Thursday, December 14, 2017

In Review: Bill Crider's Novels

In Review: Bill Crider's Novels.

I started reading Crider novels when I lived in AZ.  I took a Sheriff Dan Rhodes book home, read it, and starting talking to my wife about the joys of bologna sandwiches and Dr. Pepper. Dr. Pepper with real cane sugar, too. (The TX based Dr. Pepper bottling plant using cane sugar was shut down by Dr. Pepper a few years ago but, I believe, they still bottle a similar recipe made with cane sugar. Look it up yourself if you want more information. You can order online but shipping costs are high.)

The Rhodes novels feature great characters settings. Crider's mysteries were always well thought out. I'm not a reader who tries to figure out the killer before the author reveals the person - but Crider always set things up to make the killer a bit of a surprise. He would always have the killer well hidden.

Rhodes himself is a great character. He is so entirely human and living in his hometown that continues to change around him.  A few years ago I wrote this in some book notes: An easy comparison for this is Rhodes versus Andy Taylor. As a half-hour comedy show Mayberry focused on jokes with character an integral part. Only after viewing several episodes do you recognize what a strong personality Andy was. Balancing his son, work, friends, and romance in a small town where, as Sheriff, everyone feels it's fair to observe and judge him. Andy was always fair even though frequently exasperated and annoyed.

Rhodes gets angry over murder. He is always self-doubting his work and mistakes. He criticizes his work. Did he ask the wrong questions to the wrong people? Should he have recognized something earlier? Could he have done something to stop the 2nd and 3rd murders in the story? He's a worrier at times.

After greatly enjoying that first novel I started reading more Crider novels and looked the author up online. Sure enough I discovered Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine. My first thought was, "Well, I guess you could call that a magazine if you want. But really..." That initial smirk never mattered because I ended up being one of the blog readers who checked the website several times a day for both the posts and the comments.

Heck, I remember the first time I decided to join the blog's online conversation. There was a post about Sam Cooke. I recalled writing that Cooke "could sing the phone book and make it sound good." Well, my memory was a little faulty, but accurate in theme.

As I read more of the blog my reading list started to expand. I also started to buy those novels for the libraries I worked at.Who are some of those writers I learned of through my start with Crider's blog?
Anthony Neil Smith
Victor Gischler
James Reasoner
Vicki Hendricks
Patti Abbott
Megan Abbott
Joe R Lansdale (read before and encouraged to return)
Duane Swierczynski
Brent Ghelfi
Dan Simmons
Jon Clinch's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn prequel
Richard S. Prather
Christa Faust
Charlie Stella
Ed Gorman
Charles Portis
Stephen Gallagher
Ted Wood
Max Allan Collins
The Slocum westerns
Sara Gran
Lee Goldberg
Stuart Neville
Charlie Huston
Peter Rabe
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Johnny Shaw.

Anyhoo. Crider is a good dude.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Done: "A Hard and Heavy Thing" by Matthew W. Hefti

Done: A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew W. Hefti, 2016, 9781440591884.

Hefti won an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Association for this one. A couple people from the Literary Awards committee did a webinar a month or so ago and I reserved the novel after listening to them speak about the book. The book was ok.

Basically written as a kind of love letter by one guy to his best friend. Levi and Nick live in La Crosse, WI, play in a punk band, drink too much, smoke dope, live like slobs, and half-heartedly attend UW-LaCrosse. During one drunken night after 9/11 they impulsively decide to join the Army and actually carry through with that decision the next day.

The book was a bit confusing to read at first with a constantly changing point of view and narrative asides in [brackets]. On page 60 Hefti actually addresses the issue when [in brackets] he writes about a Professor character, "He also would have hated the shifting points of view, these constant regressions into the colloquial first-person ... did I really need to intrude into the story using brackets like hugs? And did I need a hug because I lacked confidence? To which I reply: If I sound unsure of myself, it's because I am." Levi is the narrator but he tells the story from a shifting 1st person perspective and a 3rd person view.

