Monday, December 30, 2013

#48: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

A famous fashion model plunges to her death on a London street, but her brother thinks it was murder; it's up to down-on-his-luck private eye Cormoran Strike to find out the truth in The Cuckoo's Calling.

The Cuckoo's Calling was reportedly the first novel by Robert Galbraith, and it caused a minor sensation when the world learned it was actually J.K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym.  It seems more obvious now, as this novel is written more in her whimsical, humorous style, playing with character names and offbeat situations.

Strike is a fully-realized character, a former military policeman who lost a leg in the Middle East, and more famously the illegitimate son of a legendary rocker father.  His Girl Friday, Robin, a temp with a secret love of private eye life, is an interesting foil.

But The Cuckoo's Calling is definitely a novel for adults, and as far afield from Harry Potter as Rowling could go.  Why she wanted to write this under a pseudonym is certainly worth speculating on.

But nonetheless this is a solid, legitimate crime novel and I would hope--Rowling's outing as the author or no--that Rowling writes more about Strike and Robin. 

I checked this out as an audio book from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and finished it at the very end of the year.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

#47: The Oxbow Deed by Clement Hardin

Fresh out of prison and wrongly accused, an aging cattle hand--and a hot-tempered friend he made behind bars--come home to find the ranch he left behind overrun by owlhoots, backstabbers, and other villainy in Clement Hardin's The Oxbow Deed.

Hardin, actually Dwight Bennett Newton, had a long run as a Western scribe, and this outing (the other half of an Ace Double on the flip side of Kincaid, which I reviewed earlier this year) is a highly serviceable read.

There are lots of standard characters--a blustery but fair ranch boss, his innocent daughter, a sinister gun hand who's actually a coward--but a few nice surprises and a satisfactory wrap-up.

I found this Ace Double Western at a flea market at a goodbye price and read both sides.

Undemanding but enjoyable, and I will keep my eyes peeled for more classic Clement Hardin.

Friday, December 27, 2013

#46: Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers by Sean Howe

Fans of Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon will enjoy Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers, a collection of essays where contemporary writers weigh in on their love of comic books, both reading and collecting.

This is an eclectic collection which covers everything from mainstream titles like Teen Titans to cult comic American Flag to classics like Little Nemo in Slumberland and a little of everything else along the spectrum.  Casual to hardcore comic book fans, or fans of some of the authors included (Brad Meltzer, Glen David Gold, Jonathan Lethem himself), will find something of interest within.

I was given this as a Christmas present from a friend and read it very quickly.  Enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

#45: Assignment Black Viking by Edward S. Aarons

American secret agent Sam Durell is after a device that controls the weather--which has inconveniently fell into the hands of the Red Chinese--in Edward S. Aaron's spy thriller Assignment Black Viking.

I think Aarons' Sam Durell books are underrated, considering the long span of time Aarons wrote them, and his ability to sustain an overall quality spy fiction series that is comparable to anyone.

This one, from the late 60s, tries for some of the outlandish plotting of the time period, which doesn't sit as easily on the normally sober agent called The Cajun.

Although I would consider this a minor Durell adventure, it is still enjoyable, especially as Durell deals with the deranged Scandinavian of the title, a seemingly unkillable foe who inexplicably wants to return the world to medieval times.

After a serious binge I had set aside Edward S. Aarons for a while, but I sense a return.  Recommended for fans of classic spy fiction.

Friday, December 6, 2013

#44: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

A young mathematician teams up with his mentor to solve a series of murders seemingly tied to a mathematical problem in Guillermo Martinez's The Oxford Murders.

If you are a big fan of math, and a big fan of mysteries, this novel is for you.  As I bottomed out in high school Algebra II in 1983, I found myself skimming some of the brainteasing parts and focusing more on the very tidy little mystery (although it was marred, I thought, but a jarringly enigmatic ending). 

Overall nicely written from the point of view of the protagonist in the future, writing about arriving in Oxford in the distant past, with all the memories surrounding what became a significant event in his life.

Loaned to me by a colleague, I read it quickly.  Nice for mystery fans.

Friday, November 29, 2013

#43: Poisons Unknown by Frank Kane

Swinging P.I. Johnny Liddell is in bad old New Orleans, where he quickly gets mixed up in a voodoo sex cult at the center of multiple blackmail and murder schemes in Frank Kane's Poisons Unknown.

Liddell was a popular creation of the pulp era who appeared in many slam-bang thrillers, quick with a snappy retort, prone to fisticuffs and gunplay, and easy with the dames.

I had forgotten that I had read another Frank Kane some time ago and instead got hooked by a lurid paperback cover I glimpsed at a little used bookstore in Muncie, Indiana.  I picked this up on a whim and chewed through it quickly.

A fun read, but definitely a product of its time and place for more prudent readers.

