Thrillers & True Crime


RAZORBLADE TEARS
S.A. COSBY

Flatiron Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now


A 2021 NPR BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR!
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK FOR 2021!
Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A Black father. A white father. Two murdered sons. A quest for vengeance.

Ike Randolph has been out of jail for fifteen years, with not so much as a speeding ticket in all that time. But a Black man with cops at the door knows to be afraid.

The last thing he expects to hear is that his son Isiah has been murdered, along with Isiah’s white husband, Derek. Ike had never fully accepted his son but is devastated by his loss.

Derek’s father Buddy Lee was almost as ashamed of Derek for being gay as Derek was ashamed his father was a criminal. Buddy Lee still has contacts in the underworld, though, and he wants to know who killed his boy.

Ike and Buddy Lee, two ex-cons with little else in common other than a criminal past and a love for their dead sons, band together in their desperate desire for revenge. In their quest to do better for their sons in death than they did in life, hardened men Ike and Buddy Lee will confront their own prejudices about their sons and each other, as they rain down vengeance upon those who hurt their boys.

Provocative and fast-paced, S. A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears is a story of bloody retribution, heartfelt change - and maybe even redemption.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF MY LOCAL LIBRARY. USE THEIR SERVICES, FOLKS, WE CAN'T AFFORD TO LOSE ANY MORE OF THEM!

My Review
: I very much admired and enjoyed Blacktop Wasteland (see below). I got real close to making it my 6-stars-of-five read; what scuppered that was the sheer glory of that year's reading.

This story of two homophobic fathers of gay sons losing them made every hair on my body stand up. Author Cosby's chops are amazing, his ability to flay a character's nervous system is equal to a Fragonard écorché in words. Anyone who likes a solid puzzle should read it; everyone who's lost a child needs to read it; any father whose gay son's sexuality is uncomfortable to him is exhorted to read it.

You GO Shawn!


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BLACKTOP WASTELAND
S.A. COSBY

Flatiron Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

WINNER OF THE 2020 LA Times Book Prize for Mystery or Thriller!!!

Rating: the full five stars, and a possible place as the annual six-stars-of-five read

"I got a line on a job, Bug. A big one. One that can set us up for a long time. A long goddamn time."
–and–
Beauregard knew there was no honor among thieves. Boys in the game only respected you in direct proportion to how much they needed you divided by how much they feared you. There was no doubt they needed his skill.

And if they weren't a little bit afraid of him then that was their mistake.
–and–
If you drive like you scared, you gonna lose. If you drive like you don't want to rebuild the whole engine, you gonna lose. You gotta drive like nothing else matter except getting to that line. Drive like you fucking stole it.
–and–
You caught between a wannabe Pablo Escobar chopping motherfuckers up and putting them in grease buckets and a redneck Walter White. When you fuck up you do it right.
You know this ain't gonna end well. Spoiler alert: It...sort of does...?

Bug Montage, however misguided and frankly desperate he is, doesn't take stupid home with him. In fact, he's a wise and deep thinker.
“Listen, when you’re a black man in America you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ’em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom. Nothing. You hear me, boy?” Beauregard said.

Javon nodded his head.
–and–
My daddy was right. You can't be two types of beasts. Eventually one of the beasts gets loose and wrecks shop. Rips shit all to Hell.
I don't know what else to say if the truth of that, and of its antihero main character's clear-as-moonshine voice, don't make you want to dash right out and get the damn thing.

Me? The reason I pre-ordered this book is in this Twitter thread:
https://twitter.com/blacklionking73/status/1258802343337918465
I agree with and admire Author Cosby. He calls out racism wherever he finds it.

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MASTER CLASS
CHRISTINA DALCHER

Berkley Books
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s impossible to know what you will do…

Every child's potential is regularly determined by a standardized measurement: their quotient (Q). Score high enough, and attend a top tier school with a golden future. Score too low, and it's off to a federal boarding school with limited prospects afterwards. The purpose? An improved society where education costs drop, teachers focus on the more promising students, and parents are happy.

