Archive for June, 2012

Road Trip!

Posted in Book Reviews on June 20, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Pocket KingsPocket Kings by Ted Heller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With the passing of Ray Bradbury went one of the most prescient minds in all of literature. Two of his creations from “Fahrenheit 451” have taken a pit bull’s grip on the way we interact with one another: the Seashell, with which Guy’s wife withdraws from him at night to listen to her own music, and the parlor walls that show television programs. The ultimate media purchase, of course, was the four-wall parlor that would show holographic television shows in the middle of the room — making it as though the owners had a new set of friends over for the evening.

Fast forward to the Walkman, and now the iPod in all of its forms. Fast forward to the online avatar, behind which any person can take on a new identity and actually BE that identity, at least as far as the rest of the chat room knows.

Enter Frank W. Dixon. No, he’s not the pseudonymous group of men who wrote all of those “Hardy Boys” books, although people mistake him for that conglomerate when he goes into bookstores looking for his own published work. Instead, he is a novelist who has written one decent novel, one bad novel, and then a third that is so dark and depraved that it disgusts the editorial assistants to whom he sends it. Indeed, his own agent has stopped contacting him — even enough to release Frank’s book back to him.

Caught in writer’s limbo, Dixon has a full-time job (the nature of which we never really learn) and a beautiful wife, but neither are enough to assuage the growing hole in his self-esteem. And so he turns to the world of online poker, becoming the avatar Chip Zero. Even as he gains weight and starts to look insane in real life, he takes on a grandiose form in the poker room, attracting the attentions of the Artsy Painter Gal and the watchful eye of the Second Gunman. Over the course of the story, Chip Zero builds up over half a million in winnings. Unfortunately, he forgets what it is like to be engaged in the real world. He goes to working half-days and then quits altogether; he sets up an all too real week of adultery in London with the Gal, only for his wife to find out (and for the week to have an even weirder conclusion).

The story is all too predictable, though, careening towards an ending that you can, if you want, guess about halfway into the book. The first-person narrator starts to sound like Richard Lewis in any of his appearances on “Crub Your Enthusiasm” after about 8 1/2 pages. Which is good if you like that sort of thing. The plot moves quickly, and there are some nice comedic touches, such as the banter on the cross-country cab ride that Chip Zero, Second Gunman and the Toll House Cookie (yes, THC) take in real life from New York City to Vegas, only to find that real-life poker is much too scary for them; they end up spending the week gambling via laptop.

However, I don’t like watching traffic accidents unfold over the course of several hours or days, and while I was reading, I would keep waiting for Frank to slap himself in the face, to wake up and realize the depths to which he has sunk, the life that he is missing. The only question, of course, is whether he will realize that he still has hands.

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Want to See the Future? Are you Sure?

Posted in Book Reviews on June 19, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always been a sucker for stories that bend the space-time continuum a little bit (or a lot). Whether it’s the Old Testament story of the sun staying up in the middle of the sky for 24 hours in a row while Joshua defeated the Amorites, the incessant wandering of the soul of Sam Beckett in “Quantum Leap,” the daily stresses of Gary Hobson, who woke up every morning on “Early Edition” to a newspaper that would tell him that day’s coming tragedy, so that he could stop it in time, or even Bill Murray’s confinement within Groundhog Day, it always interests me to see what authors do — and how characters end up responding — when the rules of time change.

And so when I saw Chuck Wendig’s paperback “Blackbirds” on a “Recommended” stack at the local library, I had to pick it up. Miriam Black, his main character, can tell when someone is going to die just by touching them. She envisions their death and knows the day and the hour. Mind you, she cannot intervene; somehow the system knows that she’s coming, and so her interference in the fate of that person ends up being the cause of their death.

Not a happy way to live. She’s taken off to the roads, wandering as a modern-day hobo. A con artist named Ashley notices her odd behavior — meeting up with strange people just before they die. She tries to save them, but she can’t. But she can’t stop trying. And so she takes up — briefly — with Ashley, but at the same time, she sees the death of a kind trucker named Louis. The twist: she is present at his death scene, as he calls out her name.

Ashley, unfortunately, has irritated some meth dealers. Not just your average East Texas-gas station kind of dealers, but the ones who are psychotically involved in the maintenance of product and profit. Ingersoll practices the sort of cruelty that makes Jigsaw seem a bit like Fred Rogers, and he has gathered two lackeys, Harriet and Frankie. Harriet is on board with Ingersoll’s clinically cruel hatred of the world, but Frankie still has one foot planted in reality. At the end, though, it is the way that Miriam deals with Ingersoll — and with the reason that she gained the ability to see death in the first place — that gives the story its interest and intrigue.

The plot glides along like a police car on the oil slick that James Bond used to be able to send out behind his racer with the push of a button. The punches come so quickly that, when redemption comes, you almost miss it. Funny how life is like that.

