Carnival by William W. Johnstone

I admit it; I bought this book because I was jonesing for American Horror Story and Twisty the Clown.  I saw the cover and jumped at it. I did not realize that I had previously read a western by the same author. It is the genre that he is most well-known for and I loved the book and gave it a high rating.

I see Carnival for exactly what it is and I love it for what it is: pulp fiction and strictly entertaining. This is not a masterfully well written piece of literature with a strong thematic underpinning. Those features do belong to his western’s. No, this is strictly fun. A good creepy novel set in a travelling carnival.

The carnival comes to Holland, Nebraska after a forty year absence. But this is not just any carnival. This carnival is run by Nabo, a servant of Satan and the dark underworld. The carnival has returned to Holland to exact revenge for an injustice done to it in 1959.

The town is divided. There are those that have insight, can read minds and are believers in a higher good and those who are demons in disguise. Their true faces only come to light because the carnival is in town and the dark forces require all the help they can get in order to destroy the town.

The carnival is super creepy. People are drawn to hang around it before it even opens and a whole bunch of degrading things begin to occur around the town in darkness’ quest to corrupt. Some people, recognizing on a subconscious level what is happening, choose to get their families out of town. Others begin to lose their facades and succumb to their dark natures.

In a classic good vs. evil story, the good are a small band of disparate town characters. There are also a handful of good people with insight who are part of the “freak show” which satisfied my American Horror Story craving for some of the great so called freaks. The good band together against the evil and get an assist from some good folks who also happen to be dead and a police force that can hardly believe what their eyes are seeing.

The good also get an assist from animals who were killed due to cruelty and who come back to revisit their pain on their tormentors and killers. It was a little hard to read that part of the story but it gave me no small pleasure to read about their revenge. They would then be able to join St. Francis of Assisi and live out their eternity in wonderful loving splendor.

Don’t get this book looking for the great American novel. Also, there is some repetition in certain phrases. All of the characters are always described as “cutting their eyes” at each other. It’s annoying to read over and over and Martin Holland IV, the main character is a bit sanctimonious but as I said, read this for the sheer fun of pulp fiction – nothing more or less.

I can also recommend Johnstone’s western novels. More depth and truly the genre he appears to have enjoyed writing in the most. He has a wonderfully large catalogue of work to choose from and he is definitely underrated and underrepresented in the book world. Enjoy your time at the creepiest carnival since Elsa Mars and Twisty came to town.

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan

This book has been sitting on my shelf forever, waiting for me to exhale and pick it up. I read widely from multiple genres. I never limit myself and I am glad I don’t because you can miss out on discovering great stories or great authors.

The book is set in 1991. It is so strange to think that this book is 25 years old. It feels more recent but one thing that immediately stood out were the changes in the African American experience and story, even in that 25 years. Don’t be afraid to grab some of the wonderful African American authors out there. You might find you have more in common than not.

The four women in this story are all in their 30’s or a little older and all are experiencing what many people experience at that point in their lives. One is going through a divorce; one is trying to figure out why she doesn’t like the nice guys and is attracted to the bad boys; one is moving house, changing jobs and trying to find Mr. Right; and one is a single mother, business owner and activist looking ahead.

They are friends who support one another in their life changing moves and frankly, they were there talking about sex, shoes, hair, men and life way before Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and the other one from Sex and the City. It makes me wonder if this was the blueprint. Ms. McMillan, I think HBO owes you!

While there are certain things that speak directly to the African American experience, anyone who has had any of the life experiences above will be able to relate. If you grew up working class, these are the women who went to college and moved up the economic rungs on the ladder. You will either recognize them, or you are them. It is a great book about, by and for women but men could learn a thing or two by reading it.

I liked the book so much that I ended up staying up till 4:30 am so I could finish the book in one day. Damn your eyes, Terry McMillan!! The characters are great fun and although there are times you want to kick a characters shins ( I am looking at you Robin and Savannah!) they still keep you turning the pages in hope.

I had a great time. The only thing that the author may regret in hindsight is describing one of the male characters as modeling himself on Dr. Cliff Huxtable. Who am I to judge? I loved Bill Cosby from I, Spy to The Cosby Show until he let me down. And now I want to watch the movie just to see Leon (who I adored in Oz) and Angela Bassett who I adore in everything. Now I have to go get the rest of the books written by Terry McMillan. And I would like to know how the author views life and love 25 years later. An author discussion Waiting to Exhale: 25 years later is dying to go on tour! I just know it.

Silken Prey by John Sandford

Silken Prey was a very entertaining read. Set in Minnesota (the Twin Cities) it is a political thriller with a very fascinating side story involving theft. At its heart though, it is all about dirty politics. Unfortunately, it is a representation that is probably accurate because to some extent, the bad guys get away with some things.

