Indian Country Noir ed. by Sarah Cortez and Liz Martinez

Akashic Books does a phenomenal job with their Noir anthologies. I originally found out about this series from Curt Colbert, a mystery writer in Seattle who edited the Seattle Noir anthology. Incidentally, Curt does a wonderful series of detective noir based in Seattle. Check out Rat City, the first in the series to get a taste of what it is all about.

Indian Country Noir  did not disappoint. The book is divided into four parts representing tribal areas in the North, South, East and West of the United States and Canada. The stories all have indigenous people as the central character b ut they are by no means stereotypical.

In the section titled East, my two favorite short stories were “Dead Medicine Snake Woman” which had kind of an other worldly feel to it and “Indian Time” about a Native American Mohawk man’s custody battle with his white mother-in-law.

In South, “Daddy’s Girl” is a very entertaining detective story set in Memphis, Tennessee. I really enjoyed the marrying of two genre’s in this one. My other fave was “Juracan” which is about the indigenous population in Puerto Rico. I really loved this because it included a territory well away from the more travelled path. I had never considered or even known there was an indigenous group there. My sister-in-law is Puerto Rican and we have talked about Puerto Rico but now I have new information and questions.

I was slightly disappointed with West. It included stories set in Los Angeles, Tuscon and Montana. I lived in a state that has multiple established tribes, tribal areas and reservations. The Native Americans on the west side of my state have a history and culture completely different from the east side of the state. Not one story was set here. Nor were there any set in Alaska.

All that being said, my favorite was “Another Role”. It was one of those stories that has that little twist at the end that is just slightly reminiscent of the “Twilight Zone.” I also really enjoyed “JaneJohnDoe.com”. This covered a Navajo and a drug cartel.

Finally, there is North. “Prowling Wolves” is a great period piece covering the World War II era and “Quilt Like a Night Sky” was my favorite in this section. The northern stories were a little more forlorn than some of the others but that was fitting for the north which is kind of mournful itself.

If you haven’t read any of the Noir series books, please check them out. They are all wonderful. “Indian Country Noir” holds up and represents the franchise well. Great for readers and great for people who like to sample authors through some short stories.

 

 

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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

This book is one that seems to have polarized opinions about it. People either love it and can’t say enough good things or loathe it and are happy to expound at length on the reasons they hate it. I respect both camps but fall into the “loved it” category.

I can start by saying I hadn’t read reviews or even knew that the book had won several literary awards in the United States and France. So I went into the book with a blank slate and no expectations.  Quite honestly, I don’t even remember where or when I picked up the book and for weeks it has been sitting on a shelf under the coffee table with my thinking that it was a different authors book altogether.

It is a long book but for once, the length is justified. The author has written a very complex story with lots of misunderstandings between characters and misinformation presented to the reader that has to be unraveled and would not have done justice to the story if the author had tried to do so in just a few pages.

One thing that immediately stands out is that there is a love affair between a 34 year old man and a 15 year old girl. My first thought was “Are we somehow revisiting Humbert Humbert and Lolita by Nabokov here?” The answer is kind of yes and kind of no. But that is a similarity that readers can decide for themselves.

The story is complex. One arm is about a writer, trying to meet the high expectations set by his first novel, while he struggles to write his second. Another arm is the writers’ relationship with his mentor who followed a similar path. Another is a love story between a man and a young girl. Another is small town life in New Hampshire in the mid 70’s and the relationships between townspeople and outsiders. Another is a story about a deformed former vet and his mentor, a wealthy magnate.

What makes the book so fascinating is that all of these stories are inter-connected. There are tons of themes that run throughout the book and I could write and write and still not cover everything. Nor would I want to do that because there is no way I could do that without exposing the end of the story.

It is a book that you have to keep reading because with every page, a new piece of information is exposed that makes the ending difficult to see. In fact, you really have to read to the end to get the entire picture and I loved that.

I’m not sure what kind of writing that people who were disappointed in the book were looking for from “a literary masterpiece.” Hemingway wrote in very short, sharp sentences. He used his journalistic background in his literary art. For me, the wording or authorship is not the standout thing about the book. It is the complexity of the story and the author’s ability to successfully link all the threads together. It would have been very easy for the plot to come easily unraveled. To keep this tightly woven was a real accomplishment.

This is a long book- over 600 pages. Even so, I was eager every night to get back to the story and 100 pages flew by very quickly so don’t let the size of the book intimidate you. It held my interest and I have been recommending it to others. To me, this is a strong 4 star book but based on the diversity of opinions about it, it is also a love it or hate it book. I hope you love it. I did.

Women by Charles Bukowski

I don’t think the majority of women will enjoy this book. Bukowski had a complicated and conflicted relationship with women and the book (fictional, barely) holds up to the facts of his life.

The women in the book are a strange mélange of characters. There are jealous alcoholics, speed freaks, literary groupies and cultured ladies. They are all attracted to the main character, Henry Chinaski, for one reason or another.

