Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Comic : "Bird and Squirrel On Fire" by James Burks

Comic: Bird and Squirrel on Fire by James Burks, 2017, 9780545804295.

The library I work at had a staff tour of the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at UW-Madison this past Spring. CCBC reviews children's literature, has seminars, and advises and tracks book challenges across the U.S. 

The CCBC also gets a crap ton of review copies sent to them every year.. Many of the new books are on display at CCBC and I saw Bird and Squirrel on Fire. I liked the title and the illustrations so I reserved a copy. I enjoyed the book.

I would guess the novel is aimed at 4th-6th grade readers. Bird and Squirrel are pals and, according to other titles in this series, have been traveling all over. B&S have now returned to their forest home. Homebody Squirrel is overjoyed to be back. Bird is exuberant as always. But, something scary seems to be traveling around in the woods.

I do not recall the whole plot but B&S meet a red haired female squirrel and Squirrel is immediately tongue tied and bashful. Bird decides the two of them should throw a party at Squirrel's tree. Squirrel does not like disorder and almost faints away at the suggestion. They compromise on an outdoor party.

Things happen and spoilers follow. Bird and Squirrel rescue a young mouse from a warren of vicious rats. Bird and Squirrel get in an argument with a beaver whose massive damn and has blocked water to the forest animals. Bird and Squirrel have a fight and Squirrel is angry about his solitude being interrupted. The rats attack the party. The forest catches on fire. Bird and Squirrel drive off the rats and wreck the damn to flood the fire. Bird dies in the flood.

I was surprised Bird was killed. The novel takes a one year jump in time and Red Squirrel and Squirrel now have a child and named him after Bird. Then Bird knocks on the door, announces he is alive, and said a broken wing and being washed down the river meant he took a while to return.

I was annoyed that Bird was alive. Make up your mind, Burks. But, if you have a successful series you may as well not kill off a main character.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Irish: "Those We Left Behind" by Stuart Neville

Irish: Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville, 2015, 9781616956363.

I've read a few other Neville books and enjoyed them. Neville had a book tour stop in Madison not too long ago but I was unable to attend. So far this is a standalone novel.

Ciaran Devine went to prison seven years ago as a 12-year-old murderer. DCI Serena Flanagan investigated the case and interview Ciaran for that case. Now, Ciaran is 18-years-old and ready for release on parole. Serena is just back on duty in Northern Ireland after cancer treatment. Paula Cunningham is Ciaran's newly appointed parole officer and responsible for getting him settled and guiding him forward. Meanwhile, Thomas's older brother, an accessory to the murder, has been out of prison and is reuniting with his brother.

Things go horribly for every one.

I've not too much to say about the plot and I do have spoilers ahead. Basically, Thomas and Ciaran bounced around foster homes for several years. Their father died in a car wreck and their mother turned into an addict. Ciaran put his faith in Thomas and missed his mother. Thomas put his faith in himself, misogyny, and violence. Thomas is mentally and physically abusive to Ciaran. He bites Ciaran, he hits Ciaran, he threatens to leave Ciaran by himself. Thomas forces Ciaran to murder their foster father.

Meanwhile Serena has her issues. She is a workaholic and avoids home and her husband and children. Serena gets involved again with Ciaran's old case when Cunningham consults with her on Ciaran's release. Serena gets more involved when a fellow resident of Ciaran's halfway house is beaten into the hospital. Serena gets a bit worried when the only surviving member of the murdered man's family dies in a stabbing after confronting Thomas and Ciaran.

Things happen. Neville puts characters in danger. Neville makes us sympathetic to the manipulated and child-like Ciaran. Thomas is scary as a guy with lots of anger and no fear of injury or prison.Serena refuses to let let logic and sense drive her decisions. She angers quickly. Cunningham didn't ask for any of this crap and is already drinking way too much.

I'm gradually changing my interests so that plot matters less and less to me. Everything ends up being about the character interaction and the plot just gives them something to do. I still greatly enjoy use of setting and how the setting influences the story and the characters.

Anyhoo. I enjoyed the novel but think Neville's other work is better. I cannot say why I think that. I just do.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Paper: "The Rest is Silence" by James R. Benn

Paper: The Rest is Silence by James R. Benn, 2014, 9781616952662.

Captain Billy Boyle is still working for his Uncle-By-A-Cousin's-Marriage Ike in Europe. He's a investigator and troubleshooter that is sent out to quash trouble that can negatively effect military operations. This time Benn has Boyle heading to Southwest England where part of the D-Day invasion force has been living and training.

