Summer's almost over... dive into a beer and a book

Summer's almost over... dive into a beer and a book

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Another visit with Mr. McGee

Over the past year or two, I've been enjoying finally discovering John D. MacDonald's classic Travis McGee series, which the prolific author wrote from the 1960's until his death in the 1980's. This is the eighth entry in the series, and this time our self-described "salvage expert" McGee tries to figure out where a friend's late husband's fortune disappeared to after his death.

As fans of these books are well aware, the gimmick (though that's really too cheap a word to employ here) of the McGee series is that our man Trav spends as much time communicating his various philosophies to the reader- on topics as diverse as credit cards, human mating rituals, the best way to cook a steak, etc., etc.- as he does discussing the current book's case at hand. Due to the skill of the author, McGee's frequent speeches are, thankfully, always thought-provoking and a lot of fun, even if you don't agree with them all.

In fact, it was one of Travis' social topics this time out that made this book particularly interesting. Along with the imaginative, often very dark, plot about the dead husband and his estate that disappeared before anyone could inherit it, I enjoyed this installment a lot because it addressed a seeming contradiction that's become pretty apparent now that the series has reached book eight: namely, Travis has often lamented the superficiality of most male/female relationships, pointing out that the "new permissiveness" has mainly resulted in people using each other and moving on to the next person, with little true appreciation- especially by men- of the special, sacred aspects of human connection (I'm paraphrasing there, but I think I accurately summed up the character's frequently-expressed view). And where's the contradiction, you say? Only in the fact that, over the eight books so far, Travis has routinely moved through one to three women per book, with nothing ever lasting very long. Talk about glass houses.

So, here, in One Fearful Yellow Eye, we finally get a little introspection and speechifying by Travis about this seeming contradiction, and it's interesting. It'll also be interesting to see how some of Travis' conclusions will be applied to his future dealings with women.

But for those mainly looking for a decent mystery story, don't worry, this novel definitely delivers that, too. There's danger, very creepy antagonists, surprising revelations regarding who was behind what, and some very effective suspense. Dark secrets, mortal danger, and all under the radiant sunshine and gorgeous blue skies of southern Florida. What more can readers want?

Between all that, and a new, even more self-aware Travis McGee, One Fearful Yellow Eye amounts to one of the richer installments of the series so far.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Age of Aquarius revisited

The fourth mystery in Max Allan Collins' Mallory series, the hauntingly-titled A Shroud For Aquarius is an involving little story mainly consisting of a series of interviews as our man Mallory- now a fairly successful mid-list mystery writer- approaches various suspects who may have had something to do with the death of Mallory's old friend Ginnie Mullens. Mallory's investigation is actually done at the request of the police this time, not despite their disapproval, which is an interesting touch.

As Ginnie was a 60's radical in all senses of the word (anti-war, fairly adventurous when it came to drugs and relationships), author Collins skillfully weaves into the narrative a hard look on Mallory's part (and Collins', too?) at the 60's generation: acknowledging what it accomplished but taking it to task for some of its more self-indulgent aspects.  These introspective moments are interesting and thoughtful, and enhance rather than slow the story at hand.

As Mallory gets close to the truth, effective scenes of tension and danger are stirred into the mix, but there's also a little sexy romance, too, as Mallory gets reacquainted with a girl from the old days who got away (or so he thought).  Both the danger and romance scenes are well done, and there are just the right amount of each.

A light, fast read with a little food for thought, A Shroud for Aquarius is a solid piece of early work from Mr. Collins, now happily available again on Kindle and in print.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Good for a spin

Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes has a pretty good hook which quickly draws us into the story: a retired police detective, bored and quite possibly suicidal, gets a new lease on life when he starts getting taunted by "the one that got away", a homicidal maniac who ran down a whole bunch of people in line for a job fair. Detective Bill Hodges now has a reason to live again, as he decides to chase down "the Mercedes Killer" himself, rather than turn things over to his former cop colleagues.

This maybe isn't first-tier King, as the plotting and characters are fairly simple. Bill Hodges, for example, is totally good and totally likable (if sometimes flawed in his thinking), while the Mercedes Killer is totally creepy and totally evil. This doesn't make things horrible, just a little less interesting than many of King's other books. There's good suspense throughout, though, and a few story highlights. These include a gory poisoning death that makes the book feel like the classic King of old, and a long set piece near the end, set at a boy-band concert attended by 4000 screaming pre-teens, where our heroes attempt to prevent a tragedy that would make the Mercedes Killer's first act of terror seem like a hangnail.

There's some good humor throughout, too. The way King describes the insipid daytime TV that retiree Hodges is watching day in and day out at the story's start makes us completely understand why the barrel end of Hodge's service revolver is starting to look disturbingly good to him. Talk about horrific!

