Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: The Witch Elm

The Witch Elm The Witch Elm by Tana French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After suffering a brain injury during a burglary at his apartment, Toby goes to live with his terminally ill uncle Hugo. When a skull is found in a hollow tree on Hugo's property, the cops eye up Toby as a suspect. But with his brain injury, he can't be sure he's responsible or not...

I've been awaiting this Tana French book since it was available for pre-order since her Dublin Murder Squad books are some of my favorite things. I almost canceled my pre-order when I saw this was a standalone but stuck with it.

Tana French is one of my must-buy authors so it pains me to say I almost tossed this one back on the pile. The skull isn't found until about a third of the way through the book. The writing is as sharp as ever but I felt like something was missing. It was glacially paced and I didn't really care for Toby. He was unsympathetic before the beating and I only liked him a little bit more after.

Once the skull was found, however, I tore through the book in two or three long sittings. When the fuzz started sniffing around, I was about 90% sure Toby did it and was going to wind up in the clink. French ratcheted up the suspense and I was hooked for the duration. At various times, she had me believing a few different people were the killer. Things eventually went off the rails in a huge way and I was quite glad I didn't chuck it.

Once the mystery really kicked in, the book was good, almost great. Before that, I felt like she was padding things until she figured out whether she was writing a literary novel or one of her usual literary-mystery hybrids. A third of the book is too much setup for what was basically a whodunnit, no matter how well written it is!

Okay then. The Witch Elm is an enjoyable book once you get over the sloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow start. I don't want to say Tana French should stick with the Dublin Murder Squad but her next attempt at a standalone needs to be more engaging than this. Three out of five stars.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Review: The Man Who Came Uptown

The Man Who Came Uptown The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Hudson is released from jail after witness refused to testify. After developing a voracious appetite for books in the joint, he just wants to get a job and read in peace. When the detective that got his witness to bow out comes looking for a favor, it's either be a getaway driver or go back to prison...

George Pelecanos is back in fine form with The Man Who Came Uptown. Michael Hudson just wants to get his life back to normal when Phil Ornazian braces him for a favor. Just let the guy read his damn book!

The atmosphere of George Pelecanos' Washington DC is still there but it's matured some since his last outing. While there were still references to cars, music, food, and dogs, they weren't as prominent as they normally are. There was a lot more book talk, however.

The Man Who Came Uptown was more character-driven than some of Pelecanos' previous books. Michael and Anna and the bond between them was one of the most interesting parts. Who can't empathize with a guy who just wants people to leave him alone so he can read?

Since it's a Pelecanos book, I was sure it was headed toward the usual shootout with drug dealers ending but it swerved around it into something more meaningful.

While I don't think it was Pelecanos' best, The Man Who Came Uptown was his best in a long while. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: Everything is Horrible Now

Everything is Horrible Now Everything is Horrible Now by Edward Lorn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Decades ago, the people of Bay's End burned the town founder and his wife after she was accused of being a witch. When the pastor kills his family and them himself with a shotgun, things appear to be coming full circle...

I first encountered Edward Lorn on Booklikes. He's one of those insidious types that never pushes his books on you. Anyway, a little while ago, he asked if I wanted to take a look at Everything is Horrible Now. Of course I did! I read the first 20% during a rare lunch break where people left me alone and I was starving for more!

"Everything is Horrible Now" is repeated throughout the story, first by Pastor George before he blows his brains all over his front porch in front of Wesley Haversham, then by others. It's partly small town horror, shades of early Stephen King when no one was safe, part cosmic horror. Hell, most forms of horror appear between the two covers at some point.

There are several viewpoint characters: Sheriff Hap Carrigan, the lawnman that resembles Lou Ford of The Killer Inside Me more than the heroes of most detective stories, Wesley Haversham, the farm boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kirby Johnson, the homosexual boy sent to Humble Hill to be "cured," and Pete Blackwood, an imaginative boy living with his hyper-religious grandmother Beulah. Beulah's also a viewpoint character, as is Gertie Fulgore, a woman from a family stricken with a blood curse that used to worship The Bastard.

