Sunday, July 11, 2021

#35: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin

Ming Tsu is a Chinese orphan, raised to be a killer, who marries a white woman and sets out to go straight; but when she is kidnapped, and he is conscripted into building the railroads going westward, nothing but revenge is on his mind in Tom Lin's debut The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu.

Lin writes an offbeat genre-bender; it starts off as a pretty bleak western, with a high body count of men and horses, but takes a turn into the supernatural when Ming Tsu meets up with a blind prophet and a traveling sideshow of people with varying powers (from shape-shifting to pyrokinesis).  There are also intelligent animals and at least two characters seemingly raised from the dead.

Although there is a lot of heavy foreshadowing, a grim and bloody finale still surprises.  

Lyrically written, but doesn't fit in a single groove; for very discerning fans of traditional westerns, or for fantasy fans who don't mind a lot of cowboys.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Monday, June 28, 2021

#34: Ice Bomb Zero by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter hunts for a secret Chinese base in the Arctic, with a sexy Russian spy (there never seems to be any homely ones) as a lover and rival, in Ice Bomb Zero.

Ice Bomb Zero is part of a casual re-read I have been doing of this long-running series, which I consumed voraciously as a teen.  I picked this one by George Snyder, as he seems to be one of the pseudonymous authors favored by other readers.  Snyder had a long career as a scribe of burly men's adventure and, late in life, westerns.

This is a perfectly agreeable but unremarkable spy outing from the early 70s, with race and sexual relations not portrayed in a particularly nuanced way, as one might suspect.  The finale in the underground base unravels quickly at sort of a mid-range Roger Moore level.

The closeness in title to the popular Alistair MacLean novel Ice Station Zebra doesn't pass without notice.

I liked George Snyder's take on Nick Carter perfectly fine and would seek out another of his books.

I got this in a big lot of Nick Carters and read quickly.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

#33: The Summer of Kim Novak by Hakan Nesser

In early 60s Sweden, two teenage boys plan to spend an idyllic summer at a ramshackle lake cabin, but the real world intrudes with a mysterious murder in Hakan Nesser's The Summer of Kim Novak.

Nesser has written a popular series of police procedurals over the years; but this novel is a departure, more of a coming-of-age story and a portrait of Swedish life, with the murder unsolved but wrapped up rather enigmatically in the denouement.

Although the teens swim, bicycle, and meet girls (including the one from the title, a substitute teacher at the school who looks like Kim Novak and ends up dating an older brother), the storytelling is infused with melancholy and dread.  One kids' mom is an alcoholic, and his dad abusive; the other's mother is terminally ill.  The wide cast of characters include people on the margins, for various reasons.  The tension cranks up when the older brother is accused of the murder.

As much an exercise in literary fiction as a mystery; worthwhile for fans of either.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Friday, June 25, 2021

#32: The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt

An army investigator returns from overseas and heads into the hills of Kentucky to help his sister, a local sheriff, while trying to save his fractured marriage in Chris Offut's tough-minded rural noir The Killing Hills.

A woman's murder, her body found at a remote location, sets off a chain of retribution through the community that puts our protagonist square in the center.

Offutt writes with the authenticity of having grown up in this environment, with scenes that range from sorrowful to surreal to super-charged with danger.

This novel will undoubtedly be compared to Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens stories (and accompanying television show Justified), but where Raylan Givens seems to easily master his environment, Mick Hardin is subsumed and overcome by it, leading to a melancholy coda.

The Killing Hills is a literate, fast-paced story with memorable characters and situations; recommended for crime fans.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it very quickly.

Monday, June 14, 2021

#31: Lesson in Red by Maria Hummel

Maggie Richter is a writer/editor at a floundering art museum in L.A., from which she is on leave after helping solve an artist's murder; but the apparent suicide of a rising student artist at a top-flight L.A. art school puts her back in the mix in Maria Hummel's explosive novel Lesson in Red.

Hummel's first novel with Maggie Richter, Still Lives, was a literate thriller with a corrosive take on the art world; this one punches even harder in the underlying discussion of women in that culture.

I enjoyed this novel, but I suspect it was helped by the fact that I finished Hummel's first novel very recently.  The events of Still Lives are so closely ingrained in Lesson in Red that I don't think it would be as rewarding reading as a standalone.  And in fact there are still a number of plot threads from the first book--specifically the unusual death of one of the character's brother--that seem to be obvious fodder to make this a trilogy. 

