Thursday, June 13, 2019

Tie-In Novel: "Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds" by Gwenda Bond

Tie-In Novel: Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond, 2019, 9781984817433.

You don't need to have seen the TV show to read this. But, don't bother reading it if you've not seen the show.

I enjoyed the novel enough. I had recently re-watched Season 1 and when I saw this in the catalog I figured to try it out. This is a prequel with Dr. Brenner and 11's mother and aunt. 11's mother, Terry Ives, is at IU-Bloomington when a pal of hers talks about a science experiment she had volunteered for. The friend did not like the experience and bails. But, the experiments pay and Terry needs money. So Terry steps in for her pal.

Terry goes to a campus building, does some interviews, meets other test subjects, and meets Dr. Brenner. The tests are secretive and involve doses of hallucinogens. One of the other test subjects says, "This is bullshit. There is no scientific method behind this crap." Brenner has put on the charm but when the test subjects want to bail on the experiments he threatens them with expulsion from campus.

Brenner lets his mask of civility drop and Terry and the rest are not happy. Things happen as the tests grow weirder. Terry starts seeing things. One of subjects gets electroshocks. The meet Number 8 who is about 5 years old and stuck in the Hawkins lab.

Hell, I forgot most of the second season and this story pulls information draws from both seasons. A decent read. Bond does well in drawing both new and established characters but sometimes when reading a tie-in it just feels like supplementary material. As comparison: I enjoyed Christa Faust's tie-ins for Fringe and Supernatural. But, I never watched those shows until after I read the novels.

EDIT: I just reread this and want to clarify that I think the book and enjoyed Bond's character creations within the Stranger Things world. It's just my own thing with tie-ins.

What the Heck: "Bluebird, Bluebird" by Attica Locke

What the Heck: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, 2017, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

What hell? Did I finish this the first time or not? I stopped listening to this several months ago for some unknown reason. I thought I never finished it so I restarted the entire thing. Then, when I get to the finish I recognize the ending. Maybe I grabbed the print version and finished it off? I don't freaking know.

Anyways. Locke was awarded one of the annual Big Author Awards. That is to say: Locke was awarded one of the Big Author Awards I actually pay attention to. Locke also called bullshit on the award that was going to Linda Fairstein. Locke reminded the world how Fairstein was a conductor during the railroading of the Central Park Five.

Everything is told POV of Darren.Matthews who is on leave from the Texas Rangers (police not baseball) and his marraige. He stepped into a case involving a family friend charged with murder of a local Aryan Brotherhood member. Darren is in serious jeopardy of losing his job after butting in. Darren's devotion to work and booze has him in trouble with his wife. Shortly after a grand jury appearance in his friend's case Darren gets a call from his high school pal, FBI Man. FBI Man says, "Darren, old buddy old pal, there are a couple murders in East Texas. A black man and a young white woman. Would you be willing to take a look? I need help with a career boost."

Well, Darren has been pushing the Rangers for years to pursue racial bias cases. Darren sees the danger in having people attacked, raped, murdered, etc. for being black. Darren's pushing has not worked. The Rangers see themselves as the experts they are and that they are immune from racial bias and treat all crime the same. Since Darren is black his supervisors have seen him as crusading and looking to upset things.

Darren and his bourbon head to the small town of Lark. Lark is a bump in the road. Lark has a roadside cafe that has catered to black travelers since the '60s ('50s?). Behind that cafe's swamp is found a murdered young white woman who leaves behind a son. Darren starts snooping - without police authority. Darren hears of the murder a few days previous of a middle age black guy from Chicago. Chicago Guy was a wealthy lawyer, what was he doing in Bumfuck, TX?

There are two murders. Personal clashes. Darren fighting his growing dependence on booze. Darren tending his bleeding heart over his marriage separation. Darren untangling Lark's complex and unspoken of family relationships among white and black and rich and poor.

Anyhoo. The entire novel is really all about rules and decorum.

  • There are local codes of conduct related to a person's age, wealth, skin color, etc. About what neighborhoods to enter. About what locals you defer to.
  • There are general small town codes: how you meet people or ask for something.  
  • There are Texas codes: deference to Rangers, black people are at a regular risk of murder, black men and white women do not chat.  
  • The importance of deference to older women. 
  • Law enforcement behavior: Rangers have to be nice to local cops, there written and unwritten rules to follow in investigations. EX: how to give grand jury testimony or request death reports. 
  • Darren's professional pursuit of of the Aryan Brotherhood (ABT)of Texas as a racial issue is rocking the boat at work.
  • Darren's interactions with Chicago Guy's widow crosses lines of professional and personal behavior.
  • How does a ABT member deal with the son he deeply loves actually being the son of a black guy his wife had an affair with?
  • Darren's devotion to friends when he lives Houston late at night to assist that family friend?
  • Darren's relationship with his mother. Darren was raised by his twin uncles and has a difficult and sparse relationship with his mother who is 16 years older than him. 
  • Friendships between black and white people. How far can you trust your white pal to help you?


Comments:
1. I just read Locke did a bunch of script writing. I've not looked anything up.
2. Good narration.
3. Instead of a gun on the wall Locke gives us a guitar on a wall.
4. Possible SPOILER: Darren's wife is angry he will not quit the Rangers and finish law school in Houston. His job takes him all over the state and away from home, plus Rangers chase down dangerous people. As important seems to be her thoughts about social status and that being a lawyer is better. It's the freaking Texas Rangers. How is being a run-of-the-mill lawyer compete with that. Talk about freaking status? He's a Texas Fucking Ranger. You don't get much more elite.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Rebus: "Even Dogs In the Wild" by Ian Rankin

Rebus: Even Dogs In the Wild by Ian Rankin, 2015 (UK and US?), downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Ian Rankin at times seems like the most Scottish Scotsman that ever Scotted. The Rebus books are all Scotland. Driving in Edinburgh. Restaurants in Edinburgh. Neighborhoods in Edinburgh. Scottish musicians and songs and poetry and sculptors and painters and so on and so forth. I suppose you could say the same thing about me and Wisconsin. Rebus rarely leave Scotland and I rarely leave Wisconsin. Screw it, I stand by my above statement.

Anyhoo. This is book #20 and Rebus is still retired after a brief return to the cold case unit in a previous novel. This time around Rebus's old nemesis and drinking buddy McCafferty gets shot at through his living room window. McCafferty refuses to talk to the cops of course. But, he will talk to Rebus.

Meanwhile, Rebus's old work partner Siobhan (that I also pictures as Chiffon in these audiobooks) is working the shooting death of a senior, wealthy, and well placed lawyer. Along the way is a Glasgow mobster traveling around Edinburgh searching for a missing transport truck and it's contents. The mobster is being followed by some Glasgow cops who are assholes. Malcolm Fox gets assigned as local liaison for the Glasgow Asshole Brigade.

Rankin does his usual plot and throws all these people together and continues to make Rebus a real prick. It's all great stuff and plenty of things happening: gangsters maneuvering for power, cops maneuvering for power, victims suffering, guilty people worrying, hidden child rape by powerful people. Along the way rebus ticks off his friends, smokes too much, drinks too much, and gets everything worked out. Driving the killings is a long buried sex abuse ring run by powerful pederasts who raped the residents of a group home for delinquent teen boys.

Behind all the usual police procedural story is a theme of fathers. Usually lousy or absent fathers heading up fractured families.

  • Rebus rarely visits his daughter who lives in Northern Scotland and has only seen his granddaughter twice. 
  • Malcolm Fox regularly visits his elderly father in long-term hospice but does it out of duty. Malcolm's father regularly disparages Malcolm's ability to be a cop. 
  • The Glasgow mob boss has a son in his twenties who is murdered. He barely knew his son and even though driven to revenge the mob boss doesn't seem too sad. His revenge is more about showing power and getting even. 
  • The killer suffered under a man whose sexual abuse and near murder left him unable to connect and care for a child. The killer blamed the men who made his father a victim and goes after those men.
  • Siobhan Clark has no family at all. I may be confusing novels and authors but I recall her parents dying when she was young. Rebus and other men kinda act as father figures.

Anyhoo. Rankin's books are always - aside from Doors Open - pretty damn good. Great characters and great scenery. Rankin's people always make sense; he doesn't throw in some bullshit reasons to drive his characters to act one way or another.

Comments:
1. Were the '70s and '80s a couple decades of massive sex abuse by the rich and powerful in the UK? I kept thinking of the Red Riding film trilogy and Jimmy Saville as the book went on.
2. Book title is from a song by the group The Associates. Where are the Associates from? Scotland, of course.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Club Thing: "Line Becomes A River" by Francisco Cantu

Book Club Thing: The Line Becomes A River: dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu, 2018, audio from Wisconsin Digital Library.

