Category Archives: crime

Review of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Don’t get the wrong idea when you notice that seal on the cover saying that The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Yes, this quirky crime novel dressed up in cowboy clothes may owe more to its high-falutin literary roots than to its “genre” kin, but it tells a compelling and character-driven story for all that.  Reviewers have waxed witty in describing this novel, and a number of them have been right on the money.  The LA Times compares this to something that could be written by the author of No Country for Old Men and The Road, that is “if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor.”  Esquire magazine describes this novel as “a kind of True Grit told by Tom Waits.”  Both these comparisons are pretty apt.  Sisters Brothers can be grim and violent at times but it wins you over with its strangely loveable characters and its infectiously funny narrative voice.

Our narrator is Eli Sisters, the more amiable of the two title characters, who are a duo of hired killers from Oregon City in 1851.  Hired by a ruthless boss known only as The Commodore, Eli and Charlie set out on a horseback trek to Sacramento, California, where they are to murder a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm.  Along the way, the brothers encounter all manner of colorful Old West characters, but I wouldn’t describe the novel as picaresque, as some reviewers have done.  The initial goal of finding and murdering Warm remains the primary motivation of action throughout the novel, even if Charlie and Eli get into other scrapes along the way.

Charlie Sisters is cold-blooded killer, and even if Eli is slightly less of a sociopath than his brother, he’s not above drawing his pistol when he sees red.  As you can well imagine, there’s plenty of brutal violence in this novel, some of it bizarrely casual.  While it’s never gratuitous, readers should still be prepared for some blood.

But any coarseness aside, this is a beautifully written novel.  The prose feels deliberately awkward, almost angular with its choppy yet poetic phrases.  If you’re at all curious about this novel, try reading the first chapter – it’s only two pages long.  That small taste will let you know if this is a book you might fall in love with because what ultimately draws you in here is deWitt’s gift for presenting Eli’s narrative with grace and clarity.  Through the oddly charming voice of this deeply troubled character, we begin to understand and to sympathize with Eli’s slightly off-kilter view of the world.  As readers, we find ourselves connecting with him as he begins to question this horrible way of life that he and his brother have chosen for themselves.  As we turn the pages, we cannot help but hope that the Sisters Brothers can find a way to escape this darkness of their own making.

Advertisements

Review of Big Maria by Johnny Shaw

Last year signaled the arrival of an exciting new crime novelist.  Arguably the best first novel of the year, Johnny Shaw’s Dove Season didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, perhaps in part because Amazon published it as part of their new Encore line of trade paperback originals.  Whatever your feelings might be about Amazon’s business practices or their impact on publishing and bookselling, ignoring the novels they’ve printed and the authors they’ve introduced is a mistake.  And in the case of Shaw, you’re only hurting yourself.  So, if you haven’t read Dove Season, you should correct that error right away.  While you’re at it, you should also pick up a copy of Big Maria, Shaw’s second novel that came out earlier this week.

For as much as I enjoyed Big Maria, I still think Dove Season is a stronger book.  For all its moments of humor and clever turns of phrase, that debut novel allowed Shaw to explore the deeply human aspects of its characters in a more compelling and compassionate way, even if he did call it a “Jimmy Veeder Fiasco.”  Shaw’s approach in this new novel represents a dramatic departure.  Big Maria is a wild, wild ride of amazing proportions, a low-comedy crime caper that dredges the depths of human folly.  Think of the Three Stooges hunting for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the direction this yarn takes.

In some ways Shaw’s writing is more polished and confident in this second novel, but Big Maria plays for laughs from start to finish, and despite a few truly touching moments – one in a church comes vividly to mind – this is a deeply silly book.  But that’s the whole point.  Shaw is actually breaking new ground here by pushing his “ridiculously awesome” aesthetic to its limits.  Those familiar with Shaw’s quarterly e-zine Blood & Tacos, now on its third issue, will recognize this terrain.  In both Blood & Tacos and now in Big Maria, the familiar, groan-producing tropes of men’s adventure fiction are lovingly and self-consciously parodied to expert comedic effect.  By the second half of the book, the bizarre turns become almost expected in their unpredictable way, but Shaw’s still such a talented writer with such perfect comic timing that you’ll keep turning the pages even as the gags get so thick you can barely keep track of them all.  I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises.

