Friday, January 14, 2022

#3: The Reluctant Gun Hand by Logan Winters

A misunderstanding lands a cowpoke a six-month prison sentence after a crooked gambler draws on him, and he has no luck staying out of trouble when he gets out, in Logan Winters' The Reluctant Gun Hand.

Winters was Paul Lederer, one of a legion of hard-working old-fashioned paperback scribes who wrote under a handful of names.  This one is a very solid western that reads almost like a noir.

The plot is definitely noir-flavored:  our protagonist is trying to make it back to a nice frontier gal, but is bushwhacked and then waylaid into a gang of outlaws preparing a robbery, with a triple-crossing femme fatale front and center.

Enjoyable, fast read I got for my beloved Kindle and read very quickly over a couple of winter's days.  I'll continue to read Lederer, in all his names, whenever I find him.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

#2: The Heap by Sean Adams

A giant, hive-like apartment building, designed as a sort of social experiment, collapses; somewhere deep inside, a lone DJ broadcasts from a radio station there, hanging on as his brother and an eclectic crew try to dig down to him in Sean Adams' The Heap.

With its frustrated middle management, fractured relationships, telephone booths, radio stations, instant coffee, and burnt-orange paint schemes, Adams' book reads exactly like a lost Philip K. Dick novel, and I enjoyed it more for that.  To me, it is a contemporary novel written as if was penned in the 60s or 70s and imagining today, if that makes sense.  

Unusual setting, with wry plotting that propels right along and holds a few surprises.

Recommended for sci-fi fans of Dick, Ballard, Delany, LeGuin.  I got this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

#1: Hello, Transcriber by Hannah Morrissey

A troubled police transcriber in a crime-choked Wisconsin town makes a spate of poor decisions that puts her right in the middle of a murder investigation in Hannah Morrissey's debut Hello, Transcriber.

Morrissey features an unreliable narrator (one of my favorite topics in crime fiction), signaling from the opening pages when the protagonist contemplates jumping off the bridge.  She then starts a destructive affair with a detective just back from suspension, investigating a murder that might involve her duplex neighbor.

The crime aspects hit all the right beats, but it is the characters and setting that really shine.  As opposed to a TV show like Fargo, Morrissey doesn't hold her Midwesterners at an ironic distance; she lives in Wisconsin (and was also a police transcriber), and her characters are flawed and fully-realized.

A good way to start off 2022; recommended for genre fans.  

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

Friday, December 31, 2021

Top Ten of 2021

In another bad year, I had a good reading year, with a lot of great choices below.  Here are my Top Ten books, in a year where I passed by goal of 50 and hit 64.   Enjoy!

RAZORBLADE TEARS by SA Cosby

STILL LIVES by Maria Hummel

ZERO ZONE by Scott O'Connor

UNDER THE HARROW by Flynn Berry

THE RESISTERS by Gish Jen

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead

THE KILLING HILLS by Chris Offutt

THE GUIDE by Peter Heller

THE BODY SCOUT by Lincoln Michel

THE MISSING AMERICAN by Kwei Quartey

Thursday, December 23, 2021

#64: Girl A by Abigail Dean

 A teenager breaks her chains and escapes from the family home, revealing a literal house of horrors to the world; several decades later, the surviving siblings cope with their lives in various ways in Abigail Dean's Girl A.

The Girl A of the title is now a lawyer, who reluctantly inherits the abandoned childhood home and desires to turn it into a community center; but she has to--even more reluctantly--gather up her brothers and sisters, among them a brother who is a headmaster at a school, a sister who has found religion, and another brother who has descended into drugs.

Although the flashbacks to what happened at the hands of their father, who seemed to be slowly and then quickly going mad, are short, they are very potent, and based on that alone the book cannot be recommended to anyone with even a modest history of childhood trauma.

But the novel is really about the complicated connections between siblings, and is a sharp, literate novel in that regard.  More of an examination of a shattered family than a thriller, but a few twists and turns in the latter third--one I saw coming and one I didn't--could land it in a couple of different categories on the bookstore shelves.

Recommended for those with a high tolerance for harrowing storytelling.

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

#63: Seducers in Ecuador by Vita Sackville-West

A man dons a pair of heavy, blue-tinged sunglasses in Egypt but decides not to take them off when he gets back to London, setting off a chain of disasters including a secret marriage, a murder, and an execution, in Vita Sackville-West's Seducers in Ecuador.