My alma mater started an online book club. I sorta signed on and now get the emails that I mostly ignore. When this nonfic title came up as the next discussion I put a hold on it, but the book was not available until the discussion was over anyway.

Short version: Guy joins Border Patrol and has massive stress. Guy quits BP for grad school. Guy has work pal who is goes to MX for his sick mother and cannot legally re-enter US. Guy tries to help pal out.

Long version: Cantu's mother worked for the National Park Service and was assigned to different areas of the Southwest. Part of Cantu's family comes from Mexico and he is bilingual and visited there regularly as a child. He has fond memories of trip sot rewsertyreX with his mom. His father is mostly out of the picture.

Cantu gets out of school and his fascination with border politics, immigration, and culture draws him to join the Border Patrol. He gets an AZ assignment and works with some decent guys and some assholes. He is more - I don't know how to describe it so let's say "relaxed" about the illegal immigrants. He does not see them as evil and dirty. He chats with them, sometimes commiserates with them, and still does his job by taking them in and processing them.

Cantu sees the "I need a job, man" people and the "I'm going to IL to see my family" people. He also sees the drug mules, drug traffickers, and general assholes that any smuggling border region has. The stress of the work causes him health issues. Cantu arrests pregnant women, old men, families, etc. He finds corpses in the summer heat. He finds drug bales on the side of the road. He rescues people who are barely alive after crossing the desert in July or August.

Cantu joins an intelligence group that gets him out of the field but he also has plenty of traveling assignments away from home. He gets to know the other guys on his team but is never quite happy with his job.

Anyway. Cantu has enough after 4-5 years and leaves for grad school. I don't think he ever said where he went but I presume it is AZ State. While in school he works a coffee shop job in a plaza and becomes pals with the facility maintenance dude. Maintenance Dude says breakfast with Cantu and tells Cantu about his three sons.

Maintenance Dude's (MD) mother in MX is in hospice to MD heads down to be with her. But, MD is not a legal resident. He's been in the U.S. fro 20-30 years and US immigration won't let him in. MD sneaks over, is caught, and jailed. Cantu does his best to help out. He helps do translation for MD's family since MD's wife is not perfectly fluent. He takes MD's sons to visit MD in the fed facility because they are afraid MD's wife might be carded and deported. He assists in getting an attorney, translating for attorney and the wife, and finding documents to file an asylum or resident case.

MD's case is denied. The application is done at an administrative level. There is no court appearance - MD's argument is rejected and he is back in MX with 24 hours.  MD takes up temporary residence across from Yuma and Cantu goes to visit for a day.

MD speaks about how all his family are in the U.S. Fed policy goes by the presumption that if a parent of family member is deported then the rest of the family will follow that person over. This is a ridiculous theory.  People will risk everything for their family. That means risking life and limb to travel across the border.  Since family is everything why would they go back to MX where much of the government has been ineffective and incompetent under the drug cartels and other corruption?

Anyhoo. The book is interesting. Cantu writes plenty about border politics, drug policy, and his own family history. Some of this is a rehash of things I have heard elsewhere - mainly the insanity of the drug cartels and how no one can do a thing without their permission.

Comments:
1. Cantu and other BP Agents did a lot of walking and cutting for sign. They'd park and walk through the desert after alerts from sensors or cameras. They could sometimes follow their own progress by listening to the radio channels used by drug smuggler lookouts on ridgelines and hill tops.
2. Some BP Agents are casually cruel. Example: news stories about Agents dumping out the drinking water left for immigrants. An argument for this is that doing so forces the immigrants to give up and turn themselves in. Reality: people die in the desert and their bodies are never found.
3. So many dead bodies in the desert and many are never found.
4. Border crime. There is plenty of it and hasn't it always been that way? The whole 'build that wall' is a political farce by a racist con man. The issue is that a jackape like Trump polarizes things and people avoid reality on both sides. Of course there are dangerous people on the border. There is plenty of illegal money to be made with smuggling drugs and people. There are people willing to murder for cash and there are even more people willing to share their food with BP Agents after they are arrested and still willing to share their food with BP Agents.
5. The femicides in Juarez. No freaking way the local government did not know about things and were not complicit by their inaction. No way it was one or two serial killers. Cantu says there were reports that groups of men have rape parties and then murder the victims.
6. Cantu discusses a theory on trauma and how it relates to a "warrior gene". That the warrior gene can be triggered by juvenile trauma and cause violence later on.
7.  Cantu splits the memoir into BP and after. There are some things he ruminates upon - like the above mentioned warrior gene - in the first half that are never covered again in the second half. His life before and after is almost a complete break. One life ended and the 2nd half began. He was police and then he wasn't. His thinking and behavior also changed.

Friday, May 31, 2019

German Guy: "Storm of Steel" by Ernst Junger

German Guy: The Storm of Steel: from the diary of a German storm-trooper officer on the Western Front by Ernst Junger, 1961 reprint of the 1929 translation of the 1920 German book, 0865273103.

Junger survived all four years in the Western Front fighting against the British and French. A final chest wound sent him to the rear in mid-2018 (or so) and he did not return to the front by war's end. At the end of the book he tallies that he was wounded 14 times (not all separate occasions) for 20 punctures.

Surviving 4 years of slaughter is fairly amazing. He outlived most every pal and fellow soldier. And what a grind survival was. Junger writes well about the endless artillery attacks. The English would send shells throughout the day every day. That the Germans would assemble and travel on foot through those maelstroms is amazing. That anyone survives shelling at all is amazing. Junger was at the Somme and one passage has him describing being caught by an attack and sheltering in an old trench. The only safe(ish) spot is a slight recess in the trench wall. Junger is crouched down, his face in the dirt, just trying not to go nuts.

And that's a lot of the story. Junger hiding from artillery. Junger surviving near blasts. Junger picking up the human pieces after artillery explosions. Junger and others being buried by the dirt thrown by explosions. Near misses that Junger survived by a the difference of a few seconds. Shells that land among a group of soldiers and kill 20. Shell splinters that wound. Shell splinters that kill. Explosions that atomize bodies.

Troops spent a lot of time waiting to die. Danger is everywhere and normal. You start to ignore some basic safety procedures and precautions. But, if you've stayed alive that long you do many things automatically and without thinking. Troops hearing a shell headed their way immediately know the the shell's size and trajectory. They are constantly aware of the nearest shell hole or dug out to hunker down.

In case you did not already know: not all bodies were recovered or removed for burial elsewhere. The Unknown Soldier is solidly a WW1 thing. Corpses were EVERYWHERE. Dead bodies were regularly exposed by artillery blasts and crumbling craters. More bodies are revealed by the rain and flooding. Junger would come to a new position in 1917 or '18 and the accidentally dig up remains from 1914.

A few years ago when I learned that rotting bodies were a normal wartime occurrence I was aghast. A soldier would be cutting a shelf into a trench wall and discover a rotting body part. When I read about that now it is gross but not a shock. So, it makes sense that a soldier would be desensitized even further and just shrug. Or even start using skulls as ashtrays or candle holders.

Junger wrote about many head and neck injuries as men peek above a trench line or just bob their head over. French and English snipers sit on their rifle sights and just wait for a target. Junger writes of taking a head shot at an Englishman who is 600 meters off in the far back in the 3rd English trench. Junger gives the walking Englishman a lead off the tip of the man's nose and says he makes a hit.  Hitting a human silhouette with iron sights at 600 is doable but he implies he made a head shot after he grabbed the nearest rifle and set the sights for distance. That seems really far-fetched to me. But, I am not a skilled rifle marksman.

I am happy to say I have never been in a war zone but read plenty of memoirs where soldiers gripe about shaving and haircuts and details of regular daily life. The argument I have read is that daily discipline forces people to recall regular life and that the the rules of daily life are enforced. People don't backslide and get away with more and more infractions that may lead to a landslide of bad decisions and animal behavior.

The German units seemed to rotate out of the front lines frequently enough. Junger does not dwell as much on the field conditions as in the English and American memoirs I have read. When Junger writes about the trenches he always seemed to have a bunker or underground slot to shelter in. He always had a servant at hand. They flooded in low lands but he does not talk about pumps running 24 hours. He also never had to do countermining against English troops.

This is the first WW1 German memoir I've read. I never much thought of the Germans having a hard time. Reading about all the tragedies of trench warfare suffered by English, French and American troops means I was thinking the opposite of the Krauts. Figuring that the Germans were on the high ground without flooded trenches, inside concrete bunkers, hanging out, singing songs, and drinking beer.

And there is lots of drinking. Booze (and other drugs) are a universal wartime pastime. Especially when off the line. Beer, brandy, schnapps, and wine. Officers would booze it up during parties. Drinking the trench was regular as long as nobody gets drunk.