Both of Hummel's books are hitting enough Book Clubs as to give her the chance to write another one, and I hope she does.  Recommended for those who have already read Still Lives.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library and read it very quickly.

Monday, May 31, 2021

#30: Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

A BBC radio producer in Belfast sees on television that her sister appears to be part of an IRA terrorist cell, and ends up in extreme danger learning how and why, in Flynn Berry's Northern Spy.

The latest from Berry has all of her hallmarks; it's a high-octane thriller set against the backdrop of family dynamics, with a sudden, explosive climax.  

I have liked all three of Berry's novels, which I read this year almost back to back, but the political background adds value to the storytelling in this case.  

And the words "page turning" is thrown around a lot, but this one genuinely is, as the last chapters really kept me glued to the fate of the protagonist, a single mom trying to help her sister while keeping her son and her mother out of harm's way.

Reese Witherspoon and I both recommend this one.  I checked it out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it very quickly.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

#29: Still Lives by Maria Hummel

 A failing art museum is pinning its hopes on a challenging art show featuring paintings of murdered LA women; but when the artist disappears on the night of the opening, the stakes become even higher in Maria Hummel's Still Lives.

Hummel writes a highly literary thriller that is as much a searing indictment on the California art scene as it is a mystery.  In fact, our protagonist--a writer/editor at the museum with a background in investigative journalism, which she left after a traumatic experience--doesn't really knuckle down and get into finding the artist until about halfway through.

Hummel's background seems to be literary fiction, and she is a professor of English, but even though there are highly interesting characters and relationships and vivid writing,  it is in the end just a crackling good thriller.  It's rare that I have trouble putting a book down, but the last fifty pages or so had me locked in.

I really enjoyed this book and will recommend it readily.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana, and read it very quickly.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

#28: Pursuit of the Eagle by Nick Carter

 Killmaster Nick Carter is tracking an intelligent dog (!) when he finds what looks to be a missing American plane, and is soon on the trail of a kidnapped scientist in Pursuit of the Eagle.

This novel is part of my careful re-read of a favorite series as a youth, before I knew that Nick Carter wasn't a real person but a full slate of authors of various abilities.  I selected this one because it was written by Gayle Lynds, a thriller writer whose work I also read steadily--under her own name--as a young man.

This is a meat-and-potatoes thriller, but feels kind of low-stakes, with Carter being chased by Bulgarian spies and a not particularly adept German terrorist group while being helped by a Macedonian freedom fighter and a jolly French spy.

The mid-80s Eastern European politics seems about right, and the action comes steadily, so a solid entry for fans of the series.  Lynds wrote a handful of these--as did her husband, Dennis Lynds--and I would read another if I found one.

I've been steadily picking these Nick Carter books up here and there and read this one quickly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

#27: A Double Life by Flynn Berry

A child survives a murderous night in her own home, and her affluent father disappears afterwards and becomes the prime suspect; as an adult, she tries to find out if he is dead or alive, and uncovers a wide-ranging connection to his upper-crust friends in Flynn Berry's A Double Life.

This is Berry's follow-up to the superb Under the Harrow, and I picked this one up quickly thereafter because I enjoyed the first so much.  I think this novel suffers a bit from such close comparison; both feature a troubled protagonist, and a close family member with hidden motives.  The denouement here unravels very quickly, and is not quite as satisfying.

But A Double Life is still a cut above the standard thriller fare, and I am sure I will continue to read Berry's work.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

#26: Northern Heist by Richard O'Rawe

A gang of robbers knock over a Belfast bank, and soon have the cops and the IRA out hunting them, in Richard O'Rawe's Northern Heist.

This is O'Rawe's first foray into fiction after writing several nonfiction accounts based around his own experiences in the IRA.  Northern Heist is a bit of both, fictionalized but based on a true-life large-scale bank robbery in Belfast in the early 2000s.

Of course, there is almost immediately double-crossings, close calls, and other shenanigans, otherwise it would be a short story and not a novel.

O'Rawe writes a very hard-boiled heist novel, and hits all the right beats on par with a Donald Westlake outing.  