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Stand Your Ground

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on June 19, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

As the media try to convict George Zimmerman for such offenses as telling his wife to wear a bulletproof vest while she goes around town, thanks to the frenzy that the media continues to look for wood to pour on the fire it started, using the tragedy of Trayvon Martin as its kindling, two other cases have also popped into the public eye: the trial of Jerry Sandusky, and the death of Jesus Mora Flores.

No matter whether George Zimmerman ends up in prison, thanks to a jury that would have decided to get the stench of Casey Anthony out of Florida jurisprudence and just convict SOMEBODY in a famous case, or whether the judge realizes that it’s not a sign of depraved indifference toward human life (a key element in second-degree murder by Florida law) and throws the whole thing out, sending Zimmerman home, or something in between, his life is over.

No, he’s not dead, but he will have the same shadowy existence of Casey Anthony, hiding in a house and (maybe) blogging about how he can’t do anything or go anywhere.

Maybe he deserves it. Or maybe justice is more elusive, more slippery, than anything we can mete out in a news cycle. But when Trayvon Martin’s mother abruptly backed off from her eerily accurate portrayal of the situation as a “tragic accident,” this matter officially became a cause for the Powers that Be to use, rather than a horrific confluence of bad decisions.

But the trial of Jerry Sandusky and the death of Jesus Mora Flores also bring the question of justice back to the table. Who is Flores, you ask? Well, he allegedly grabbed the 4-year-old daughter of a rancher in Lavaca County, Texas (a bit east of San Antonio) and headed for a “secluded area” on the property. When the rancher found out, he went and called for his daughter. When she screamed, he ran to her. A few minutes later, Flores was dead. The sheriff’s department investigated it as a homicide, but the county prosecutor decided not to press charges.

The question has flown across the blogosphere…should this rancher “get away” with killing the man that he saw abusing his daughter?

So, you see your daughter being molested…are you supposed to ask the guy to stop? Or just yell at him? Or call the police and wait for them to get there?

Which, of course, brings us to the Jerry Sandusky trial. As Rick Reilly poignantly asks, why is this trial even happening? Why are these abuse victims being forced to testify — and be cross-examined — about the horrors of their childhood? Is hearing all of this, and then waiting for a jury to say what everyone already knows, justice for anyone? Will a life sentence in protective custody be justice? Or would it be a power outage in the general population one night, with Sandusky in the middle of the rec room when the lights go out?

The law is one of the mechanisms that we use to keep order. It’s a hamhanded mess at times, but only because we are flawed as individuals. We lie, we make excuses, and we want to simplify what happens to other people into five-word sentences or, when possible, pictures and YouTube videos. We also want revenge, in as grisly a fashion as possible.

But then we second-guess each other. We wonder if what we did was really right, or whether or not people in horrifying moments could just have done something different. After all, if Mike McQueary had picked up a folding chair in the locker room and brained Sandusky when he saw him in the showers with his victim, Victims 1 through 10 would not be going back through hell now.

But what if Sandusky had been with his victim in the shadows between two buildings? And wearing a hoodie? And a different ethnicity? And the victim had run away before the police could show up? Where would McQueary be today? Would Joe Paterno still be coaching? Would he still be alive?

That’s the problem with living the way we do. We want things to be simple, to be easy. We want what we want, when we want it. Unfortunately, we forget that the people we use are also individuals, not tools for our bidding. We also forget that when tragedy strikes others, and the Today Show or Bill O’Reilly package that tragedy for our consumption, that there is often far more at work than we will ever take the time to consider.

Three cases….three sets of unanswerable questions.

Two Empty Suits and the Oval Office

Posted in Book Reviews on June 3, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Taft 2012Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you follow my reviews, you know that I am setting mysteries down for a while. I’m not liking any of them, which might not be fair to the people who read this, because they might be good.

So my new rule has been that a book must contain a very cool concept, or at least have been well received by an author who is very impressive to me. Yes, very subjective, but that’s why anyone with a keyboard and an imagination can set up one of these blog things.

The concept behind “Taft 2012” mirrors a concept that I have had in mind for a book of my own for a long time. Luckily, the concept isn’t so close that mine will look like plagiarism, if it ever finds its way to a publisher, but here it is: William Howard Taft, instead of slinking away after his four years in the White House to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few years later (by the way, he was the only President to do that), simply disappears on the morning of President Wilson’s inauguration in March of 2013. He appears again, in the same place where he was napping on the White House grounds in 2011, having napped in some sort of wormhole for 98 years.

He is clearly not an impostor: he knows the Presidential ID code that all Chief Executives, at least in this fictive world, have had since Andrew Johnson was in the White House, and his DNA matches samples that were preserved in the detritus of information that was taken from him way back in the days of the Titanic.

Of course, he clearly represents a conundrum to the world of 2012. Yes, he gets a pension just like all of the other ex-Presidents (thankfully, not retroactive to 1913). He gets Secret Service protection.