Other details:
1. The killing of surrendering troops.
2. Multiple gas attacks. Running through a gas cloud without a mask on to get back to the trench line.
3. Only 3 men of his company are left after one year.
4. Few references to women: I presume the rear areas had plenty of prostitutes but he only writes about a couple younger French women he gawked at. He - of course - is a gallant and kind young soldier.
5. Many patrols into no man's land. Junger, as the subtitle says, was a storm trooper. He was involved in a raid that was planned and prepped for weeks. He was in the vanguard of attacking troops during the Spring 1918 offensive.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Read: "Atlanta Deathwatch" by Ralph Dennis

Read: Atlanta Deathwatch by Ralph Dennis, 2019 reprint of 1974 novel, 978-1732065666.

Lee Goldberg has a big long story on how this Ralph Dennis series of novels were so fantastic that Goldberg created Brash Books for the sole purpose of republishing the novels. There is more detail about Goldberg's love for the series, his tracking down all the entries, contacting Dennis's family for the rights, so on, so forth. With a story like that you gotta the think the series is pretty damn good. Well... it pretty much is.

I enjoyed the novel quite a bit but,  unlike Goldberg and quite a few other fellas, I will not obsessively hunt each novel down. Hell, I don't have to because Mr. Goldberg already did that for us. What's more, if Goldberg's stalker love for Hardman and Evans brought us Brash Books that is pretty damn cool. I recommend you check out other Brash Books pubs like Soak by Patrick McLean or the two Bill Crider westerns,

Anyhoo, let's skip my own obsessive love for Goldberg and get to the story. Jim Hardman was canned from the cops (who were cannily clued to a corruption cloud by creepy crooks) a couple years ago. Hardman also lost his Smoochy-Smoochy Lovey-Dovey Girlfriend who worked for the crooks. She declared under oath that she pursued Hardman because her bosses told her to.

Well, losing his job and future wife was a big double blow to Hardman and he has been barely sliding by since. He works some off-the-books and unlicensed PI jobs and occasionally couriers NYC dope down to Atlanta. He has about two pals left: Hump Evans a former NFL player and local hero and Hardman's former police partner, Cop Friend.

The plot involves Hardman getting hired to follow the co-ed daughter of a wealthy Georgian. He tails her for a bit and she visits a rough bar in a black neighborhood. When Hardman goes into the bar to snoop the locals get suspicious, Hardman gets ambushed, Hardman gets beat up, Hardman is told to not come back. Hardman says, "Ouch! My ribs! My face! Screw this job!"

Shortly after Hardman quits the job the co-ed is murdered. Hardman is forcibly taken to visit The Man...

-- Yeah, this is the 1970s and the character is known by everyone as The Man. This surprises hardman a little because the street crooks he dealt with always spoke of The Man and Hardman figured that was generic. I found this humorous. --

... The co-ed was secretly dating The Man. The Man is a black guy in his 30s with control over a good part of organized crime in Atlanta. The Man wants to hire Hardman to figure out who killed Co-Ed.

Things happen. Hardman uses Cop Friend to gain information. Hump helps out. Co-Ed's family wants her killer found as well and talks to Hardman. Hardman's Cop Friend and Cop Friend's Wife are trying to get Hardman and his former Smoochy-Smoochy back together. There are attempts to assassinate Hardman. So on. So forth.

There is also plenty of other 1970s lingo and social and political attitudes. Hump hits the singles bars. Hardman and Hump drink a lot (well, this is a PI novel). Black guys are called 'studs' and [other lingo I cannot recall and do not have the book handy]. There is a secret bordello hidden in the woods.

Comments:
1. I enjoyed the book.
2. Speaking of obsessive love: Goldman's love for barbeque and drone footage.
3. Goldberg published his first novel when he was about 19-years-old. Someone - an agent or publisher - told LAPD cop Paul Bishop that he should meet Goldberg because they wrote similar novels which were hard boiled crime fiction. Bishop - as I understand it - was freaking Super Cop. For 35 years he pursued and arrested all sorts of bad dudes. Goldberg's story is that he and Bishop were going to meet for lunch. Super Cop Bishop walks in and sees uber-geek Goldberg (who wrote for Fangoria) instead of a grizzled, wrinkled, tobacco stained guy in his 60s.
3.A. Goldberg tells the story better. Look it up yourself.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Lansdale Again: "Honky Tonk Samurai" by Joe R. Lansdale

Lansdale Returns: Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale, 2016, downloaded off Wisconsin Digital Library. Narrated by Christopher Ryan Grant who did a swell job.

Hap and Leonard are still working for Marvin's P.I. firm. They are sitting in a car watching a guy's house when Leonard goes across the street to beat up a guy kicking a dog. Hap follows along. The police show up. Marvin is with the cops and announces, "I'm the new Police Chief."  Hap and Leonard are somewhat surprised by the Police Chief news. Hap and Leonard are not surprised when the Police Chief also gives the Dog Beater a couple punches.

Hap and Leonard are equally surprised when later that night Marvin announces he will sell them the P.I. firm dirt cheap. Hap and Leonard are not too keen since they know bupkis about business. But, Hap's longtime girlfriend says, "I'll buy it."

After Brett and Co. do a little office remodeling Brett and Hap are in the second floor offices when a foul-mouthed old lady shows up, shows them video of the Dog Beater Beat-Down and asks for a discount on investigative services or she will send the tape to the press and get Marvin fired.

Foul mouthed old lady is a former floozy and ticks Brett off something fierce. But, Brett agrees to have the Bonehead Twins look for the woman's missing granddaughter. Floozy Granny's granddaughter has not been heard of in five years. Shortly after college the granddaughter had a couple jobs and then worked for a car sales place. Granddaughter then stole $50,000 from Floozy Granny and disappeared.

Things happen and Hap and Leonard immediately stir things up. Leonard stirs things up on purpose because he can be a combative prick. They discover the used car place is a front for prostitution and blackmail. The discover the car sales place's manager is a transgender woman who works for the Dixie Mafia. They find out that messing with the delaership is messing with

Lansdale always writes a good crime story but his language and characters are the draw. I've read all - or most - the other Hap and Leonard books and a reader can start at any point in the series. Lansdale gives you a full story and characters each time.

This novel includes Jim Bob Luke who is one of my favorite characters. I should rewatch Cold in July that features Don Johnson as Jim Bob. The book also has Cason Statler from Leather Maidens. I read Leaiher way back in 2009 but only sorta recognized him here. I did not recognize Cason's psychopath Army buddy from Leather who also reappears in here.

Usually the Hap and Leonard novels will take a sudden turn. Honky starts out with a missing person hunt and turns into a assassin hunt. You'll kinda get two novellas dovetailed together.

Hap Leonard continue to age. If this is really set in 2016 they would be about  60 years old each. That's a couple 60 year guys after 40 years of manual labor, martial arts, and various fist fights, IN real life they would be creaking and groaning. In literary life Leonard is still a hardass. He is also having a difficult personal time as his on-and-off boyfriend keeps having religious issues since his church says he is going to hell for being gay.

Oh, I forgot about Hap finding out he has a 20-year-old daughter from a woman he dated for all of a month.

Comments:
1. Gratuitous Bill Crider references.
2. Gratuitous Kasey Lansdale references.
3. Alternate title: Return of the Bonehead Twins
4. Alternate title: Hap and Leonard Stumble Around Some More
5. Alternate title: Leonard and Hap Argue Over Nonsense
6. Alternate title: Hap and Leonard and Jim Bob Luke Ride Again
7. Alternate title: Vanilla Ride Rides Again

Thursday, May 9, 2019

NonFic War Book: "We Few: U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam" by Nick Brokhausen

NonFic War Book: We Few: U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam by Nick Brokhausen, 2018, 9781612005805.

The Studies and Observation Group (SOG) was a super-duper secret commando unit in Vietnam. The unit was given an innocuous name and classified secret until 1996 or so. In 1997 I bought a copy of John L. Plaster's book SOG: the secret wars of America's commandos in Vietnam for the library I worked for. I read Plaster's book in 1997 and will now occasionally see references to SOG. Well, I read a reference a month or two ago, then searched the catalog, then requested this book.

Brokhausen was a Special Forces guy on his way back to Vietnam. He'd already done one or two tours and arrived in Vietnam with no assignment. He and a couple guys were to be waiting around for a place to go when he was recruited - bamboozled - into volunteering for SOG.

SOG was a volunteer unit because the work was incredibly dangerous. They were often sent into Cambodia, Laos, the DMZ, and even North Vietnam. This meant they were out of reach of the usual help from U.S. infantry and artillery. 

