Sunday, February 26, 2012

Seven thrillers, a few good reads

There's this ungodly stack of books sitting next to my computer. I haven't posted in 12 days, but I've been reading.

There's two non-fiction books I've completed that I'm going to hold off posting on for another day or two or three. As for the rest, I'm still slamming through a stack of thrillers and mysteries, trying to reduce my to-be-read pile.

So let's get to it . . .

Book 22: Wild Thing by Josh Bazell

Josh Bazell's debut novel, Beat the Reaper, was crazy wild. We're talking the mob and a shark tank and a former hit-man on the lam.  

The hit-man, Pietro Brnwa, is back in Wild Thing. This time he's the wilds of Minnesota, trying to figure out if there's really some sort of Loch Ness monster lurking in an all but inaccessible lake. What I'd say? Crazy. Wild. And a hell of a lot of fun.

Book 24:  Raylan by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is the king of cool. No one. Absolutely no one writes better dialogue. It's a form of poetry.

A lot of folks may be familiar with U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens from the tee-vee.  I haven't seen the series, Justified, but I need to. I really do. At least if it is as good as the novel.

Raylan is set in Kentucky and is more a series of vignettes -- sort of a week in the life of a U.S. Marshall -- than a cohesive narrative. That's OK. It's Elmore Leonard, which is to say it's as good as it gets.

Book 25:  A Quiet Vendetta by R.J. Ellory
Book 29:  Saints of New York by R.J. Ellory

I don't know what it is with R.J. Ellory.  One book I love. One book I hate.  That's been the pattern since I started reading the guy.  And it's the case here.

Didn't like A Quiet Vendetta one bit.  It's slow and preposterous. Preposterous, I can handle once in a while, but I can never forgive slow -- not in this genre.

Saints of New York is excellent.  A nice yarn about a driven cop haunted by his father's past. It's riveting read that will keep me coming back.

One small bone to pick.  Ellory is a Brit living in New York. Would someone please tell him that American's don't say "fortnight." Please.

Book 26:  All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley
Book 28: Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke

Two notable authors of the mystery/thriller genre. I've voiced my displeasure with each in the past.  I think they've both well past their sell-by date. One book is pretty much like the last, especially with Burke. Whether the setting is Texas or Louisiana you get the same book every time.

So here's the thing -- so many books, so little time -- and I taking a pass on these two in the future.

Book 27: Blood Is The Sky by Steve Hamilton 

I'm still reading through the complete oeuvre of Steve Hamilton and my attitude has not changed.  I love this guy's work. The novels are well-written with a touch of humor. Hamilton's skillful with character, pacing and setting.  What more could you ask? Maybe the next book in the series.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pike and Cole share the stage in Taken, another fine thriller from Robert Crais

Book 20: Taken by Robert Crais

From the beginning, his engaging characters have been the strength of thrillers from the pen of Robert Crais.

Elvis Cole, self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Detective, carried his early novels. In recent years, Joe Pike, originally only a shadowy and silent sidekick, emerged as the star of his own books.

In Taken, Crais newest novel, the pair share the stage, an arrangement that works just fine thank you.

Taken is an engrossing and highly entertaining thriller – but you could say that about any book from Crais through the past decade, and many have.

It’s not only the characters, of course. Crais was a Hollywood screenwriter before launching a career as a novelist. He knows how to ramp up a story, 0-60, in the opening pages, up to a pleasant cruising speed of 90 mph until the journey’s end.

Taken begins when an American couple are accidentally kidnapped by bajadores, bandits who prey on other bandits. The bajadores intercept people -- along with guns and drugs -- being brought into America illegally.

The bajadores then extort money from the families of the kidnap victims. When the money runs out, they kill the kidnap victims, capture more and start the process over again.

Cole is hired to find the missing couple. Naturally, he turns to Pike for help.

The best part of Taken takes place after the bad guys have been dispatched and the couple rescued. 

There’s an exchange between Cole and Pike, only a few pages in length, that summarizes everything fans like about this series. It captures the essence of the relationship between the two men and showcases Crais’ skill as a writer.

And the great thing is you’ve got to read the entire book to get there.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Grotesque Vulture Park vintage Burdett

Book 19: Vulture Peak by John Burdett

Since his first Bangkok novel, Bangkok 8, John Burdett has entertained readers through the creative use of the grotesque – via the sex and violence that populates his novels.

Burdett set the standard for all his subsequent books early, in a scene in Bangkok 8, when an American serviceman dies a gruesome death from a nest of snakes planted in his car.  Fans, who have learned to savor such moments, won’t be disappointed by his newest novel, Vulture Peak.

As with all of Burdett’s Bangkok novels, Vulture Peak features Royal Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. The son of a Thai prostitute and an American serviceman, Sonchai, a Buddhist, may be the only honest cop in Bangkok.  

In Vulture Peak, Sonchai is called upon to investigate the grotesque death of three people. The bodies, found in a wealthy Thai enclave in Phuket that's nestled on the cliffs above the Andaman Sea, are missing their finger tips, their faces and all their useable body parts from eyes to kidneys.

