Saturday, October 31, 2009

'The Chicago Way': An Impressive Debut Novel

Review: THE CHICAGO WAY (Vintage Books 2008)
Author: Michael Harvey

THE CHICAGO WAY introduces private eye Michael Kelly, a former Chicago cop who has issues (don't they all?) and an apparent fondness for ancient Greek literature (in the original Greek, no less). If this sounds like the standard set-up to the usual private eye novel, don't be fooled. The book has much more going for it.

Kelly is hired by his former partner on the force to solve an old rape and battery case – it's several years old and as cold as they come. Kelly gets drawn even further into solving the crime when his ex-partner/client is murdered and it appears Kelly's being framed for it. One thing leads to another and Kelly is looking into the connections between the old rape case and the recent murder.

To solve the mystery, Kelly turns to his many contacts (loads and loads of them). Every time you turn the page, the reader gets to meet a new (often, colorful) character – some from Kelly's past. People who can help him with his predicament (being suspected of killing his client), as well as solving both crimes. They include an ambitious (and, of course, sexy) television news reporter, a childhood friend who works as a forensic DNA expert and an old pal from the district attorney's office. Plus Kelly must deal with the rape victim, who seems to have a few psychological problems and pops up unexpectedly, often armed with a gun like so many "dames" in hardboiled fiction.

Michael Harvey is a skilled writer, to say the least. His style is terse, yet evocative, and manages to convey both the look and feel of Chicago. He delves into the city's politics with authority. He also includes details about the weather, the streets, the neighborhoods and the bars (of course, there are bars). And he does so with prose so well-crafted, wry and gritty it would make Raymond Chandler weep.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

'July, July': A Poignant, Yet Suspenseful, Story of a Class Reunion

Review: JULY, JULY (Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 2002)
Author: Tim O'Brien

At first glance, JULY, JULY might appear to be little more than a rehash of the movie The Big Chill. From the start, you know the characters have gathered for a college reunion of the class of 1969, and one of them (a woman named Karen) has been murdered. The resemblance is uncanny. However, such a comparison would do the book a huge disservice.

Like The Big Chill, this book is an ensemble piece. None of the characters truly seem to dominate it, although the story starts off with Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner – two women, both divorced, both alone and both getting drunk and looking to get laid. The women provide a somewhat detached perspective on the reunion (although the reader gets to hear their individual stories and personal problems, too). Their comments about the others help set the stage for what's to come.

Those others – at least seven, along with some minor (but still significant) characters – have various relationships with one another, harbor old secrets and grudges, and suffer broken hopes and dreams, as well as unrequited love. Although this sounds cliched, the story gives a fresh spin on the old reunion formula by telling the story in shifting perspectives and time frames, showing how the characters' lives have intersected and delving deeply into their personalities and situations, thus compelling one to find out how each makes out in the end.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Four Lives Intersect in 'The Big Girls'

Review: THE BIG GIRLS (Knopf 2007)
Author: Susanna Moore

THE BIG GIRLS doesn't grab you so much as seduce you into reading it. The story is about four people whose lives overlap in odd and interesting ways. It tackles issues like family, fortune (or the lack of it), coincidence and fate.

The book starts off from the point of view of Dr. Louise Forrest, the new chief of psychiatry at a women's prison. The narrative then switches to Helen, a schizophrenic inmate who's committed a crime so heinous, she's kept apart from the other prisoners at first. Helen is obsessed with contacting Angie, an ambitious Hollywood actress, who happens to be dating Dr. Forrest's ex-husband. Dr. Forrest eventually hooks up with Ike Bradshaw, a no-nonsense prison guard.

The story focuses primarily on Dr. Forrest and Helen, at first. The other two main characters' perspectives get included in time. Together, the narratives combine to create a compelling and ambitious overall story – one that explores each character's demons and the gritty realities of prison life.

The narrative shifts among the four characters, and each point of view adds a layer of different perceptions about the same events.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Elvis Cole's Partner Faces Peril in 'L.A. Requiem'

Review: L.A. REQUIEM (Ballantine Books 2000)
Author: Robert Crais

Elvis Cole is a tough guy private eye – but not too tough. He actually has a soft inner core that makes him slightly less hardened than many protagonists of the hard-boiled genre. Yet, he's hardly a cream puff. In fact, he'll kick ass, if need be. And he has a sardonic sense of humor that makes him reminiscent of Robert Parker's Spenser, except he's in Los Angeles.

Cole has a partner, Joe Pike, who's stoic (to say the least). Hard to read behind his ever-present sunglasses, Pike plays even-more-badass sidekick to Cole's good-hearted, but tough, main character. What's going on inside Pike's head and how he got that way is part of this story.

The plot's set in motion when the young and beautiful Karen Garcia (Pike's ex-girlfriend, it turns out) goes missing and is found murdered in cold blood. The girl is from a wealthy family, whose patriarch hires Cole and Pike to find her, then to monitor the police investigation into her death. The cops aren't happy about having to work with Cole (and extremely unhappy about working with ex-L.A. cop Pike, so Cole ends up being the point person), but the murdered woman's rich father pulls political weight. So Cole gets assigned to work with female detective Samantha Dolan, who's as icy as winter in Minnesota toward Cole. At least, at first. But, of course, that changes.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

'Sandman Slim' is a Hell of a Guy

Review of SANDMAN SLIM (Brilliance Audio 2009)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Richard Kadrey; read by MacLeod Andrews

Okay, here is the setup: A negative thinker named James Butler Stark is a naturally gifted magician in an LA group called the Sub Rosa. He ticks them off with his smart-alecky approach to magic and gets dragged into Hell, known as "Downtown," for 11 years. Of course, being forced to fight supernatural beings in an arena in Hell for over a decade, he builds up some resentment and steals the key to everything, including Earth, and comes back for revenge.