Brokhausen worked with a team of about 10 guys who carried about four times the ammunition of a regular infantry unit. Most SOG patrols were actively hunted by dedicated units of the NVA from the time the SOG teams were inserted by helicopter. Very, very rarely did one of these reconnaissance not get in a gun fight. Some teams just disappeared.

Brokhausen lived and succeeded in all this slaughter and terror. But, most of the stories - each chapter a different story - are about life at the base camps. Brokhausen mentions several times how a three day mission is 72 hours of high terror and little sleep. Gallons of booze, hot showers, and bordello trips are enthusiastically consumed when not training, patrolling, or planning patrols.

If you want stories of fightin' and killin' there are a couple in here. The rest are tales of hijinks and shenanigans. Brokhausen and friends playing pranks and screwing each other over. Getting to know their Montagnard partners. Complaining about their officers and senior noncoms. Much bitching and hatred about the Military Police. Griping about rear echelon "twinkies" in starched camouflage. Trying to avoid the crazy guys in their units.

Brokhausen frequently mentions the insanity. Usually when I read things like "We're all crazy" I kinda roll my eyes and think, "OK, ooh la la, you drank until 3AM and tipped over the outhouse."  But, Brokhausen would often consider murder as an acceptable method for conflict resolution on base. Now, to be fair, Brokhausen is not clear on these thoughts. I cannot say for sure if he was dead serious or joshing around. But, he thought about it often and they all acted in ways that were definitely not in in line with civilized life.  Brokhausen and friends's survival in the field was based upon immediate violence and killing. That kind of solution became a natural response.

Back at camp he and other SOG guys would used their suppressed .22s to shoot out the tires of MP jeeps, they regularly stole all manner of vehicles (one guy took a helicopter), dump CS gas grenades in the base tavern, have multiple bar fights, etc. 

Within all this are some very dedicated soldiers. They all dread going out on missions and are terrified of certain sectors that crawl with NVA troops. The SOG guys go out anyway. And the Montagnards are equally - or more - brave and dedicated.

Many of the stories are written as fond reminiscing of horseplay and friends and long drunks. A couple non-combat stories stuck out to me and they were the last two in the book. One was when a group of the SOG guys are driving in a jeep convoy early one morning back to their base. A U.S. Army truck comes driving along the jeeps and shoots them up with rifles and 40mm grenades. No SOG guys are shot and the grenades do not explode, but the impact of one grenade breaks some ribs and an elbow.

The drunken SOG guys are infuriated. The don't survive jungle trips to die at the hands of "junkies" who are targeting the SOG guys because they are white. The storm over to where the truck went and beat and threaten the local unit's guards and commanders. The SOG guys are close to killing people - in addition to one truck passenger killed when SOG shot back - until the SOG commander cools them down and the Army sweeps the issue under the rug.

The second story was a continuation of the previous one. Brokhausen and friends were on a huge drunk because they were expecting to go out on a horrible assignment. Brokhausen recently played a prank that greatly pissed off his commander. As punishment he was expecting his team to go into one of the super dangerous areas. The broken ribs and elbow of his two American teammates meant his squad was stood down and put on R&R. After a couple nights in Saigon Brokhausen took a solo trip to Vung Tau on the coast. He hangs out on the beach. He takes lots of showers. He makes friends with two pilots and two Australian women.  One of the woman is gorgeous and Brokhausen is enamored with her. I'm reading along thinking, "Does he end up marrying this woman or something?" when Brokhausen writes how he and the two pilots are 100 yards from a massive terrorist bomb.

Brokhausen and the pilots run over to give aid. Brokhausen assists one person, then finds a woman's leg, then assists one of the Australians who is missing a foot, and finds the corpse of the second, pretty Australian. Brokhausen is exhausted. He's been through so much terror and when he arrived at Vung Tau he was actually able to relax. He was making new friends who aren't killers. He could sleep in comfort. The Australian were a step back into normal civilian life. And then the war comes rushing back in with bodies parts, pools of blood, and the corpse of someone he liked.

Comment
1. Plaster - listed above - used to live in Northern Wisconsin. Maybe he still does.
2. Plaster was interviewed for Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories back in 20110. 

Old One: "Killing Time" by Donald E. Westlake

Old One: Killing Time by Donald E. Westlake, 1961, L.O.C. no. 61-6245.

The inside pages list only one other novel by Westlake, The Mercenaries. That was reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2009 as The Cutie. According to my notes I read Cutie in 2010. I don't remember the novel and my notes are typically sparse.

Killing Time is set in a small to medium sized city in New York called Winston. Tim Smith is the local private eye and has long lasting and established working relationships with all the Winston bigwigs. All those bigwigs are also crooks. Graft is endemic and Tim is fine with that. He makes a nice living, has friends, and cruises right along through life in his home town.

Everything is swell for Tim until one morning at 1:30AM when a hitman from NYC comes into a diner and tries to kill Tim. Tim is somewhat surprised by this turn of events. The next day a representative of Citizens for Clean Government gives Tim a call. The CCG rep wants to hire Tim to help clean out corruption in Winston. Tim says: no. Tim says hell no! Tim says: sure they're all corrupt but everything runs smooth and great with little crime and nice schools and everyone's happy. (Tim is a bit of a louse himself.)

Well, the local bigwigs are worried about the CCG. The CCG has already taken down municipal crooks in a couple other towns and Winston cannot stand an honest audit. Tim is on his way to City Hall when someone within an upper story of City Hall takes a few shots at Time. Tim is concerned. Tim is angry. Tim knows only seven men knew he was walking over to the Hall so he now has a firm list of suspects.

Things move along with the usual Westlake greatness. Tim's sorta-but-not-really-girlfriend expresses terror at his plight. Tim has to figure out who is trying to kill him while the local Police Chief tries to sweep everything under the rug. The violence accelerates and creates a schism among the bigwigs. A third failed attempt on Tim leaves a local grocer dead. That grocer's large extended family is out for blood.

This Westlake novel has the sparse writing of his other books. The plot moves along. Tim is not a crook but fine with taking their money and working for crooks. Tim sacrifices others to get his way. Life is brutal and short in the second half of the book.

Comments:
1. More .32 caliber handguns. Every damn book Westlake wrote must have a .32 in it.
2. I want to spell grocer as grocier.
3. I found this 1961 printing in the library's mystery section. It is in decent condition - well enough to circ - and has only circ'ed 12 times since the online records were created in 1995. The back of the book is stamped GIFT BOOK and dated July 19, 1985.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Read the E-Book: "Night of the Soul Stealer" by Joseph Delaney

Read the E-Book: Night of the Soul Stealer by Joseph Delaney, 2006, ebook from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Since I already had the ebook checked out by mistake I loaded it onto my phone. My plan was to read it during the Scout Backpack Camporee. Well, I only did a little reading in my sleeping bag Friday night. Then, on that Saturday, the weather was cold and windy, snow started, and one 5th grader was progressively unhappy and homesick. A couple more 5th graders have a tendency to misbehave.

After a sometimes difficult morning and a forecast of more snow we decided to leave the Camporee that afternoon. I and the other adult leader then spent two hours helping a dude get his Hyundai Sonata out of the mud. That was interesting. I am very glad I wore my insulated rubber boots all weekend because it was cold and the dude's car was stuck next to marsh.

Anyhoo. The Spook is going to his winter home in Anglezark. This move is a little confusing to me because the Spook's winter home is actually colder, windier, and snowier than their regular home in Chipenden. But, the Spook serves the entire County and, apparently, does all his winter time spooking in this remote corner of the County.

So, Tom and Alice and the Spook pack up and head out. The Spook still doesn't like Alice and thinks she will end up turning back the black magic she was raised under. Spook plans to dump her off at a farm nearby to the winter home. The farm family owes the Spook a bunch of dough and will take Alice in.

Before all this happens Tom meets a mysterious dude who dresses in the hooded cloak of a Spook and carries a Spook Style Staff. Mysterious Dude leaves a letter for Spook and the letter pisses off the Spook.

When Alice is dumped at the farmhouse we find out Mysterious Dude is the family's son and Spook's former apprentice who was canned by the Spook. Mysterious Dude (named Morgan but I will call him Mysterious Dude) has been studying black-ish magic, dead people, and ghosts to be a Mage.

Spook and Tom get Spook's remot stone home set within a ravine on a moor. Spook goes down to the deep basement/dungeon to show Tom the witches he has bound there. Spook then goes into a cell and comes out with a super good looking older woman. The woman is Meg. Meg used to be Spook's girly-smoochy-smoochy friend. Meg is also a Lamia witch and has been drugged by Spook for several years to forget her past and her fondness for human blood. Meg's sister, Maria, is bound in the basement and turned to a feral Lamia.

