Book review: Darktown illuminates

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Darktown

As an Atlantan who thought I had a good grasp of local history, Darktown by Thomas Mullen was a splash of cold water in the face. Very informative.

Two rookie black officers must investigate a murder case that the whites don’t care about, or worse, are covering up. In the first few chapters, Darktown reminded me of other police procedurals where the clean/honest cops (in this case, the black rookies) have to investigate around the dirty cops (here, the ultra-segregationists on the police force).  But the further the story develops, the clearer it becomes how severely the deck is stacked against the black officers.  They are dealing not just with discrimination in the police force, but when they’re off-duty as well, which complicates their unofficial investigation even further.

The book vividly illustrates the effect of segregation on the black community in Atlanta and rural Georgia in the 1940s. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: Bone Labyrinth is over-the-top fun

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Bone Labyrinth

Congo meets Da Vinci Code.  Primate and human intelligence are explored against a backdrop of old Catholic secrets.  Throw in a larger than life team of heroes, stylish international travel, nail-biting firefights, nasty villains from China, and more narrow escapes than a Hardee Boys book, and you’ve got James Rollin’s Bone Labyrinth.

Bone Labyrinth alternates between an A-story and a B-story, each focused on one of two brilliant sisters separated by an ocean, and each accompanied by half of “Sigma Force,” an ultra-elite team of quasi-military-spy characters.

One sister, Maria, is the surrogate mother for Baako, a gorilla hybrid who is smarter than normal (and at least in the beginning, appears to be psychic as well).  Her love for Baako and his love for her proves that she is as tender and caring as she is brilliant.  Kowalski, a member of Sigma Force who knows sign language, is rough around the edges, but is able to communicate with Baako, thereby eventually earning love and respect from Baako and Maria.  They are all kidnapped for the secrets of Maria and Baako’s minds.

The other sister, Lena, has a knack for finding historical sites in Europe and South America that are easy to be trapped in by foreign assassins who are always right on her tail.  Thanks to Sigma’s Gray, who can see patterns when nobody else can, and his lover Seichan, who acts like Catwoman most of the time, Lena is protected as she finds one clue after another about the origins of human life, but not without almost being drowned or shot at every turn.

The alternating plotlines and groups of characters may not be for all tastes.  On one hand, the dichotomy keeps things moving along, creates cliffhangers, and prevents boredom with one topic or series of scenes.  On the other hand, it’s one tease after another.  Usually the switches result in delayed gratification, stretching out the resolution to whatever conflict the characters find themselves in, but there are some instances where the switching is just a tease without gratification.

Bone Labyrinth is an ambitious novel, offering the possibility of explaining the moment in evolution known as the Great Leap Forward, or explaining Adam and Eve, or both.  The book is like a treasure hunt, but the treasure is the understanding of human intelligence rather than material wealth.  By that measure, Bone Labyrinth doesn’t hit the bullseye, but at least it goes in the direction of the target.

It is a fun novel.  The characters all have their own back stories and very specific traits, and from that standpoint they are well developed.  They each have some weakness to balance out their enormous gifts and talents.  But I think even James Rollins would admit that they’re all a bit over the top.  I think it’s intentional, because it is kind of fun to watch these combat geniuses at work.

If you love thrillers, or loved reading adventures as a kid (I really wasn’t kidding about the Hardee Boys similarity), you will enjoy this book like I did.  Rollins’s ability to make science and history thrilling is impressive, but don’t expect it to be quite like a Michael Crichton book—ultimately Bone Labyrinth’s fun characters and rapid-fire action scenes are what animate this book, and science very important but somewhat secondary to that.

Book review: funny crooks Down on Ponce

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Money laundering noir from Atlanta in the 1990s

James knocks on Sam’s door and asks him to kill his wife.  Sam asks, “Ever thought of divorce?”  James hadn’t.  Thirty thousand dollars later, Sam relents.  He promptly double-crosses James, tells his wife, and keeps the cash.  It’s all fun and games until somebody else kills James and his wife and burns down Sam’s mobile home.

The strong opening is followed by Sam going into hiding in plain sight on Ponce de Leon Avenue in east Atlanta.  He hooks up with a crew of colorful crooks: Charley who works at a funeral parlor and drives around town in a hearse, Bob who can’t talk but writes poems, and amputee Stinky.  Later they’re joined by Bug, a wisecracking lady’s man lunatic they help bust from an asylum, who may only be pretending to be crazy, but is insane enough to love killing his posse’s enemies.

We learn that people who live on the streets, especially criminals, are better adjusted than those dangerous freaks in the suburbs.  That’s the order of affairs in Down on Ponce, the 1997 novel by Fred Willard.  Street people’s approach to theft is individualized; suburbanites’ approach is institutionalized.  This is illustrated by the savings & loan crisis that preceded the action in this book but is alluded to, and the drug trafficking and money laundering that was ongoing from the time period of the book to the present day.  The cops in North Georgia don’t care because they see it as the natural evolution of moonshining, or something.

Sam figures that James was involved with a money laundering ring run by Dong Chandler.  Sam’s plan is to trick Dong into believing that his crew is experienced in laundering money through the Dutch Antilles or Costa Rica.  That way they can steal the money and figure out who burnt down Sam’s mobile home at the same time.

Sam is a sharp protagonist.  Maybe too sharp.  His foresight and leadership over the crew are on par with Robin Hood.  His morals are more variable.  He always stays a step ahead of his opponents, and outwits them in every conversation.

