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Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Cold Kiss by John Rector | LibraryThing

Audiobook. A good thriller must have several things going for it to keep me entertained: I must care about one or more of the characters; I have to want to find out what happens in the end; and it has to be reasonably well written. If the characters are relatively normal people, i.e., don’t have the superhuman powers so common in some thrillers today, that's a plus. My crap-detector swings into overdrive when our hero manages to take on twelve bad guys with one six-shooter and gets all of them. Sometimes two criteria out of three works; sometimes not. Cold Kiss meets all three.

This book reminded me so much of A Simple Plan ( by Scott Smith. Nate and his fiancĂ© find themselves driving into a blizzard on their way to Reno to get married. At a rest stop they meet a man, obviously ill, who offers them $500 to drive him there also as his car needs some work. They agree but as the snow worsens they are forced to stop at a motel in the middle of nowhere with heat but no power.  They discover the man has been shot, and, he has a suitcase full of money. One thing leads to another and soon the man is dead, the motel’s handyman is suspicious, the snow is worsening, and everyone is getting greedy.

Paul Michael Garcia reads with a laconic, slow tempo that drives the tension effectively.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Vanishing Game by William Boyd | LibraryThing

Alec Dunbar is an actor.  Called to a producer’s office one afternoon, he discovers the part was really for a woman, but on the way out he is offered £1,000 by a woman to drive a flask of what appears to be water far into Scotland to a church.  It supposedly contains water from the River Jordan to be used at a ceremony.  Having few funds, Dunbar accepts.  His car in disrepair he accepts the offer of the woman’s Land Rover.  (Weirdly, this novella was sponsored by Land Rover and given away for free download. It's sprinkled with color photographs.)  What makes the short read amusing is that Dunbar uses knowledge acquired by acting in films to help himself get out from under the bad guys who invariably want what’s in the flask.

It’s a painless way to spend an hour or so and the cost was right.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Belfast Noir (Akashic Noir) by Adrian McKinty | LibraryThing

I'm not much of a fan of short fiction.  Often I find that authors either don't know when to bring the story to a close, or, they end them too abruptly. But I do like to discover new authors through collections, and the series of city-based Noir tales published by Akashic (soon they might run out of cities;  I doubt we'll see a Pelican Rapids Noir) can occasionally be a gold mine for finding new authors.  How many I discover will affect my rating.

Edited by two favorite authors, Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville, this one is devoted to stories in or around Belfast.  There were a couple I really enjoyed, some others that were just OK, and a few that got quickly skimmed after reading the first couple pages.  Generally, those written by authentic Irish authors fared the best.  Unfortunately, there were too few stories that gripped me.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna by David Roberts | LibraryThing

Maurice Herzog was the first person to reach the summit of Annapurna, one of the 8,000 meter peaks.  The expedition he guided in 1950 suffered tremendously on the way down, as did Herzog who lost all fingers and toes to frostbite.  His account of the journey was a testimony to the team-building self-sacrifice and wonderful spirit of the four mountaineers (less was said of the Sherpas who carried Herzog and Lachenal for miles on the descent.) His colleagues, Lionel Terray, Gaston Rebuffat and Louis Lachenal,  were successful climbers in their own right, and Terray’s and Lachenal’s mountaineering books are considered classics. Herzog’s book, which he dictated from his hospital bed, made him a national hero in France.  The question Roberts raises in his book is whether Herzog’s account is true.

Herzog made himself into a hero with canny public relations and perhaps by not emphasizing the important role his colleagues played in the ascent. He made each of them sign contracts not to publish before they left. That he was self-aggrandizing is not in doubt.  In my experience, mountaineers who write books about their feats all tend to have blinders on, completely understandable when you consider their isolation, even when in a group, as they make the climb.