Sonchai is soon on the trail of twin Chinese sisters, who appear to be the Wal-Mart of worldwide suppliers of body parts.   Attempting to get close to the sisters, Sonchai flies to Dubai with a cache of “medical supplies” that turns out to be 1,764 human eyes.  (Grotesque, remember?)

During his investigation, Sonchai learns that the sisters have an extensive collection of body parts. The collection includes penises that they’ve harvested and now use as sex toys.  (I did say grotesque.)

Burdett attempts to make some serious points about the “commodification” of the human body. Sonchai’s wife and mother were in the trade and his mother still operates a successful (read lucrative) sex club. From the Thai vantage point, sex for money represents a reasonable exchange.

The girls are treated well, and are paid well. Each girl represents an important source of income for their families; perhaps the only income. 

Contrast the Thai whores with the worldwide trade in body parts. Some of the body parts come from executed prisoners, but others are harvested from unwilling victims or from the poor, desperately willing to sell a kidney in exchange for half a year’s income.

Not to worry, Burdett’s meditations on the commodification of the human body don’t get in the way of his plot or pacing. 

Vulture Peak builds to a satisfying denouement atop the cliff house, with ample grotesque moments en route to satisfy every Burdett fan.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

On Rankin, Robinson, Crumley and Lippman; three thumbs up, one down

Rankin, Robinson and Lippman complete my reading in January. Opened February with James Crumley as I continue to plow through a towering to-be-read pile by reading nothing -- or almost nothing -- but mysteries and thrillers.

Book 15:  Let It Bleed by Ian Rankin

Book 17: Cold Is The Grave by Peter Robinson

Recently, I've been whining about a couple of my favorite British writers who've wandered off in new directions. Rankin has retired Rebus and taken up with a new guy named Fox who works in the Complaints, Britain's version of America's Internal Affairs.  Robinson shelved Banks for a one-off, featuring a mysterious death in a haunted house.

The solution -- return to Rankin and Robinson's early works.  Let It Bleed was issued in America in 1996, Cold Is The Grave is from 2000.

Let It Bleed is an unusual Rebus mystery in that there are no murders to solve. Instead, two suicides lead Rebus to investigate corporate-government malfeasance.  It is an especially appropriate book for our times.

Cold Is The Grave has Banks heading off to London as a favor for Chief Constable Jimmy Riddle. Riddle dislikes Banks, but when the chief constable's daughter shows up on a porn site, he knows Banks is the man to locate her.  A favor for his boss leads Banks down a convoluted path of intrigue and murder.

Both books are perfect examples of why Rankin and Robinson have been successful writers here, and in their native Britain, for a couple of decades.

Book 18:  Dancing Bear by James Crumley 

Rankin and Robinson's mysteries are positively genteel when stacked against the hard-boiled thrillers of James Crumley. If you're seeking sex, drugs and a climbing body count, Crumley's your man.

His hero, or anti-hero, is Milo (short for Milodragovitch), a general layabout who likes his cocaine and drinks peppermint schnapps to keep some distance from whiskey.

An old (literally) girlfriend of his late father asks Milo for a favor, which promises a hefty payday for a little work.  Here's an ironclad rule for such novels -- there's no free lunch or the easier the pickings appear to be, the more dangerous the case becomes.

Soon after hiring on, Milo watches as a man is blown up. Naturally, he soon finds a grenade rigged to blow beneath the driver's seat of his own car.  From that first explosion, the body quickly starts to rise.  Milo is reluctant to kill, but his reluctance only goes so far.

There are two mysteries in Dancing Bear: What are the bad guys up to? And why was Milo ensnared in the whole thing to begin with? The answers matter a whole lot less than an exhilarating ride with Crumley

Book 16: The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman and I are parting ways. The bond between writer and reader has come apart.

The Baltimore writer is talented. I thoroughly enjoy her mysteries featuring Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan. But Lippman doesn't want to write about Monaghan quite so often any more.  Her latest works have been a series of one-offs, leaning toward a sociological exploration of bad things that happen to people, rather than outright mysteries or thrillers.

The latest, The Most Dangerous Thing, from 2011, is dull.  Lippman explores the lives of three families, all very different, but united through their children's friendship.  The kids spend most of their summers exploring a vast forest near their homes.   

They stumble upon a homeless man living in a rundown shack.  Let's just say the man isn't leaving this book under his own power.

Part of the problem with The Most Dangerous Thing is that the man's death is more unfortunate than mysterious or compelling.  And the another is that none of the families are all that interesting.  None of the characters can carry the weight of a novel.

There's a cameo by Tess Monaghan and that's a serious mistake on Lippman's part.  Tess soaks up all the energy of the novel during her brief appearance.  I wanted to stay behind with her, rather than go where Lippman wanted to take me. 

I've decided to take a pass on Lippman's future one-offs.  If she wants to bring Ms. Monaghan back, it will be as if I'd never gone away.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Flavia's next appearance: 2012

Alan Bradley reports that Flavia de Luce "isn't going anywhere."  The next book in this delightful series will appear in 2013. The details, however scant. are available here.