Friday, September 6, 2019

HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY WERE Is Another Brilliant Novel from Boston Teran

I’m always tremendously excited whenever I get my hands on a new novel by Boston Teran. I first fell in love with the author’s work several years ago when one of my book clubs picked The Creed of Violence as our monthly selection. The book was a revelation—intelligent and beautifully written with a compelling plot and unforgettable characters.

I quickly discovered that the same could be said of any of Teran’s other novels, and that continues to be the case with the author’s latest book, How Beautiful They Were. This novel completes Teran’s “The Defiant American Series,” which began with The Cloud and the Fire and A Child Went Forth.

The three novels are set in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, when the United States was still being formed and when the future of the nation could have realistically taken any number of turns. The books are not chronological in order, but together they paint a wonderful portrait of the forces shaping the nation at that time and raise several critically important questions about the country’s past, present and future.

This latest novel is set in the world of the theater and begins in London where an actor named John James Beaufort is forced to flee the country for reasons that I won’t give away. Like so many others of his day, he makes his way to New York and there attempts to reinvent himself as an actor named Nathaniel Luck.

With a disfigured playwright named Robert Harrison, Luck forms Colonel Tearwood’s American Theatre Company. The two assemble a company of actors and begin searching for audiences. In particular, they hope to write and produce plays that will speak to the everyday lives of the working-class people who are their principal audience. The enterprise enjoys some success, but the company and the individual actors, Luck in particular, are soon confronted by the brutal realities of the American economy and society of the day and by the secrets that they all carry with them.

It’s impossible to do justice to a book this good. The characters are so finely drawn that the reader cannot help but become caught up in the ebb and flow of their lives. You share the joy of their triumphs and your heart breaks when tragedy overwhelms them. This is a very wise book with much to say about the theater and the world beyond it. Indeed, all the world is a stage, and this book is as beautiful and will be as enduring as the characters who inhabit it. Five stars are not nearly enough.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Reporter Jack McMorrow Finds Big Trouble in a Small Town

Freelance reporter Jack McMorrow is minding his own business, doing an article for a travel magazine about Benedict Arnold's ill-fated expedition against Quebec in 1775, when he stumbles onto a minor mystery in the small town of Scanesett, Maine. A man on a bus tour headed for Quebec has failed to return to the bus which has stopped briefly in the small town. The bus driver waits as long as he can before heading off down the road, leaving the missing man, P. Ray Mantis, behind.

The local police chief, a small-minded man who hates reporters, seems totally unconcerned about the fact that a man has gone missing in his community. But Jack sees a potential story that he might be able to sell, perhaps to the Boston Globe, and so in and around his research about Benedict Arnold's expedition, he begins a search for the missing Mantis.

Jack's investigation gets him tangled up with a mentally-challenged brother and sister who may have briefly hidden Mantis in their ramshackle home. The two seem to think that both Mantis and Jack McMorrow are somehow connected to the CIA, and this mistaken impression leads a trio of violent low-lifes to take after McMorrow.

Jack's life is already complicated at the moment because his girlfriend, Roxanne, is down in Florida, attending to her ailing mother and is having a bad time of it. Jack's normally reliable neighbor, Claire Varney is also down south with his wife, recovering from surgery, and so Jack is left entirely alone.

As the book progresses, Jack alternates between doing the research for his article on Benedict Arnold and his hunt for the missing Mantis. As usually happens when Jack relentlessly pursues an investigation like this, he's ultimately going to find himself in big trouble and will need all of his skills if he's going to escape it. Another good addition to an excellent regional mystery series.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

ATLANTA DEATHWATCH Is Classic Hardboiled Crime Fiction At Its Best

This is old-fashioned crime fiction in the best sense of the term. Originally published in 1974, the first novel in the Hardman series is a lean, gritty, hardboiled novel that would have been perfectly at home on the spinning racks of men's adventure novels that populated the nation's drug and book stores back in the day.

Jim Hardman is an ex-Atlanta cop who was railroaded off the force on trumped up corruption charges. He now works as an unlicensed P.I. Hardman, who is white, has an African American partner named Hump. Hump played for a time in the NFL and provides the muscle and intimidation where needed. He's also Hardman's guide into the city's African-American neighborhoods.