The main character is Lucas Davenport. He wasn’t my favorite character because frankly, he was just a little too good to be true. Although he is a state police investigator, he doesn’t do it for the money because he is an independent billionaire married to a plastic surgeon named Weather.

Yes, I hear you laughing. He also drives sports cars and has an expensive wardrobe and an extensive list of under the radar contacts. But ignore Lucas Davenport, because the real pleasure of the story is the story itself.

Surprisingly, most of the other characters are great. I don’t know why the main character is so crazy. Nevertheless, the series is worth picking up. One thing I love is when someone native to a city or state writes about it. Sandford brings Minneapolis/St. Paul to life and that is a treat in itself. The city comes to life as only an insider can show their city.

Apparently, this author has been recommended by Stephen King. It’s always interesting to read what other authors recommend. This was no exception. I enjoyed the book and would (and have) given it to others to read.

Oh, Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle

I love the work of Roddy Doyle. It started when I read The Commitments when it first came out and it has never wavered. His unique voice, complete with Irish as it’s spoken on the ground and in the neighborhoods of Dublin, is just a pure pleasure to read. I picked up this book before I realized that there was a book that came before it. I am given to understand that this is a kind of prequel or sequel to the other. Either way, I am glad I read this one first.

Henry Smart was a paid assassin for the IRA in the early 1900’s. He is forced to live on the run in Ireland and so leaves his wife and child to hide out and re-invent himself in the roaring twenties in America. The book opens with Henry exiting the boat on Ellis Island with all the other early immigrants of that period who came with the same idea – reinvention of self.

Henry starts out on the streets of New York. He is a bit of a grifter and born with the gift of Irish gab. He sets up his own business with street signs – people standing with sandwich boards over their shoulders advertising anything and everything. And, since Prohibition is in full swing, they also sell illegal hooch from their pockets beneath the boards.

Although Henry misses his wife and child, he is still a young man in a relatively new world and he takes up with a variety of women of all ages. But he can’t escape his IRA past and the streets of New York have plenty of keen eyed Irishmen willing to turn Henry over to the Irish mob for some pieces of silver.

Henry and one of his molls end up running a scam that runs them out of town and almost gets Henry killed. He does a little time and in an effort to put more land between Ireland and himself, he hot foots it off to Chicago. There, he starts to earn some money the way many Irishmen before him did – settling in the Back O’ The Yards and working in the meat packing plants. But for Henry, this is merely a pit stop in his adventures.

He meets a young musician on the rise – Louis Armstrong. He becomes Armstrong’s bodyguard, driver and general all-purpose man. Chicago is good to both of them. To help themselves survive, they take up petty theft and during the nighttime robbery of the widow of Marshall Field (yes, that one, of department store fame and Frangos), Henry discovers his wife and child. His wife has been searching for him, and now works as a housekeeper. His daughter was a baby the last time he saw her and is now a savvy seven year old.

From there, more and more things happen. Both good and bad and reflecting well what  America was from about 1924 to 1938 or so. The story has wonderful highs and some sad lows. In this time of great discussion regarding race relations in America, the book has some thought provoking ideas on the same subject. If for no other reason, it might be a timely read for that alone.

It is a great story about America and the individuals who choose to come here and have always chosen to come here to re-invent themselves. Perhaps that is more the real American dream than any other. And that re-invention is a constant. The story also touches on organized crime, wealth and poverty, the immigrant experience, the outlaw as myth and fact and jazz.

Roddy Doyle has a writing style that for those that have not read anything by him, at first may be distracting. Sentences can be short and choppy as voices overlap. He writes in a way that reflects how people actually speak. Once you get into the rhythm of the work however, you become used to it and appreciate just how unusual and unique that voice is – and also, distinctly Irish. He uses a lot of Irish slang and some Celtic words. I love it personally.

The other thing I found is that his style of writing complements the jazz presented by Armstrong. Jazz has a unique musical voice itself. It stops and starts and bebop’s along and the words felt like jazz, if that makes any sense. That choppy stop and go with fast, crazy action complimenting slow, melancholy layers. Not only could you picture the jazz clubs and gangsters but you could almost hear the music in your head.

I love Roddy Doyle’s work and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a good story. He is a fantastic teller of tales and you won’t be disappointed. He is also not confined to fiction. He has written at least one non-fiction book, some plays and some children’s stories. He also has a great facebook page and he often writes little ditties as a day to day practice which makes it one of my more entertaining social media stops.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

For those living under a rock or for more causal readers, Robert Galbraith is a pen name used by J.K. Rowling. This is her first book after the wildly successful Harry Potter series. She adopted the pseudonym, no doubt, to see if her writing alone would sell books, to test a different genre than young adult and to escape the expectations that came attached to her name and the success of the Harry Potter series.