When your child is taken from you.

Elena Fairchild is a teacher at one of the state's elite schools. When her nine-year-old daughter bombs a monthly test and her Q score drops to a disastrously low level, she is immediately forced to leave her top school for a federal institution hundreds of miles away. As a teacher, Elena thought she understood the tiered educational system, but as a mother whose child is now gone, Elena's perspective is changed forever. She just wants her daughter back.

And she will do the unthinkable to make it happen.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT FROM MY LIBRARY. USE THOSE LIBRARIES! THEIR FUNDING DEPENDS ON OUR USE.

My Review
: First, read this:
Patriotism doesn't require turning a blind eye to the darker chapters of our country's history; if anything, the opposite.
–and–
Everyone wanted something new, some solution, a reason to feel safe about their little wedge of the human race pie in a country that would see skyrocketing population numbers in another generation.

I know there are squads and fleets of dystopias in the book world. This is one of the "aren't men awful, look at those ghastly 'Karens,' who do those crackers think they are" sort; the idea of a society organized by one's "intelligence" is both fictionally familiar (Brave New World ring a bell?) and factually based (the 2019 College Admissions Bribery scandal); so it's down to execution of the idea whether one should read a particular iteration of it. The theoretical-linguist PhD author has the chops to make pithy the sprawling concerns of Suzanne Collins or Pierce Brown readers in one book not three.

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MURDER AT THE ROOSEVELT HOTEL IN CEDAR RAPIDS
DIANE BANNON-LANGTON

The History Press
$10.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Byron C. Hattman sealed his fate when he checked into the Roosevelt Hotel on December 13, 1948. A maid found his body in a blood-spattered room two days later. An investigation linked him to the young wife of St. Louis pediatrician Robert C. Rutledge, who confessed to the brutal attack after trying to poison himself. The scandal made national headlines and seemed like an easy case for the Linn County court. That is, until new evidence changed the story completely. Reporter and author Diane Fannon-Langton uncovers the truth and compiles the complete details of the Hattman slaying for the first time.

My Review: Worth the $1.99 my sweetie paid for it...a lot more organization was needed to make this a real barn-burner, such as introducing the characters before the crime. Hard to care about Hattmann when I don't know who he was except a murder victim; why would I want to root for/against Rutledge, the murderer as we know from the get-go, if I don't know why he did it; since his wife was boinking Hattmann, and almost certainly pregnant by him, you'd best tell me why she went there.

The sordid story of a bored woman married to a monstrously jealous and self-regarding man who finds a friend at work and goes over the line with him is a guaranteed winner! So why didn't you tell it to me that way, o reporter-turned-author?

Like I said, worth the $1.99 but I'm the kind of reader who likes facts and lists. If you aren't...well...I just told you what the story's about. I don't think you'd enjoy the court-reporter speaks to crime-beat reporter style.

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OUR MAN IN HAVANA
GRAHAM GREENE

Penguin Books
$8.57 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

Graceless, gormless Wormold, a British sales agent for an American vacuum cleaner company in barely pre-Revolution Havana, has a problem. His adolescent daughter Milly, a manipulative and materialistic minx, spends well beyond his paltry earnings in her quest to ensnare the Red Vulture. That's a person, not a bird, one Captain Segura, who is the police torturer and possessor of a cigarette case covered in human skin. (An assertion Milly makes but Segura denies.) Wormold is fighting a losing battle, trying to sell a home appliance that's less useful than a broom in a country that's teetering on the brink of collapse. The power goes off too often to make it a sensible purchase, despite Wormold's trips to Cienfuegos (the Cuban Navy's main port) and points east (where the Revolutionary Army is strongest) to drum up business. What he *does* drum up is the interest of the state security apparatus. You see, Wormold is a British spy.

