Undercard’s midpoint plot twist


Book review: Undercard

David Albertyn's Undercard

The “middle muddle” is something all authors and readers fear: that after a dynamite opening, the action falls into hibernation until it wakes up again in Act III. Some readers even skip the middle of books to get to the finale. Moviegoers step away an hour in for a bathroom break. Students read the beginning and end of a chapter or book while cramming for a test.

Do not skip the middle here!

David Albertyn’s Undercard vanquishes that dreaded, paralyzing wasteland where too many manuscripts go to die. A quite unexpected twist right in the middle of this novel propels the high-stakes drama and intimate reflection of the second half.

Undercard also has a seductive, noirish atmosphere in and outside the ring in Vegas (and on the cover). I agree with fellow reviewer Wilder Bellamy who called this a Scorsese story.

Looking forward to seeing how Albertyn’s career progresses.

Book review: Bluff is a hand well played


Bluff by Michael Kardos

Michael Kardos’s Bluff is an absolute delight. Natalie maims a volunteer at her magic show in a priceless scene, but it’s Natalie we feel bad for. Surrounded by jerks, she’s the victim of repeated unfortunate circumstances for which she is totally innocent or only partly blameworthy.

Falling deeper into a hole, she shifts from honing her craft as a professional magician to learning about card sharps. This sets in motion a suspenseful series of events leading up to a million-dollar poker match. In the process, Natalie teams up with Ellen, a woman with great technical skill at the poker table who offers Natalie mentorship as well as a glimmer of friendship that seems to be missing from her life.

The descriptions of magic acts and card sharping are presented with such enthusiasm and intrigue that they are 100 percent compelling, even though I don’t even care about those topics in the real world! The details reach out and grab you by your throat with their authenticity. Kardos’s heartfelt and precise language elevate the novel above typical genre fiction.

Also, I loved the sense of humor in Bluff, especially in the beginning and in the middle before things became more serious. Kardos is able to present information in a very funny, succinct, and descriptive way. It’s not the zany, confrontational humor of Carl Hiassen–it’s much more economical and subtle.

Even though I’m not a magician, a gambler, or a woman, I felt connected to and very invested in Natalie and her plight. Some books take me months to finish because I lose interest, but this one I gobbled up in three days. I even stayed up late to finish, which I can’t remember doing with any other novel ever!

But it turned out that I wasn’t sold on the ending, otherwise this would have easily earned five stars for the wonderful language, humor, character development, compelling details, and near-Hitchcockian suspense.

Book review: Sting of the Drone


Sting of the Drone.jpg

Sting of the Drone by Richard Clarke offers a nuanced perspective on the U.S use of drones to kill terrorists.  It depicts scenarios where drones are more effective with less collateral damage than alternatives.  It shows that there are many layers of experts and decision-makers involved in each drone strike.

It also presents legitimate causes for concern.  Should drones be used in allied, first-world countries where terrorist cells are operating?  You might say no, if the ally wants the U.S. to kill a terrorist in their midst who is plotting an attack, you may arrive at a different conclusion.

The book also makes the reader question whether the individuals involved in making drone strike decisions the best people to be making the decisions.  It would be beneficial to have more transparency about their deliberations, but the challenge would be keeping national security secrets secret.

As a thriller, this novel could have used some improvements.  The first half of the book is more of an ensemble cast than a story with one main character.  Eventually it settles on somebody.  I read the book two months ago, and I can’t remember any of the characters’ names.  There is a reasonably compelling villain, and he’s plotting an attack against America’s drone infrastructure, which is a great concept.  But the failure to ground the story in one main hero limited how engaging it was.

Another issue was an exaggerated treatment of drone operators.  There is a group of Air Force pilots in the book who take their drone piloting seriously, but quietly wish they were still flying “real” planes.  They become racked with guilt after some bad publicity about one or two strikes that Al Qaeda made to look like civilian massacres.  They start exhibiting PTSD.  That is all sort of interesting, but overblown.  Most UAV pilots are normal, well-adjusted people.

Overall this is a fair and balanced glimpse into U.S. drone policy and its ethics presented through a vivid story.  Just don’t expect to fall in love with the characters.