As a minor note, I feel I should offer a warning for sensitive readers.  With Big Maria’s vast collection of gross-out moments and adolescent slapstick, some readers are going to be turned off for sure.  Before you buy this one, you might want to read through the first chapter and see if you’ve got the stomach for this novel.  Our hero, a not-quite-loveable loser named Shitburger awakens in a drunken stupor to find that not only has he passed out on the toilet in dive bar, but he’s vomited into his own underwear.  He ignores the pounding on the stall door and passes out again, this time to awaken next to the dumpster out back.  His pants have been pulled up, but they’re still full of cold vomit.  If you think this is funny, or could be, grab yourself a copy of this book and enjoy the romp.  But if you’re turned off by the first chapter, you should know it doesn’t get any more noble between here and the absurdist deus ex machina ending.

I loved Big Maria.  It’s page after page of rip-roaring action and gut-busting laughs; however, I also felt like some of the opportunities for real pathos, particularly around the character of Ricky, were forcibly shoved aside so we could get back to the comedy.  I know, it’s harder to laugh at somebody getting smacked in the balls when you too closely identify with them as a person.  But as a reader I like making that human connection with the characters in a novel, and I missed that here.  Still, that’s not where Shaw wanted to go with this novel, and the places he does take us are absolutely beyond compare.  My own favorite episode is the encounter with the mountain lion, but I won’t say any more about that or the rest the novel’s gold nuggets of comic action because you’ve really got to experience the splendor for yourself.  Johnny Shaw and Big Maria will show you a grand time!

Four stars out of five.


Review of A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

If you had picked up this book and admired the cover, relishing the promise of a devious noir tale set in the snowy bleakness of small town Wisconsin in 1907, you would have perhaps decided to purchase the book, carrying to the front counter of the book store a thick paper bundle made slightly for substantial in your hand by the weight of your expectations. You would have remembered so many other books you had purchased in this way, taking them home and cozying up on the couch with a cup of hot English tea, mixed with a little milk poured from a grocery store carton and honey harvested from local hives. As you stood there, stirring your tea together with the milk and honey, you would have felt the poignancy of rising anticipation building in your breast as you thought of that book sitting in the other room on a little mahogany table beside the end of the couch, just under the curved swoop of your favorite reading lamp.

Perhaps you would have been struck by the anachronistic use of second person to set the scene, but perhaps too you would have been dazed by the lush prose and the languid sentences. Perhaps you would have shrugged off the long tedious exposition as a delightfully droll devise for providing background information about the story that you believed to be on the verge of beginning any page now. After all, you were learning about the characters. You knew now how Ralph Truitt was so rich that he bought and sold the two thousand other people who lived in his town but how he secretly worried very much about how these people regarded him. You knew too how Ralph was a lonely widower and how during long cold nights especially he was above all extremely sexually frustrated and jealous of all the other townsfolk who he imagined were having frequent and satisfying intimate relations with each other. You knew now how Catherine Land was not what she seemed but more of a schemer, a woman of considerable if fading beauty who had finally determined that she would not reach the end of her life without having attained for herself either a great love or an enormous amount of money. And yet, for all your reading of the two lengthy chapters of the novel, this was the sum of your knowledge. The first chapter described him waiting on the train platform with all these internal thoughts and background stories; the second chapter provided the same exhaustive character sketch for her.

Perhaps you would have taken a deep breath then to shake off your frustration with such an obviously capable writer choosing to tell you all these things about the characters rather than showing you things about the characters and allowing you to draw your own conclusions about their personalities and motivations by experiencing them actually doing things. But, forgiving soul that you are, you would have gone quietly to the kitchen to refill your tea cup, remixing the perfect blend of milk and honey, and pausing there as you set down the spoon to refill your patience.