Monday, November 25, 2013

#42: Solo by William Boyd

James Bond gets involved in African post-colonial politics in William Boyd's Solo, set firmly (and enjoyably) in the time of the original 1960s James Bond series.

Boyd is the second author, after Sebastian Faulks and his novel Devil May Care, to root his contemporary Bond tale in Ian Fleming's timeline.  Faulks' novel gave off more of that swinging 60s vibe--including a villain with a monkey's paw for a hand--than Boyd's more sober meat-and-potatoes Bond, but it is a grand adventure nonetheless (with some potentially politically incorrect elements given a more contemporary spin).

I have enjoyed William Boyd as more of a literary author so I was quite surprised to see him tackle a James Bond book.  It is a worthy addition to Fleming's canon as well as a good spy novel in its own right.

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

#41: 10,000 Ways To Die by Alex Cox

After visiting Italy three summers in a row I renewed my interest in Italian cinema, especially on the pulpy side; spaghetti westerns, poliziotteschi (police films), sword and sandal epics, giallo, eurohorror. 

I came to a strange intersection where I learned that offbeat film director Alex Cox, whose film Repo Man was a touchstone of my teen years, was also considered somewhat of a spaghetti western expert.

This lead me to 10,000 Ways To Die, Cox's opinionated but notable collection of essays about the genre.  His depth of knowledge, and his love of the work (presented without irony), makes this an important work for readers who find the names Django, Ringo, and Sabata bringing a smile to their faces.

I enjoyed this book as much as his filmmaking book I read earlier this year, another tome that should be on the shelf of any filmmaker.  Cox is an engaging writer and probably a pretty interesting person, and fans of the spaghetti western genre will not be disappointed with this purchase.

I found this on Amazon and consumed it quickly.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

#40: The Prophet by Michael Koryta

Two brothers who have gone their separate ways--one, a highly respected high school football coach, the other a bail bondsman with an unfulfilled life--find their lives crashing together once more as a young woman's killing mirrors their own sister's death years before in Michael Koryta's The Prophet.

The Prophet is a big, solid thriller, in a beach read vein, but with rich, intriguing characters and a compelling plot.  Of most interest is the relationship between the two brothers--the coach, on the cusp of a state football championship, his brother on the edge of darkness--and the memories of their sister that have pulled them together even as they try to tear each other apart.

This is the first novel by Koryta that I have read, although I have been interested in him for some time as I know he is a fellow Hoosier.  I will definitely look for more of his thrillers after enjoying this one.

I listened to this on audio book on loan from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

#39: Femme by Bill Pronzini

The Nameless Detective and his crew get mixed up with the dangerous woman of the title in Bill Pronzini's Femme.

Femme is a new entry in the long Nameless Detective private eye series that has been running for decades.  Although a devoted reader at one time, I had sporadic interest in the series in recent years until I saw this one on the shelves of the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library.  In fact, it seemed so different than its predecessors that I didn't know what I was looking at for a minute.

With its throwback cover and straight-on noir plotting I gained a new interest in what was going on with this long-running character.  I found that despite reaching into pulp roots for material, the protagonist continues to grow and change, along with his supporting cast.

I felt this to be an agreeable enough mystery, probably even more so for fans of Pronzini's work.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

#38: Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

A small-town cop grows to believe that a suicide at a local fast-food restaurant might have actually been murder; but as a giant asteroid is coming to destroy the Earth, nobody much cares but him in Ben H. Winters' genre-bender Countdown City.

A strange mash-up indeed, as if Philip Marlowe washed up in Nevil Shute's On The Beach, and bumped in to Lew Archer.  Countdown City is a very philosophical entry in the apocalyptic genre and a cracking mystery to boot, topped with a harrowing ending (and it's not the world blowing up, this is the first of a trilogy).

This is the book I find myself recommending to everyone this season, joining The Dog Stars, Night Film, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as my recommendations to people who just enjoy good reads.

I bought this in paperback sight unseen because of a recommendation from a friend (who happens to be the cousin of the author), and was sufficiently floored enough to pass it around to several others when I was done.  Suffice to say, recommended.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

#37: Choke Hold by Christa Faust

Former porn star Angel Dare keeps trying to outrun trouble, but once again trouble runs faster in Christa Faust's Choke Hold.

At the apocalyptic denouement of Money Shot, the novel where Angel first appeared, Angel tried to leave behind the sordid porn industry.  However, meeting an old friend--and subsequently being asked for a favor--quickly puts her square in the middle of the only slightly less sordid world of underground fighting.

Very tough noir--part of the impeccable Hard Case Crime line--is for discerning readers only.  But it is a fast-moving, enjoyable read and a good crime story.  I am a fan of Faust and look forward to more of her work.