Sackville-West's slender novella from the 20s is heavy on plot, dark humor, and irony and is a brisk, prickly read.  The "seducers" of the title are men a lovelorn young woman is (supposedly) writing to when she agrees to the secret marriage.  Why she agrees to it is confounding right up to the end, and even then you aren't sure what is true or not.

I first learned of the author through a film about her romantic relationship with Virginia Woolf.  Over the years, Sackville-West's star has dimmed while Woolf's has only grown, though during their time together (and the time of the writing of the novella) Sackville-West was more popular as an author.

Her work is worth a look, if you are unfamiliar with her.  I will definitely seek out more.

I bought a lot of Vita Sackville-West novels from eBay for my wife, a Humanities professor, and picked this one up out of curiosity. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

#62: All's Hell on Peach Street by Brett McKinley

A young man, more or less raised by a frontier town when he was orphaned, inadvertently wins a shoot-out with a deadly outlaw; when the rest of the gang seeks revenge, the town rises up to protect him in Brett McKinley's All's Hell on Peach Street.

This oater from Cleveland Publishing, a long-time Australian company, was actually written by Paul Wheelahan, who wrote hundreds of westerns for Cleveland under a fistful of names (as well as writing comic books and TV shows).

I didn't know anything about the McKinley moniker and picked it up based on the offbeat title alone.  It's an above-average western with an interesting plot and characters and lightning-fast action.

I find it extremely difficult to find Cleveland westerns in the United States, but happily got this for my beloved Kindle and read it very quickly.  Interested in reading more from this writer, under whatever name.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

#61: Triple Cross by Nick Carter

KIllmaster Nick Carter hunts an elusive, suicidal group of assassins called Blood Eagle across the European continent in one of Dennis Lynds' entries in the long-running spy series, Triple Cross.

Triple Cross was part of my casual re-read of the Nick Carter series I was so devoted to as a teenager.

Dennis Lynds writes a more well-rounded Nick Carter than some of the other authors (all writing quickly, with little reference to what happened in previous editions) and imagines more epic, complicated stories (in my opinion).

However, Lynds doesn't mind falling back on the familiar "teaming up with the sexy Soviet spy" trope.  Carter and his sidekick have quite a few setbacks and surprises before they uncover Blood Eagle, and their curious motive that crosses national boundaries.

Along with the Nick Carter novels penned by Martin Cruz Smith, I find Dennis Lynds one of my favorites to date, with this being the second one I've come across by him.

I got this from a big lot of Nick Carter paperbacks somewhere and read it quickly.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

#60: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

A furniture dealer kind of trying to go straight, and his cousin who is not trying as hard, get into a variety of scrapes in late 50s-early 60s Harlem in Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle.

The cousins first get involved in a hotel robbery, where they steal something from a crime lord by mistake; then, later, the furniture dealer gets an elaborate revenge after a snub; and then in a melancholy coda the cousin gets afoul of a powerful New York family.

Whitehead is a literary writer whose books can loosely slip into various genres, from crime to science fiction to fantasy.  This one is an good read, with interesting characters and sense of place and time, and would be enjoyable by fans of literary fiction or crime fiction.

Dion Graham is one of my favorite audiobook narrators, and he did another great job here.  I checked it out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and finished it quickly.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

#59: The Green Wolf Connection by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter finds himself on loan to the CIA for a hit on a terrorist called The Green Wolf, but quickly finds himself the patsy in a larger scheme, in The Green Wolf Connection, an action-driven entry in the long-running spy series, this one penned by Dennis Lynds.

This is part of my casual re-read of a series I enjoyed as a teenager; this entry is from the mid-70s, right when I was reading them.  I don't know if I have ever read anything by Dennis Lynds--although he wrote under several other names--but I was a fan of his wife Gayle Lynds' spy novels (and she wrote some Nick Carter books, too).

I once read where someone said that there is so little continuity between Carter novels, written so quickly by a legion of paperback authors over such a long period of time, that it is better to treat each author's Nick Carter as its own character apart from the ones from other writers.  

I did find Dennis Lynds' Carter markedly different than some I've read; a bit more cynical and cerebral but just as quick to fight or have sex as any other iteration.

More so, Lynds writes good action, with big set pieces, making this entry a cut above the usual b-grade fare from the Killmaster novels.

