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: Red Harvest still fresh and raw

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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.

Book review: Orca starts with a bang, ends on ice

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Before there was “Blackfish,” there was “Orca.”

And alongside Orca the book (1977) was Orca the movie.  And a dreadful movie it was.  My main memory is of a whale fetus ejected from its mother’s womb, landing on a ship deck, and squealing like a human baby.  It put the “ick” in flick.  As others have pointed out, the novel is superior.

Jack Campbell, the main character, is an alcoholic who is hopelessly uninterested in anything life has to offer, barely keeping his father’s charter boating business in Florida afloat.  His sister Annie’s boyfriend finds a newspaper article about a $125K reward from the Japanese for the capture of a great white shark.  Campbell’s crew, including surly Gus, head north in the Bumpo.

While hunting fish, Campbell finally finds that the activity excites him.  He begins to step away from the bottle.  Ending up in Canadian waters, the Bumpo fails to capture a shark.  Netting an orca, the killer whale, is more feasible.  Campbell and the Bumpo’s crew gain the blessing from the leaders of a South Harbor, a Newfoundland fishing village, to ship out on a whaling mission.

During the expedition, a pregnant orca delivers a stillborn calf.  The orca father, dubbed “Nickfin” by a local Indian chief, blames Campbell.  That sets into motion a series of attacks against vessels, Campbell’s loved ones, and South Harbor.  The Bumpo is damaged, and Campbell is stuck back in town awaiting repairs while the entire town turns on him.

There he falls in love with Rachel, a whale expert who doesn’t want Campbell to kill the orca.  He doesn’t want to tangle with Nickfin either, since he knows how dangerous the whale is.  But the town becomes so antagonistic that Campbell has little choice but to ready for battle with the orca on the high seas.

Campbell is a strong, engaging character.  The succession of events leading to the final battle is compelling.  The orca’s attack scenes are gripping.  The fickleness of the villagers—cheering on Jack at one point and trying to run him out on a rail later on—is frustrating but true to life.  Overall, I liked the book.  People who like sea monster fiction like Jaws and Meg will find this to be a quick and entertaining read.  The audiobook was fun because of the sly narration by Mark Moseley.  I’d give the novel three out of five stars.

Why not a higher rating?  There’s an odd theme in the book involving Campbell’s bonding or soul connection with Nickfin.  Campbell perceives that the orca represents freedom.  That doesn’t make sense since the whale seems as obsessed with revenge as Campbell does.  At other points, the orca represents Campbell’s own demons—perhaps his alcoholism or sense of worthlessness.  At times the connection borders on the paranormal with Campbell practically reading the whale’s thoughts.  That element didn’t work for me, and the final page or two made for a limp ending.

Book review: dive into MEG for deep-sea thrills

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Cover shows blood at the bottom of the Mariana Trench

Even if you’re not going to the beach, you should read Steve Alten’s first book about a giant shark this summer.  The fifth book of Alten’s series came out just last week, so it’s time to start catching up.

Though MEG is similar to Jaws (giant shark goes on rampage) it is distinct and stands on its own.  The novel is about Carcharodon megalodon, not the great white shark of Jaws fame.  The premise is that extinct megalodons still exist.  They live so deep in the Mariana Trench that nobody knows.  They survive on the warmth of the thermal flows from the earth.  The water above them is too cold for them to swim in, so they are confined to the basement of the sea until an accident happens that unleashes one of them to the surface.  Mayhem ensues.

While the premise may sound far-fetched, each step toward the megalodon’s surfacing is presented in a believable fashion.  Even if somebody pooh-poohs the scientific plausibility of the anatomy and behavior of the meg, the idea of prehistoric mega-sharks among us is an imaginative and exhilarating concept.  The meg is so big that it poses a threat to ships and whale pods.  Its ability to destroy marine life and destabilize entire ecosystems of shallower waters is believable and scary.  This sets up the rationale for extreme measures by humans to stop the meg.

Jonas is the expert in the middle of all the action.  At first nobody believes him.  Then they begin to believe him but don’t see the threat as seriously as he takes it.  Will they catch up to his way of thinking in time?

MEG is fast-paced and somewhat short (my copy has large font and generous spacing but still falls under 300 pages).  The action, like the location of the meg swimming across the Pacific, keeps moving so there’s no threat of getting bored.  MEG is also satisfying because bad things happen to characters who are jerks.

The imaginative premise, high-octane plot, and characters you’ll enjoy rooting for or against earn this book five stars.

Book review: Fragment delivers ecological fun

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Fragment

A remote, tiny island in the Pacific teems with unique, aggressive species.  But they aren’t dinosaurs from The Land that Time Forgot; they are distant relatives of mantis shrimp that evolved on a separate track from the rest of the earth in Fragment, a 2009 eco-thriller that is more plausible than a living dinosaur book.  The new species are first discovered by the crew of a reality show called “SeaLife.”  The U.S. Navy takes over because of the risk that the dangerous species could leave the island and destroy continental ecosystems, or hostile regimes could exploit the island to develop biological weapons.

Some reviewers have been critical of the “pseudo-science” in Fragment.  But ask yourself, is the science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein believable?  How about Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World?  Or Michael Crichton’s Congo?  Those books all stretch science as it was understood in the era of the authors to create a compelling story.

