystery and suspense. More important are the novelist’s voice, the reality of the world he creates and the strength and originality of the writing…he rejected the editor’s insistence in cutting out all descriptions on the grounds that the readers disliked anything that held up the action.

James on serial detectives, from page 153:

A serial detective has…particular advantages: an established character who does not have to be introduced afresh with each novel, a successful career in crime-solving which can add gravitas, an established family history and background and, above all, reader identification and loyalty.

James on why readers are drawn to mysteries, from page 14:

(Mysteries–my word) provide not only the satisfaction of all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors.

 

Bottom line, this book offers a treasure trove of great stuff, and it would be enjoyable for the avid mystery reader and educational for any mystery novelist, whether aspiring or already established. Often when you read a non-fiction book by a fiction writer, you can see why the writer’s novels are so good, and Talking About Detective Fiction is an excellent example of that.

talking-about-detective-fiction

 

Book Review: The Year of the Storm by John Mantooth

I’m a pre-maturely middle-aged curmudgeon, who no longer enjoys reading coming-of-age stories.  There, I said it.

Now let me say something else: The Year of the Storm, a crime/horror/literary coming-of-age novel, is a fantastic book.  Told through two perspectives, one a fourteen year old boy named Danny, the other an old man named Walter, the story revolves around two missing people: Danny’s mother and sister, who are presumed by many to be dead.  When the novel begins, Danny is desperate to know what happened, and then Walter, a chain-smoking wreck-of-a-man, appears on Danny’s doorstep in the middle of the night. Turns out, Walter may know something about Danny’s mother and sister, but in order to find them, Danny will have to engage in “slipping,” which, essentially means using the power of imagination to slip from the real world to another one.  Entered into via a hidden storm shelter, this other world is guarded by a purely evil man who is holding Danny’s mother and sister as well as two other innocent young girls. In the end, Danny faces his fears and goes into this other world, so you could also call this a quest tale.  As for plot, I don’t want to say much more.

There is much to praise in this jewel of a book, but I’ll start with the prose. Reminiscent of Ron Rash, the writing is elegantly spare with a depth of insight and heart not often seen in novels, let alone debut efforts. Throughout the narrative, I felt as if I were sitting on a back porch somewhere, cold beer in hand listening to these two men tell me a very personal, very engaging story.  It is a testament to the strength of voice in this novel that early on in the story I no longer thought of Danny and Walter as characters, but as two men, flawed and conflicted, yes, but fundamentally decent human beings, ones I could relate to and root for. Great care was put into every sentence in this novel, and it is worth reading for the prose alone, but I also appreciate–on many levels–the use of the storm shelter and the storms themselves as literary devices. Granted, bad weather–tornadoes and lightning storms, in particular–are overused tropes in literature, and in the hands of a lesser author, they might have come across as passe or trite.  But in this book, they fit perfectly and add layer upon layer of meaning.  Danny is fourteen, which, as many of us know, means he is not a boy anymore, but he is not a man either, and the storms mirror that chaotic swirl of emotions that occur during that time in adolescence. Too, the storms make for a useful metaphor for fear, or, more specifically, facing down our deepest fears.  A final element I enjoyed: this book is thematically dense while being extremely enjoyable. Weaved near-flawlessly into the fabric of the narrative are half a dozen themes: good versus evil; belief in magic; human sympathy; conquering deeply-held fears; friendship; and many more besides. And what’s particularly impressive about this is the author manages to nail pretty much of all of them.  Readers of all ages could pick up this book and find something profound about human experience, something worth reflecting on.

In the end, The Year of the Storm manages to walk confidently on that tissue-thin line between a horror/crime novel and what is known as a literary book. It manages to make a reader turn pages AND think AND feel.  That, I think, is a feat in and of itself . . .and a fairly stunning one at that.  Read this book immediately.

The Year of the Storm

http://www.amazon.com/The-Year-Storm-John-Mantooth/dp/0425265749

Book Review: Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage by Steve Ulfelder

The fourth book in the Conway Sax series, Wolverine Bros. starts off with Sax going to L.A. to track down Kenny Spoon, the has-been TV star son of Eudora Spoon, a wealthy ex-alcoholic and close friend of Sax.  Dying of cancer, Eudora wants to reconnect with her youngest son, and Sax, a part-time mechanic and full-time problem-solver, agrees, no questions asked.  Only this time, he probably should have asked some questions.  Once in Los Angeles, Sax, with the help of an ex-cop friend named McCord, discovers that Kenny Spoon is being held hostage by a tough-as-nails Brazilian gang.  Resourceful as ever, Sax manages to extract Kenny from the situation and fly him back to Massachusetts to see Eudora.  .  .but then the very next day she is shot and killed.  Questions abound as to the motivation for the killing.  Was she murdered by the Brazilian gang as payback for taking Kenny Spoon? Or was it someone after her considerable land holdings, land where a casino could be built someday? Whoever is responsible, Sax makes a solemn vow:

“No gray. . .Not this time. Everybody pays.”

Like the other installments of this series, the plot in Wolverine Bros. is engaging, fast-paced, and action-packed.  I was particularly impressed with the monologue-type feel to Sax’s narration, the way you can actually hear the narrator’s distinct voice as you read, almost as if Conway was sitting in your living room, iced tea in hand, telling you a wild story. Another impressive aspect: the clipped prose and short paragraphs, both of which keep the story move, move, moving, and give the narration a sense of immediacy and urgency.  But what I really think is genius about these books is the well-rounded (and constantly-evolving) protagonist Conway Sax.  As a reader, I can easily identify with Sax, for he is practically everything good fathers attempt to teach their sons: he is tough, honest, reliable, capable, and persistent.  And those qualities are sorely missing in people in general and men in particular these days.  In my book, that makes Conway Sax a bonafide hero, a flawed yet honorable man who knows the difference between legal and moral, between right and wrong, AND has the guts to do more than just talk.  But if you require more evidence that this is a truly dynamic character, here’s a quick quote from page 77 of Wolverine Bros.

“It struck me once while watching the National Geographic Channel. . .that I was a certain kind of pilot fish. . .They’re parasites–they swim alongside sharks, waiting for a kill, surviving on fallen morsels. . .I don’t wait for a kill and snap up morsels.  I ease the need. . . I find need. I attach myself, swim alongside. . .It’s the attaching that bothers me. What would I be, I sometimes wonder, what would I do if I was purely on my own?”

This is but a small sample of what makes Conway Sax the most realistic and most compelling of PIs out there today, what makes him the natural successor to tough-but-moral private eyes like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. Any serious fan of the PI/hard-boiled genre should be reading Ulfelder’s books. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

http://www.amazon.com/Wolverine-Bros-Freight-Storage-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00GEU763E/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397489412&sr=8-1&keywords=wolverine+bros+freight+and+storage

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