The story focuses on the relationship between best pals Nick and Levi, their time together in Iraq, a difficult return to Wisconsin and a slow, or failed, recovery by both of them into civilian life. Reading about Levi's self-destructive behavior was difficult. Levi was a non-com and blames himself for Nick's burn injuries in Iraq and deaths of some other soldiers. Nick's vehicle was hit by an IED and the explosion killed three soldiers and wounded two. Levi thinks those tragedies happened after a prank by Levi that started a series of events that snowballed into the ambush. Levi had put a small stone under Nick's body armor where Nick could not get the rock out. After hours of patrolling and distraction from the pebble Levi thinks Nick's distraction caused him to miss identifying the IED.

Nick, in turn, is doing fairly well recovering from severe burns on his face and body. He woke up in a blasted vehicle with his vehicle commander's arm laying across his chest. Nick does okay with the aftermath of combat but his new marriage is not going well. Nick and his wife are now in a constant state of tension. His wife had her drinking problem under control but Nick still frets over it.  Since Levi has returned to LaCrosse and lives in their basement, drinking like a fish, Nick and his wife are dealing with PTSD addled Levi's general pain-in-the-assery.

The book is not really my bag. I almost bailed on it but finished. A neat thing is that the section set in Iraq has Hefti portraying himself as a character. Hefti served as a EOD guy for several years and spent four tours - I think it was four - across Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hefti's acknowledgments thank Tyrus Books. Tyrus was shut down this year by the house that bought them out.

Heard: "The Castle of Kings" by Oliver Potzsch

Heard: The Castle of Kings by Oliver Potzsch, 2016 for this English audio, not sure of the original German date. Downloaded from Overdrive.

Two years of the German peasant war of 1524 and 1525. A love story with young adults Matthias and Agnes. A mystery with a ring, a document, a secret society, and a mysterious assassin. Also a pursuit story with Matthias trying to rescue the abducted Agnes before she is sold by slavers or murdered.

The story is well told but Looooooong. This is a 27 part audiobook with a 25h 18m run time, so be aware of what you are getting into.  Don't get me wrong I enjoyed the story but was surprised by the length. Potzsch does drag things out with a couple cliffhangers on revealing a family secret - that did annoy me.

The history is interesting and well used by Potzsch. Germany is run by the church and the aristocracy. Knights and Dukes and Counts have the power. Agnes's father is a knight and Castellane of Trifels Castle. The castle has fallen on hard times - it takes a lot of money to maintain a castle - and the Castellan is being squeezed by his Duke for more and more tax revenue.

The peasants are getting angrier and angrier about things as the Castellan, and others, squeeze blood from stones when dealing with the peasants. Meanwhile the church's priests and monks are living high on the hog as they sell indulgences and live in luxury. Luther's recent religious revolution has the peasants thinking they don't have to suffer the bullshit they put up with.

Matthias is a blacksmith and rebellious. He likes to hang out with the peasants talking revolution. He gets in trouble. He works to forge a cannon so Castellan can attack a neighboring robber-knight. Things happen and revolution boils up.

The peasant revolution is violent and brutal as they slaughter priest and monks and attack the rich. The aristocratic reaction is equally violent and brutal because the peasants are "defying the natural order." Beheadings. Hangings, Quarterings. Torture. Heads on pikes. Bodies hung from trees. Rape. Looting. So on. So forth.

I enjoyed reading about the way of life and how government and social organizations worked. It's also a reminder on what happens in war without restraint. About how quickly civilization can - or will - devolve as things get worse and worse and food, shelter, and safety are at risk. I should read more historical novels.

There are other storylines: Emperor Barbarossa's ring and heritage. A forced marriage for Agnes. Blah. Blah. Blah. Read a review if you want more of the plot details.

I've not heard the full afterword by Poltzsch writes that he is a nut for castles and drags his family to all the ones he visits.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Almost Forgotten: "Heavenly Table" by Donald Ray Pollock

Almost Forgotten: The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock, 2016, 9780385541299.

I either totally forgot or missed seeing a pub notice for this novel. I have really enjoyed Pollock's previous work and Devil All The Time was quite good. This too is an interesting novel and for all the murder, violence, drinking, raping, stabbing, kicking, stomping, abduction, torture, robberies, con jobs, lack of love, physical abuse, racism, and sexism the book was not a downer for me. I'm not sure why. Maybe because the characters are always moving forward and themselves are somewhat optimistic.