I got this from a big lot of Nick Carter books somewhere and read it quickly.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

#58: The Resisters by Gish Jen

In a near-future dystopia, a couple give birth to a child with an unearthly pitching arm; as she grows, her family's struggles with a totalitarian government run by artificial intelligence expands as well--until she's needed for the Olympic baseball team.  

Gish Jen's The Resisters is a heady mix of David Halberstam and George Orwell, Big Brother by way of Sandy Koufax.

If there was ever a year I would read two dystopian baseball novels, I guess this was it (the other was The Body Scout). This one I found to be more literary-minded, closer to an early Margaret Atwood.  

Besides a few eccentric touches, the world-building is very close to believable, and probably my favorite part of the book.  But the baseball passages also reflect how the sport became known as the national past-time.

The Resisters is an offbeat read for really anyone who likes genre or mainstream fiction.  Recommended.

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

Thursday, November 11, 2021

#57: Who's Afraid? by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

 A cheery young woman takes a job as a traveling salesperson, and almost immediately finds herself surrounded by menace, in Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's Who's Afraid?

Our protagonist is calling on housewives in a small town, but quickly finds the husband of one of them dead along a path, with herself in the law's sights.  She tries to keep up her spirits even while a pair of young men--whose motives she begins to question--both vie to help her.

Stark House Press seems to be trying singlehandedly to bring Holding's work back into the public eye (she wrote from the 20s-50s), and deservedly so; she is a sharp, darkly funny crime writer.

I was very shocked to find an Ace Double with this on one side and her Widow's Mite on the other out in the wild on a camping trip, as her books are hard to find outside of Stark House Press reprints.  Unfortunately, I dropped it and my dog promptly peed on it.  I bought the Stark House Kindle version to finish it up.  

Credit where credit is due, when I posted about this on social media, Stark House Press sent me two more Holding books for Kindle, a welcome surprise.

I read this one quickly and enjoyed it; recommended for those who have yet to discover Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.

Friday, November 5, 2021

#56: Slow Bear by Anthony Neil Smith

 A former cop on a North Dakota Indian reservation tries to follow his tarnished code of ethics, but his own phantoms keep getting in the way, in Anthony Neil Smith's relentlessly grim noir Slow Bear.

Smith is a tough-minded crime writer who sets his books in bleak midwestern settings.  This short, blistering novel seems to be the first of a series (or has a pretty nihilistic ending).  

In it, Micah "Slow Bear" Cross, wounded physically and emotionally, is at the dead end of a dead-end town but gets modest comfort from a bartender he befriends.  When misfortune befalls her, Cross sets out to tackle a crime boss, with fatalistic results.

I would think this blog's readers, seeing the adjectives I've used above, would understand that this is as black a chunk of noir as you come across in contemporary writing.  If not, fair warning.  

Enjoyable for crime fans who like their narratives as dark.

I bought this from Fahrenheit Press and read it quickly.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

#55: No One Goes Alone by Eric Larson

A family staying in a house on a remote island off the British coast disappears, and an intrepid group of paranormal investigators heads there to find out if anything spooky happened to them, in No One Goes Alone by Eric Larson.

Larson is known as a non-fiction writer--my favorite is The Devil in the White City--but he makes the jump to fiction in this outing, which takes place in the early 20th Century and features several historic figures.  

Perhaps more unusually, Larson decided this would only come out as an audiobook, as he stated ghost stories should be read aloud.

Larson's book feels as if it could have been written in that time period, and is overall more atmospheric than downright scary, but is an enjoyable listen with an unsettling denouement.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

#54: The Foreign Girls by Sergio Olguin

An Argentinian investigative reporter goes on vacation, and meets two young women she decides to travel with; but one fateful night those women turn up dead, and the reporter won't quit until she knows what happened in Sergio Olguin's The Foreign Girls.

This is the second in Olguin's Veronica Rosenthal series, and carries over some of the threads from the first book, but is missing the previous story's unusual plot.

The first novel, The Fragility of Bodies, centered around a sinister gambling ring that bets on whether underprivileged kids can jump out of the way of a speeding train in time.  This one is more standard, as the two girls' deaths seem to be tied loosely to occult practices but more directly to a pair of affluent families who have literally gotten away with murder over the years.