I thought the biggest shortcoming is O'Rawe invites the reader to root for the main characters, which I struggled with when they kidnapped two families and terrorized them, forcing two bank employees to carry out the biggest aspect of the heist (called a "tiger kidnapping").

A good heist novel overall, for fans of this type of fiction.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

#25: We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

More than twenty years after a nuclear apocalypse, a submarine with a single working warhead (and a shipboard culture that has morphed strangely over time) waits to unleash Final Judgment in Andrew Kelly Stewart's We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep.

As the signs for the End Times accelerate, a single crewmember--rescued from "Topside" years ago for a secret reason--begins to question everything that is going on in the rapidly declining ship.

As curious a genre mash-up that I've read, riffing on elements of The Hunt for Red October, The Caine Mutiny, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, all top of mind but not an exclusive list, as the story zooms along at a breakneck pace.

A slender read, but chock full of ideas, with an enigmatic but satisfying ending.  Recommended.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

#24: Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

A young woman stumbles upon her sister's dead body, then starts an investigation of her own when the police seem stalled, in Flynn Berry's debut Under the Harrow.

Berry writes my favorite kind of crime story--one featuring an unreliable narrator, whose complex relationship with her sister leads to some troubling reveals in the storytelling.  

Both the protagonist and her sister prove to be complicated, deeply flawed characters, which plays out in various ways, including a genuinely surprising ending.  The reader gets the sneaking suspicion that they really don't know any of the characters at all, and are left guessing what really happened right to the last few pages.

Under the Harrow is a very compelling, literate thriller that I read quickly, on loan from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.  

One of my favorite reads of the year to date and recommended for thriller fans.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

#23: The Romantics by Peter Brandvold

 A semi-retired gun-hand leads a newlywed couple into hostile territory with a map to a lost treasure, fighting Apaches, Mexican soldiers, and cold-blooded killers on one hand while fighting off the temptations of the heart with the other in Peter Brandvold's The Romantics.

Brandvold has written scores of what he calls "fast action" westerns, adult-oriented paperbacks with plenty of killing and sex, but he paints on a much broader canvas in this one.  The Romantics hearkens back to the old-fashioned western movies, one part The Searchers and one part The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The Romantics refers to both the romance of finding a lost treasure, and the blossoming romance between the gunman, with his own troubled past, and the bride in a marriage of convenience.

This one features an absolutely rip-roaring third act with a memorable set-piece in a series of caves.

I always pick up Brandvold when I find him and enjoy his writing, but this is my favorite thus far of his large bibliography.  Recommended for western fans.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Friday, April 16, 2021

#22: Later by Stephen King

 A kid sees dead people, but when one starts taking an interest to him, he and his mother are in a dangerous spot in Stephen King's Later.

King has now written a couple of these crime-flavored, supernatural-tinged novels for the Hard Case Crime line.  Hard Case Crime has largely printed reprints of forgotten noir novels, or contemporary novels in that classic vein, but King has somehow forged a relationship with them, and who would turn down a Stephen King novel?

I hate to say, if I did not know King wrote it, I would say it was a second-tier Stephen King knockoff.  The story of a kid with powers and a troubled single parent is not unfamiliar to King fans.

I think what really took me out of the story is that the narrator is in his 20s, in contemporary time, talking about his childhood in the early 2000s, but uses the slang of a guy in his 70s (like the author).  It was surprisingly tone deaf to how modern kids and teenagers talk.

For people who read everything Stephen King writes.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

#21: The Cairo Mafia by Nick Carter

 A spy accidentally switches a briefcase with Russian plans for a briefcase full of drugs, leading to his death and bringing the incident to the attention of Killmaster Nick Carter in The Cairo Mafia.

I've been revisiting some Nick Carters through adult eyes, after binge-reading through them as a teenager.  I decided to give veteran wordslinger Ralph Hayes another chance, after being disappointed in Agent Counter Agent.

This has a slam-bang open, with Carter breaking into an African prison to kill somebody, then breaking out again.  Once he finds out about the death of his fellow agent, he races his Russian counterparts into Cairo to find the plans and dismantle the crime ring that started it all.

Carter has the help of an Interpol agent/belly dancer and the hindrance of many, many foes.

While still a second-tier spy novel, this one was a more enjoyable read than the last, and much better plotted.  