David Roberts compared the individual accounts of each climbers diary with Herzogs published version and notes what Herzog changed or omitted. He intersperses his narrative with comments of his own reflections about climbing, and he then uses the other climbers' reports and diaries to dismantle Herzog's self-aggrandizing recollections. In the end, I think the author is perhaps making a mountain from a valley. He says it best himself:

Surely the discrepancies begged critics to accuse him of dishonesty. The new, more self- serving version might cast a better light on Herzog, but it was an open invitation to readers such as myself to call his rewriting bluff. The third possibility, I thought, was that this is indeed how memory works, in all its fallible reinvention of the past. After nearly fifty years, Herzog’s emotions about those dramatic days high on Annapurna had perhaps restructured his memories… These reconstructions need not be cynical, or even fully conscious, on Herzog’s part. They could be the fruit of memory’s seizing again and again on disturbing, pivotal events, reshaping them with each rehearsal, trying to find meaning where there was only happenstance.

A terrific book for anyone who likes to read about mountaineering and even, perhaps, those interested in the malleability (not to mention fallibility) of memory.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Three Doors to Death by Rex Stout | LibraryThing

I suppose I could spend some time detailing the plots of these three novellas, but when it comes right down to it they are formulaic, but my, what a formula.  I love Rex Stout, although the early novels are probably better than those toward the end of his life.  Nevertheless, if you have never read any Nero Wolfe stories, you must.  The characters are classic and the word interplay between them is wonderful.

My favorite is the third.  Wolfe is desperate as Theodore has left for an extended period of time to care for his sick mother so Wolfe has no one to do the dirty work with the orchids.  He thinks he’s found a replacement and has actually left the brownstone to beseech Andy to come work for him.  Unfortunately, Andy’s fiance has just been killed and he’s the prime suspect so if Wolfe wants to get his orchids cared for he has to solve the crime quickly.  Wolfe actually has to sneak through the woods in the middle of the snow, falling down a couple of times. Now that must have been a sight.

Just go read all those you can get your hands on.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Borderlands by Brian McGilloway | LibraryThing

I read the second  in the Inspector Devlin series, Gallows Lane,  first.  This is the first in the series, and it would be extremely difficult to summarize the book without giving away huge spoilers. I’ll just say that it involves the investigation into the deaths of several young people, all connected by a ring, a woman who disappeared many years before, financial misdeeds by a politician, possibly the IRA, and some policemen.

Then there’s also something that’s been ripping up Devlin’s neighbor’s sheep.  The neighbor is sure it’s Frank, Devlin’s daughter’s dog.  

A really good police procedural with so many twists and blind alleys it’s difficult to keep up. My only complaint is that, unlike Adrian McKinty, McGilloway isn’t as skillful in delivering a sense of place which I especially like in stories that take place in Ireland.

Nevertheless, I look forward to the third in the series.  I’ll buy all of them.  I will also have to sample his other series with DS Lucy Black as the protagonist.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Operation Chowhound: The Most Risky, Most Glorious US Bomber Mission of WWII by Stephen Dando-Collins | LibraryThing

I received a free  advanced reader's ebook (lots of editing yet to do) in return for an honest appraisal.

This is the rather extraordinary story of an operation that saved many lives in Holland following the harsh winter of 1944-1945. The winter was harsh on the Germans as well who had barely enough food for themselves. An appeal from the Dutch government in exile to Franklin Roosevelt--Roosevelt was rather proud of his Dutch ancestry (the British were not particularly helpful)-- resulted in his request to Eisenhower to help the Dutch.  He died before anything concrete could be done.   Once the operation was approved, the problem became how to deliver the supplies. Eisenhower and his chief of staff Bedell Smith took over the operation and following extensive negotiations, the Nazi governor of Holland  ordered the troops not to fire on the low flying bombers who were dropping food from as low as three hundred feet.

But the story is more complicated. It involved Operation Market Garden, a Monty flop mostly due to his failure to trust Prince Bernhard, German born and ex-Nazi, but now married to the heiress to the Dutch throne.  Bernhard had become a vigorously loyal Dutch advocate whose contacts with the Dutch resistance provided information that could have prevented the disaster at Arnhem. The result of Market Garden was to leave western Holland in the control of the Germans and isolated.  The Germans, by this time, perhaps all but Hitler, realized the war was lost, but Hitler had refused to pull German troops out of Holland and he had issued a "destroy everything" order through Albert Speer.  Speer was reluctant to enforce it, as was the German governor,  Arthur Seyss-Inquartwho was willing to help the Dutch for his own reasons.