The most interesting part, for North American readers, might be the casual and pervasive political corruption in Argentina that the reporter and her intrepid friends deal with, while trying to bring to justice people who normally don't have to be ruled by it.

Philosophical, but laden with sex and violence; compulsively readable, but a half-step from the first novel.  

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it quickly.

Monday, November 1, 2021

#53: The Lonely Grave by Dave Waldo

Easygoing gun-hand Johnny Ross ends up the sheriff of a cowed town caught up in a range war in Dave Waldo's oater The Lonely Grave.

Waldo apparently wrote a number of novels about Ross, but this is the first one I've ever come across, finding it in the wild at a flea market.  

Waldo writes a steady, though unsurprising, western, helped considerably by a light first-person narrative style.  The laconic commentary adds value.  The gunfights come at a regular pace and a modest frontier romance blooms.

I liked Dave Waldo's writing style for a quick read and will look for more of his work.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

#52: The Mark of Cosa Nostra by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter and a rookie agent go undercover to break up a heroin ring in The Mark of Cosa Nostra, an early 70s installment in the long-running spy series.

I picked this up as part of my casual re-read of the Nick Carter paperbacks that I enjoyed so much as a teenager.  This one was actually written by George Snyder, who penned lots of men's adventure stories.

Carter and his attractive young partner--armed only with a pair of specially-built panties with a spring-loaded single-shot pistol built in somehow--pose as a mafia boss and his girlfriend to unravel an unlikely, knotty plot involving the Chinese trying to take over the drug traffic into VietNam by controlling a branch of the mafia.

Convolutions aside, this is a burly, fast-moving story with an especially breakneck ending, where a badly wounded Carter tries to dispatch some baddies and free his partner. Enjoyable enough if you can ignore the broad strokes in which some characters and situations are portrayed in that moment in time.

I have a big stack of these Nick Carter books and have been working my way through them steadily.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

#51: The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel

A washed-up baseball player looks into the very public death of his all-star brother in Lincoln Michel's genre mash-up The Body Scout.

He ends up being hired by his brother's baseball team, the Monsanto Mets, and crosses paths with Neanderthal enforcers, rival scouts, an anti-technology cult, and more, all on the cusp of the World Series going to a Game Seven.

Michel's novel is a triple play of heady cyberpunk, hard-boiled noir, and old-fashioned baseball; kind of like as if David Halberstam had written Neuromancer.

Lots of offbeat world-building, a likeably tarnished protagonist, plenty of action, and a genuinely surprising (and cynical) finale all add up to an enjoyable read.

I enjoyed The Body Scout and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys (any kind of) genre fiction.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it quickly.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

#50: The Darkness Knows by Arnaldur Indridason

A body shows up in the ice melt of a glacier, and a retired Reykjavik police detective starts to try again to finish out a long-unsolved case, in Arnaldur Indridason's The Darkness Knows.

Indridason is one of my favorite crime writers, not just one of my favorite Scandinavian authors.  His Erlendur novels, beginning with Jar City, are all strong.

This is the second novel featuring Konrad, the retired detective, following on The Shadow District.  Some of his own sometimes troubling backstory comes out more in this one, and a third seems likely in the offing as his father's murder (a part of both novels) still remains unsolved at the end.

The Darkness Knows is a very solidly-assembled puzzle with interesting characters and situations, and that dash of inky blackness known to fans of Scandinavian noir.

I got this from New Castle-Henry County Public Library and read it steadily.

Monday, October 11, 2021

#49: Time Clock of Death by Nick Carter

The Russians blame the Americans for a stolen Russian plane, so Killmaster Nick Carter swings into action to find out where it really went in Time Clock of Death.

This edition of the long-running spy series comes from the early 70s and was written by George Snyder, who chopped away at all kinds of men's adventure and western novels.  

I have been doing a casual re-read of some of the series, which I loved as a teenager, and I especially remember having this one from the curious title.  I'm surprised I don't remember more of it, as it opens with a woman getting shot while having sex with Nick Carter, and I think that would have stuck in my teenaged brain.

From there Nick Carter teams up with a sexy female agent to hunt "The Colonel," ending up at a Bond-style castle on an island filled with traps and shenanigans.  A leather-clad, whip-wielding villainess and her army of female bodyguards are also right out of this era of Bond villainy.  

Sits squarely in a less sophisticated era of race and gender relations, but a solid (though unremarkable) spy outing.