As the novel opens, a businessman named Arch Campbell has hired Hardman to trail his daughter, Emily, and see how she's spending her time. Emily attends a local college and has been an outstanding student until recently when her grades and her attendance have begun to slide. It seems like a simple task, and Hardman trails the young woman to a seedy bar on the black side of town. But while he's watching Emily, two thugs jump him, beat him up badly, and warn him off the case.

Hardman agrees to drop the case, telling Emily's father that he's not getting paid enough to absorb that kind of punishment. But then Emily is murdered and it turns out that she's been dating a black crime boss known as The Man. The Man now summons Hardman and hires him to find Emily's killer. With Hump at his side, the two work and fight their way through Atlanta's dark underbelly, following the trail of a brutal crime that's not nearly as simple as it might appear on the surface.

This is a quick and entertaining read with lots of action and violence, and it will appeal to those readers who enjoy classic hardboiled novels. Be forewarned, however: this book reflects the language and cultural and sexual attitudes of the early 1970's. It's not remotely politically correct.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Bryan Gruley Returns with an Excellent Novel that Will Keep Readers Up Well into the Night

In Purgatory bay, author Bryan Gruley has created a deliciously intricate and complex puzzle that will keep readers guessing from beginning to end while furiously turning the pages along the way.

Twelve years ago, Jubilee Rathman's family was brutally murdered by Detroit mobsters who had ensnared Jubilee's father into laundering money for them and who then slaughtered the family and set their home aflame, believing that Jubilee's father had ratted them out to the authorities and to two newspaper reporters. Only Jubilee and her brother Joshua, who was badly burned in the attack, survived.

Jubilee, who was once a model student and a star high school soccer player bound for the Ivy League, has spent the years since the attack plotting her revenge against those she blames for the deaths of her father, mother and sister and for the maiming of her brother. She has reinvented herself and her brother, and she’s built a large, fortress-like complex on Purgatory Bay, protected by the latest technological devices and administered by a digital assistant named Frances, who is basically Alexa on steroids.

Jubilee sets her plan into motion on a weekend when a prestigious girls’ hockey tournament is scheduled to be played in neighboring Bleak Harbor. She has used the tournament as an opportunity to draw into her web Michaela “Mikey” Deming who, as a young reporter, wrote a story that Jubilee believes betrayed her father and put him in the sights of the mob killers. Her other targets include a member of the crime family that attacked her family, another reporter, a former cop and others. But Jubilee intends to hit most of these people indirectly in a way that will cause them to suffer the same pain that she has endured since that night twelve years ago.

As I suggested above, this is a very intricately plotted novel, and Gruley reveals the vital information slowly, in bits and pieces, as the story progresses. For much of the book, the reader is unsure exactly what is happening or why, and the tension builds to a great climax where everything finally falls into place. Gruley has demonstrated his considerable talent in four previous books, the Starvation Lake series and last year’s Bleak Harbor, but Purgatory Bay is his best yet and is sure to win him large numbers of new fans.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Sheriff Quinn Colson Faces a Barrage of Problems in This Novel from Quinn Colson

As the eighth novel in this great series opens, wedding bells are about to ring for Tibbehah County Sheriff Quinn Colson. But before we can get to the nuptials, Quinn will have to deal with various drug runners, sex traffickers, strip club owners, outlaw bikers, and other assorted losers who make being sheriff of this Mississippi county such a pain in the butt.

As the book opens, a degenerate old reprobate named Heath Pritchard has just been released from prison. Years earlier Quinn's uncle, Sheriff Hamp Beckett, had arrested Pritchard for running a major marijuana operation, and Pritchard went off to the pen. In his absence, his two nephews, Cody and Tyler, have taken over the business and brought it into the modern era. They've built an extensive underground marijuana farm under the floor of their barn where it's safely out of the view of law enforcement officials and other curious folks, and they are growing some premium weed.

The boys also love racing cars and imagine themselves as modern-day Dukes of Hazard. One Saturday night they return from a race to discover that their pathetic excuse for an uncle is back at the farm, expecting to take over the operation. Even worse, he's managed to kill a spy who was checking out the operation for the competition. Cody and Tyler barely even know their uncle and they're not about to let him waltz back in and take over the business that they've worked so hard to build. But while they try to figure out what to do with the old man, he gets them caught up in one major disaster after another.

Meanwhile, outsiders are also moving in on Fannie Hathcock, who owns the local strip club. In consequence, she's no happier than the Pritchard boys, and when all these various lowlifes begin scheming and maneuvering to protect their individual interests, it's going to make a lot of work for Quinn Colson at a time when he's supposed to be making more critical decisions about things like hiring a wedding band, helping his mother with floral arrangements, and other such things.