This certainly fits into the Rural Violence genre of books I've been reading over the past few years. I suppose that is not a well recognized category of literature but if people can call some novels Rural Noir I can say Rural Violence.  After reading my first Daniel Woodrell novel I promised myself to avoid the Southern Missouri Ozarks at all costs. I would only travel there with at least three guns and one of those had to be a long gun.  Danger and menace seem to be all around when I read Woodrell's fiction.

Reading Pollock's Knockemstiff and Devil All The Time had about the same effect. But, for whatever reason they come off as optimistic. Every character in Pollock's novel is some sort of fink. Sure, the murderers are much worse than the adulterers but only a couple characters never take advantage of other people. In Woodrell's stories prison and violence are an inevitability. Someone is going to be under threat for any and all reasonable or bullshit reasons. Most of them will backstab you given the chance.

There about 10 characters you could call lead characters in Heavenly. Even the minor characters come with a backstory and full descriptions. That full backstory never bothered me. Pollock may have had a character appearance last no more than a couple pages but I just plain enjoyed the side stories.


Here is the short version: It is 1917 and three brothers in Kentucky start robbing banks and making their escape to Canada. In Southern Ohio a poor farmer tries to keep his farm afloat while fancy pants Army officer trains new troops, hides his homosexuality, and dreams of glorious death. All of them meet up after plenty of other characters get mixed in.

I really did like this. But, the plot is not as important as the people and the way Pollock tells the stories. For my own records here are some comments to spark some memories of the novel when I reread this in a few years.

- The three brothers are 17, 20 and 23 and poorer than dirt poor. After their father dies they go to burgle the rich farmer who has been underpaying them for field work. They end up killing the man, robbing banks, collecting guns and practicing their gun skills. They kill anyone who gets close enough in hopes of earning the big reward money for them.
- The farmer was taken for all his family's life savings, $1,000, by a con man who sold the farmer cattle owned by someone else who was out of town for an extended time. The farmer was deeply shamed and embarrassed and his 15-year-old son has left home to become a raging alcoholic. At first he thinks the son has joined the US Army at the new WWI base near their farm. He has a lot of trouble admitting to his wife when he learns the boy is now a booze hound.
- The Army Lieutenant is a college graduate and one of the few experts in the card games of ancient Rome. His fiancee left him and he planned a glorious suicide until he ended up joining the Army. He now plans a glorious suicide in France's No Man's Land while huddled with the handsome Private in his training platoon. The, he hooks up with a local gay guy and starts shtupping all the time.
- Orphan guy with enormous schlong is deeply ashamed of his penis. His hyper religious mother used to manipulate an shame him all the time. He is about 20-years-old and only had one other friend before. His current job is to check the levels of all the city's outhouses. A recent flood overflowed many of the outhouses and caused several cholera deaths. Orphan walks the city wearing high rubber boots and carrying with a long pole covered in feces to gauge latrine depths. Orphan smells like his outhouse pole.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Listened: "The Boys of '67" by Andrew Wiest

Listened: The Boys of '67: Charlie Company's war in Vietnam by Andrew Wiest, 2012, Overdrive download.

Wiest works as a history professor and teaches classes on the Vietnam War. Maybe that is why this book works great as an introductory story of the war. The book encompasses most of the story of Vietnam with the men in this story all part of the 9th Division which was specially formed to go to Vietnam.

The 9th Division was built up specifically to serve in Vietnam and arrived 1967. Training was conducted at Ft. Riley in Kansas and the men traveled by troop ship to Vietnam. The Division served in the Mekong Delta as part of the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) where they alternately stayed on land and a troop ship and took smaller ships along the rivers to where they would work.

Wiest covers the stories of a lot of the men in the unit. He had access to a to of primary sources: platoon, company, and divisional reports. Letters, diaries, and reel-to-reel recordings. Interviews and news articles. Citations and awards.Wiest uses that info to good effect by telling the soldiers's stories  from their childhoods to draft notices, training, military service and their return to the U.S.