I picked this up in a lot of Nick Carters somewhere and read it quickly.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

#20: Agent Counter-Agent by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter gets captured and brainwashed by Soviet agents intent on disrupting a South American conference in Agent Counter-Agent, penned by hard-working pulp writer Ralph Hayes.

Hayes has written across all genres from men's adventure to western to romance over a long period of time.  He did a handful in this extensive spy series that I read steadily as a teenager and have decided to revisit here and there with adult eyes.

At the time, I did not know Nick Carter was not a single person but a large cadre of writers, generally thought to have worked with mixed results.  Even as a teenager I thought some were markedly better than others.

This one has a pretty rickety plot, where the spies break into the AXE training center to taunt Carter into catching them in their plans, which his espionage colleagues don't seem to believe for whatever reason.  Naturally it's a female double agent with a knockout lipstick that causes Carter's downfall.  Curiously, Carter is brainwashed into thinking he is an assassin pretending to be Nick Carter, a baroque ruse, and sent to kill the Venezuelan President and American Vice President. 

Fortunately his brainwashing is broken by a jet flying overhead, too complicated to explain, and is able to break the spy ring.

Definitely a second-tier spy novel, but written in an interesting enough way to give Hayes another try.  I got this one in a big batch of Nick Carters from a friend and have another Hayes standing by.

Friday, April 2, 2021

#19: Too Rough for San Remo by Marshall Grover

Two amiable but dangerous Texas cowpokes drift into a small town about to explode in a deadly double-cross in Marshall Grover's Too Rough for San Remo.

Grover was Australian Leonard Meares, who clocked hundreds and hundreds of westerns in his time, with a number landing on these shores.  Confusing is that he is called Marshall McCoy here, for some reason, and his easygoing protagonists Larry and Stretch are called Larry and Streak.  He is also wrote another, more sober series called Big Jim which was christened Nevada Jim here.

These slender volumes are hard to find in the wild, so I have a tendency to buy any I find for under ten dollars, anywhere.  This one relies less on comedy and more on a large ensemble cast of outlaws, including a batch passing themselves off as soldiers to steal some gold.

After an opening scene where Larry and Stretch are skinny-dipping and left to wander naked after all of their clothes--as well as their guns and horses--are stolen, they seem to take a bit of a back seat to the action, signing on as reluctant deputies to catch the owlhoots.

I enjoy these fast-moving and fast-reading westerns and think it is a series worth seeking out.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

#18: The Vultures of Sierra Madre by Louis Masterson

U.S. Marshall Morgan Kane reluctantly teams up with a formerly imprisoned Apache scout to hunt a bloodthirsty band of white and Mexican scalphunters in The Vultures of Sierra Madre, part of the long-running western series by Louis Masterson.

Masterson was actually Norwegian Kjell Hallbing, who wrote close to 100 books featuring Kane over an extended period of time, with a number translated into English.  I find them difficult to come across in the wild, and if I see one online for less than ten dollars I will grab it up.

This was a sturdy western and seems to offer more continuity between novels than what is the norm in the usual action-driven western series.  Kane talks about the death of a former love, and we see the return of an old enemy and an old friend from previous installments.

I think Masterson's westerns are a cut above and are recommended for genre fans.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

#17: The Historians by Cecilia Ekbäck

In World War II-era Sweden, a young woman finds her old college friend's death is tied to an ugly national conspiracy in Cecilia Ekback's The Historians.

Ekback's historical thriller explores Sweden's status in the war, trying to balance the steadily encroaching Nazis with the needs of the Allies as well as the shifting politics of their own country.  It's a different perspective than I often see in war stories.

But it's also a crackling good thriller with a steady body count, as our protagonist teams up with a government official in hot water, and ends up at a mysterious mountaintop mining operation before finding out how deep the conspiracy runs.  

Spying, treachery, and murder are all in play, and even if the reader sees the denouement coming quicker than the characters it is still fun.

Satisfactory on all counts, with some unsettling true-life elements.  A worthwhile read I checked out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

#16: Assignment Star Stealers by Edward S. Aarons

Agent Sam Durell, called The Cajun, hunts a rogue group stealing satellite secrets in Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Star Stealers.

Durell ends up having to (sort of) team up with his Russian and Chinese counterparts as well as team up (so to speak) with a childhood friend and sudden widow/heiress.  As these things often do, it all ends up in a hidden base in the desert, with not too many left standing.