Book review: Sabotaged


Alaskan Courage #5

The premise of a thriller against the backdrop of the Iditarod sled race is an exciting one.  The novel (Sabotaged, 2015) starts strong.  Kirra’s cousin Meg is abducted.  Kira’s uncle Frank, a musher in the race, is coerced by criminals into doing a mysterious job for them before they will release Meg.  Frank is able to tell Kirra and her burgeoning love interest, Reef, what happened to Meg.  He wants them to rescue Meg without involving the police.

At first, Kirra and Reef appear to have a testy relationship.  The development of the romance between them is fairly predictable, and once it has developed, it unfortunately becomes a bit saccharine.  More conflicts or disagreements between the two as they investigate Meg’s abduction may have helped.  Though Kirra is nervous about Reef’s trustworthiness early on, he is generally depicted as strong, caring, tenacious, and faithful.  Kirra is scarred and impulsive, but he appears to have no faults, and I think because of that I became bored by their romance.

I was prepared to accept the exclusion of the police, but it did bother me after a while.  Kirra and Reef virtually become the police, seeking out leads and questioning them like characters are questioned in police procedurals.  The detective-style was an interesting but unexpected approach, and to me it almost became more technical than thrilling.

That being said, Dani Pettrey is a gifted writer who has a way with words.  The characters are grounded in Christian beliefs which is refreshing compared to other novels these days.  The Alaskan Courage series also has great covers, conjuring up a spirit of beautiful outdoor adventure.

I read this book partly because it’s on a Goodreads list called “Fiction: Police, Military & Service Dogs.”  It isn’t the fault of Pettrey that the book has been branded by readers this way, but unfortunately the listing (and cover and dust jacket involving the Iditarod) set up an unrealistic expectation for me.  I thought the Iditarod and the sled dogs would feature much more prominently in the plot.  Growing up in the South and being accustomed to labs and hounds, the idea of huskies and sled dogs always seemed very exotic and compelling to me.  I got my hopes up that I would learn something about the dogs of the Iditarod in this novel.  There was some information about the race itself, most of the action took place outside the Iditarod trail, and nothing about the dogs.

Oh well.  It was still an enjoyable romantic suspense novel if that type of book appeals to you.

Book review: Listening for Lions


A moving little book, tenderly and achingly written.

In Gloria Whelan’s Listening for Lions (2005), Rachel is the daughter of a workaholic physician in Kenya.  The flu kills her parents and Valerie, a girl her age.  Valerie’s parents pretend to help Rachel, but actually intend her to pose as their daughter for selfish reasons to be learned later on in the book.

As an adult reader, your heart goes out to Rachel because you see how she blames herself for so many things that should be blamed on selfish grown-ups surrounding her.  Rachel fears that she will get in trouble for many things, like initially agreeing to Valerie’s parents’ plans, which, as an adult, you can see that she really won’t get in trouble for.  Despite Rachel’s intelligence and strength, she is too innocent or immature to foresee exactly what consequences will befall her if the truth of her identity does or does not come out.

Listening for Lions is written for young audiences.  It is marked by insightful, clear, but almost dreamlike prose.  At less than 200 double-spaced pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s not really the kind of book you’d want to rush through.  It encourages sitting back and weighing the words carefully, like you’re listening to a good old story from a grandmother or great aunt.

Just don’t expect much at all about lions.  Rachel loves Kenya, birds, books, and helping people.  She likes the roars of lions late at night, and she misses those sounds when she is in England.  But there is never a significant scene or deep connection involving a lion.  The lion’s roar is basically auditory wallpaper.  Compared to her lifelong interest in birds, making lions a title element is misleading.

Still, recommended, especially for smart or strong girls.

Book Review: Night of the Crabs


Paperback book cover of Guy N. Smith's Night of the Crabs

The cover of my paperback copy says “In the tradition of The Rats.”  But Guy N. Smith’s Night of the Crabs (1976) is a much better and tighter narrative adventure than the sleazy, booze-induced vignettes of Herbert’s Rats.

Cliff, a scientist, goes to the coast of Wales to investigate the disappearance of his nephew and his girlfriend, both strong swimmers.  While observing the coast, he is arrested by military personnel who think he is spying on them.  Eventually cleared, he is released.