I bought this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

#36: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

A schoolteacher finds a time portal in the back of a diner that leads him to 1958, and after a few experiments, he hatches a plan to prevent the Kennedy assassination; but as this is a Stephen King novel, nothing quite goes as planned in 11/22/63.

I have been a bit hot and cold on King's contemporary work, but this is a sprawling, emotionally resonant story that--despite being doorstop length--holds interest throughout.

At first our protagonist tries to undo a grisly murder spree that has left a contemporary friend scarred, and also tries to help another accident victim he learns of in the present. 

Then is a lengthy, ruminative section as the teacher gets a job in a small Texas school and waits for the assassination to get closer.  This is a surprisingly warm-hearted sequence where he (ill-advisedly) falls in love with a young woman and otherwise enjoys his life in what is in some ways a gentler, easier time.

Then the tension ratchets up as the teacher circles closer to his prey, setting in motion a very surprising turn of events.

I listened to this in audiobook from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana, and felt the reading--by Craig Wasson--added tremendously to the story.

But this is a solid read for casual readers as well as long-time Stephen King fans.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

#35: The Colombian Mule by Massimo Carlotto

Three old-school criminals band together to free a colleague framed for drug smuggling in Massimo Carlotto's The Colombian Mule.

Carlotto's very tough crime novel, from the World Noir line and set in Venice, depicts a bleak world where criminals follow their own code of honor but the police follow none; and yet Carlotto fills the story with lots of dark humor.   

The Colombian Mule is also livened by memorable characters, especially Old Rossini, a former gangster whose formidable presence and rather tarnished ethics make for some of the funnier, and most frightening, parts of the novel; and his philosophical protagonist, a semi-retired crook called The Alligator.

Apparently Massimo Carlotto is very popular in his native Italy, not only for his writing but for how closely his personal life hews to his storytelling.  Recommended for fans of hard-boiled crime.

Friday, September 20, 2013

#34: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

A disgraced journalist tries to resurrect his career by investigating the suicide of the daughter of a famous, reclusive horror film director, but soon finds himself on a dark, strange path of his own in Marisha Pessl's Night Film.

I first learned of Night Film because of the interactive elements, where icons in the text can be read with a phone app to bring up additional videos and images; but this gimmick is only the tip of the iceberg in a trippy narrative.

The book has photos, mock newspaper articles, and other clues salted throughout to help the reader unravel the knotted tales alongside the protagonist (but be warned:  the enigmatic ending leaves you to draw your own conclusions).

This dense, odd mystery/horror hybrid--sort of what might happen if Stephen King wrote All The President's Men--is worthwhile for ambitious readers, and one that I have been recommending to a lot of people.

I was given this as a gift, signed by the author, and consumed it steadily.  Recommended.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

#33: The Crocodile by Maurizio de Giovanni

A good cop, unjustly accused of being a mafia informant, is shunted away to a desk job; but when a serial killer called The Crocodile--who leaves dead children and tear-stained tissues in his wake-- terrorizes Naples he is brought back to action in Maurizio de Giovanni's The Crocodile.

I have been interested in reading more Italian literature since visiting the country over the last few summers, so I was excited that World Noir, an imprint of Europa Editions, sent me several books in their new line.

This was a new author to me, but reminded me quite a bit of Andrea Camilleri and his well-known Inspector Montalbano series; and must have been the intention, as de Giovanni's protagonist is jokingly called "Montalbano" by his colleagues as the case unfolds.

The Crocodile is a compelling mystery where the grisly elements are offset by surprisingly rich slices of Italian life.  A good read for mystery fans, and fans of international literature.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

#32: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

A New York cop on the edge of burnout sees his partner killed; suddenly hungry for revenge, he gets involved in a case involving a strange and prolific serial killer in Warren Ellis' Gun Machine.

Ellis' first novel, Crooked Little Vein, was a glimpse into the weird underbelly of America; this novel aims closer to traditional mystery elements, with a little of Ellis' weirdness layered over it.

Ellis may be better known as the author of cult comic book series like Transmetropolitan and Planetary, where I first became acquainted with his work.  And therein lies the problem; I fear that fans of Ellis' unique comic book writing might find Gun Machine too bland, while casual mystery readers will find it too offbeat.

For me, however, it was just about right.  Recommended for those looking for a different type of mystery read.

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

#31: Joyland by Stephen King

In the 1970s, a young man spends his summer working at a southern amusement park at the end of its era; today, he contemplates that memorable summer of longing and death in Stephen King's Joyland.

Joyland is an unusual novel for Stephen King in a lot of ways. First, it was written for the Hard Case Crime line, a paperback series of lost noirs and original titles in the same vein; and second, despite having a ghost story at the center, and several characters who seem to display psychic powers (including a carnival fortune teller and a sick child), King firmly roots Joyland in the crime novel tradition.