Aarons wrote a durable, I think underrated, spy series for several decades.  I read these as a teen and then revisited a big batch a few years ago.  This one came in a mixed box from a friend, and since I had not read one in a long while picked it up.  

This is probably the latest in the series I have read, from 1970, but still as sober and fast-moving as ever.  Features a pretty downbeat ending.

A great 50s-70s spy series, with elements from all those eras, and worth a look for espionage fans.

Friday, March 5, 2021

#15: The Trap by Melanie Raabe

A bestselling author arrives at the scene of her sister's murder, in time to catch a glimpse of the killer escaping; years later, after being homebound by trauma, she gets a glimpse of the person again on television and plots her revenge in Melanie Raabe's The Trap.

Raabe's debut novel, translated from German, has a classic unreliable narrator whose motivations and memories will leave a reader guessing throughout.

Raabe's damaged protagonist writes a thriller novel with intimate details of the crime, designed to draw the killer to her; when the suspect arrives, a cat and mouse game ensues.

I felt the book was a little overlong at 300 pages, based on a plot largely consisting of two characters circling each other in a house over a single long night.  I would have trimmed out the "novel within the novel" chapters, which were just okay. to keep it speeding along.

The Trap is a solidly-plotted thriller and of interest to genre fans.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

#14: Night in Tehran by Philip Kaplan

A diplomat in late 70s Iran navigates the end of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah in Philip Kaplan's Night in Tehran.

Kaplan is a former ambassador writing his first fiction, though it is heavily populated with real figures and situations.  He writes more of a political chess game than an espionage novel (there is only one solitary karate chop, delivered late in the narrative).  But it reads like a World War II spy novel, and even has a mysterious French journalist/spy love interest.

Kaplan's narrative is stone sober and moves at a funeral pace until the last one hundred pages or so, which have the mounting terror of a slow-motion car crash.  Readers with an interest in this time and its politics will be engaged here.

Kaplan's debut belongs in the same family as the writing of Alan Furst and John LeCarre and is a worthwhile addition to genre.

I got this from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

#13: Walk Tall, Ride Tall by Burt and Budd Arthur

Canavan is a former lawman who just wants to settle down with a new wife and a new ranch; but when he immediately gets into a gunfight with a trio of youths whose family runs the town, things get rough quickly in Burt and Budd Arthur's Walk Tall, Ride Tall.

Burt and Budd Arthur were father and son, and prolific western writers on their own and together.  

This is a pretty standard oater in the "one man against a crooked town" vein.  To me the biggest drawback is that Canavan is not particularly likeable; he is aggressive and belligerent throughout and it occurred to me more than once that the townspeople were right, and he wouldn't make a very good neighbor.

I got this from a stash of books in a Secret Santa exchange and read it quickly.

Friday, February 19, 2021

#12: The Tenant by Katrine Engberg

Two mismatched cops (is there any other kind?) look for the killer of a young Copenhagen woman with strange carvings in her face in Katrine Engberg's debut The Tenant.

The young woman's landlord was writing a murder mystery featuring a character--and murder--very much mirroring real life, leading the detectives to look into her writing group, among other leads.

Engberg comes from an arts background, and it shows in interesting details, from a subsequent dead body found in a chandelier during a ballet performance to a famous artist with a penchant for manipulating his assistants.

Otherwise this is a pretty straightforward, though fast-moving, police procedural, for fans of Scandinavian crime novels.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library and read it quickly.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

#11: The Westside Park Murders by Keith Roysdon and Douglas Walker

The Westside Park Murders is a nonfiction account about the notorious double homicide of two high schoolers in 1980s Indiana, with an extensive summary of past events and some speculation as to what happened by two local newspaper reporters.

I was extremely conflicted about reading this, as I went to high school with these students (though they were younger than me).  But it was interesting to revisit the people and places that I knew at the time.

This account is written in a very clear-eyed, journalistic style and appears to be made up of some prior newspaper articles as well as new information and interviews.  The case remains unsolved--it is occasionally revisited locally and appears to still be open--so does not really wrap up as continue to explore questions.

Although it has been featured in other articles, television programs, and podcasts over the years, this is a good read for fans of true crime.

I bought this from Amazon and read it very quickly.