I feel like I was missing a few things by not reading every Edward Lorn book in existence but I caught references to all of his books I've read up to this point. Easy E does a great job of juxtaposing cosmic horror with the everyday small town horrors of racism, fear, and ignorance. There is some extremely creep shit going on here, like the Coat Men, the people working at Humble Hill, and whatever the fuck the kid in the eyepatch is doing. The book feels like a Laird Barron book at times, what with the cosmic horror and talk about the nature of time and such.

There's a lot of small press horror out there and a lot of it is mediocre to average. What sets Ed apart from a lot of horror is his characters. They all rang true for me, from Hap's inner demons to the friendship between Pete and Wesley. He nicely captures what it was like to be an eleven year old boy. It also helps that Ed knows how to put the words in the right order. "Like an asshole full of concertina wire" was one of the early lines that jumped out at me and there were a hundred others.

Everything is Horrible Now turned out to be quite a wild ride with a lot of crazy bumps in the road. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Review: Scapegoat

Scapegoat Scapegoat by Adam Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Rawson leaves his wife and baby behind for a weekend to go on a road trip to Wrestlemania III with Lonnie, Pork Chop, and Cyndi-from-the-bar. When they take a wrong turn and find a teenage girl with symbols carved into her body, what brand of hell have they gotten into?

Wrestling fiction is hard to come by and Adam Howe and James Newman have written some of the best. When Adam came knocking with Scapegoat, a book written by both of them, I couldn't turn him away.

While wrestling didn't turn out to be a big part of this, Scapegoat was still a fun read, a B-horror book about rock and roll and the end of the world. It's also hilarious.

Mike is the straight man of the tale, the member of the band that grew up and got a job. Lonnie and Pork Chop, still living in the days of Wrathbone, the band they thought would make them famous, have not grown up in the least. Cyndi-from-the-bar is a whole other animal. When they find a would-be teenage sacrifice, they find themselves hunted by a fundamentalist Christian sect. Hilarity and gore ensue.

Scapegoat was a lot of fun and avoided a lot of the cliches this type of book normally encompasses. Mike's not a hero or a bad ass. Neither are Pork Chop or Lonnie, though they all have their good points. It feels like a lost '80s satanic panic tale Joe Lansdale might have written.

Scapegoat is a funny, gore-strewn good time. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, September 24, 2018

Review: Death of the Territories: Expansion, Betrayal and the War that Changed Pro Wrestling Forever

Death of the Territories: Expansion, Betrayal and the War that Changed Pro Wrestling Forever Death of the Territories: Expansion, Betrayal and the War that Changed Pro Wrestling Forever by Tim Hornbaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The National Wrestling Alliance, a group of allied wrestling promoters and their territories had been around for decades. With the advent of cable TV, could the territory system survive? Not if one enterprising promoter from the Northeast has his way...

Yeah, the teaser is misleading since we all know Vince won the war. Anyway, I enjoyed National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Professional Wrestling and decided to pick this up. I was not disappointed.

Death of the Territories starts with an overview of the established system, the National Wrestling Alliance, and details various bumps in the road, like Vince McMahon Sr. hijacking Buddy Rogers and leaving the NWA, only to rejoin years later, and promoters running opposition in one another's territory.

Once the cable boom hits, there are a lot of damn pigs eyeing up the whole trough. People paint Vince McMahon Jr. as the devil, and while he's definitely got some bad points, a lot of other promoters would have expanded nationally with the resources to do so.

I've gleaned a lot of this information from various books and documentaries over the years but this time I feel like I got the whole picture. There wasn't any bias. It didn't go out of its way to drag Vince McMahon through the mud and it didn't make him a saint, either, like a lot of WWE-made material does.