Despite its unusual pedigree it is a solid thriller, infused with melancholy.  King writes in a sure-handed way and offers up a large-scale, cinematic conclusion.

I bought this for myself with an Amazon gift card and read it quickly.  Recommended for King fans and general readers.

Friday, August 9, 2013

#30: False Negative by Joseph Koenig

In 1950s Atlantic City a reporter who fell from grace ends up writing for true crime magazines; when he stumbles across a murdered woman on a lonely beach, he tries to resurrect his career and solve the crime in Joseph Koenig's False Negative.

This is another in the Hard Case Crime series, the eclectic series of lost noirs and similarly-themed contemporary novels, and has been of special note as the return of cult author Joseph Koenig, who had not published a book in several decades.

False Negative is a very tough noir, with many unpleasant elements for those with more delicate reading sensibilities.  But it is well-written with a good sense of time and place, as well as a compelling story from beginning to end.

I got this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.  Recommended for fans of the Hard Case Crime line.

Monday, August 5, 2013

#29: X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker by Alex Cox

British filmmaker Alex Cox writes about the making of a handful of his films, including the cult classic Repo Man, and also shares his filmmaking tips and general philosophies in X Films:  True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker.

As a person who has written some b-movies, I am a big fan of Alex Cox and his ethos (including his definitive writings on Spaghetti Westerns). However, I do think this collection of essays and stories would be of interest to anyone who follows independent or cult film.

Cox's frank stories and colorful adventures, frequently at the margins of mainstream Hollywood, are a fascinating read.  I would consider this collection, along with Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without A Crew, John Russo's Making Movies, and Rick Schmidt's Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices and Extreme DV a must-read for independent filmmakers.

I was surprised to find this at a go-away price on Amazon; when I was finished with it, I mailed it to a friend who is also an independent filmmaker.  Recommended for the like-minded.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

#28: Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

During the Iran hostage crisis beginning in the late 70s, CIA agent Antonio Mendez hatches an audacious plot to rescue several Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy.  The mission is outlined in this (certainly sanitized) nonfiction account (as well as a very good movie version with Ben Affleck).

Although not nearly as exciting as the movie, Argo has many interesting elements, including accounts of Mendez's disguise skills and his overall interest in Hollywood, which leads him to a scheme where he is in Iran to scout for a science-fiction film that is never going to be made.

The denouement of the rescue, finally revealed after all of these years, provides a bright spot in what was a grim time for American diplomacy.

I listened to a very good audiobook version, read by Dylan Baker, that I borrowed from the Morrisson-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

#27: Kincaid by John Callahan

A tough rancher sees his family wiped out by gun-toting Indians, and in seeking revenge gets in the middle of gun-runners and other hardcases and owlhoots in John Callahan's Kincaid.

Kincaid is a spare, hard-edged western, one half of an Ace Double (with Clement Hardin's The Oxbow Deed on the other side).  I don't know much about the author, but this is certainly part of the revisionist western tradition of the 60s and 70s.

This one features plenty of western standards, including a wise old ranch foreman, an understanding widow, a perky son frequently in harm's way, and scene-chewing villains.

Callahan's writing is not demanding, but certainly satisfying.  I found this in a big stack of paperbacks at a flea market and read it quickly.

Monday, July 22, 2013

#26: Flight to Darkness by Gil Brewer

A Korean War vet plagued by nightmares ends up in a psych ward, where he falls under the sway of nurse who is more femme fatale than Florence Nightingale in Gil Brewer's Flight to Darkness.

Brewer is a classic writer of bleak pulp noir that isn't always named alongside greats like Jim Thompson and Cornell Woolrich, but is right in that category. 

This novel features a classic unreliable protagonist whose frequent blackouts leave gaps in the story, including what happened during a hit-and-run and how another person was killed with a hammer.  A very tough story with interesting twists right to the end.

A good read for fans of pulp fiction and classic noir.  I found this one for my beloved Kindle at a goodbye price and read it quickly.

Monday, July 15, 2013

#25: Buchanan Gets Mad by Jonas Ward

A laconic drifter (of which the fictional Old West was chockablock full of) has his horse come up lame at the outskirts of a town under the sway of a sinister fire-and-brimstone preacher; he reluctantly, and then with increasing fervor, dismantles the preacher's evil empire in Jonas Ward's Buchanan Gets Mad.

Buchanan was featured in a long series of paperback westerns beginning in the 1960s; I favor the early ones, written by William Ard, replaced by a flight of pseudonymous writers after his death.  This is a pretty tough western written written in a hardboiled style.

I found this for a single dollar at a flea market, along with several others, and read this one quickly.