This book is not for everyone.  It's a very detailed look at the negotiations and diplomacy required to pull off a rescue mission that saved many lived in Holland.  It's also an interesting view into the lives of Germans who knew the war was lost and the actions they took in response to that knowledge.  For historians or those interested in events of the last year of the war, it's a gold mine. 

Audrey Hepburn plays a minor role in the author's portrayal of Dutch suffering during the winter.

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Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Budapest/48: A Ryan Lock Story

I had never read any Sean Black before, and one afternoon I was looking for some TV-like-light reading to pass some time and found this on Amazon.  It’s overpriced at $2.99.  It’s a short 19,000 words and feels like it.

Ryan Lock and his side-kick Ty (Tonto, anyone?) have been hired by a British Assurance firm to help make the exchange of a kidnapped businessman in Budapest. Unfortunately, it’s thoroughly predictable and has huge gaps with no explanation but with the usual cast of characters including the gullible victim, the beautiful assistant (why was she even there?) who can’t wait to screw the hero (but just a one off, no LTR, please.)  Again, Tonto gets the shaft, no gorgeous babe for him, he seems to be more busy actually paying attention to what’s going on.

I hate to judge a body of work by one novella, but this really felt rushed. Lock doesn’t even have any interesting foibles. An author really needs to have something more than having his character move into the “Weaver” stance before shooting to keep my interest. Not even a sense of Budapest.   Maybe for James Patterson fans.   

This one shall go starless.  Some people might like it.  You’ll have to decide from my comments.

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Turn to Stone: A Jonathan Stride Novella by Brian Freeman | LibraryThing

I have enjoyed previous entries in the Jonathan Stride series and it was a pleasure to return to another.  Lt. Stride of the Duluth Detective Unit decided to pause on his way back home at the small town where his mother was buried, to briefly visit her gravesite.  Just as he finished, a sheriff’s car pulled up to the cemetery.  Thinking someone in town had seen his flashlight and called the police, he headed over toward the car only to watch in horror as the deputy stands in front of the car and blows his brains out.

Turns out the dead deputy, Percy Andrews, was a local hero, having rescued a woman he subsequently married from a particularly vicious man after being kidnapped and tortured for a week..

Stride, being Stride, can’t leave well enough alone. Despite the Sheriff’s unequivocal request to leave the investigation alone, Stride is a bit taken by Percy’s widow who is soon charged with the murder of Greg Hamlin. Percy had been investigating Hamlin’s disappearance. His body is soon found in Percy’s RV out in the woods.  He, too, had been tortured.  Stride is soon unraveling a tangled web of interconnections leading to murder that had their genesis decades earlier. The victims had the word Teufel carved on their chests. Was the Devil involved?  Very enjoyable read that lead in an unexpected direction.

One thing.  The last paragraph leads directly into the next book, Cold Nowhere. I sometimes find that irritating.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Gun Street Girl: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel by Adrian Mckinty | LibraryThing

I’ve read several McKinty books, but the Sean Duffy series is the best. Originally billed as a trilogy, I was delighted to see a fourth appear. Set during the Troubles, Sean is a Catholic cop in a Protestant world who makes sure to check the bottom of his car every day for bombs that might have been planted while he was away.

He watches as his superiors fuck up capturing a boatload of arms from America, then bails out his Chief Inspector in a brothel where a local pro has just whacked an American movie star on the head when he got a little rough after she refused to partake in his substantial stash of cocaine.

Sean then gets involved in the investigation of the murder of two prominent people, apparently a hit that’s first blamed on their son who left an apology and a suicide note before jumping off a cliff. But when his girl-friend is also found dead, with a suicide note and the motor running in her car, the coincidence seems forced and the autopsy reveals signs of murder. The new Jewish detective in the squad, a very bright Oxford grad manages to sniff out a connection with another death at a party in Oxford. Couple that with the return of MI5 agent Kate who wants to enlist Sean in the security service, and you have the makings of a nifty mystery.