Things happen. There is a stone throwing boggart that has killed a farm worker by crushing his head with a boulder. Mysterious Dude is messing with Tom. When Tom's father dies Tom goes home for a week and comes back to Mysterious Dide messing with the ghost of Tom's father and forcing Tom to do Mysterious Dude's bidding to steal a book from Spook. Meg misses her meds and remembers her past life and imprisons the Spook.

As I have said before: I enjoy the series. Delaney writes these as YA stories and they move along with a 13-year-old Tom dealing with danger and trouble and loyalty and truth and family and all the other problems you want a character to deal with.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Yet Another Audio: "Doors Open" by Ian Rankin\

Yet Another Audio: Doors Open by Ian Rankin, 2008, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Meh. The story was okay but I don't much care for Amateurs Plan A Heist novels. A Westlake style comedy would be more interesting.

Set in Edinburgh which, according to Rankin and his characters, is a small town without much excitement. At least when compared to Glasgow. [Edinurgh has 500,00 people so it seems pretty damn big to me.] Edinburgh is okay for rich guy Mike Mackenzie though.

Mackenzie hit it big when he and a college pal sold off their software company for a truckload of cash. Since then his college pal moved to Australia and goes surfing, nightclubbing, and hanging out with hot bikini women. Mackenzie has a penthouse apartment and goes to art shows.

Whether Mackenzie knows it or not he is bored and unsatisfied. He is pining for an art gallery manager and doesn't do much else except hang out with a couple other art fan dudes. One of those dudes, Gissing, is an art professor and he complains about all the art work stored away in private and museum collections that is never viewed or shared with the public. What a shame. Well, I guess there is nothing to be done about it...

But, wait! "Maybe," says Gissing "we can liberate those art works!" Mackenzie and his other pal, Allan, laugh it off and then take Gissing up on the offer. Of course things go wrong. Gissing's plan is to hire a art student to produce exacting copies of the stolen works. They will then rob the National gallery. After the heist the copies will be swapped for the real paintings and left behind. The art will be "recovered" and Gissing and the rest can keep the real works.

The heist will happen during the annual Doors Open weekend when various private locations - like the National Gallery's art warehouse - are open for tours. Why not break into the warehouse during the tours when alarms and defenses are down?

Things go wrong after Mackenzie's chance encounter with old high school class mate and gangster Chib. Mackenzie figures they need help from someone with experience. He recruits violent Chib to assist. Chib is a crook, he won't "help" anyone. Especially since he owns over a 100k Euros to some Norwegian Hell's Angels.

Further complications include a very nervous Allan. The art student's greedy girlfriend. A scary Danish debt collector hounding Chib. A Scottish cop out investigating Chib who figures out the connection between the robbery and Chib. Gissing goes missing. Chib wants more. So on. So forth.

The story just never grabbed me. According to my internet box there is a film version that showed in UK TV.

YA Audio: "Attack of the Fiend" by Joseph Delaney

YA Audio: Attack of the Fiend by Joseph Delaney, 2007, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

#4 in the series. #3 is not available in audio off the digital library. The absence of that book really chaps my ass. I reserved the eBook version for some damn reason, I'd rather read the print but just finished the eBook a couple days ago.

Thomas, The Spook, and Alice are living at the Spook's home. Thomas and Alice are sent back to Thomas's family farm to bring back the locked trunks Thomas's mother left him. Apparently Tom's mother took off back to Greece in book #3 and left the trunks for him. Thomas's father died in the last novel and his will left the trunks and the room in the farmhouse where the trunks reside. The room is some sorta of special.

Alice and Thomas spend the 1.5-2 days travel to get to the farm that is now owned by his brother, Jack. Tom and Co. find the livestock missing, the barn burned down, the house ransacked, blood on the floor, Jack and family missing, and all the trunks gone. They find out witches raided the farm and took Jack's family to Pendle along with the trunks.

Pendle is a well known witch area. Alice - former witch-in-training - goes to Pendle to snoop and look for Jack and family. Thomas hurries back to the Spook. The Spook was just visited by a Pendle priest - and former apprentice - who told the Spook that the Pendle witch clans have grown stronger and are taking over the area.

Spook and Jack travel to the area. Stay with the Priest. Travel to local magistrate for assistance.  Things happen. The witches are quite strong and a Evil Mutant Dwarf Thing and other witches use mirrors (and mirrored surface to spy on people). Jack and Co. have to get inside a castle the withces now control. There are underground passages, a water monster, feral Lamia witches, a boss witch who controls the magistrate, a murdered priest, so on, so forth.

These are fun stories and move quick. The novels have been getting progressively more violent. Jack and the Spook have been working against more and more violent witches, boggarts, and other magical beings. There is more blood, more dangerous situations, and more cruelty.

Here are some more witchy details:
- Beware women and girls who wear pointy shoes. They are probably witches.
- Witches can persuade people or bind people to them with spells of glamour, fascination and dread.
- There is a cannon in this one. Soldiers are called to use the cannon to breach the castle.
- Witches cannot cross moving water. The Pendle clan have installed wooden damns to lower across a current and let them cross using the stream bed.
- A witch clan is a group of witches. A coven is 13 witches drawn together to cast spells.
- Bladed weapons can kill witches.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Audio of Disasters: "Directorate S" by Steve Coll

Audio of Disasters: Directorate S: The CIA and America's wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan by Steve Coll, 2018, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library

Coll wrote a previous book about AfPak issues from Soviet invasion through to about 2000 and the Taliban. This book covers the area from then to the start of Trump's term. From the title I was thinking this would be tales of special operator's tactically tactilizing, hiking mountains, and shooting AQ leaders. Nope. This is all politics except for some info about a particularly tough battle during the Afghan surge of troops.

This is a long book and took a while to finish. Maybe that sometimes tedious slog about diplomatic discussions, political confusion, and piles of bodies is fitting for a war that is almost old enough to vote.

Coll's initial focus is on Pakistan and how their involvement with their neighbors has colored so much of the successes and failures of the U.S. and various allies in Afghanistan. The discussion travels to the changing goals of U.S. policy, Afghan politics, Karzai's extreme paranoia, and whether we should fight the Taliban or just AQ.

So much hinged, and still does, on the dispute between Pakistan and Indian. Pakistan and India HATE each other. Don't forget they've been fighting over Kashmir since the 1947 split. Pakistan is especially grouchy after losing the 1973 war and watching as India's economy goes high and higher. While India's economy and international influence have grown Pakistan has been static or shown weak growth.

The Taliban have been a way for Pakistan to control the region and check India's power. Making friends with and supporting the Taliban has helped Pakistan. They keep India from moving into Afghanistan and have used the many, many aligned militant groups in rural Pakistan as surrogates to attack India. The most recent notable event being the Mumbai terror attacks.

As Coll writes the history it becomes a listing of all the happenings since 2000 in Afghanistan. So much of it is a list of things gone wrong and things that could have been. 18 years of "If only. If only. If  only."
If only: we sent more troops to invade.
If only: we sent more construction money.
If only: we'd recognized Pakistan's lasting alliance with the Taliban.
If only: we'd not been distracted by Iraq.
If only: U.S. troops left their bases to know the people.
If only: we'd not killed so many civilians.

As Coll wrote about the first eight years of the war my head had the refrain of "Fucking Iraq. Fucking Rumsfeld. Fucking Bush."

The initial invasion of Afghanistan did have some sound ideas behind it. A smaller invasion force that teamed with the  Northern Alliance made sense after the experiences of British and Russian invasions. The Pentagon and White House wanted to avoid being the invading and occupying power. Fair enough. But, the goal then shifted from killing Al Qaeda to killing Taliban. Again, that makes sense because the Taliban were the happy hosts of AQ and the Taliban were certainly horrible and murderous. But, as the war progressed - and quickly - the U.S. still never had enough people in place to stop all the fleeing Taliban and AQ heading to Pakistan.

By 2009 we'd sunk tons of cash and swimming pools of blood and still had trouble.   The military is going hard to kill the Taliban and AQ but it is not working. So, let's go harder. Why not double down on death? The beatings will continue until morale improves. First there is the domestic political and financing fight over how many troops to send over and then Petraeus and McChrystal start an anti insurgent campaign. But we're still an occupying force. There are : dead civilians, night raids, allied convoys that hit a civilian but have standing orders to just keep trucking. Afghan are not happy.

The surge's troops work to push back Taliban territory and secure cities. By this point we are 3/4 through the book and the first time Coll details combat operations. Coll uses diary entries and personal correspondence to cover the attacks of allied forces in the Green Zone Sangin province.

Things are still not resolved. Afghan are murdering Allied soldiers. The U.S. commissions study after study.  There are still unclear goals on what to do with the Taliban? Kill'em? further define co editions for a win? Make a deal?

Afghan president Karzai is in a shitty job. The guy cannot make anyone happy AND he seems to have mental health issues.  Endemic corruption and crooked family members don't help either.