Friday, June 28, 2013

#24: White Dog Fell From The Sky by Eleanor Morse

An African man makes a harrowing escape from Apartheid South Africa in a hearse; as he tries to reassemble his life in Botswana, he meets an American woman whose marriage is slowly crumbling.  How their lives continue to intersect and impact each other is at the center of Eleanor Morse's White Dog Fell From The Sky.

I picked up this novel because my wife had to read it for an MFA class, and I wanted to read along.  I also support any book with a white dog in it, as I love my Westie.  This dog, however, is a somewhat mystical animal that appears at critical junctures and helps the dual protagonists in various ways.

Going into this with no preconceived notions, I ended up enjoying the novel for the most part.  I felt stronger about the high-stakes plight of the African man (who falls in with revolutionaries) than the American woman and her relationship entanglements (which soon include a rugged outdoorsman-type as a counterpoint to her husband).

A solid read about a sad, specific time in world history.  Worthwhile for general readers.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

#23: Welcome to the Octagon by Jack Tunney and Gerard Brennan

An MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter in Belfast, raising a kid on his own, gets into underground fighting with the expected results in Welcome to the Octagon, the first entry in the new Fight Card MMA ebook series.

I picked this up for my beloved Kindle because of my interest in Irish author Gerard Brennan, as well as a general enjoyment of the earlier Fight Card books, a period series that harkens back to pulp stories of old.

Even with the MMA trappings, it's still an old-school story of a palooka who makes a wrong turn, and those who like this type of stories will enjoy it fine.

Although the Fight Card novels are always short, Welcome to the Octagon seemed not only short but rather abrupt; I would have liked it to be fleshed out quite a bit more, especially in the third act.

That being said, I am sure I will continue to read the Fight Card series.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

#22: Build A Box For Wildcat by Jeff Clinton

Wildcat O'Shea is a cowboy with a penchant for dynamite and loud clothes, but has to rethink his lifestyle when saddled with a couple of ornery kids in Build a Box for Wildcat.

Despite the serious title, and a sober picture on the cover, Build a Box for Wildcat is generally a comedic western, spiked with generous fistfights and shoot-outs. 

Jeff Clinton is the pseudonym of Jack Bickham, who wrote a number of Wildcat O'Shea books as well as other westerns (such as The Apple Dumpling Gang) and in other genres.  If the film version of The Apple Dumpling Gang sticks in your childhood memory as it does mine, you can sort of gauge what kind of novel this is.

I picked this up sight unseen at a flea market with a stack of other paperbacks and found it an interesting departure.

Friday, June 14, 2013

#21: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Two teens, both named Will Grayson and both adrift in the Chicago suburbs, lead parallel lives until a big-boned, openly gay friend named Tiny brings them together in Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

I was interested in dipping into some John Green when I found this on the audiobook rack at the Morrisson-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana and decided to give it a try.

It is a funny, coming-of-age young adult story (written in alternating chapters by the two authors) which hasn't fallen far from the John Hughes tree.  The novel's frank talk about sexuality and sexual relationships (the two eventually meet in an adult bookstore) would probably make it more suitable for older teens, but its message of general acceptance of other lifestyles is good for all.  It finishes with a highly unbelievable chain of events surrounding an elaborate school play about Tiny's life, but in general can be forgiven for a false cinematic ending.

I enjoyed listening to this novel and found it enhanced considerably by good narration.

Monday, June 10, 2013

#20: Sin In Their Blood by Ed Lacy

A Korean War vet with both physical and emotional trauma comes home and wants to live a quiet life; but a suicide that actually is a murder gets him back in the game in Ed Lacy's Sin In Their Blood.

I don't ever see Lacy mentioned with other noir masters, but his books are highly enjoyable, full of action and a bristly humor.  Somehow I have read a fair amount of his books and keep looking for more.

This one has blackmail, beat-downs, and beautiful dames, but the offbeat characterization of the protagonist lifts the story above its 50s private-eye roots.  Lacy's books are definitely not politically correct, but can be enjoyed as a product of their time.

I got this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

#19: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

A Tokyo pickpocket gets involved in a gang of thieves to help an old friend and mentor, not realizing the life-and-death stakes at hand, in Fuminori Nakamura's creepy noir The Thief.  Along the way he ends up befriending a child pickpocket and tries to keep him off the same path.

Although on the surface The Thief is a pretty straightforward crime novel, there is an unsettling air about the proceedings, everything clammy and slick with sweat, dark and rainy and cold.  With its constant grinding on of the machine of Fate, the novel actually reads like something between Richard Stark and Albert Camus.

I picked this up without knowing anything about it at the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it quickly.  I have already recommended it to a few others but would say it is for anyone who likes a more offbeat crime story.

Friday, May 24, 2013

#18: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

A young woman in 1970s London has a fling with an older man and gradually drifts into the spy world (during a gradually cooling Cold War) in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.