He meets Pat, a young widow, who teams up with him to find out what is happening on the beach.  They discover that giant crabs are crawling out of the water at night, including the biggest and smartest among them, whom Cliff calls King Crab.  Battles follow, with the crabs seemingly impervious to conventional military power.  One wonders if there’s a light metaphor here for the British Army in the 1970s contending with Irish Republican Army terrorists, but this certainly doesn’t come across as a strongly political book or a novel with a social critique.

At any rate, Cliff proposes a plan to bomb the underwater cave system where they spend their days, which should trap them in a watery grave.  You should read it for yourself to find out what happens next.

The book is clever because it takes an animal, the crab, that isn’t scary, and turns it into a story that is.  Not horrifying in the sense of a Steven King horror novel, but scary in the sense of a good old-fashioned monster movie or a perfect campfire story to tell late at night after a clam bake.

While it probably was capitalizing on the success of Jaws (murky, underwater threat snatches innocent victims and their body parts) as much as it was on The Rats, it is not as credible as either.  It’s easier to imagine one deranged shark or an infestation of dangerous rats than it is to believe in the sudden surfacing of a group of giant, mutant, intelligent crabs.

But it still works.  Cliff and Pat aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are likeable and worth cheering for.  They recognize the severity of the threat early on, and of course the community and the top brass of the military don’t take it seriously enough.  If you like that kind of story, you’ll love this.

Again, it’s a fun, tight little piece of fiction.  A short book, it’s readable in two or three sittings.

Book review: The Looters is an overlooked gem


Bank heist book cover

What an underappreciated storyteller was John Reese.  In some ways an heir to James Cain and Dashiell Hammet, Reese was able to create visceral plots infused with palpable greed, criminality, and menace in sunbaked California landscapes.

The Looters (1968) was billed on some book covers as “The exciting and violent story of a bank robbery.”  Indeed, the book includes such a story, but that doesn’t do it justice and the story doesn’t end there.  The Tres Cruces National Bank isn’t exactly as clean and pure as the wind-driven snow.  Investigators initially suspect that the robbery was an inside job orchestrated by somebody within the shadowy, mostly Italian owned parent entity that controls the bank.

Everybody loves money, but few people like numbers or financial complexity.  Even fewer can tolerate reading about the subject.  Reese is one of those rare authors who is able to convey a complicated financial caper to thrill his readers rather than crossing their eyes.  He did it with Two Thieves and a Puma and again with this book.  His quirky characters and their motivations are what carry the readers through the turning points in his plots.  Reese also usually takes time to explain what the financial interests of the different players are so readers don’t get lost.

In The Looters, Reese also shows that he is the master of creating characters who are complete jerks.  Take J. J. Schirmer, a bank executive who is not only prejudiced against Italians (constantly referring to his business partners as greasy Sicilian bastards or “Sicilian perverts”), he’s vile to work for.  In one of several scenes like it, Schirmer needlessly berates his driver, Eddie, at 8 a.m.:

Schirmer put down the phone and shouted for Eddie.  The chauffeur had slept in the lounge outside, and was still not dressed. ‘I been waiting to hear you was awake, Mist’ Schirmer,’ he said.

‘All right, you heard. Go get me a pot of coffee.’

‘I cain’t go like this, seh. I phone for it and have it here before—’

‘God damn it, I could have phoned for it. I want to use the phone!’

‘I go fetch it.’

‘Never mind! I’m going to take a shower. Call for some coffee and then put in a call for Sybil at her place.’

The Looters is filled with deliciously nasty dialogue like that, and characters like Schirmer who show their cruelty, caprice, and superiority complexes at every turn.  Molly, a hired gun working for the Italians, is a world-class sadist and creep tasked with hunting down the bank robber before law enforcement gets him.  They are all harsh to take, but fun to read about.

The downside to the host of characters is that there isn’t a single antagonist or a single hero.  There are good qualities and bad qualities on all three sides of the character triangle:  the bank robbers, the bank owners, and law enforcement.  The lack of a single main character gives the book a different style and impact than the movie, which focused on Varrick (and made him more genial than the hard and ruthless robber in the book).

Reviews of this book have noted that the ending is different from the movie.  That is true, and in several ways, the film’s ending is superior to the book.  The memorable biplane chase from the movie is nowhere to be found in the book.  Whoever came up with that idea for the movie deserves credit for the exciting addition, which was quite sensible considering that Charley Varrick and his partner were crop dusters in the book.