All the maneuvering behind the scenes was fascinating. I had no idea about the various attempts of other promoters to go national once cable was readily available. Ever hear of Global Wrestling (not to be confused with the Global Wrestling Federation)? Me either. The book runs through the 1980s and ends when Jim Crockett sells his promotion to Ted Turner, where it becomes WCW and eventually ignites another war. Hopefully Hornbaker will cover that next.

Pretty much every territory I've ever heard of got its due here: Don Owen of Portland, the Von Erichs, Joe Blanchard, Paul Boesch, Eddie Graham, Bill Watts, and a slew of others. Each made their mark but couldn't keep up with the changing times and the Scrooge McDuck-like bank account of one Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

The warts and all presentation made it a gripping read. I read it in two sittings, a rarity for me these days.

Upon finishing, I think partly some of the old promoters going the way of the dinosaur was karma biting them in the ass. The good old boy network helped run people who weren't NWA members or aligned with the NWA out of business during most of the NWA's existence. It's just this time, it was the NWA members that got got. I think the wrestling world would be better off without one horse running the race a few laps ahead of all the others, though.

Four out of five turnbuckles. Get cracking on that Monday Night Wars book, Tim!

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Review: The Night Before

The Night Before The Night Before by Wendy Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rosie's sister Laura moved in with her and her husband after a bad breakup. When Laura tries to reenter the dating world, she goes out with a man she met on a dating website and doesn't return home the next day. But are Rosie and Joe afraid of what her date did to Laura or what she did to him?

I was invited to read this on Netgalley and took St. Martin's up on the offer. I'm glad I did.

The Night Before is a tale of secrets, obsession, and the past acting as an anchor. Or is it? Laura is a woman on the run from her past, a past that saw her high school boyfriend beaten to death with a baseball bat and a mentally ill man convicted of the crime. But is that what really happened? As one of the characters says "You never really know what's lurking inside someone" or something to that effect.

The story is split into three timelines: Laura with her therapist months before, Laura on the night of, and Rosie after Laura has disappeared. It wound up being a great tool for building suspense. Misdirection is one of the hallmarks of a good thriller for me and I think Wendy Walker had my number from the first page. I made all the wrong assumptions based on the trail she laid down, just like most of the characters. I had an inkling something was amiss but couldn't lay my finger on it until it was way too late.

I'm a gumshoe from way back. I've read a few hundred mystery and suspense novels over the years. There's nothing I enjoy more than having an author pull the wool over my eyes and make me feel like a rube. Wendy Walker accomplished just that. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: Dinosaur Jazz

Dinosaur Jazz Dinosaur Jazz by Michael Panush
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sir Edwin Crowe is a guide on Acheron Island, a South Pacific Island that is home to dinosaurs. When Selwyn Slade comes to Acheron, he means to own it all with only Sir Edwin Crowe and his Ape-Man friend James standing in his way...

I got this from Netgalley.

Dinosaur Jazz is a pulp adventure tale set on an island populated by dinosaurs in the 1920s. Sir Edwin Crowe, son of Horatio Crowe, the man who discovered Acheron Island, is the last male of the Crowe line and living as a dino-guide with his best friend and adopted brother, James the Ape-Man. When capitalism in the form of Selwyn Slade arrives, Edwin has some tough choices to make. Well, the choices aren't that tough. Edwin is a good guy and Slade and his friends are villains.

I love the setting of this book and pulp stories are always fun. I think maybe this book would do better with a different title, though. This one makes me think of a jazz quartet composed of dinosaurs.

Anyway, it's a fun popcorn sort of book, harkening back to Indiana Jones and Doc Savage. My one gripe with it was the narrator and his tone. The book is told by Sir Edwin Crowe, who is a well-mannered Englishman. His tone yanks me out of the action, a little too mannerly, a little too wordy. I had the same problem with Fury From the Tomb earlier this year.

Dinosaur Jazz was a fun read but I'm not sure I'll be reading the next book in the series. Three out of five stars.

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