Most US troops are finally pulled, we continue to push Pakistan for action,  spend money on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a week ago (April, 2019) three soldiers were killed by an IED.







Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Done: "The Secret History of Twin Peaks" by Mark Frost

Done: The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost, 2016, 9781250075581.

Published before the return of the series in 2017. Written as a dossier compiled by an unknown person and found in a custom built metal box. The dossier contains original documents dating back to Lewis and Clark to modern day. With notations and commentary by the investigating FBI agent.

Don't bother reading the book if you have not seen the first part of the TV series. You won't care.

If you have seen the first part of the TV series you'll enjoy the book. I have not yet seen the second part of the series so I have no idea how this ties-in.

There are some anachronisms. The dossier is a compilation of work by different authors but, amazingly, all those writers over the past 200 years use the same parenthetical asides within sentences.

Much paranoia, UFO conspiracy, Illuminati and Masons pondering, and small town gossip. Frost and Co. don't seem to understand small towns versus small cities. The Welcome to Twin Peaks sign says the population is over 50,000. That is not small. And don't pretend there is only one diner in the damn town and that a sheriff's department can handle all that population with just six sworn employees.

Anyhoo. I thought the book was fun and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

EDIT 5-4-2019: I just saw that I wrote Lake Mills instead of Twin Peaks when referencing population. Lake Mills is 6,000 people and we are big compared to many places.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Hardcover: "Nomadland" by Jessica Bruder

Hardcover: Nomadland: surviving America in the twenty-first century by Jessica Bruder, 2017, 9780393249316.

Journalist Bruder does deep reporting on van, car, and RV dwelling people.

The book is interesting and a bit depressing. Bruder is writing about decent people who work hard but were dunked on by the 2008 depression. They are an itinerant workforce of people 55-years-old and up. People who were financially stable until they lost their retirement funds when the market collapsed and then went under on their mortgages when the real estate market collapsed.

Many people were already just getting by before 2008. Then economic layoffs hit and older people with plenty of experience were unable to land a paying gig. An illness would toss them out of work and leave them in more debt.

Bruder researched this for a few years and got to be friends with several people. She focuses on Linda May and her journey from having to live with a adult daughter's family to buying a used van to live in. Linda works as a camp host at different state and federal parks and forests. The work is physically difficult and when tallying the long hours versus pay she finds she only makes 2-3 bucks an hour.

On the off-season Linda joins many other van dwellers van dwellers who find work as WorkAmpers. The work is often described as "Have Fun! Make Friends! Get Paid to vacation!" The slogan is, of course, bullshit. Bruder tags along to one of the many Amazon warehouses around the country. The pickers and stockers will walk 10 miles a day up and down concrete floors to fill orders. They work 10 or 12 hour shifts, head back to the RV park, eat some ibuprofen, and hope they don't freeze overnight in an uninsulated vehicle.

Homeless is what they are but not what they will talk about. Bruder writes about people who are forcefully engaging in a 'nomadic lifestyle' and proclaiming the freedoms of no rent, no mortgage, no utility bills. They do have to worry about using Social Security and part-time jobs to pay for engine and transmission repairs. They do have to stretch every day to buy food. Homelessness is the "H word" and fervently denied.

Bruder seems to have done plenty of reading and research on the topic for both the current and historical trends of itinerant people. She writes about the rail riding phenomenon (my paternal grandfather included) of the Great Depression and how many other people took to the road.  A commenter from the 1930s remarked how poor Americans embrace the open road and a positive attitude but don't acknowledge they've been screwed over. Reminds me of the This is Fine 'meme'.

Because of the internet the nomads are a fairly well organized group. Linda and others are inspired by blogs and online discussions to stop couch surfing and buy RVs.  I tried looking up a few of the people who had an online presence. I gave up after I could not find a couple. One woman had started and quit a few blogs and - at her last writing - had settled down somewhere.

Besides, isn't having your own space - even if something as small as a Prius - preferable to couch surfing, scrabbling for rent, and living out of suitcase? You're certainly free to follow work wherever it takes you. Cutting out rent is cheaper than the regular car repairs. There is privacy of a sort - as long as people aren't knocking on your windows and trying to peer inside.

As the saying goes, "Your mileage may vary."

Very Good: "A Student of History" by Nina Revoyr

Very Good: A Student of History by Nina Revoyr, 2019, 9781617756641.

I was flipping through an older issue of Booklist or Library Journal and lucked out be seeing the review for this. I had missed any pre-pub announcements and, embarrassingly, missed seeing the book on our own new books shelf. For whatever reason I was immediately engaged with the story.

Short version: 32-year-old PhD history student from USC is about a year behind on his thesis. He is hired by an uber-wealthy woman to transcribe 70 years of handwritten journals and falls for a super scheming socialite.

Longer version: Rick Nagano's girlfriend dumped him a year ago and he has gotten no research or writing completed on his thesis concerning community business loans among the Japanese in early California. A friend from the History Department is moving away and recommends him for the 10-hour-a-week transcribing job for Mrs. W--- (her last name is never used). The extra cash for this job will allow Rick to pay his rent and eat. Rick narrates us along the journey.

Rick drives out to a massive estate with a massive mansion and meets Mrs. W---. She is in her 70s, always dressed elegantly, and tart tongued. W--- is the granddaughter of one of modern Los Angeles's founders and oil barons. W--- has always been super rich and, at one point in the novel, Rick discovers W--- is worth about a billion dollars.

This is a novel where money makes a difference. Rick becomes W---'s walker and escort to multiple society events across L.A. He enters a completely different strata of society from growing up an electrician's son and attending Stanford and USC on scholarship funds. W--- mostly associates with just old money like hers. The society events include recent celebrities and millionaires but W--- plays to the men and women with the same old money background as her.

W--- in public is very petty and very private. She verbally cuts down competitors for the spotlight. She never talks about her absent adult children. She makes several vicious comments on immigrants and poor people.

Privately W--- is welcoming to Rick and befriends him. She tours him around the mansion and chats with him over tea on the patio. She encourages Rick to attend USC's law or business schools. Rick protests that it is too late to apply to those schools W--- tells the USC President about Rick (a word from super donor W--- would immediately set Rick into class). W--- also funds an immigration legal group.

Anyhoo. Spoilers await. Rick is kinda driftless, even after getting the job. He cannot concentrate on his thesis and his adviser won't put up with his excuses anymore and won't endorse the 2nd year of a fellowship that keeps Rick afloat. Out of desperation Rick tells his adviser he has access to the records of the super private W--- family. His adviser is a nut for Los Angeles history and she bites.

So, Rick has to try and fake the W--- angle and motivate himself to write his thesis. Instead, Rick falls hard for beautiful socialite Fiona. Rick is self estranged from his family and has only one close-ish friend. He has lost all perspective on what he is doing. He knows he is only a visitor to the uber-rich life but with his Walker's wardrobe (provided by W---) and good looks he can fit in. When chatted up by the talkative Fiona he falls hard.

Fiona has her own agenda and effortlessly pulls Rick into an affair and pushes him to discover personal information that will be damaging to W---.  We can see this but Rick cannot. Everything blows up Rick's face. We also saw that coming and greatly enjoyed the journey there.

Comments:
1. I think adviser should be spelled advisor.

Audio: "Lost Girls" by Robert Kolker

Audio: Lost Girls: an unsolved American mystery by Robert Kolker, 2013, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Kolker sorta investigates the murders of several prostitutes whose remains were found in 2010 and 2011 near Oak Beach, a small town on a barrier island south of Long Island. I write "sorta" because Kolker had minimal access to the police investigation. Kolker was able to either interview or pull comments from a few police officers but he had no inside information on the deaths, the bodies, the investigation, etc.

Tied directly to the victims is Oak Beach, Long Island where Shannan, whose 2009 disappearance ignited the search that stumbled upon the bodies. Oak Beach is a small, insular, private community of homes that used to be summer cottages and are now, mostly, year round residences. The entire investigation kicked off after one prostitute, Shannan, went missing from Oak Beach during a prostitution out-call.

Kolker focuses on the known victims and their families. The remains of 10 people were found and one victim was a child. The identified victims were prostitutes and most everyone assumes a serial killer is assumed. This is an easy assumption since four of the bodies were buried together.

Kolker did a lot of interviews with survivors. Parents, grandparents, siblings, co-workers, boyfriends, husbands, neighbors, so on, so forth. He lays out the biographies of all the women. Some were heavy drug users. Some needed money and prostitution paid very well. Some had mental health trouble. All of them were loved by their families.