With me so far?

Oh—and this is funny!

Stark lops off heads, makes the heads watch infomercials in a dark closet, and says when you have nothing left and are starting over on Earth, you really only care whether you own socks or not.

As he rages around looking for his old buddies, he runs afoul of Homeland Security, which is of course hooked up with angels (on the side of, get it?) and starts Stark raving about "angel hoo-doo"—he is not a fan.

None of his buds from Hell are here (only the boss Lucifer can get out), but there are angels . . . and some other in-between unsavories called "kissi." Turns out these unworthies are the real bad guys—and the hellions are really just sports-minded scum. Who cares—they can't get out anyhow.

So now Stark is after the kissi—the ones who really dragged him Downtown and killed his one-true-love Alice.

You can grab your weapon of choice and hear the rest. As Stark puts it—"This is a booty call to a massacre." The narrator, MacLeod Andrews, reads Stark as an ironic sort of hell cat, and I have to say, this audiobook is full-on groovy.

Star Lawrence owns a recession blog called Do the Hopey Copey, at She can be reached at

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Laconic Bodyguarding a Specialty in 'The Watchman'

Review of THE WATCHMAN (Brilliance Audio on CD Unabridged 2007)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Robert Crais; read by James Daniels

Does the concept of an ex-Marine, ex-cop dashing around LA trying to keep a hot heiress safe from South American hit men grab you? What if that Marine/ex-cop was your beloved Joe Pike of Elvis Cole/Joe Pike fame? Are you in?

Unlike his growly guest appearances in private detective Elvis Cole books, Pike takes this one over, bodyguarding the brash young Larkin Connor Barkley, who has happened into some weird action when blasting her Aston-Martin through empty LA streets at 4 a.m.

No matter what safe house Pike puts her in—or even finds for her himself—the scuzzies show up an hour later to blast Larkin into giblets. Someone is selling her out. Time is short to find out who the heck these people are and why they want her dead. All the people involved in the early dawn accident are already dead, except for Larkin.

Assisted by his wisecracking buddy Elvis Cole, Pike tries to second-guess everyone who knows him or Larkin—to no avail. In the front door of a safe house—and the bad guys are sneaking in the back door and are in need of some decimating.

James Daniels is the perfect reader for this, doing Pike in a slow, flat, reluctant voice—darn, I hate to use my vocal cords, how many times have I told you that? Elvis Cole comes off as the motor mouth, funny younger brother type. Larkin is no Paris Hilton, either—she is by turns scared, irritated, and a little enamored of her capable protector.

Apparently, when she is not on the run, her usual male companions don’t clean their guns every night, buy her vegan meals, or understand when she sneaks out to dance on a bar amidst shouting Armenians.

By the way—the title, THE WATCHMAN, makes no sense. Where do they get these titles sometimes?

Star Lawence is a long-time writer and owns a recession site called Do the Hopey Copey, at She can be reached at

Monday, October 5, 2009

'The Wheelman' Takes You For a Wild Ride

Review: THE WHEELMAN (St. Martin's Minotaur 2006)
Author: Duane Swierczynski

Patrick Selway Lennon is a wheelman. He doesn't rob banks – he drives the getaway car. And he's about to help pull a bank job in Philadelphia that will be the worst mistake of his career.

Lennon's perfect plan for stashing the money and laying low until the heat's off goes awry when someone tries to horn in on the action. This sets a string of events in motion that pits the Russian Mob against the local Mafia, inflames the greed of a crooked ex-cop and brings a woman named Katie, waiting for Lennon in Puerto Rico, to Philly searching for answers when he fails to show up on schedule.

To discuss the plot in any great detail creates the risk of spoilers. Suffice it to say that it's set in motion by a double cross on the part of two trusted individuals, one of whom, ironically, is acting based on a mistaken impression about Lennon.To read more:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

'Flight' Through a Young Man's Bizarre, Transformative Journey

Review: FLIGHT (Black Cat 2007)
Author: Sherman Alexie

Zits may not be the angriest protagonist in literary history, but he surely must come close. In FLIGHT, author Sherman Alexie introduces the reader to Zits (not his real name, but as he puts it his "real name isn't important") on his first day in a new foster home. The nickname derives, of course, from the overabundance of acne he's afflicted with.

Zits is 15 years old, with all the emotional baggage one carries at that age and much more. His Irish mother died when he was six and his Native American father abandoned them, by his account, "two minutes after I was born" and, ever since, Zits has been kicked around from foster home to foster home – twenty, in all. The first chapter, in which Zits meets yet another blithely dysfunctional foster family, perfectly captures his witty, if world-weary, teenaged view of the mess that is his life, as well as his complete disdain for all adult authority.

After getting off to a less-than-ideal start with the folks, Zits reacts in the way he knows best – he runs – but the cops catch up to him. He's taken into custody and befriended, to an extent, by a well-intended cop. In fact, Officer Dave tries to mentor the boy, regarding him as more than just the pimply loser Zits perceives himself to be. However, Zits isn't ready to hear what Officer Dave has to say. Instead, he falls in with a charismatic, slightly older teen he meets in detention. The older boy lures Zits into committing an act of extreme, random violence, by virtually brainwashing him into believing he will benefit from it.

Zits goes along with the program and commits the horrible act – a mass shooting at a bank, during which he gets shot in the head. However, he doesn't die. Instead, he's launched through a series of time traveling, out-of-body experiences, or to be more accurate, experiences in other people's bodies.

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