If this novel was one of those 800-page affairs of King's, I'd be harder on it. But, as it's fairly compact, I'm basically okay with its more simple, modest pleasures. You get a decent cat-and-mouse detective plot, a little romance, some likable supporting characters, and at least three or four instances where you'll be turning the pages very quickly. Hey, not everything has to be Duma Key or 11/22/63. Sometimes "pretty good" is perfectly fine.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Toasting the weekend

On this fine Friday, let's take a moment to contemplate one of our favorite beverages here in the Taproom...

A meal without wine... is called breakfast.

Wine improves with age.  The older I get, the better I like it.

The other day someone told me that I could make ice cubes with leftover wine.  I get confused... what is leftover wine?

In wine there is wisdom.  In beer there is freedom.  In water there is bacteria.

Alcohol is not the answer.  It just makes you forget the question.

Does Mom have a birthday coming up?  Buy her a bottle of wine.  Remember, you're the reason she drinks!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

More excitement and fun, please

Enjoying the way that the superhero group The Avengers and its individual superhero members have been presented at the movies these past few years, I thought I'd take a gander at how the characters are being portrayed in the comics these days.  So I recently picked up a nice-looking trade paperback called Avengers, Volume One: Avengers World.

Alas, this collection of the first six issues of yet another Avengers comic book title (there are many these days due to the success of the movies) delivered a fairly entertaining reading experience but not much beyond that. The artwork, production values, and printing are first-rate, I'll say that. But I found the stories to be just okay, and often murky and dull. 

The first three issues collected here deal with a weird group of aliens trying to destroy, re-make, or recreate from scratch all life on Earth (again, the aliens' aims and motivations were murky). The final three issues mostly center around our heroes dealing with the aftermath of that attack (lots of clean-up required), with a couple of updated superhero origin stories laced into the proceedings. Again, all that was okay, too, but there wasn't much excitement or real drama to kick things up a notch. 

To be clear, I wasn't looking for continuous mindless action-- just cleverness, momentum, high stakes, memorable conflict, etc. You know, good 'ol superhero melodrama. The storyline here had some of that stuff, but not enough to make this the fun ride it should have been.

Kind of weird that the movies are actually doing a better job with these characters than the comic books that spawned them.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Decent thriller out of Europe

I acquired Gabi Kreslehner's Rain Girl on my Kindle via Amazon's Kindle First program, and found it to be a satisfying, moody reading experience. A beautiful young woman is assaulted and left for dead on the high-speed Autobahn (the novel, recently translated into English, is set in Austria), where she eventually awakens, wanders into traffic, and is fatally hit by a car. Detectives Franza and Felix are assigned the case and try to piece together the final hours of the woman's life: Why was she dressed so beautifully? Who assaulted her and left her by the side of the highway? What strange scene played out at a nearby rest stop prior to the woman's roadside abandonment?

Adding texture and nuance are the detectives' own daily problems: Franza is having an affair behind the back of her dentist husband Max, and Felix is experiencing stress because he and his wife are expecting twins, which will shortly give them a total of four kids to care for. Franza and her husband are also estranged from their grown son Ben, which bothers Franza a lot, though her husband thinks the son is just going through a phase. Adding more stress to everything is the eventual revelation that Franza and Max's son had a connection to the dead woman.

The book moves along nicely, yet also manages to take its time and deliver some nice imagery and thoughtful literary asides, resulting in a story that works as both a thriller and a graceful straight-up novel. Author Gabi Kreslehner and translator Lee Chadeayne both deserve recognition and kudos for a fine, engaging book.

Crouch sticks the landing

The Wayward Pines trilogy (the first book is Pines and the second book is Wayward, with reviews of both appearing a few posts down in this blog) comes to a satisfying conclusion in The Last Town, as Blake Crouch's uneasy hero Ethan Burke presides over all-out war amid the crumbling infrastructure of the world's weirdest town.

Because we're now far into the story, there's not much mystery or fanciful strangeness left to discover as The Last Town gets underway, but there's tons of strategy, action, battles, confrontations, and- most importantly- satisfying resolution. Oh, and scares-- there are lots of scares. In many ways, this is the horror story of the trilogy.

Author Crouch worked hard to give us a bang-up conclusion to his offbeat tale, and he certainly succeeded. Throughout the book, he makes the reader go "Wow!" quite frequently-- right up to the last sentence, in fact (which is a doozy, by the way).

When the upcoming television series based on these books (it'll be on the FX network) eventually gets around to adapting this big closing installment, I hope they just stick to the book. The story's all here, man.

I know this is a sketchy review, but at this point if what I've written about these books seems at all interesting to you, just pick 'em up, grab 'em on your Kindle, or download the audios from Audible. Discover some of the books' pleasures and surprises on your own.