Good heavens, not a real one! He was worrying his way through a daily daiquiri with his German friend Dr. Hasselbacher when a Brit called Hawthorne inveigles him into the bathroom. That sounds, well, louche is I suppose the least offensive term, but it's what happens so have a séance and take it up with Greene if it's too sordid for you. What Hawthorne wants, I suppose, is a reason to visit Havana from his base in more-staid Kingston, Jamaica. (In 1958, when the book takes place, Havana was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.) It also doesn't hurt his standing with MI6 to have a sub-agent in uneasy, revolution-bound Cuba. Wormold gets the nod, though to be honest I don't see a single reason why...oh wait...Milly the Minx is spending Daddy into bankruptcy (her initial salvo when we meet her is to demand a horse to go with the saddle she's just bought) so of course Wormold is in need of funds. Money always talks to men with debts.

From that match-to-fuse moment, a farce of atomic power begins to whirl from one end of the world to the other. Some sage adivce given to Wormold by WWI veteran Hasselbacher, to make his reports to London out of whole cloth on the principle that no one can disprove a lie, leads to Wormold's entire life being turned upside down. As he hurries from fire to fire atop an ever-increasing reactor fire of anxiety-into-terror, Wormold's lies begin to morph into the truth. Hawthorne's sub-agent becomes London's Agent of the Month, so to speak, as the wildly inventive reports he files bear fruit. As the book was written long before the events of the Missile Crisis, it really seems as though Greene was prescient: He has Wormold invent secret bases where mysterious equipment (drawings attached to his report were actually of a scaled-up vacuum cleaner) was being assembled. MI6 wants photos, of course; Raul the pilot (an invented sub-agent of Wormold's) suddenly dies in a crash. This is evidence that Wormold is onto something, obviously.

More and more of Wormold's fabulous reports are borne out as his "contacts" begin to suffer for his lies. Wormold himself comes in for assassination by the Other Side! He averts his fate, being a devout coward, and then has to do the worst-imaginable thing to escape his fate. (Read it, you'll see.) In the end, Greene can't design a better fate for Wormold and Milly than the one he puts on the page. It's perfect, it flows naturally from what's happened in the story, and it's hilarious. The humor of this book, like most of Greene's work, is dark to black. Be warned that there is little of this sixty-year-old send-up of National Security run amok that isn't viewable as critical of the State from 2019's perspective as well. Is that sad or inevitable, or perhaps both?

My favorite moment in the story comes when Wormold, busily inventing actions for his fictitious sub-agents to get up to, muses on the creative process:
Sometimes he was scared at the way these people grew in the dark without his knowledge.
Beautifully said, Author Greene. Just beautiful. And so very true.

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CLOSE MY EYES
SOPHIE MCKENZIE

St. Martin's Press
$7.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When Geniver Loxley lost her daughter at birth eight years ago, her world stopped… and never fully started again. Mothers with strollers still make her flinch; her love of writing has turned into a half-hearted teaching career; and she and her husband, Art, have slipped into the kind of rut that seems inescapable.

But then a stranger shows up on their doorstep, telling Gen the very thing she’s always wanted to hear: that her daughter Beth was not stillborn, but was taken away as a healthy infant and is still out there, somewhere, waiting to be found. It’s insane, unbelievable. But why would anyone make that up? A fissure suddenly opens up in Gen’s carefully reconstructed life, letting in a flood of unanswerable questions. Where is Beth now? Why is Art so reluctant to get involved? To save his wife from further hurt? Or is it something more sinister? And who can she trust to help her?

Ignoring the warnings of her husband and friends, Gen begins to delve into the dark corners of her past, hopeful she’ll find a clue to her daughter’s whereabouts. But hope quickly turns into fear and paranoia, as she realizes that finding the answers might open the door to something even worse than not knowing. A truth that could steal everything she holds close – even her own life.

My Review: I won this book in an email giveaway from St. Martin's/Minotaur Books' e-newsletter, Criminal Element. Whee! Thanks guys!

Sophie McKenzie is one to watch out for. She can tell a story that, when you realize the underlying conceit of it, only makes the story she's crafted more interesting, sharpens the poignancy of it, and makes the ending both inevitable and sharply, horribly shocking.

Oh dear. That doesn't sound like something one would necessarily want to read, does it.