I really like McKinty’s writing of Sean’s voice, melancholy mixed with humor. For example a scene at a church-sponsored dating social dance. All the girls make excuses when they discover he's a cop:

"I fought a strong urge to flee and introduced myself to a girl called Sandra who looked a bit like Janice from The Muppet Show band. She was an estate agent who sold houses all over East Antrim. “We’ve got something in common. I’m a peeler,”I said. “What do we have in common?” “Well, uh, both of us are at home to a certain amount of moral ambiguity in our work.” No hesitant buyer ever got up Sandra’s nose the way I instantly did, and she told me coldly that she had to mingle. Later I saw her dancing with a very tall man whose face was like a Landsat image of the Mojave. "

"The word went round and none of the other women came close. I didn’t blame them. If you were a single lady, getting on in years, or worse, a widow, the last thing you wanted to do was marry a policeman who could be killed next week. It certainly didn’t help that I was a Catholic. A Catholic in Carrickfergus was bad enough, but a Catholic policeman? My life expectancy could be measured in dog years." 

And for some reason, perhaps my antipathy to B&B’s, this passage had me laughing out loud. Sean and Lawson are sent to Oxford where they are put up in a Victorian B&B run by a couple of eccentrics. She hands them their keys with the warning, “Now, Mr. Duffy, it’s the off-season at present, of course, so I can let you have the two rooms overlooking the garden—213, 214,” she said. “Keep the windows closed, mind. The squirrels will come in. We had a shocking incident two years ago with a gentleman from Norway.” That shocking incident with the squirrel….

One interesting note given some current political events in Ireland. Gerry Adams makes an appearance as an IRA leader in the book. Make of that what you will.

Excellent story.

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Monday, March 02, 2015

Triangle by Teri White | LibraryThing

This book was offered to me by the publisher in hopes I might write a review. It’s apparently a reissue of a book  originally published in 1982. Kudos to Open Media for resurrecting some of these titles. I gave it a couple of pages and was hooked.  It was excellent.  It could be described as part meditation on friendship, part noir novel a la Jim Thomson or James Cain, part police procedural, but all about obsession.

Alexander McCarthy (“Mac”) grew up in an orphanage so when his patrol stumbled across a shell-shocked kid who had been witness to, and perhaps participated in, the massacre at Tan Pret, “Johnny”, it became difficult to abandon the kid who now obviously had latched onto and needed Mac’s company.

Now out of the army, Johnny can’t survive on his own and is very protective of Mac who has a terrible gambling problem and finds himself owing thousands to the mob.  Johnny kills two of the them after they beat up Mac.

But the boss knows who did it and Johnny are forced to become hitmen for the mob.  One of the men killed happens to be an undercover cop.

In part two, Simon, the dead cop’s partner, vows to find the killer of his friend. (Simon’s euology for his dead friend is amazing.)  He becomes obsessed with it to the point where it starts to destroy his marriage and his life. Everything takes a backseat to his obsession at finding the killer.

The third part brings them all together.  But it’s not what you think. One thing to remember:  “There are no good guys.”

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

What's the Worst That Could Happen? (Dortmunder Novels) by Donald E. Westlake | LibraryThing

Dortmunder is another fine creation of Donald Westlake.  He occasionally appears in the Parker stories, but this one is devoted to Dortmunder himself.  Things always seem to go wrong and the beginning is no exception. They attempt to burgle a house on Long Island that’s supposed to be empty but it’s a house being used as a trysting place for Fairbanks (pun perhaps?) a thieving executive millionaire and his mistress.  He calls the cops and then has the temerity to steal a “lucky” ring off Dortmunder’s finger before he gets hauled off to jail. Dortmunder escapes the police car (a humorous event in itself) and vows to get the ring back and make the guy sorry for his humiliation.

The plot then revolves around Dortmunders extraordinary capers to get the ring back.  And in the process, they decide to rob a Las Vegas casino.  After conducting a little third-rate burglary at the Watergate.  A little third-rate burglary at the Watergate?” Andy said, “I already tried that on him, and it didn’t work. John isn’t much of a history buff.”... Herman paused to take a roll of duct tape from inside his tuxedo jacket, tear off a length, and attach it to the edge of the door over the striker to keep it from locking. Spies, political agents, and other amateurs put such tape on a door horizontally, so that it shows on both front and back, and can be noticed by a passing security person.  (There is a risk here that anyone under the age of forty will not get this reference at all.)