Because no killer has been tried or identified - including currently, in 2019 - this is different than other true crime stories I have read. With no one to blame Kolker is giving a dual report on the victims's and surviving relatives lives. Prostitutes are so often regarded as rotten people by society. They have drug problems, childhood traumas, criminal records, and are all-around trouble for local police. Kolker lets us know the dead women were human. He shows us their personalities, childhoods, ambitions, and failures.

After a time the many different families start to talk and gather. They raise awareness with vigils, remembrance ceremonies, and interviews. The 2,500 person Suffolk County Police seem to be getting nowhere and the families are angry about it.

Kolker has tons of information from interviews and research about the victims but the investigation is a case of outside looking in. With no convicted killer to blame the families are left guessing what happened to the women. This guesswork leads to some specious theories about the victims, the residents of Oak Beach, the police, and the victim's friends or acquaintances. Survivors sit at a coffee roundtable and come up with all sorts of wild theories.

Part of survivor talk seems to be guilt and shame over the women's work and lifestyle. They want to see their dead relatives as "clean" people. "She didn't do drugs. She didn't really have sex. She was a good girl." They love and miss their daughters, granddaughters, and sisters. It's bad enough that the women were murdered and buried in sand. That some of them were dismembered and the parts scattered.

Kolker spends a good deal of space repeating internet gossip. Recounting the wild theories that attempt to tie in various Oak Creek residents as viable suspects. Often times people are coming up with a theory and fitting the facts to it.Telling those stories is part of learning what everyone is going through. Repeating the internet bullshit is a reminder that an entire community - even a online community are are involved - even if it is scurrilous bullshit Scurrilous because the wild theories try tie-in Oak Beach people and cast them as a possible serial killer. One online poster that Kolker interviews calls himself "Truth Spider" who won't even reveal what part of Long Island he lives in.

Online trade is where all the women worked. Craig's List was their main advertisement. At one point Kolker follows along one woman who sees her former pimp on the sidewalk. She hates the guy and tries to stroll on past. Instead, he fakes a punch at her, she flinches and yells at him, he then slugs her in the face and pursues her into a store. The woman escapes and tries to laugh it off. The violent encounter is a part of everyday life for street workers. Why not take a risk of a dangerous client off the internet then give all your money to a pimp and get slugged in the face?

Friday, April 5, 2019

Meh: "The End of Vandalism" by Tom Drury

Meh: The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, 1994. 9780395621516.

I don't recall how I was reading about Drury but this 1994 novel had a great reception when published. Drury has not published many novels and this is the second of his I have read. His book Pacific came out a couple years ago and "revisits Grouse County" where this is set. Grouse County is somewhere in WI, or MN, or IA. At one point a marching band plays something like On Wisconsin! so I suppose this is west or southwest Wisconsin.

I was about halfway through the book and it was kinda "meh". Only then did I realize - reading a online comment - that this is supposed to be comedic. The problem with this is that the humor is based on varieties of small town life and interactions. Well... to me that is normal life. There were a couple laugh out loud moments but I don't recall them.

Anyhoo. The focus is on Sheriff Dan and Louise. [Spoilers ahead] The novel starts with Dan arresting Louise's drunken husband, Tiny. Tiny and Louise end up divorcing. Dan marries Louise. They have some trouble. Louise gets pregnant and loses the daughter only days from delivery. Louise leaves and stays with relatives a few months. Dan and Louise reunite.

I do not categorize this as a romance story. I suppose it's more of a "modern rural life" type thing. Except it is set in 1992 or so and, therefore, out of date in several ways. There are more county maintained gravel roads. Smaller towns are still slowly dying off. Job prospects are limited. Some high school kids fall in love and some high school kids want to immediately hit the highway and not look back.

There are not as many of the interpersonal intricacies and diverse family trees of most small town life. Louise and Tiny have some of that. With Louise divorcing, remarrying, and telling the ex-husband to buzz off. Tiny wanting to hang out with a former sister-in-law in Colorado. Over time so many families merge and diverge that keeping track of people is very difficult for newcomers. It's the standard small town rule that you need to be careful what you say. You can inadvertently insult someone's cousin, aunt, nephew, etc. Complain about a road repair decision made 20 years ago and you'll find you're talking to the former City Council President who argued in it's favor. Praise one person and find out that you did so to the angry former spouse.

I cannot think of any comparable writing except maybe Garrison Keillor's stories. Speaking of which, I read The Book of Guys in 2000 or so and thought it was great. I read it again a few years later and it sucked. I never much cared for Keillor anyway.

Comments:
1. One difference to my county is that fictional Grouse County is smaller. Jefferson County is 83,000. Most weeks I never leave the city limits. I just looked at the distance calculator on Daft Logic and see I stay within a 2 mile diameter circle.
2. The stillbirth was a jarring and well written section. A bit of a shocker and somewhat sad.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Swedish: "Top Dog" by Jens Lapidus

Swedish: Top Dog by Jens Lapidus. 2018 (English translations. 2017 for Swedish), 9780525431732.

More greatness by Lapidus. I greatly enjoyed Lapidus's Stockholm Noir trilogy and found out about this novel in January.

As in previous novels we follow around several characters. Primary are:
Teddy: reformed gangster. From the Balkans.
Emelie: criminal lawyer with her new solo practice. White Swedish.
Nikola: newphew of Teddy who had been training as an electrician until pulled back into the crook life. Balkan family.
Roksana: supposed to be in college but more interested in parties, hanging with the hip crowd, and Instagram popularity. Family from Iran.

Mix'em all together with a pedophile and sexual slavery ring operated by the super-rich plus some violent gangster turmoil. Emelie is hired by a former victim of the sex ring to help the victim work with the police. Emelie asks Teddy to assist her. Roksana and her roommate find several kilograms of cached drugs in their new apartment and sell it all. Nikola's best friend is a gang member and is murdered and Nikola goes out for revenge.

Things move around quite a bit over a 12 month period as Emelie and Teddy try to figure out the conspiracy hiding the wealthy rapists and Nikola tries to deduce who arranged the murder of his best friend.

Lapidus's constant theme through his novels is the underdog in Sweden.  Lapidus's novels have a range of characters but his sympathies are always with the lower level crooks.  The crooks he sides with are people who are striving to work their way up in life. They want money and status and see the easy life of the wealthy Swedes and want to join.  The crooks are always rationalizing the rotten and violent work they do. Some of the protagonists have bad records of murder, robbery and other serious crimes. I'll greatly dislike some of these people but Lapidus gives us characters we can understand.

Most of the characters are either immigrants or first generation Swedes. There are always plenty of Balkan crooks. Economic trouble and social stigma push people into crime - that is the excuse anyway - as a white-upper class keeps down the poors.

Lapidus is - or was - a Swedish defense attorney. I reckon his work is comparable to George V. Higgins. Higgins was a prosecutor and, I presume, had the same professional experience of working with crooks, sitting in police interviews, and reading all the interrogation transcripts and court documents. Lapidus knows about crooks, writes all about them, and puts us in their corner.

Police corruption is a key theme as well. Lapidus shows the cops through a poor guy's or low-level crook's eyes. The cops harass the poor, are racist, and kowtow to the rich. The few bad apples are plenty bad and on the grift.

Comments:
1. In Stockholm the suburbs are the ghettos
2. The rich stay rich by being crooks and keeping down the rest - see the recent college cheating furor regarding Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin -
3. Comparable to Charlie Stella's novels because of: high quality, a great sense of place, multiple characters, corruption, loyal crooks screwed by self-serving mob bosses.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Quit Listening: " The Heist" by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Quit Listening: The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, 2013, download from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Too cute by far. A novel with the schmaltzy action that Evanovich has written to the tune of a plenty of best sellers. A style I do not enjoy. Goldberg has written some really great novels solo so I figured to try this out.

Recap: RBI Special Agent finally catches the con man she has chased for five years. He escapes custody and she catches him in Greece to find out the con man has secretly cut a deal with the FBI to secretly work for them to catch other crooks. FBI and Con Man are irresistibly attracted to one another while also despising each other. Cue the sexual tension. Send the characters around the world. By time I quit at .25 of the way through the book the two leads had been to LA, San Francisco, A remote monastery in Greece, Berlin and were to meet in Cape Girardeau, MO.

Why does everyone have to be a former Navy SEAL or super-duper, covert soldier/Marine/etc.? I enjoy some silliness and complete break from reality - Swierczynski's books - but this was too far fetched to accept. Also, why do I also have to be told about FBI Woman's Glock and kevlar vest all the time?

Too bad I did not enjoy the book because the series has six novels so far.

Quit at Half: "A Selfie As Big As the Ritz" by Lara Williams

Quit at Half: A Selfie As Big As the Ritz by Lara Williams, 2016, 9781250126627.

I follow musician Juliana Hatfield online. A few weeks ago Hatfield linked to an article that was entitled something like "Best Bass Performances by Women" that referenced her playing on It's a Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads. That 1992 album was big at the time but I had no idea she was listed as a band member. I never actually listened to the full album before so I checked the library catalog for a copy.