Back on the sofa, you would have felt pleasure upon reading the first line of the third chapter for it seemed at last that here was action: “She stepped into snow.” Reading on, you find that the prose still has the over-rich, languid quality of the first two chapters, but now at last things were happening. Slowly, yes, but they were happening. Ralph and Catherine were meeting on the train platform. Her clothes were too cheap and thin for the Wisconsin blizzard. Ralph’s words nearly betrayed his preoccupation with avoiding the searching eyes of the townsfolk. And most tellingly for the story to come, Catherine had deceived Ralph in her letter, sending him a photograph not of herself but of another woman she now claimed was her cousin. This deception irritates Ralph and he tells her that whoever she is she should know that their relationship begins with a lie. Then they take his carriage from the station to his house, and barely speaking, they revert to their interior thoughts where you are again made privy to all their fears and hopes, their frustrations and worries. As you’re reading this third chapter, you are now convinced this one should have started the novel instead when the editor excised the first two like a dental surgeon removing wisdom teeth that are not only unneeded but also tend to crowd their more useful fellows. You might even notice as you’re reading that full sentences of exposition from the first two chapters find themselves repeated and reiterated here, and at the end of this third chapter, though it’s started to give you hints of the story, you decide to lay the book aside.

Lovely prose does not a compelling novel make. Perhaps you will decide to re-read Louisa May Alcott’s novella “Behind a Mask” instead. It’s a similar tale in some ways and much more deftly told.


Review of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds stands out as one of my favorite novels so far this year.  To be fair, it’s probably not everybody’s cup of hot arterial blood, but if you like your novels down-and-dirty, pedal-to-the-metal, and still thought-provoking, you can’t miss with this novel.  I’d say it’s actually more horror than “urban fantasy” – it has more in common with the novels of Joe Hill and Gary A. Braunbeck than it does with those of Charles De Lint and Neil Gaiman – but wherever it gets shelved in the store, this is one feisty mofo that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you till you pee yourself.  Seriously, folks, if you like your fiction dark and weird, you need to read this book.

Still don’t believe me?  Here’s seven reasons you’re gonna love this book:

The Cover – I mean, come on!  Have you looked at this thing?  Angry Robot not only publishes awesome books, they adorn them with the magnificent covers they deserve.  Wendig must have come in his pants when he saw this thing the first time.

The Premise – Wrestling with the question of fate versus freewill is as ancient as the Greeks and as timeless as Shakespeare, but you’ll notice that we’ve never actually solved this particular problem.  Add in a protagonist who can foresee the future, and you’ve got all the working materials of classic myth. Wendig makes these old conundrums fresh with his lively prose and his knack for contemporary grit.

The Prose – This author can flat out write.  There’s nary a wasted word in the novel.  The nouns sing brightly and the athletic verbs leap from the page.  Ray Bradbury would have loved Wendig’s effervescent prose style.  You will too.

The Protagonist – Miriam Black is the most troubled, sexiest, spookiest clairvoyant you ‘d ever hope to meet in a novel.  Her struggles with her gift/curse and the problems it causes her in relation to others makes Miriam a girl you’d never want to meet in real life, but vicariously through a book, her character is as compelling as they come.

Rampant, Gleeful Mayhem – From midnight strolls along the interstate, to bar room brawls, to visits from thuggish people carrying FBI badges, you never know what’s going to happen from one page to the next.  This ups the ante in the fate versus freewill contest because Miriam has already seen the deaths of anyone she’s touched.  And fate always wins, right?

Wendig’s Dirty Mouth – Chuck Wendig has more fun with creative obscenity than anyone I’ve read since early Stephen King.  Who else would have the writerly balls to pop out with insults like “fuckpie” and a nameless character referred to as Gray Pubes.  Again, this book is clearly not for everyone, but if you’re going to use dirty words at least make them interesting.  Wendig does.