A unidentified body has washed onto the beach of Slapton Sands. Borne ashore by the tides that run every six hours the body has been in the water for up to a month. Boyle is sent to investigate because the area is top secret. If a German spy got among the locals and the troops the invasion plans of Western France could be jeopardized. Boyle has to determine who the dead guy was and make sure he was not a spy.

Along for the ride with Boyle is his Polish sidekick  and fellow investigator, Kaz. Kaz is a aristocrat, Oxford graduate, and wealthy man about town. Kaz has an Oxford pal who is convalescing after his RAF plane was shot down. The pal has been inviting Kaz to visit so Boyle have a place to stay in the super fancy estate house.

Since Boyle is an ever nosey street cop he notices the family tension at the estate. Kaz's pal, David, has bad facial burns from combat and his wife can only bear to look at the unburned side of his face. Kaz's sister and brother in law are on the outs and staying at the estate under the grace of the sisters's father, the Duke (or Count or Princeling or Squire or WhatEverTheFuck). Rounding out the house drama are a 90-year-old great aunt and a few servants.

The story moves along as Boyle drives around the seaside questioning people and following clues. He and Kaz are joined by a former Brit airman who was wounded in action and now a constable. The dead guy turns out to most likely be a mobster and the trio trace down the likely killers. The killers themselves are recently murdered and Benn and Co. drop the issue as a military matter.

That's all ok because Benn has Boyle in place for the massacre disaster of Exercise Tiger. Pre invasion plans include exercises in the area because the local beaches and inland are amazingly similar to Normandy. A initial exercise leaves many dead soldiers when a boat of troops land right before a naval bombardment. The next day the shores are littered with drowned dead after a convoy of Allied ships are attacked by German attack boats in the early morning. Two LST ships are sunk and there are about 700 dead (depending on what stats you prefer).

Boyle and Co. are then tasked with finding missing men who know invasion plans, finding out why a dead guy who was never on a ship is wet and dead on the beach, and also detangling the family drama and death at Rich People Manor.

Beenn's novels usually have a couple story lines going on. There is Boyle's Army mission plus either  Boyle's romantic drama or local rigmarole. The Upstairs, Downstairs angle on this one was weird. Benn was kinda mashing a drawing room mystery with a blood-and-guts mystery. The detour into black market crime and gangsters was also a little odd.

I still enjoyed the novel, of course. One of Benn's strengths is to put Boyle in the middle of a mostly unknown event or setting of WWII and giving us some nice period detail and information.

1. Gratuitous appearances by Yogi Berra (in the Navy) and Agatha Christie (visiting the home the Army took over).
2. The cumulative effect of death and combat and mental trauma. Billy has been in combat in several locations across Italy and North Africa and gets angry when soldiers do not take training seriously. He mentally considers the bravado of the naive.
3. Kaz's combat and war trauma gets a little heavy and overdone. Vacant stares over a dead fiancee and massacred family and combat experience.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Thin: "Tommy Red" by Charlie Stella

Thin: Tommy Red by Charlie Stella, 2016, 9781933586960.

I used to regularly check in to Stella's online commentary on his blog. His posts were mostly family talk, Buffalo Bills desperation, power lifting, and politics. I severely cut back on blog reading a few years ago because it was using way too much time. Plus, all Stella's talk reminded me that he did not have a new novel coming out soon. That was depressing. After all Stella had regular work and family life to keep him busy - he can't be cranking out new books every six months. Hell, half of the writers I follow only do part-time novelizing.

Stella has several characters who make recurring appearances in his novels but Tommy "Red" Dalton is a new one to me. Tommy works as a independent murderer who gets most of his work through longtime friend Sal. Sal has the mob connections and he brokers the work for Tommy.

Right off the bat we learn Tommy has a few issues. He is in Atlantic City getting ready to kill a local drug guy when Tommy runs into his college aged daughter he has not seen in six months. Tommy married young and fast to a stripper and the marriage fell apart after Tommy did a couple prison stints. There is no doubt Tommy cares and loves for his children but he has mostly been absent and quarreling with his ex-wife.

After spending part of the next day with his daughter Tommy checks out of his hotel, gets his van, uses a rifle to shoot a drug dealer in the head, and heads home. While driving on the interstate Tommy converses with another driver using his horn and his middle finger. Tommy follows the other driver to a rest area and kicks the guy in the crotch. Seeing a watchful crowd Tommy gets back in his car and leaves before, presumably, beating the guy bloody.

More things happen as we meet a retired NYPD cop who hates his wife. A FBI Special Agent In Charge approaching retirement and living in burnout. Several members of a small NYC mobster family that has already been decimated by prosecutions and turncoats. Tommy's ex-wife and daughter. Sal the broker.