Meanwhile, all around him is swirling the Presidential campaign of 2012. President Obama, although unnamed specifically, hovers in the background, running against an equally (in the view of the book) unimpressive unnamed Republican opponent. Taft, still finding his way around this new world, has a great-granddaughter serving in the Congress — from his own home district in Cincinnati. He becomes an object of curiosity and (somewhat) odd attention when he happens out into his environs in D.C.

Then, an interesting thing happens. A talk show host, and a host of bloggers, decide that this mild Republican Progressive is just what the American public needs, in the giant vacuum between the Secular Moral Majority, which is what the Republican Party has become (at least in this writer’s opinion) and the Former Liberals Occupying the Middle by Default. Neither party has great ideas; neither party has workable solutions to the nation’s problems; neither nominee has the courage to voice an opinion stronger than a weather report.

And so why not Taft? In 1912, he was belittled by the great TR for having let down his vision of the Chief Executive as holder of the “Big Stick.” In 2012, though, his notions that people should think freely, act decently, and take care of one another when needed strike a chord with the American public.

Until we find out who is bankrolling this grassroots movement. But that would spoil things. I will say that processed foods are also a source of the author’s (and Taft’s) venom in this story.

And so Mr. Heller’s book is whimsical, somewhat silly at times, but at other times it is spot on. The characters are a bit flat, although Taft’s New Year’s Eve romp with a punk rocker made me laugh out loud. After all, this was a man that had to be pried out of the White House bathtub, because he was just that large. In the era BEFORE high fructose corn syrup and the Happy Meal.

The narrative structure hops around, from straight story to quotes from his assistant, to surveys taken in the news, to “rants and raves” posted on Craig’s List. This gives the book more of a documentary feel, like this is more of a look at a political movement than a novel. The end result is a fake political movement, along with its own real website. It definitely blurs the lines between reality and fiction, but not any more so than, say, The Audacity of Hope did.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the most “important” political issue of our time consisting of gay marriage, while Syrian children die by the truckload under the thumb of Assad. I’m tired of our leadership waiting for their underlings to tiptoe out to important positions to see if they will be victims of public outcry before the leadership itself will take those positions. I’m tired of leaders settling for easy answers, or even no answers at all, because they don’t think we’re paying attention.

So in between reading these outstanding reviews, and checking Facebook for status updates, do something to change the world. One outrage at a time.

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My Last Mystery…for a While

Posted in Book Reviews on June 3, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Or the Bull Kills YouOr the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First of all, I’m willing to concede that I’ve read too many mysteries lately. The newest C.J. Box offering, for example, Cold Wind, answered all of my questions about Joe Pickett’s mother-in-law, in a way that was much too easy, with some preaching about wind turbine energy that I found just as annoying as I find all of that dreck that Nathaniel Hawthorne lined The Scarlet Letter with, in order to transform it from a 50-page story into a novel.

Of course, I may also just need to change genres for a while. Stephen King, for example. I’m a huge fan of his, but the last two I’ve read from him barely cracked three stars. Again, it may be that familiarity breeds contempt.

So, with “Or the Bull Kills You,” I changed authors (this is Jason Webster’s debut novel, after a nonfiction career) and countries (I’ve not read a novel set in Spain since “Don Quixote” in high school). At least I don’t think I have.

This is a novel about bullfighting and about love. The main character, Max Camara, is a homicide detective in the town of Valencia, assigned to solve the murder of the flamboyant and successful bullfighter Jorge Blanco. Not only was Blanco murdered, but the attacker tried to hack off some very private parts of the torero before running away.

Yes, Camara has been dogged by allegations of police brutality in prior cases. His superior is ready to can him, or at least demote him to a very menial position in the civil service. He fights against the political establishment in the whole city. A hot girl hits on him, but then she ends up moving away (oh yeah, spoiler alert, if you couldn’t see that coming). He leads a tortured existence, so he starts drinking when he wakes up, and fortunately his grandfather grows pot for the two of them.

By the time these cliches have stopped landing on your head, you’ll also find that the bullfighter was engaged to an older woman clinging to notions of her beauty (think of someone between Madonna and Carmen Electra on the age/sensuality scale), but also secretly gay. No, the gay lover didn’t kill him. But I won’t tell you who did.

So, I’ve come to two conclusions after reading this book. I think there was a lot of cool description of the “Fallas” festival that happens in Valencia each year, but I was distracted by all of the meaningless maudlin meandering that took up too much of this book.

But I might also be worn out on mysteries. So, I’m not reading any more until the library notifies me that my hold on James Lee Burke’s newest, Creole Belle, is ready for me to pick up. This should be sometime in July or August.

If you like pensive detectives with a dark side, then by all means go for it. If you pay attention early on, you’ll solve the mystery in the first 80 pages. But if you don’t, and if you do enjoy reading a man’s thoughts after he has been dumped, for page after page, then this might be the summer read for you. Just don’t expect things to turn out well.

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