The book’s ending was jarring.  The scene where Molly finds Charley occurs too suddenly, with very little build-up.  It would have been improved if Molly had to chase a few more leads prior to finding Charley, and if their physical confrontation had been more drawn out.  Because of that and the murkiness about the main character, I bump this book down from five stars to four.

That being said, this is still a sweat-inducing pistol of book ideal for a late-summer read.

Book review: Two Stars for Second Life



Clever idea that got off track.

A Chicago mob boss in prison arranges for the release of a fellow inmate 5 years into a 25-year sentence to become his assassin on the outside.  Once free, Nick Mason, a former car thief, finds out that being released to kill people is worse than being in prison, even though his targets are mostly dirty cops.

It is an intriguing concept.  Quintero, Nick’s handler on the outside, tells Nick early on that freedom is different from mobility—don’t get the two confused.  Great line.  And it sums up the plot of the novel.  Nick is mobile because he left prison, and can basically go where he wants, but he’s on call 24/7 to carry out a hit.  The mob boss, Cole, controls Nick, and threatens his family if he tries to wiggle out of the 20-year deal.

However, for a man who had only stolen cars to become a cop killer almost overnight is tough to swallow.  He’s able to run circles around all of his targets and almost all of the other characters in the book.  Maybe if Nick made more mistakes, or had a somewhat darker past, it would be more plausible.

Just as easily as Nick becomes a master assassin, he proves himself to be quite the lady’s man, quickly meeting a woman who wants to know “what five years feels like.” Eh hmm.  Most of the female characters seem interested in either getting in bed with Nick, or with scolding him for ruining their lives in the past.  There’s not much middle ground.

While Nick is running around killing people, a homicide detective named Sandoval is on the trail of the corrupt cops.  The scenes involving Sandoval and the SIS, an elite police unit, are a bit complicated and tricky to follow.

I listened to the audiobook which was a mistake.  The narrator’s tone was extremely bitter in the first 20 percent of the book, which makes some sense because it is set in prison.  However, some lines that I would have read as factual commentary are dripping with venom in the audiobook.  In other words, the tone was overkill.  The mob boss’s voice sounds like a cross between Lucious Lyon from “Empire” and Barack Obama, which was distracting.  Each female character sounded identical, flippant, and naggy.  The narrator has great vocal talents but overall this narration didn’t work for me.

Book review: funny crooks Down on Ponce


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: Red Harvest still fresh and raw



Elihu Willsson runs a mining town.  The thugs he brought into town to stop the miners from striking have since matured into their own gambling, loan sharking, and bootlegging rackets in the 1920s.  The racketeers, including corrupt public officials, appear to have gotten out of hand when Willson’s son is killed after publishing newspaper articles about the corruption.  Red Harvest is about the detective at the center of the story who undertakes to destroy the corruption by pitting the rival gangs against each other.

Dinah Brand, a whore and addict, has enough dirt on each of the different factions to keep the detective interested in her.  The best parts of Red Harvest are the scenes of the detective and Dinah sitting in her kitchen trading exquisite insults over generous servings of gin.  The crackling dialogue and careful drip of intelligence from Dinah to the detective are the bait to seduce readers into an ugly, violent, convoluted mob world.

The complicated plot is challenging to follow (especially in audiobook format).  Noonan, the police chief, favors certain crooks.  Noonan and the powerful men in town pin most crimes on Max “Whisper” Thayler, a gambler who makes it easy for them since he commits so many crimes anyway.  Distinct adventures including a fixed boxing match, a bank robbery, and a police raid illustrate the extent of corruption and the major players involved.

Like most corruption investigations, there is rarely a smoking gun.  There are a series of personalities and questionable activities that the detective has to unpeel like an onion one layer at a time.  Although he is a detective, this book is not a mystery.  We know that dark forces are at work originating from Willson himself.

Unfortunately, Hammett’s tale is all too relevant today.  For example, elements of Pakistan’s spy agency determined in the 1990s that supporting the burgeoning Taliban gave Pakistan strategic depth and better control of Afghanistan.  Their “solution” became worse than the problem.

A “red harvest”—a bloodbath of rivals—isn’t the gentlest method of cleaning up, but Hammett showed it can be exhilarating, tragic, and effective.