Unfortunately, some numbskull at her publisher could not keep their trap shut and her cover was blown before the book even hit the shelves. I did not read any of the editorial reviews. I am not generally a reader of young adult fiction but I finally relented and read the Harry Potter books long after they came out and loved them. I felt that any writer, who could come up with those ideas, was probably going to write well no matter what they chose to write about.

All that being said, I waited quite a while to read this book. I did not want the experience to be tainted by any expectations from Galbraith/Rowlings previous work. I was not disappointed. As I expected, The Cuckoo’s Calling was a superb read regardless of what name is on the cover.

Set in the present day, a supermodel falls to her death from her balcony in a posh and exclusive London apartment building. It is classed as a suicide but her brother, unable to accept that ruling by the coroner, engages a childhood friend of his brother’s named Cormoran Strike, to investigate. Strike is one of the most interesting investigators I have come across in detective fiction.

Ex British military but the son of an aging rock and roll lothario and a super groupie. Yes, you read that right. His back story is as good as the one he is investigating and could fill a whole book in itself. Creating rich, detailed characters is definitely one of Rowling’s strengths and it shines in this book. Every character introduced is given something for the reader to grab onto and consider.

Into Strike’s life drops a temporary secretary. For every great detective, an equally great offside must emerge and into his walks Robin Ellacot. A girl from the English countryside, newly engaged and with ambitions, she ends up at Strike’s office for a one week temp assignment. Robin is no rube however and it becomes quickly apparent that she will be there throughout this book and in any future Cormoran Strike adventures. How could it be otherwise?

What unfolds is an engrossing mystery. Cormoran follows leads provided by the supermodel’s brother and friends. Robin digs around the internet and turns out to be a pretty good sleuth herself giving Strike more to work with. By the end of the book, although Robin is still engaged, you get the feeling that her confidence in herself has built to a level that by the next book, that fiancé may be history. Robin might have been a wonderful country/suburban soccer mom but she wandered into Strike’s world and she will be infinitely smarter and more interesting from here on out.

This is a thoroughly engaging read and J.K. Rowling is a writer who can transcend genre’s. I hope she continues to try different types of novels because I suspect her writing is just that good. I know there is at least one other fictional work besides the new Harry Potter novel out and as much as I enjoy H.P., I hope she does not just fall back on that for a buck and continues to grow her craft.

The St. Paul Conspiracy by Roger Stelljes

I would classify this as a good middle of the road police procedural/mystery genre. It is book one in the Mac McRyan series. He is an Irish cop in St. Paul Minnesota who spends most of his off hours in his families Irish cop bar. There are a lot of Irish cop clichés.

But, the mystery is still pretty good. There is a corporate cover up that is going to be exposed. The corporate players use a serial killer currently at work in the city to hide murders they are committing as part of the cover up.

The serial killer gets pursued and caught. Because he was meticulous in his death count, there are murder victims unaccounted for. The capture of the murderer means the corporate villains have to step up the eliminations in order to continue to hide what they have been up to and their nefarious activities.

The cat and mouse game takes up the second half of the book and it is good. Lots of twists and turns but also lots of clichés. This doesn’t make it a bad book at all. A little predictable but still pretty fun to read. This is book one in a series but I don’t feel that you need to roll on with this series as it seems like each book will probably work as a stand alone.

It’s a crime procedural. An easy read.

Preacher by Ted Thackrey Jr.

 

I loved this book. It has a timeless western feel but is set in the modern day in New Mexico. Preacher is a seminarian who dropped the priesthood after Vietnam, fled to the mountains and then became a professional poker player. There is so much more to all that but….read the book. You won’t be disappointed.

The book starts out strong and never flags for one minute. It is one of those books you desperately want to get back to reading. The opening scene is a poker game and it introduces almost every major character that will play a role in the book.

The story is great fun. There is action. There is a horrible Deputy Sheriff. There is humor. Black humor. There is a love interest that is not overly gooey. In fact, it’s not gooey at all and the female characters are as strongly written as the male characters. Preacher is someone you want to read more about and I have to say, I was devastated when I read that the author had passed away.

Without giving too much away, the story is about a small town and the cover ups perpetrated by the wealthy movers and shakers. Preacher is called in by a fellow seminarian and now town priest who believes there are hijinks afoot and that a fellow Vietnam Vet and town helicopter pilot, was killed even though it is being called suicide.

This is worth finding, buying and reading. Regardless of price.