Fighting in the jungles of the South in 1967 and 1968 means the men were doing all the Vietnam stuff I've read about over the years:

  • Drafted versus volunteering. 
  • Arrival as a know-nothing trooper who needs to quickly adapt and learn to survive.
  • Operations in thick, clinging mud as they avoid biting red ants, develop a love/hate for the locals, drink beer, visit prostitutes, and visit orphanages on downtime.
  • Endless and dangerous patrols with multiple booby traps, landmines, and infrequent but vicious firefights.
  • Anger and impotency when friends and unit members lose a foot against a mine and the remaining soldiers have no enemy in sight.
  • Commanders fucking up and foolishly walking men into minefields or ambushes.
  • Quick and efficient discharges from the service with the soldiers immediately losing the close relationships with other soldiers and unable to reintegrate into civilian life.
  • New civilians now unable to sleep, jumping at noises, scared in crowds, and drinking aware their nightmares and paranoia.
  • Some marriages falling apart. Families of the dead trying to move on and the dead soldiers' children wishing they knew their fathers.
  • PTSD issues. PTSD will will always be around for many of the men and will be for all future soldiers. The trauma effects everyone in the family and many people cannot, or refuse, to acknowledge or deal with the trauma.
There are also the standard battle stories of death, elation, terror and burning rage. One of the best stories is one that I wish Wiest had more information on. Throughout their time in Vietnam there was an Lieutenant who was hard-charging but incompetent.

Early in their time in the Delta the Lieutenant led his platoon into an ambush that killed and wounded several men. After that disaster the Lieutenant was assigned different staff jobs in the read. But, once casualties mounted the Lieutenant was put back in the field. After having been on base for so long Lieutenant was raring to find the enemy and attack.

The now experienced soldiers in the platoon dreaded going out with Lieutenant and actually tried to have Lieutenant relieved of the command. Their worries bore out when the Lieutenant;s inexperience and foolhardiness got several men injured and killed.

After a couple decades of loneliness by some of the former soldiers several of the men starting finding one another and arranging reunions. They did not invite everyone though. They did not invite Lieutenant. The first big reunion was in Las Vegas. The unit had one ballroom and another hotel ballroom was hosting a wedding. That wedding was for the Lieutenant's daughter.

Sure enough, all the soldiers are in the ballroom drinking beer and reminiscing when all talking ceases and heads turn to the entryway where Lieutenant is now standing in a tuxedo. He had seen the sign pointing to the "Company C Reunion" and walked over. Lieutenant kinda looked around and one of soldiers walked straight over, leaned over, and told uninvited Lieutenant to "Get the fuck out." Lieutenant gave an exaggerated look around, said, "there's no one I want here I want to see anyway" and left.

That's a story I wanted to know more about. What are Lieutenant's memories of Vietnam? He must suffer the same trauma and bad memories of all those other men. But, his actions of 30 years ago leave him completely alone from the unit. The other guys can share and express sorrow but Lieutenant is left playing it tough and pretending to not care.

I suppose Lieutenant refused to talk to Wiest. I don't know.

Heard A While Ago: "Legend" by Eric Behm

Heard a While Ago: Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret's Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines by Eric Blehm, 2015 (Overdrive and print versions), Overdrive download. 

The Studies and Observation Group (SOG) was a super-duper secret commando unit during Vietnam that worked in western Vietnam and across the borders into Cambodia and Laos. The group members signed agreements to keep everything secret for 30 years. John Plaster wrote a history of the unit that came out in 1997. I bought the Plaster book for my library in '97 and ended up reading the book. The story of SOG was pretty fascinating and the work was especially dangerous because the soldiers could not rely on infantry and artillery for help. No US or ARVN infantry could rush to the rescue. SOG relied on their own stealth and rescue helicopters.