Driving the story is the murder of a witness living under U.S. Marshall protection in New Hampshire. During a visit to the island the guy works on the retired cop recognizes the guy and figures to tell the mob and make a bundle of cash.

The mob is a shell of it's once powerful self. Even the made guys don't keep their mouths shut and the prosecutors cut deals left and right. Both the mob and the FBI dislike this situation. The mob because they cannot trust anyone and the FBI because murderers get away with a five year sentence and a new life in Arkansas.

Tommy ends up with the contract and the mob starts killing off anyone connected with the hit. Things happen as the FBI figures out the mob outfit and hitters responsible. Tommy gets angry and vengeful. Sal gets shot. Tommy worries for his family's safety. The mobsters worry about themselves and willingly kill longtime friends and colleagues.

Tommy thinks of murder as work. Work is work and Tommy is just doing a job, those people would have been murdered whether Tommy did the job or not so he may as well do the job and take the cash.

Stella has written before how Charles V Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a revelation to Stella.  Not because Higgins was a word magician but because he wrote about real people who happen to do nasty work. Higgins was a prosecutor who listened to hours of crooks sitting around talking. Stella hung around with crooks and did that same talking.

Tommy is a family and work dramedy as much as thrillers or crime novels because Stella puts in daily humor and laughter everyone lives. The story is not all doom, gloom and kaboom.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Comic Novel: "Normandy Gold" by Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin

Comic Novel: Normandy Gold by Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin, 2018, 9781785858642.

Compilation of the limited run published by Hard Case. Can Hard Case do wrong?

An extended riff on the 1970s films that played on HBO and cable during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Or the older films you'd get from the video store. Post-Watergate paranoia films from the '70s. Titillation art films that were really just a step up from the grindhouse. Taxi Driver. Shampoo. Dressed to Kill. All the President's Men. Parallax View. Three Days of the Condor. The Conversation.

Normandy is a small town Sheriff in the Pacific Northwest. She gets a phone call from Lila, her long estranged sister, in Washington, D.C. telling Normandy how great things are going. As they speak Normandy hears a fight and a scream of "Noooooo!" (Yes, it was six "O"s. I counted them.) The reader, of course, sees the assault on the half naked Lila and a man's hand holding a hypodermic needle.

Normandy correctly fears the worse and heads straight for D.C. carrying her hunting knife. After a burst of anger against a sexist cop puts Normandy in a holding cell she speaks to the Detective investigating Lila. Normandy finds out Lila was working for a high end madame whose client list includes all the high level muckety-mucks of D.C.

Normandy starts looking for her sister and is rebuffed by the madame's receptionist. Instead she makes friends with a prostitute leaving the madame's office, double teams a john with the other woman, and gets a hooking job with the madame. Things move along as Normandy enters the party life and tries to track down who knew her sister and her sister's clients. Normandy also continues to talk to the Detective and we learn more and more about Normandy's tough background.

A fun book and a slide through D.C. sleaze of limo sex, swinger club sex, cocaine, political creeps, violence against women, double-crosses, and ubiquitous but hidden tape recorders.

Abbott and Gaylin credit some of the films - I listed a few above - that drove the story idea and even inspired the comic panels. I myself kept thinking of Parallax View as I read this. I saw that as a late night TV movie and it really stuck with me. For some reason the movie struck me as a reality based story and the paranoia and machinations of a deep state rang true. Americans love a conspiracy after all. That movie was my first introduction to sociopaths as well. Well, at least a discussion and explanation of the idea.

1. I really enjoyed the illustrations.
2. Lots of nudity.
3. Normandy brandishes her hunting knife and stabs up a couple people. I've been looking online trying to decide on a fixed blade knife to use as a camping knife. I'd like to try a bushcraft trip where you use a knife of hatchet to make a shelter, build a fire, make your own cordage, etc. Of course I'd bring along a tent and regular gear in case I fail at the other stuff.
4. I'm just as likely to buy a $15 Mora as something for $75.  My budget is below $100 but there are A LOT of neat knives in fancy steels for more money. I am being very indecisive. I'm getting to where I may put together a spreadsheet listing:

  • steel type
  • blade length
  • handle length
  • handle material
  • blade grind
  • blade thickness
  • weight
  • country of origin
  • sheath style
  • sheath material
  • price
  • shipping cost
  • blah
  • blah
  • balh

Animal Farm

Audio Version: Animal Farm, 1945, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Orwell was so good at distilling chicanery. He identified the political and social manipulations that have worked for centuries and continue to work today. "Gaslighting" is just a currently popular name for lying your way out of what you did.