Mockingbird – If there’s anything better than reading a great book you don’t want to end, it’s knowing that a sequel is already in the works.  Even more awesome than that is knowing you don’t have to wait a whole year.  The next title in this series is slated for release in September 2012.  You can bet I’ll be snagging mine the week it comes out.

Quibbles?  Yeah, I’ve got a few.  I always do, but I’ll spare you hearing about them.  The scale firmly tips in favor of this novel.

Blackbirds easily earns five out of five stars.

Why are you still sitting there?  Go get a copy of this book and start reading it.


Review of Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm

Okay, so I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but before launching into an assessment of the novel per se, let’s pause to admire the artistry that went into designing the cover of this paperback original.  Angry Robot has been publishing quite a number of interesting novels lately and they’ve all had great covers, but they outdid themselves with the jacket for Chris F. Holm’s Dead Harvest.  The stark blue and white vintage look works very nicely on its own, but they’ve gone one step further by making the cover look smudged and time-worn.  That’s awesome.

That said, the novel housed within very nearly lives up to the pure aesthetic joy of the cover.  Almost, but not quite.  To be clear, Dead Harvest is a fast fun read with plenty of lively action sequences.  Imagine a bodiless Jack Reacher finding himself in a cross-over episode between Joss Whedon’s Angel and the old comedy-drama series Dead Like Me.  For fans of hard-boiled supernatural fiction like that of Jim Butcher and company, this is definitely one of the better books you’ll read this year.  Holm’s full-length debut, the first in his series of Collector novels, introduces us to Sam Thornton, an eternally-damned yet still-ethical soul collector.  This book is a thrill ride and I enjoyed it immensely, but there’s a “but” and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Doomed to do the dirty work of collecting souls of the damned for his mysterious and angelically mesmerizing overseer Lilith, our hero Sam finds himself on the run after he’s sent to collect the soul of a young murderess and fails in his mission because touching her pure soul convinces him there’s been some terrible mistake in the bureaucratic offices of the great beyond.  Either that, or it’s a frame up job and whoever’s pulling the strings is trying to cause the end of the world by having an innocent soul sent to hell.  The smart money’s on the latter as demons and angels alike start cranking up the pressure on Sam to comply with his orders.  Or else.  By the way, the thuggish angels are an especially wonderful touch here.

Other than his hard-boiled attitude and his impeccable morals, Sam’s best weapon is his ability to shift around and inhabit bodies of the recently deceased, or crowd into and commandeer the body of a living person.  Unfortunately, one of the ringers the powers that be send in to clean up Sam’s mess has this same ability.  I know, this sounds confusing, but it’s actually great fun in the novel.  And to Holm’s credit, the reader never gets lost during all this body jumping.

But – ah, you knew that was coming – for all the shoot-’em-ups and narrow escapes from certain doom, Dead Harvest seems to lack moral weight.  Perhaps this is a quibble to ask for ethical substance from an “entertainment” but I don’t think so, especially since we’re asked to imagine we’re on the front lines of an epic war between good and evil.  The quasi-Christian mythology seems somewhere on the spectrum between Milton’s Paradise Lost and Whedon’s Buffy universe, but Dead Harvest never pauses the shoot outs and chase sequences long enough to give all this action the ethical dimensions that would make this novel live up to its titular allusion to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.  Hammett never wrote about angels and demons, but he wrote about real moral dilemmas.

True, Sam’s backstory, told throughout the novel in italicized flashback sequences, attempts to give the action hero more depth, but ultimately it never manages to give him or his actions quite the moral dimension we’re expecting.  Holm has turned up the volume, but doing so actually flattens the moral affect.  These angels and demons seem like the larger-than-life figures in a riff-heavy speed metal song.  Just like anybody, I’ll crank up the stereo when a Judas Priest song comes on, but when the song is over I don’t find myself wondering about the ethics of “Breaking the Law.”

Of course I do want more.  Can’t wait for The Wrong Goodbye.  I expect these adventures will get better and better.

Four stars out of five.