Fragment isn’t in the same league as those classic tales of scientific exploration, but it is an exciting, contemporary story.  The setting of the book, “Henders Island,” is an imaginative place.  The best element of the book is the characters’ struggle to survive in the ominous setting.  Thatcher Redmond, the villain of the book, is fun to hate, and his imperious voice was the highlight Robin Atkin Downes’s narration in the audiobook version.

The U.S. government has several possible ways to deal with the threat of the aggressive species on Henders Island.  Without spoiling the ending, I will just say that I was not a fan of the solution.  That is my number one complaint about the book, but it made for good drama.

A book review to kick-off the summer: Jaws

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Variety rates “Jaws” as one of 10 movies that was better than the book.  Several lists on Goodreads also put the book Jaws in the same category, such as “The movie was better than the book” which puts Jaws one notch above The Silence of the Lambs.

So my expectations were low when I finally got a chance to read Peter Benchley’s classic.  Reading it easily blew my expectations out of the water.

Like the movie, Jaws opens with a topless teenager splashing into the waves after dark.  We all know what happens next.  But the true horror grows after the first shark attack as we meet the men pulling the strings in Amity.  They call the shots and have the power to make or break the lives of the locals.  The chief of police comes under their nasty pressures to keep the beaches open.  Amity is totally reliant on a very short vacationer season to sustain itself economically for the year.  Brody caves, but he remains a very sympathetic character because we know he wanted to do the right thing.

The biggest difference between the book and film in terms of the plot is that Brody’s wife cheats on him with Matt Hooper.  One Goodreads reviewer calls the sex “utterly pointless and adds nothing to the story,” but that comment misses the point.  Brody’s wife is from “the city,” and grew up vacationing with her middle class family in Amity.  The rift between “summer people” and the townees is one of the big themes in Jaws.  The shark doesn’t just threaten swimmers, but it threatens the fabric of life in Amity.  Hooper, the shark expert, offers the sophistication and care-free adventure that she misses as an Amity housewife.  The shark forces the characters to reexamine where they are in life.

Benchley depicts the escalating threat of the shark very effectively.  Each attack scene is scary and reveals something additional about the shark’s nature and the severity of the danger.  The text may not have the visceral impact to scare you out of the water the same way that the movie could, and it’s true that Stephen Spielberg made a terrific movie.  But that is hardly Benchley’s fault.  If I had written Jaws, I would have been thrilled for a great director to turn my book into a fantastic film.  And if I were Spielberg I’d count my blessings for the good fortune of starting production with such a great book.

Book review: Zero Alternative skewers “too-big-to-fail”

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From the recession of 2008 was born a litter of woes.  Mortgage defaults.  Foreclosures.  Cram downs.  Lay-offs.  Furlough days.  Stagnant wages.

Was the recession caused by exotic financial instruments like mortgage-backed securities?  Was it the result of excessive pressure from the federal government on banks to issue home loans to borrowers who couldn’t pay the bills?  Or just the boom and bust of the business cycle?

That’s not the way that Scott “Yours” Walker (surely, an unintentional homonym with no relation to the governor of Wisconsin), the main character in Luca Pesaro’s financial techno-thriller Zero Alternative (2014), sees it.  Walker, an investment banker with a skeptical mind, inhabits a darker world, where friends and enemies alike work for larger, shadowy entities pulling strings behind the scenes.

The story begins with a banner performance by Walker, making millions in one day of trading when everybody in London but him predicted the worst.  It’s all downhill for Walker from there.  Walker’s friend D.M., who is just finishing the creation of a powerful predictive analytics software that can anticipate ups and downs in the market, is murdered.  The killer attempts to frame Walker, who has the next most knowledge of the software.

Walker goes on the lam with a hired gun on his tail.  Hired by a rival investment bank, perhaps.  The sexy woman at his side, Layla, was working for the hired gun, after she quit working for a foreign spy agency.  While on the run with her, Walker must trust her when she says she’s working for herself now.  They travel from London to France to Switzerland to Italy to the U.S., facing close shaves at every turn and doubting but seducing each other along the way.

The computer program is valuable enough to kill for.  While Walker isn’t above using the program to make money for himself or his allies while in hiding, he mainly wants to use the application to bring down an odious investment bank.  This is his act of rebellion against the too-big-to-fail financial system which is rigged to make money for itself regardless market direction or morality.  The adventure of Zero Alternative is in Walker’s personal, international life-and-death cage match against overwhelming forces of greed.  Whether Walker’s his pursuers will steal the computer program, whether he will be able to use the program against the financial system, and the question of Layla’s reliability, are compelling elements.

There is stock market terminology and information technology jargon in the book, but it is not excessive.  The movement of Walker and Layla across the borders of Europe into Italy are plausible for a man of Walker’s resources.  Where things get a little shaky are the oracle-like foresight of the computer program.  It might have been more plausible if the application occasionally predicted the wrong outcome, required input of more data in order to make a prediction, or if it had a lot of bugs to be worked out.  Also, the politics—the allegation that the recession is mainly the result of corporate greed—is not for all tastes.  But the excitement of the international chase and the tense romance make up for that.  Recommended.