Ok, maybe you never read the novel or watched the animated film. Here is the story: the animals on an English farm rise up against the brutal farm owner and drive him and his laborers off the land. They are lead by a wise old boar, Old Major. The animals rejoice and come together in comradeship to run the farm on their own. After Old Major dies two other pigs step in to lead. Over time the two pigs disagree and one pig, Napoleon, uses the dogs to purge the opposition. Over time Napoleon continually tightens his grip on power: The dogs are his police. The other pigs are his politburo and propaganda.The other animals are forced to labor under progressively more difficult conditions and with lessened rations. The pigs consistently amend the governing rules of the farm to stengthen their control and become the horrid rulers of the original farmer.

If you want a modern analysis on Animal Farm's prescience or adaptability look somewhere else. These are some of my thoughts:

1. The story is rage inducing. The compact length keeps the plot tight and the animals's successes are quickly followed by the defeats and then the traitorous actions of the pigs.  All the events keep piling on. Lots of lies. Lots of abuse. Lots of manipulation.
2. I suppose Orwell's decisions to use animals has been well documented and discussed. I was certainly sucked in. Doing so ends up a way to avoid all the biases readers may have against real people. It also avoids having to really develop the characters. Orwell mostly kept the animals as animals, he did not anthropomorphise them so there was no need to develop the characters. After all, how much personality do you want in a chicken? 
3. Mind you, chickens are just little dinosaurs. If they were large enough they would eat us.
4. How do you read into the idea of the smart pigs tricking the dumb horses? Is this to say smart people will take advantage of dumb? The cream rises to the top? I don't know. Make your own decision.
5. The story takes place over a few years which, in the life span of some farm animals, is a few generations. As the story ends many of the animals have no memory of the cruelty of the previous farmer. They've been taught that Napoleon is good and wise and that he deserves the luxuries he lives in. Unspoken is the fact that dissension means death by dog bite. How do you fight back against that? The animals won the first battles against humans because they worked and planned together. Napoleon has split their ranks and subdued them under his authority as ruler so that there is no unified resistance.
6. I watched the film version in school. I suppose that was early 1980s. Anti-communism was going strong in the Reagan era. Several of the film's images stick with me: frightened Snowball the pig fleeing the dogs, the horse bucking and attacking humans, the farm rules painted on the barn and then added on to, the pigs walking on two feet and gorging themselves in the farmhouse.
7. The end of the novel has a comment that made it clear to me that this was not just a allegorical treatise against communism. I cannot recall the portion but it directly refers to despotism and/or fascism. I learned of the book as a anti-commie lesson and still think of it as such.

Comic Novel: "Peepland" by Christa Faust and Gary Phillips

Comic Novel: Peepland by Christa Faust and Gary Philllips, 2017, 978178585119.

Compilation of a limited comic series Faust wrote with Phillips. Set during the scuzzy era of Times Square where the neighborhood was populated by prostitutes, strippers, and other sex workers. Faust has reminisced many times about her life working and living in Times Square. Well, what better way to reminisce than write a book about it? And if you can publish with Hard Case Crime then that is doubly nice.

Peepshow worker Roxy is working in her booth one night when a local videographer bursts into the customer's side and hides something inside the worn out vinyl seat. The videographer is Dirty Dick who films soft and hardcore porn on the streets. Dirty Dick runs back out or the booth and is chased by two goons. Dick heads down to the subway, ends up cornered, and falls on the tracks in front of a train.

Things happen. Roxy watches the video and finds out Dick inadvertently filmed a murder in Central Park. The murderer is the son of a wealthy loud mouth real estate mogul. Now, those goons who chased down Dick are still looking for the tape. Roxy teams up with an ex-boyfriend to figure a way out of this. The son of Roxy's friend from work is being railroaded for the Central Park murder. The friend's girlfriend commits some robberies to get bail money. Another video guy has a copy of the tape and tries to blackmail the mogul. Dirty cops get involved. A witness gets killed. Things end badly for most people.

I enjoyed the story and the setting and the characters. The story is a bit nihilistic - a topic that comes to mind during #twertzog day on Twitter, September 5 - with most people chewed up by the meat grinder. The poor and outcast are under the thumb of good and bad cops. The good and bad cops are under the thumb of the Trump-inspired scumbag real estate mogul.

The Central Park murder is based off the Preppy Killer. I remember that August, 1986 killing fairly well. That is, I remember the press coverage fairly well. The murder and prosecution were well covered by each nightly news show. I looked the killer Robert Chambers up and recalled how he got little time for strangling a teenage girl to death. I did not know that he got out of prison in 2003 - no prison time off when you're using in prison and fighting with the staff. Chambers is now back in prison for dealing and won't be out again until 2024.