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

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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

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

Books I’m Looking Forward To in 2014

I must confess I don’t read a wide variety of authors, but the ones I do read, I really obsess over. Fortunately, two of those authors have new books coming out this year, and I’m taking this opportunity to geek out.  I did, however, find one author whose forthcoming novel looks very good, and is currently calling me from my Kindle. If anyone out there has books to recommend, feel free to leave a comment. Cheers.

Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage, by Steve Ulfelder

This is the fourth book featuring Conway Sax, who is by far my favorite PI out there right now.  The crisp prose and plots draw you in right away, too, but it is Sax–a tough, capable mechanic and part-time PI–who I come back for time and time again. Cut from the same cloth as private eyes like Philip Marlowe and Elvis Cole, this protagonist has layers, is a fully-realized character in a mystery genre that, on occasion, offers up too many flat or stock characters. As always, I can’t wait to see what Sax is up to this time. Read more about Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage by clicking here: http://www.amazon.com/Wolverine-Bros-Freight-Storage-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00GEU763E/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396874835&sr=1-1&keywords=wolverine+bros+freight+and+storage+steve+ulfelder

Don’t Ever Look Back, by Daniel Friedman

Don’t Ever Get Old was the best mystery/PI novel that came out in 2012, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting a new novel featuring Buck Schatz, who is my hero. He’s really old, really grouchy, really tough, and really, really, really funny. Best of all? He carries a gun! I’m pre-ordering this one today, and you should, to.  Read more about Buck Schatz and his latest exploits here: http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Ever-Look-Back-Mystery/dp/125002756X

Plaster City, by Johnny Shaw

As usual, I’ve come to a series late, but I’ve read a lot about this one over the past few days, and it looks great. Shaw’s editor wrote this about the book, and it drew me in like a tractor beam:

“Set against the rough landscape of the Mexican border and California desert, Plaster City overflows with beer, shotguns, and dusty outlaws. What elevates the story are the authenticity and black humor that remind me of Elmore Leonard.”

She had me at “beer, shotguns, and dusty outlaws.”  Best part is the book is available right now on Kindle First for only a $1.99.  Click here for more: http://www.amazon.com/Plaster-City-Jimmy-Veeder-Fiasco-ebook/dp/B00F2OSFNI/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

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“Important” Novels Can Be Entertaining: Book Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circleMae Holland is one lucky girl, for she’s just landed a job at the most prestigious and powerful internet company in the world. The Circle (ominous name, no?) has a sprawling campus in northern California that has everything from bowling alleys to libraries, dormitories and restaurants, day care centers and gymnasiums, and, quite often, employees never leave after the work day is finished. On campus, there are parties and athletic endeavors; there are famous musicians and artists and chefs and other celebrities brought in to perform or cook or just hang out.

Soon after taking the job, Mae becomes one of those Circlers who prefer life on campus, who prefer living in the ultra-modern dorm rooms to her own apartment. Mae’s rise up the corporate ranks is meteoric, and after she agrees to go “transparent,” which is when one wears a tiny camera on one’s person and broadcasts every minute of one’s life out to millions of strangers on the internet, she really gets caught up in the terrifying vision of The Circle’s three founders, this idea of Completion.

The Three Wise Men, as the Circle’s founders are called, invented an algorithm that links a person’s email, banking accounts, social media, and purchasing into one account known as a Circle account. No longer do users have to remember dozens of passwords; long gone is the hassle of identity theft, for a Circle account has eliminated these problems. The only issue is the Circle also has nearly unlimited access to personal information.  As it gobbles up start-up companies left and right and gains more and more control of the government in Washington, D.C., the Circle will achieve Completion when it makes having a Circle account mandatory for all Americans, when it makes voting mandatory through the system it invented called Demoxie. For Mae, the stakes really escalate when she becomes romantically involved with Kalden, who may or may not be a spy looking to bring down the Circle.

What is truly stunning about this book is how Eggers captures the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, how he builds an entire technology-obsessed, dogmatically-idealistic world peopled with realistic characters, ones we would all recognize as friends, or neighbors, or colleagues, or students.  Too, he manages to be funny and serious at the same, for this novel is both important and entertaining. The Circle is on the same plane as Orwell’s 1984 and Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, but it also has the humor (and heart) of. . .pick any novel by Vonnegut.  Eggers’s commentary on privacy, corporate monopolies, free market, government, human nature, and the Millenial generation are all spot-on, and, remarkably, not didactic or preachy in any way.

Bottom line, The Circle is a brilliantly written novel that is both timely and timeless.  Eggers has always been an ambitious writer, and thematically speaking, in this book he throws up half a dozen targets and hits them all, dead center.