All in all, this is another very fun entry in this series. Atkins has created a distinctive world here that readers have come to know as well as their own neighborhoods, and it's great to see all these familiar characters back in play.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Jack Reacher Goes Looking for a Man Missing in Action from the Vietnam War

After tangling with an extremist militia group in far northwestern Montana in his last outing, the third Jack Reacher novel finds the ex-MP digging swimming pools in Key West--about as far away from Northwestern Montana as one can get without leaving the United States. When a private investigator from New York named Costello shows up in Key West looking for him, Reacher has no idea who might have sent the guy looking for him or for what purpose, and so he tells Costello that he never heard of Jack Reacher.

Reacher is also working as security at a strip club and that same night two extremely unpleasant-looking guys come in looking for Jack Reacher. Again, Reacher denies knowing the guy. But then Costello, the P.I., turns up murdered with his fingertips cut off, and Reacher decides he'd better hightail it to New York to figure out what's going on here.

He quickly discovers that the client who hired Costello was none other than Reacher's old Army mentor and close friend, General Leon Garber. But Garber has just died and Reacher arrives as the funeral is underway. Garber's deliciously beautiful daughter, Jodie, tells Reacher that her father had been looking into the case of an MIA from the Vietnam War. The man, Victor Hobie, was piloting a helicopter that crashed in an inaccessible mountain region, and everyone on board was presumed dead, even though their remains were not recovered. For some reason, though, the military refuses to acknowledge Hobie as MIA, and they will not put his name on the memorial wall in Washington, D.C. Hobie's elderly parents are still grieving and Garber was attempting to resolve the mystery for them. Naturally, Reacher will take up the crusade.

Meanwhile, in New York City, a nasty corporate loan shark named "Hook" Hobie has gotten his hooks, literally and figuratively, into a desperate businessman named Chester Stone, who badly needs eleven million bucks on a short-term loan in order to save his company. Stone has no inkling that Hobie has every intention of stripping him of everything he possesses, right down to his boxer shorts.

Inevitably, of course, these two stories will intersect in a massive and very inventive climax. Along the way, there will be lots of action and violence and Reacher will have to be on top of his game all the way along. "Hook" Hobie is truly a deliciously nasty villain and, all in all, Tripwire is a lot of fun.

Friday, August 9, 2019

SINCE WE FELL Falls a Bit Short of Dennis Lehane's Usual High Standards

I have always been a big fan of Dennis Lehane's series featuring Boston P.I.s Patrick Kenze and Angie Genarro, and Mystic River remains one of my favorite books of all time. For me, at least, the problem is that Lehane set such a very high standard in these books, that whenever he writes something that's a bit more average, I'm inevitably disappointed. Such is the case here.

For openers, I confess that I had a lot of trouble deciding what this book was supposed to be--the story of a young woman searching for the father she never knew; the tale of a rising TV news reporter who has it all only to lose it and then go half nuts, or a thriller featuring the same woman who finally meets another perfect man only to find herself trapped in something closely resembling an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Rachel Childs grew up the only child of an emotionally abusive mother who refused to tell Rachel who her father was. She kept insisting that she would at some point, but then, like Lucy pulling away the football, she kept delaying doing so. Thus Rachel spends much of the first part of the book searching for the man, working from the pathetically few clues that her mother has chosen to give her.

Then, all of a sudden, the focus shifts to Rachel's rising stardom as a reporter. She's found a great and similarly ambitious husband and she's set for big things until something inexplicable happens (something that I had a hard time buying into) and she crashes and burns and winds up psychologically damaged and afraid to leave her house. (I'm not really giving anything away here; most of this is in the tease on the back of the book.) Then Rachel gets a second shot at the brass ring and shortly thereafter her life blows up again and the book moves off in an entirely different direction.

By this time, I was suffering whiplash trying to follow all of this. In fact, Lehane may have crammed into this one book the plots for two or three really good books. But jammed together into one story, it all leaves the reader (at least this reader) just shaking his or her head in disbelief. There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, although at times Rachel began to get on my nerves, but taken as a whole it just didn't work as well as it might have. It's not a bad book, but as I suggested above, I've set a very high (and perhaps unfair) standard for Dennis Lehane based on his earlier work and Since We Fell falls short of the mark.