McEwan's writing is generally considered literary fiction, but somewhere along the line he had to have read some classic John LeCarre as this novel seems to be a direct homage not only to that time and place but to LeCarre's works.

But there is also a literary element as McEwan explores how this young woman is used by men--her older lover, her first lover, her bosses and coworkers--as a pawn in what turns out to be a pretty low-stakes game.

I have read McEwan from time to time but was especially attracted to this novel because of the spy setting and time period.  My wife is a big McEwan fan and I bought it for her with the sly intention of reading it next (and did so).

Recommended on various levels, for serious readers and classic spy novel fans.

Monday, May 20, 2013

#17: A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald

A vet just home from a North Korean prison camp goes looking for a stash of money buried by a deceased fellow prisoner, falling in with a good girl and a bad girl while all the while being dogged by a psychopath in John D. MacDonald's bracing noir A Bullet for Cinderella.

MacDonald is probably best known for his Travis McGee series about a Florida P.I., but I like his non-series work even better.  This was a very tough story and an old-fashioned page-turner (although those who have read the later Cape Fear might speculate if MacDonald rehashed some ideas).

This was recommended to me for my beloved Kindle and I downloaded and read it quickly.  Great for MacDonald fans and good for anyone else who enjoys hardboiled stories.

Friday, May 17, 2013

#16: The Chill by Ross Macdonald

Private eye Lew Archer goes looking for a runaway bride and stumbles across a series of murders that stretch back decades in Ross Macdonald's The Chill.

As a teenager and young adult I was a great devotee of Macdonald's Archer series and thought I had pretty much read them all until I stumbled across this paperback at a used book sale at the university where I work.  I'm glad,  as I think I appreciate Macdonald's writing even greater with more adult eyes.

Macdonald writes a great hardboiled story but includes a lot of psychological elements that makes the storytelling even more sophisticated.  If you have somehow passed by Macdonald's work it's never too late to jump in (and there have been several good movie versions as well).  Recommended for fans.

Friday, April 12, 2013

#15: Midnight Special by Phoef Sutton

Matt Cahill is cursed/blessed with being able to see evil, and in this installment of the Dead Man series, he gets curious about a supposedly cursed 70s grindhouse movie and heads to L.A. in Midnight Special.

This speedy series of horror novels for the Kindle, written by various authors, have varied in quality but I think this is my favorite thus far.  Phoef Sutton writes in a darkly humorous vein and name-checks a lot of exploitation flicks, which is right up my alley.

Like the last installment I read, Cold As Hell by Anthony Neil Smith,  this one read a bit like a storyline conceived for something else with Matt Cahill and his antagonist, Mr. Dark, bolted onto the action.  But I liked the concept for it well enough that this didn't bother me.

This was sent to me by series creator Lee Goldberg for my beloved Kindle and I consumed it quickly.  Recommended for fans of the series.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

#14: Three Rode Together by Ben Bridges and Steve Hayes

A cowboy under special orders from the president, a freed African slave who can speak to horses, and Native American legend Geronimo become an unlikely trio who stand against a crooked Indian agent, a racist army officer, and a handful of murderous miners in Three Rode Together.

Despite being compelled by the rather offbeat plot, I actually picked this up for my beloved Kindle solely based on the cover, which clearly featured an homage to Italian spaghetti western star Terence Hill.

I also have previously enjoyed the work of western writer Ben Bridges, one of the "Piccadilly Cowboys," British writers who for whatever reason love the American West.

As one might suspect, this was a fun but undemanding western saga that I read quickly.  Recommended for western readers looking for something a bit different.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

#13: Bluff City Brawler by Heath Lowrance and Jack Tunney

A palooka accidentally kills a mobster in a bar fight, and goes on the run; naturally, he doesn't run quite far enough in Bluff City Brawler, a brawny entry in the Fight Card ebook series.

I have, by and large, enjoyed this compact, unassuming series of books harking back to the dime novels of old.  I selected this one because of interest in the author and found that it hit all the right beats (so to speak) as our protagonist brushes up against cold-blooded henchmen, gold-hearted women, craggy-faced managers, and straight-arrow cops (among other archetypes).

Enjoyable for fans of old-fashioned adventure and crime stories.  I bought this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

#12: The Black Box by Michael Connelly

Cold case detective Harry Bosch goes back, on the anniversary of the L.A. riots, to a murder from that time period that has always plagued his conscience; soon he is right back in a case that stretches from the California 'burbs to the first Desert Storm in Michael Connelly's The Black Box.

Connelly's Harry Bosch novels are, I believe, one of the great contemporary crime series and one whose latest additions I am always quick to pick up and read (This one I nabbed from the Farmland Public Library).