Roy Benavidez joined the SOG group as a Green Beret in 1967 or so. Benavidez had been in the Army or Texas National Guard since he was 18. Benavidez was a hard core, hard charging lifer who grew up working as a migrant worker with his family. When a 12 man SOG patrol was surrounded by the NVA in Cambodia Benavidez was at his base, heard about the trouble, and hopped on a helicopter to help. When Benavidez'z helicopter was hovering near the patrol Benavidez impulsively jumped to the ground and ran to join the patrol.

Benavidez was shot twice during the 70 yard run to one of the two sections of the separated patrol. During the rest of the battle he was wounded a few more times by shrapnel, another bullet, and a stabbed with a bayonet. He treated the other soldiers and himself, organized their defenses, used emergency radios to call for air strikes, and eventually carried a couple men to the rescue helicopters. Upon arrival at a U.S. base Benavidez was presumed dead. His blood loss and exhaustion left him aware of his surroundings but unable to move or speak. When Benavidez was being zipped into a body bag he was only able to announce his living presence by blowing and spitting blood out of his mouth and into the face of the man closing the bag.

Benavidez was incredibly driven and brave. Listening to the book made me think as much about the war's politics as on the ground fighting. The story of the rescue of the SOG team is plenty interesting but not enough to fill out  an entire book. Blehm focuses on Benavidez's military service but also gives us a general biography of Benavidez with plenty of background on the war itself. 

1. The library hosted a program in 2010 of Vietnam veterans. The program was in conjunction with a Wisconsin PBS program on Wisconsin Vietnam War vets. Tensions were still running high for some people at the event.
2. The bravery of both sides still gets lost. When do you ever want to mention the bravery or sacrifice of the other side when they are killing your friends, relatives, neighbors, etc.? But, the Vietnamese casualty rate was how much higher than the U.S.? 300%? Maybe more? Whether they cause was good and just is up to whoever decides but they certainly were brave attacking into such powerful enemies.
3. Then again, don't forget or excuse the atrocities of the VC and NVA. Benavidez's first tour in Vietnam was as a advisor. While there he witnessed the aftermath of the crucifixion of two children by the Viet Cong and saw the children's relatives weeping in front of the bodies. 
4. Then again, don't forget the atrocities of the U.S. Better to remember how such horrible situations can make for horrible actions by everyone.
5. Response of the anti-war crowd to returning soldiers. I've never read or heard of anyone admitting to yelling at returning service members or spitting at them. I've read more about that being a myth. But, there are plenty of stories that soldiers were ordered to wear civilian clothes when they returned to the U.S. Others had to deal with plenty of abusive jerks, spitting, and provoked fist fights.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Third Rabe: "It's My Funeral" by Peter Rabe

Third Rabe: It's My Funeral by Peter Rabe, 1957, 2014 and 9781933586656 for Stark House omnibus.

Daniel Port is hanging out in Los Angeles. Port has no particular reason to be there but just got into town, bought an MG and is heading to the beach. Being new to town he wonders why a Cadillac seems to be following him. After a swim in the ocean Port is getting some sun when up walks his old "pal" Mnuchkin. Okay, that's not actually his name but I think 'Mnuchkin' is close and they're both sleazy.

Mnuchkin is a crook who worked for Port's boss from the first book. Mnuchkin is persistent - he'll ignore any slight or insult and keep pressing on to get POrt to lend him a hand. Port does not want to get involved with anything Mnuchkin is up to even though Mnuchkin says he is now on the up and up and working as a legitimate talent agent.

But, the help Mnuchkin is asking for is help with a blackmail case. A famous starlet - a Marilyn Monroe or similar stand-in who is now named MarMon - is getting blackmailed over a sex film. Port decides to help out (for some reason I don't recall) and starts getting involved with Mnuchkin, MarMon, and a studio boss's self-important son. Never mind Port's wooing of a local singer and clashing with a Nevada crook also interested in The Singer.

Many things happen. Port drives his tiny MG among all the Cadillacs of Hollywood. Port heads to Nevada to visit The Singer and stumbles upon a blackmail operation that goes after the female celebrities who stay in a casino's performers' suite.

There are some fist fights. A couple car crashes. A few concussions. Backstabbings. Disrupted lovemaking. Weasels. So on. So forth.

Of the three Rabe novels I've read I think this is the best.