Um.

You see, there is a layer of the story that I, Mr. Get-Over-It about spoilers, don't want to give away in advance. The dawning realization about the underpinning of the story McKenzie is telling you is one of the most satisfying pleasures of the novel. There's really no Big Reveal, no Moment of Truth, in this realization. It's a dawning awareness of a resonance, a few details that catch on a thorn of memory, unraveling a strand in the plot that..."OH! I get it now!" And that wonderful moment is what I don't want to deprive you of.

So! How's the weather where you are? I can't review the book too closely, you'll get it and that'll just blow it all. I had curry-toast with sharp cheddar for lunch today. We're out of chutney, though, darn it. I had some olives, luckily, and they were tasty with the curry-cheddar spicytart flavors. Much like the novel I'm not discussing. The narrative's complexity of savor is there, just needs to be experienced.

Hell's bells. Buy the darn thing and read it. Suspense novel readers won't see new ground broken, but a very good and carefully crafted story is a generous reward for your eyeblinks. Even if the underpinning of the story isn't obvious to you until the last page, the reward is a solid, suspenseful story of one woman's path out of the featureless gray fog of depression. Like any journey, it has antagonists and it has guides and it's not always clear who is what to whom.

And that, my friends, is the fun of reading a suspense novel, isn't it? Savor. Enjoy. Smile knowingly early on or slap your forehead and shout "of course!" at the end...no matter, you're in for a treat.

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ISLANDS OF INSTABILITY
M.C. Miller

CreateSpace
$10.99 trade paper, FREE on Kindle Unlimited


Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A new explosive packs the punch of a 500lb. bomb at microdot size. Who has the dots and where are they going to use them? Problem is - they could be anywhere. Chinese-American competition to extend the periodic table to the next island of stability yields an unexpected result - a microdot explosive. Whoever achieves stability first will have the upper hand - or will they? Not everyone in China favors its new capitalism. New revolutionaries aim at the core of consumption culture. Export MDOT-E in commercial goods and the resulting chaos and panic will precipitate a revolution. The Defense Intelligence Agency must put the pieces together. Their plan tricks former lovers and ex-DIA agents Mitchell Reid and Cole Taylor into working together again. They are a volatile pair, a gutsy choice for a covert mission rushing from Macau to Tokyo to Shanghai. Only Reid and Cole stand in the way of sinister forces. Even a successful operation might not prevent a world of hurt.

My Review: I'm on record as a thriller reader by choice. I choose these entertainments carefully, because a bad thriller is a worse read than a bad example of almost every other genre. This thriller was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway, as it was self-published by the author.

I liked it very much. I'd even go out and buy one. It's nicely written, plausibly plotted, tautly paced, and--for a wonder--actually edited! Most amateur writer/self-publishers don't pay enough attention to the role of an editor in the creation of a good novel. Mr. Miller did. He got good advice, I can see, because the plot holes are few and far between, but also because the thread of a book, the argument it makes about the world, is so consistent.

The settings...Asia's Muslim parts, different bits of China for the most part...are hot spots in the world, so it makes a lot of sense to set a thriller there. It's nice, and fairly unexpected, to see that the politics of the region are thought through and the conclusions the author posits are well supported by the information presented in the book itself.

The main character, Cole Taylor, is well enough drawn to make me suspect that a series is planned. If so, that's a darn good thing. Off-the-shelf woman heroes as written by men are no more interesting than their off-the-shelf male counterparts. Cole is a woman I could enjoy following around.

I expect that Miller will grow as a writer, blowing past the inevitable infelicities of style and occasional lapses of imagination that *every* writer needs to work out and shake off. That there were as few as exist in Islands of Instability is another reason I hope more self-published writers will hire Miller's editor, whoever s/he may be!

Recommended for thriller readers who are getting jaded, for those interested in China's increasing economic and political and military ascendency, and for adventurous lady readers who want a flawed, real heroine to enjoy.

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1 comment:

  1. These both look like books I'd like. Thanks for such good reviews.

    ReplyDelete

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