The last few novels have especially built a head of steam, seemingly heading towards Bosch's retirement (if he doesn't go out with a bang in some way).  A bit hard to pick up and fully appreciate without having read Connelly before, but recommended for fans.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

#11: Cold As Hell by Anthony Neil Smith

A virus gets loose in a snowstorm, pitting our protagonist (who is blessed/cursed with being able to see evil in others) with his grandpa's trusty axe against a legion of foes in Anthony Neil Smith's Cold As Hell.

This horror/thriller is the latest in the Dead Man series, an easily-digestible ebook collection--by various authors--centered on the premise of a drifter rooting out evil as he wanders the countryside.  This entry read much less like a Dead Man book (which often center around a fiendish antagonist called Mr. Dark) and more like a standalone thriller with some of the series parameters bolted on.

But it is still a fun read, as our hero--stranded with other drivers and various characters along a desolate stretch of interstate--contend with containment of the virus as well as its impact on the victims.

I selected this one, like the previous one I read by Christa Faust, because of interest in the author, and found his writing enjoyable.

I have liked this series for the most part and borrowed this one for my beloved Kindle, reading it quickly.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

#10: Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Serial killer Dexter Morgan, who tries to prey only on Miami's criminal element, is caught in the act of dispatching a child murderer; soon he has to contend with the rather curious motives of an onlooker as well as a vicious cop killer in Double Dexter.

This long-standing series of novels has been running concurrently with a Showtime television series, but the two have followed very divergent paths at this point with people alive in the books and dead in the series (and vice versa) as well as other notable differences.

I think in general those who enjoy the series will enjoy the novels, although the novels have been wildly uneven (with at least one genuine dud and one or two very strong entries).

I listened to this one on audiobook from Morrisson-Reeves Public Library, read rather credibly by the author himself.

This one was a fairly good thriller, despite the fact that the murderous mastermind Dexter seems a step or two behind the reader through the whole story.  It had the right blend of cold-blooded homicide and Dexter's coldly humorous commentaries and is recommended for fans of either the books or the TV series.

Friday, February 22, 2013

#9: The Freeloaders by Ed Lacy

A struggling scriptwriter in Nice, France, finds his TV project going bust and is suddenly at loose ends; slowly, and then quickly, he falls in with a shady group of characters in Ed Lacy's The Freeloaders.

Ed Lacy was a prolific pulp fiction writers whose output I have always found interesting when I come across it.  This one I found for my beloved Kindle from Prologue Books.

This is a rollicking first-person story from the early 60s written in a rat-a-tat style that I found enjoyable. The narrator has a lot of sardonic observations about the time and place and there are some interesting crime threads running throughout, up to a rather chilling conclusion.

Recommended for pulp fiction fans.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

#8: I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

A child living in a remote Italian village during a long, hot summer finds another child trapped in a hole; what is gradually revealed about the two boys and their relationships is at the heart of Niccolo Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared.

I saw the film version of this novel some years ago and recommend it to anyone as a very solid, suspenseful thriller.  If I had not already known the story from the film I would have thought this book, at the outset, was more of a chiller along the lines of Thomas Tryon's The Other.  The novel has an eerie, unsettling feeling and almost dreamlike qualities at times.

But there is a practical side to the story as you learn more about Italian politics and lifestyles, and the narrator has an interesting, reflective role looking back from adulthood.  The sketch of family life in this time and place seems authentic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this change-of-pace thriller after being surprised with it on the shelf of a used bookstore in Palatine, Illinois.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

#7: Kill Clock by Allan Guthrie

A Scottish tough is trying to stay on the straight and narrow, but when they mess with his three-legged dog he is pushed too far in Allan Guthrie's Kill Clock.

I am a devout reader of Guthrie's thrillers, and this one I would recommend to fans as it features characters and situations that have populated his other writing (without there being a barrier for new readers).  In addition there are a couple of ex girlfriends, some smart-mouthed kids, some fringe personalities with murky intentions, and the aforementioned dog.

Despite a pretty tough-minded finale, this one surprises with a bit more levity than some of his other novels. Kill Clock is lighter and in some ways a bit slighter, but is a quick and enjoyable read.

I received this for my beloved Kindle and consumed it quickly.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

#6: The Storm Without by Tony Black

A Belfast cop drummed out under mysterious circumstances returns to his hometown of Ayr; and  before he hits the city limits he is involved in solving a young woman's murder (and a young man's framing for it) in Tony Black's The Storm Without.

Hard-boiled detective novel with increased interest provided by the setting, so fully realized as to be a character on its own.  Curiously, this was originally serialized in a local newspaper, which I found surprising; Black's description of poor weather, a poorer economy, vigilante cops, and crooked politicians would seem to discourage local tourism.

This was the first featuring this character, and I would be interested to see what happens to him next.