What makes these books are the little side comments Westlake throws in a social criticism. For example: “On the TV, people covered with blood were being carried to ambulances. Wherever it was, it looked like a real mess. Then, as Dortmunder watched, the people and the ambulances faded away and some candy bars began to dance.”  and “The thing is,” Andy explained, “when I feel I need a car, good transportation, something very special, I look for a vehicle with MD plates. This is one place where you can trust doctors. They understand discomfort, and they understand comfort, and they got the money to back up their opinions.”

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For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago by Simon Baatz | LibraryThing

I suppose that anyone who has read about the career of Clarence Darrow is familiar with his famous defense of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. In short, a little Jewish boy (Richard’s cousin!) from a wealthy Chicago family, Bobby Franks, was kidnapped after school and murdered by two intelligent and wealthy college students, both also Jewish. Suspicion initially fell on teachers at the school Bobby attended, the Harvard School, and despite lots of exculpatory evidence several of them were held by the police and beaten severely to try to get them to confess.  They didn’t and finally their lawyers convinced a judge to release them

Then there was an eyewitness who saw a gray Winton car right by the school at the time Bobby was kidnapped. Soon every person in Chicago with a gray Winton was being reported to the police.  One owner parked his car in the garage and walked to work rather than having to face the police almost every day as people reported seeing him in his gray Winton.  (The car they actually used was a dark green Willys-Knight.)

Pedophiles, homosexuals, anyone the police considered a “sexual deviant” were rounded up for questioning, although even the district attorney noted that it would be a rare event indeed for a pedophile to ask for a ransom and set up such an elaborate mechanism to collect it.

The story is horrifying in its depiction of the two psychopaths.  Convinced they were smarter than everyone else (Richard was the youngest graduate of the University of Michigan,) they had successfully embarked on a series of petty vandalism before deciding to commit the “perfect murder.”  They almost succeeded, except for Nathan’s glasses.

There was no question as to their guilt.  They had confessed and revealed all the details to the police. They were perhaps lucky that they committed their crimes at a time when research in genetics and animal instinct was being popularized. Darrow, who had engaged in a “lifelong campaign on behalf of the defenseless” had read Altgeld’s book, Our Penal Machinery, which argued that “criminal behavior... was less a consequence of free will and deliberation and more a matter of education, upbringing, and environment. The majority of criminals—the overwhelming majority, Altgeld stressed—had grown up in circumstances of dire poverty, in families where one or both parents were absent, and without the benefits of education, schooling, or discipline.”   

Darrow was also determined to rid society of capital punishment. He had defended numerous people who faced the death penalty.   The Loeb/Leopold case was perfect  “not because the defendants were deserving...  the trial of Leopold and Loeb would capture the attention of the nation. … "The importance of instinct in the animal world, Darrow stated, provided a clue to its significance in higher forms of life. Human beings believe that they act rationally, but might they not also be subject to instinctual drives? …”human beings were no more capable of free agency than the mason bee or the red ant."

The trial provided a forum for the relatively new field of psychiatry (even then occasionally called “alienists”)  that wanted to impress upon the rapt audience their “belief that criminal behavior was a medical phenomenon best interpreted by scientific experts.”   That is, if they could avoid an adversarial battle between experts (each getting $1,000 a day - a huge amount of money in those days,) which would require the cooperation of the state’s attorney.  The facts might not be at issue but the interpretations could very well be, and that would be embarrassing to the new profession.  Darrow countered with the argument that no one wanted to see the boys freed by claiming insanity; they were trying to avoid the death penalty.  Interestingly, efforts to broadcast the trial --a first -- were nixed after opposition from religious and social groups worried about their children being exposed to the filth (homosexuality) that would come out during testimony.

To explain Darrow’s brilliant strategy would be to reveal too much.  Excellent read for anyone interested in Darrow, criminal motivations, and the justice system not to mention early nineteenth century culture.

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