I got this from a big stack of Nick Carter books I got somewhere and read this quickly on a camping trip, the best possible way to consume it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

#48: A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

 A former cop turned private eye is chucked headfirst into dangerous waters when another retired cop shows up needing a kidney in Jonathan Ames' violent, loopy detective novel A Man Named Doll.

Ames has an eclectic bibliography, but this one veers closer to his comedy-flavored private eye TV show Bored to Death.  

There is plenty of action, and our protagonist is responsible for lots of (accidental) deaths, but the core of it is pretty dark humor.  Doll gets colossally, somewhat accidentally, stoned during long passages of the novel in which he is in immense danger, which is quite funny.

Ames writes a solid detective novel with a lot of twists and turns and a likeable protagonist; it is apparently the first of a new series, and I am looking forward to the next.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it very quickly.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

#47: Faithful Place by Tana French

A cop returns to the old neighborhood when the body of his lost love is found, triggering buried secrets, in Tana French's Faithful Place, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.

The cop reluctantly reconnects with his brothers, sisters, and parents, whose fractured family dynamics--the father is a dangerous alcoholic--had driven him away several decades before.  But another killing, much closer to his family center, forces him to stay and try to find out what happened to both people.

I had seen the first season of the TV show but not read the related novels; though the connections between the novels are somewhat tenuous, with minor characters in previous books becoming main protagonists in subsequent ones.

French's strengths are her writing about the family, and the deep psychological trauma that spins out from the poisonous center.  Her sense of place--so to speak--in this case a working-class neighborhood, adds value.

My wife is a big fan of French, but this is the first I've read.  I listened to a very good audiobook reading by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  I will definitely look for more of her writing.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

#46: Ride Reckless by Marshall Grover

Two easygoing, but deadly, Texas cowpokes drift into a town ready to explode after a prospector hides a fortune in gold--and promptly dies--in Marshall Grover's Ride Reckless.

Grover was Australian Leonard Meares, who wrote literally hundreds of fast-paced westerns over several decades.  Somewhat inexplicably he is called Marshall McCoy in the States, and his two laconic protagonists Larry and Stretch are called Larry and Streak.  

Under either name, Larry and Streak take a bit of a backseat to a story about a western town under the thrall of a criminally-inclined mayor and a crooked sheriff.  The arrival of a crotchety old lady--who is the mother of the town lawyer's wife--and the niece of the dead prospector--conveniently married to a town-taming lawman--sets the whole machine of the narrative running.

Larry and Streak are a bit of a comedic Greek chorus, with the added benefit of fist fights and gun play when the story needs moving along.

I find Grover's books fast and easy reading; I knocked this one out on a weekend camping trip, and would recommend Larry and Streak to any western fans.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

#45: The Guide by Peter Heller

A fishing guide tries to reconcile his unsettling past by taking a job at a remote fishing lodge for affluent patrons, but almost immediately discovers all is not what it seems to be, in Peter Heller's The Guide.

The guide quickly finds an ally in a pop singer who has her own reasons for being there as a guest, and in short order the two are thrown together in an ever-tightening noose.

I found the thriller aspect to be compelling without being surprising, but the nature writing--with long passages about fly fishing and being in the wilderness--to be superb.  It is easy for a reader to see that Heller has a background in the outdoor lifestyle, and it makes great writing.

Heller's post-apocalyptic novel The Dog Stars is one of my favorites of the last several years and I was happy to come across this one at the public library.  

I was compelled to read this very quickly and thought the writing and storytelling were crisp throughout.  Recommended for thriller readers.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

#44: The Valdez Horses by Lee Hoffman

An aspiring young cowhand forms an uneasy friendship with an older, expert horse breeder with a troubling inner life in Lee Hoffman's The Valdez Horses.

I discovered Hoffman for the first time earlier this summer, finding a book of hers in a Little Free Library while camping in Michigan.  I immediately sought out what is considered her masterwork, this novel, right after.

This book was popular enough that it became the movie Chino starring Charles Bronson, but Hoffman wasn't on my radar nor seems to be on the radar of a lot of readers.  A shame, because this is another very solid western whose psychological elements outweigh the trappings of a standard oater.

The Valdez Horses has a very bleak ending, with a surprising uptick of hope in literally the last few words.  Just really solid writing that plumbs a lot of emotional depths.

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