I received this from Blasted Heath for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

#5: Boston Avenger by Mike Barry

Burt Wolff is a VietNam vet and narco cop whose girlfriend is purposefully overdosed as a warning to him; he snaps and goes on a one-man war against the drug trade in Mike Barry's Boston Avenger.

This is the third novel featuring the Lone Wolf, a hardboiled Men's Adventure-style series from the 1970s that was apparently written by Barry Malzberg at a prodigious clip.  They are about as quick to read as they probably were to write, full of a strange intensity.

I thought this volume improved on the last, which had Wolff blowing up various things on the west coast, whose geography seemed ill-fitted to his persona; now we find Wolff back on the grimy east coast, a surer footing for Malzberg, as Wolff chases a seemingly cursed suitcase full of drugs around New England. 

This edition also digs a little deeper into Wolff's fractured psyche and shows that he really isn't someone to cheer for, despite his efforts to clean up the streets.

I have enjoyed these via Prologue Books for my beloved Kindle and am sure to pick up the next one.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

#4: The Tall Dolores by Michael Avallone

Swingin' PI Ed Noon takes on the case of a wayward husband being sought by his giantess wife (which turns out not to be as straightforward as it seems) in Michael Avallone's first detective novel, The Tall Dolores.

Avallone was a very prolific pulp fiction writer whose prose is not so much loopy as full of curlicues.  To say that he writes in an oddball style is somewhat of an understatement, and the internet yields up that people either love him or hate him. 

I actually enjoyed this funny, action-packed mystery, the first in a lengthy series featuring Noon, a typically wise-cracking private eye whose office is called "the mouse auditorium."  As this is my first novel by Avallone I don't have a feel for whether this is a typical or atypical outing.  But there is plenty of solid action, and a surprisingly downbeat finale, all of which was satisfying enough for me to seek out another Ed Noon story.

I bought this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly.

#3: The Name's Buchanan by Jonas Ward

Buchanan is a hired gun with his own sense of honor, roaming the Old West; when he rescues a Mexican girl, and then her hotheaded brother, his code almost gets him killed in Jonas Ward's The Name's Buchanan.

This is the first of a long series of Westerns starring the stalwart Buchanan, who almost takes a backseat at times in this story as the tensions play out between a noble Mexican family and a murderous clan north of the border who hold sway over a corrupt town.

Buchanan was created by pulp writer William Ard, who writes in a hardboiled style that compliments the brawny cowboy overtones.  After he died, the series was written by others, and the other one I posted about on this blog was by a different author (and with a noticeable dropoff in quality).  Fortunately I came across a few more from Ard's tenure, and I am eager to check them out.

I was sent this for my beloved Kindle by my new pals at Prologue Books and read it quickly.

Friday, January 18, 2013

#2: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

In the far-flung future, a dashing thief is sprung from an inescapable prison in order to complete a mysterious mission in Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief.

Our tarnished protagonist takes off in a sentient spaceship to the great walking city of Mars, where he is pursued by a dogged local detective (who himself is aided by a post-human girlfriend and a gaggle of masked superhero-like vigilantes). 

As you might suspect this is quite a genre-bender, mixing Alexander Dumas with Neal Stephenson and Donald Westlake with Philip K. Dick.

I bought this on a whim at a goodbye price for my beloved Kindle and found it dense and rewarding and one of my favorite reads of recent memory.  Recommended for fans of cerebral sci-fi. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

#1: The Red Hills by James W. Marvin

The antihero called Crow joins the U.S. Calvary, just ahead of a modest skirmish called Little Big Horn, in The Red Hills, James W. Marvin's first Western featuring his cold-blooded protagonist.

This novel comes from the so-called Piccadilly Cowboys, (follow this part closely) British writers who wrote Italian-flavored American Westerns in their heyday from the 60s forward.  Marvin obviously read George Gilman's Edge rather closely (and I think even obliquely references the character), probably the grandaddy of all the tarnished heroes of this genre.

But Crow tries to outdo Edge, as the novel opens with the senseless killing of a child's dog, which sets the stage for further unpleasantness involving casual murder and generally repugnant behavior.  In The Caine Mutiny style, a commanding officer is introduced who is even more repellent, and soon Crow sets his sights on revenge.

Interesting, but generally unpleasant, Western for those who like a more tough-minded oater.  I bought this for my beloved Kindle and read it quickly for my first novel of 2013.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2012

I narrowly skated into keeping my promise of reading 50 books in 2012, but made it at the end thanks to a couple of snowbound days right after Christmas.  I had vowed to try to read a little smarter, and thus maybe a little slower, but I think I have a good top ten list favorite reads to show for it.  And here they are:

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Easy Money by Jens Lapidus

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jessi Adler-Olsen

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Happy Reading and I am off to 2013 and hopefully 50 more.