Sam’s fellow travelers are eccentric and constantly craclomg jokes.  They get embroiled in random, comical situations. Willard’s writing style is entertaining and even joyful—he seems to love being in the company of the characters he creates, and it’s infectious.  It’s a humorous book, and its humor helps distract from the excessive anti-suburban, anti-conservative, and anti-institutional messages of the story.  The book is also so funny that after a while you stop taking the book seriously.  It’s marketed as “hard-boiled” or “cracker noir,” but the levity of the constant gags undercuts the hardest edges.

Three stars out of five.

Book review: cold case heats up in Atlanta

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In Out of the Blues by Trudy Nan Boyce, an experienced police officer (but homicide newbie) nicknamed Salt must reopen an investigation into the suspicious death of a blues musician.  Fortunately for Salt, she is a bigtime blues fan and already knows the major players and venues in the Atlanta blues scene.  She’s also smart and has a knack for finessing the truth out of suspects and witnesses.

Unfortunately, the homicide unit assigns no partner to Salt.  She’s on her own even though it’s her first case.  This is dangerous because the case involves a criminal, drug-dealing, pimping syndicate.  The investigation also involves links to powerful men in Atlanta, including the pastor of a big church and a fellow police officer who is an unofficial gatekeeper for cops working part-time jobs for extra money.  Salt is strong, but she is also vulnerable and has to work diligently and carefully to overcome these obstacles.

Salt is also the only woman on her shift.  This causes some awkwardness and necessitates some heroics to prove herself.  But the gender roles in the book are handled with a fairly light touch—not nearly as heavy-handed as Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, which focused on the stacked deck against women and resistance to social change in the Atlanta police department 40 years earlier.  Out of the Blues is much less focused on cultural commentary than Cop Town.  Those looking for a more straightforward police procedural in Atlanta without the social analysis will prefer this book.

One weakness of Out of the Blues is the dialogue.  The characters use long words, speak in long sentences, and have very long conversations without major payoffs.  Nevertheless, Salt is engaging and the story is strong enough to carry the reader’s interest to the tidy ending.

Recommended.

USAA branch comes to Buckhead

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USAA Financial Service Center

USAA, the well-respected financial institution that serves members of the military, veterans, and dependents, is opening a service center in Atlanta.  The bank typically serves its customers only by phone or online.  This strategy has allowed USAA to offer high interest rates on savings and checking accounts, low fees, and low car insurance premiums.

At the new branch, customers will be able to buy car insurance, open an account, make deposits or withdrawals, and get help with financial planning and military transitions like changing duty stations, deploying, or retiring.

The Atlanta USAA Financial Center will open on March 28.  It will be located at the corner of Peachtree and West Paces Ferry in Two Buckhead Plaza (near Chops):

Two Buckhead Plaza
3050 Peachtree Road, Suite 150
Atlanta, GA 30305

I’ve been a USAA member for years but have never had the opportunity to meet with them face-to-face.  This will be a great service option for military families in the Atlanta area!

Book Review: Breaking Creed breaks into a gallop

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Breaking Creed, a suspense novel by Alex Kava, opens with a girl swallowing condoms filled with cocaine.  Amanda is a drug mule seduced by an abusive Latin American kingpin.  Ryder Creed, who was a Marine and is now a dog handler, detects Amanda at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta with the help of Grace, a Jack Russell Terrier with a nose for mischief.

Rather than turning Amanda over to the authorities at Hartsfield or taking her the hospital, Creed drives her to his home—in Florida!  This was an extremely peculiar and implausible decision that distracted me for several chapters.  The shock of a grown man taking an underage girl across state lines alone gradually wore off as we learned that Creed operates a halfway house that can help Amanda.

The Creed storyline is intercut with scenes of Special Agent Maggie O’Dell, who is assigned with a homicide case of a “floater” pulled out of the Potomac.  The victim was killed and tortured while strapped to a mound of fire ants.  O’Dell travels to Alabama to investigate where the torture took place.  The investigation and the investigators themselves are targeted by an unknown assassin who uses lethal animals or insects to strike his victims.  It’s a chilling approach.

Creed helps out on the Alabama case, too.  Grace, his Jack Russell Terrier, isn’t just a drug dog or a rescue dog or cadaver dog, she’s an all-purpose crime-stopping dog.  Whenever Grace finds what Creed seeks, he rewards her with her favorite thing—a pink elephant chew toy.  I’m not sure how plausible it is that Grace has so many talents, but she is a fun dog character.  Grace isn’t just a prop or an object of affection in the book—she is a dog that actually affects the plot in several ways throughout the book.

The assassin’s methodology, dog scenes, and galloping pace of the plot make Breaking Creed a fun, quick read.

Less enjoyably, there are many coincidences and convenient turns of events that cause Creed and O’Dell to work together throughout the book.  Their separate investigations merge more than once.  The way Creed and O’Dell get excited to see each other but try to play it cool reminds me of romance novel tropes.  A lot of emotions are attributed to Creed and other male characters in an unconvincing way like romance novelists sometimes do.  There is definitely more action here than in a Nora Roberts book, but overall I would categorize Breaking Creed as a romantic suspense, not as a thriller or mystery as it has been classified by Goodreads and Amazon.

Another word of warning:  although the back cover book blurb makes it sound like the book is set in Atlanta, it isn’t.  Only a couple pages are.

Breaking Creed is the first of the “Creed” series by Alex Kava.