There is one copy of the album in the system - available from Town Hall Library - and I placed a hold. A Selfie As Big As the Ritz was also in the search results because one of Williams's short stories shares the album's title. I looked at the bib for A Selfie As Big As the Ritz and figured, "Might as well try it."

Well. I tried it.

Several very short stories by Williams that mostly deal with dissatisfied women straddling the age of 30. Failed relationships. Dissatisfaction with love or work or life in general. Living in England and going out on dates. Nothing about the characters or circumstances grabbed me at all. The stories use a perspective that I am nowhere near experiencing in my own life but not much really happens. Unhappy women make decisions based on desperation or ennui.

On Friday my wife and I were at Sunshine Brewing and we chatted with someone who spoke how she no longer forces her self to finish books. I think that influenced me because I decided to bail on this rather than force myself to finish.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Audio True Crime: "Wolf Boys" by Dan Slater

Audio True Crime: Wolf Boys: two American teenagers and Mexico's most dangerous drug cartel by Dan Slater, 2016, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Holy Shit.  I always knew the Mexico drug wars were horrid. I did not know that the Zetas used prisoners as training aids to teach murder. I also know that thousands of people have been killed but not that the Zetas would have day long killing sprees that would hit as many as 10 locations and commit at least one murder per location. Never mind all the people who have disappeared. The Zetas used to abduct people, question them under torture, and burn the bodies to ash.

Freely joining this fucking disaster were Gabriel and Bart, a couple small time teenage crooks in Laredo, TX who would steal cars and then sell them in Nueva Laredo, Mexico to the cartels. They get recruited into the Zeta organization in 2005, go to a two month training camp in Mexico, and start working as sicarios during assassination trips in Mexico and the U.S.Slater focuses on these two American teenagers and the Laredo homicide cop who finally stopped them.

Slater gives a introduction and summary of drug war history and Mexican politics. Aerial crop eradication of marijuana and poppies fields in the 70s. Cocaine smuggling start-ups of the '80s. The economic disaster to Mexico of NAFTA and the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Decades of one party rule across all levels of Mexican government and the endemic corruption. How the new cartels of the 1990s evolved into the hyper violence of the Zetas and Knights Templar and all the other groups.

The Zetas are mostly gone now (2019) but were created by an initial core of graduates from the School of the Americas. The School has received plenty of righteous condemnation over the years for the murderous work of their graduates.  The Zetas were not just graduates of that school but were trained and experienced Mexican Special Forces soldiers who started working for the cartels and then formed their own organization.

Those soldiers took all the combat training, organizational skills, communications skills, and secrecy and applied it to the Zetas. Every Zeta leader used a code name. Zeta recruits were trained in weapons, driving, torture, radio communications, etc. The Zetas accelerated the drug violence in Mexico and man oh man they were awful.

Gabriel and Bart worked under the command of Zeta leader Z40. I'd read about Z40 before and Slater tells stories of Z40 bragging about murdering over 800 people. Even if Z40 was exaggerating by two or three or four times that is a incomprehensible number. Where previous cartels would threaten or bribe the Zetas seemed - to my reading - to be more inclined to go straight to murder. And they would murder entire families.

The saying of plata or plomo (silver of lead) still applied of course. Money (silver) bought most everyone.  I've read heroic stories of underpaid journalists daring to write about the violence of the drug wars and the complicit or active involvement of government officials. But, news people were under the same gun as the cops. If journalists wanted to survive they did not write about massacres, missing people, corruption or anything else. The news stories were limited to restaurant openings, tourism, and puppy dogs. Police chiefs promising honesty and reform would - literally - be murdered the day after winning election.

All the millions of U.S. dollars floating South bought everyone in Mexico so you can figure there is no way the cash has not been paying off thousands of people in the U.S. as well. A major part of the Mexico problem is the corruption at the top and the poor wages at the bottom. Some underpaid Mexican cops could look the other way. When the Mexican economy went bad post-NAFTA so did police wages. Cops stopped ignoring trouble and started actively working for cartels. (Don't forget how many of the kidnappers working today seem to be in the police or working hand-in-hand with officers.)

Anyhoo. I am getting way off track. Slater has to tell the wider story to make sense of the smaller story. Gabriel and Bart are not good kids. By Laredo standards they are not bad kids either. But, 18-year-old Gabriel has been stealing cars in Laredo and taking them across the border. On one trip Z40's group catches him and Gabriel starts working for them. He attends their rural murder school for a couple months. He makes lots of money and dresses in designer duds. He spends long nights at bars and clubs. He goes out and murders whoever he is told and kidnaps others for torture.

Most of the violence was still in Mexico but the American Zetas started using their citizenship to easily cross the border for murders and drug trafficking. Gabriel and others would stay in Laredo safe houses and go after competing drug workers and former Zetas who defected to another cartel. A lot is made nowadays about how safe El Paso is. But, the smaller city of Laredo had plenty of new murders in 2005 and beyond. How many more murders were never reported because bodies were hidden or burned?

Against this insanity of teenage sociopaths was Detective Garcia of Laredo. Garcia is the kind of guy who pisses off all his co-workers but does excellent work. He spends several years at part of a DEA task force and gradually loses all faith in the drug war. Upon return to regular duty in Laredo he becomes a homicide detective and  helps convict the two teen assassins.

The story of Gabe and Bart really hit the news. Neither one of them thought they got a fair shake in the press. What did they fucking expect? They committed mass murders. Both of them did not like the way the press portrayed them but Slater was able to connect with them somewhat and get their versions of the story.

Comments:
1. Reading about all this craziness makes me want to pack heat and I am a 1,400 mile drive away from Laredo.
2. Slater wrote that former US Drug Czar Barry McCaffery was at one point in command of the unit or area that ran the School of the Americas.
3. Laredo murders peaked in 2003 and 2006 at 29 and 22 respectively. 2017 had 10 murders.
4. Cutting deals with drug heads - evidence that a Zeta brought $60M into the U.S. to lower his sentence. That info was kept out of court records but leaked to the author.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Printed On Paper : "The Infinite Blacktop" by Sara Gran

Printed on Paper: The Infinite Blacktop by Sarah Gran, 2018, 978-1-5011-6571-9.

Quite excellent. Third and best novel of the Claire DeWitt series.

This ends immediately after the second novel, Bohemian Grove, with DeWitt waking up in a stationary ambulance and knowing that someone is trying to kill her. DeWitt gets even more desperate than usual and tries to track down the person trying to murder her.

The novel covers three time periods. One: DeWitt as delinquent teen in NYC. Two: DeWitt as a drifting journeyman investigator who stays in 1992 Los Angeles to earn enough hours to get her P.I. license. Three: DeWitt in present day trying to figure out how her own history has led to a murder attempt on her life. You needn't read the first two books to understand the story but you might as well because the novels are so damn good.

I'll admit the plot is difficult to remember even without my finishing this book about a month ago. DeWitt is doped and boozed so much of the time that the story will truck along and then veer. Her behavior is erratic - sometimes even Claire is so far gone she realizes she is acting strange.

I'll boil it down to this: Claire wants the truth. Claire wants no attachments. She is a true adherent to the teachings of Jacques Silette. The truth is only thing that matters and to reach the truth you have to be entirely independent. DeWitt has been in the roughly acquainted circle of Silette apostles and followers and that loose affiliation has both helped her and bit her hard on the ass.

The truth of a case drives DeWitt but the rest of her life has always been a bit of a mess. She doesn't acre for money or clothes. If she wants sex she'll pick a guy up at the bar. She'll steal prescription drugs when visiting someone. Booze flows like water.  Dewitt has her own personal truth to follow and nothing will get in the way - aside from hangovers.

There is even more of DeWitt The Loner here.  She is always by herself really because she is alone by choice and nature. This plot has her without her new-ish assistant, mysterious homeless colleagues living in the woods, or a client to interact with. Even the 1992 case has no client - it's her just going through a cold case for a P.I. that was hired by the now dead parent of a missing person.

Comments and Spoilers:
1. The idea that Jacques Silette's missing and assumed abducted daughter is alive and well was very intriguing to me. Gran lays the groundwork and writes up that mystery so damn well. A long lost and never solved event that intrigues but, over time, has left zero clues.
2. Anyhoo. Gran adds in little, grubbing DeWitt comments everywhere.DeWitt is the ultimate cynic. There were several passages and observations by DeWitt that were fantastic. I never marked them down so take my word for it.
3. So much of what Gran writes about makes me wonder if she based any people or plots on historical events. Gran and Abbott, Jr. ran that fantastic blog a few years ago that touched on some of the same vibes of this story.