Henry has left his job as a postal clerk to pursue his writing full time. He has modest success but that isn’t what this book is about. It is about Henry and the many women who come and go from his life. It is also about how these women accept or reject Henry’s chosen lifestyle: an alcoholic writer.

Many of the women in the story are troubled and the descriptions of them are pretty negative and degrading. It is misogynistic and in scene after scene, we are treated to depictions of Henry using these women as sex objects in very degrading descriptions of sex. On the flip side, many of these women buy into whatever Henry is selling so I suppose you could say it was consenting.

Henry does not hesitate to be equally hard on himself. He is a self-described ugly, dirty drunk with no real prospects. His life revolves around writing, drinking, painting and going to the track. He does readings around the country and frequently hooks up with new women, inviting them to come and stay in his filthy apartment in a seamy side of Hollywood.

Bukowski is who he is and I knew going in what I was getting. This one was not my favorite. I don’t think women will enjoy it much if at all and I think men will like it more but still consider it a guilty pleasure in these overly politically correct times. With that being said, Bukowski is one of those American writers every reader should try at least once.

The Game Don’t Change by Mazaradi Fox

There needs to be a bit of background for readers unfamiliar with this genre before launching into the review.  This book could actually fall under a few different genre’s but not be limited to them. Street Lit, Urban Fiction and /or Prison Lit has been around since people starting writing books.

The hell you say. How can street lit or urban fiction be old? Ever hear of Oliver Twist? Dickens was most certainly a purveyor of the urban experience of his time. In the United States, W.E. B. Dubois,  Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, to name a few, were writers of the urban experience. In the United States, this genre has been dominated by African Americans but there are new writers coming up from other groups living this experience: whites, Latinos, Asians, Russians – whoever is writing and living the experience.

This genre also has a few contemporary names that those already in the know about street lit will recognize. Robert Beck aka Iceberg Slim has a very strong following in this genre.  His books are deep down gritty and realistic using street talk, real depictions of violence and the black market economy and strong characters drawn from the urban neighborhood experience.

More contemporary still are the writers Omar Tyree, Sister Souljah and Terri Woods. More and more writers are populating this genre all the time as the urban experience morphs and changes.  The common elements in all are the depictions of the experience of the characters as they are exposed to poverty, violence, the operation of the black market economies in their communities like drugs, human trafficking and gambling and the reality of public housing, homelessness and lack of resources.

I preface this all for readers because I think this genre is underrepresented in most bookshops and it is definitely misplaced when it is ordered because I don’t think your average bookstore buyer, librarian or reviewer has bothered to read the books. I have picked up several Sister Souljah books in the bargain bin and have had cashiers say “This looks interesting. Have you read these before?”

The Game Don’t Change is as gritty as they come. Written by Jamal Green aka Mazaradi Fox, while he was in prison, the story is set in Jamaica, Queens (Fox’s stomping ground) and North Carolina.

The main character is DeMarco Jones. His aim is to be THE main player in the coke game in Queens. He is a young gun and his rise is fast and furious.  After escaping from Tryon Residential Center where he is doing a bit for robbery, he moves back with his family in Queens.

His aunts have a small but profitable game in play and they stake him to get started. He builds a small but loyal crew and then is able to secure a supplier in Miami so that his distribution is direct, thus allowing him to grow his game and become the main player.

In order to remain safe and expand his empire, he floats back and forth between North Carolina and New York. In both locations he has a loyal crew, an extended list of help (attorneys, bail bondswoman etc) and family that have his back.

DeMarco is a shameless womanizer. There is no way around it – the dude has two baby mama’s by the end but the amount of sex he is having and the quantity, graphically depicted – you have been warned – virtually guarantees that there are more kids out there!

To find out how it ends, I am going to make you buy the book. But I will share what I know of the author which should entice you to dip a toe in the genre and buy the book. Mazaradi Fox decided that after his eight year stint was up, he wanted to focus on music. 50 Cent signed him to G-Unit Records. Right on the verge of success as a new recording artist and budding author in street lit, he was killed in 2014.

I found the book difficult to rate because it is the raw work of a new author. The first book of a new author. We will never get to see how this book compares to other work he might have written had he lived and how he could have grown his craft. The book very graphically depicts sex. That will not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I wish there had been more detail of DeMarco growing his empire but given that he was doing eight years in prison while writing this, I can understand the thinking behind the writing. I have a family member that has been in for over 30 years so I get it. I am guessing that the work was passed around the joint for review too and to that end, I can tell you street lit is ENORMOUSLY popular in prisons. In fact, Iceberg Slim’s books dominate in there and are read until they fall apart. Likewise Sister Souljah.

A solid three star effort. And I sincerely hope that readers explore street lit, urban fiction and prison lit. There are some magnificent writers in these genres and I would like to see them better represented in bookstores and libraries. And for writers in these genres, please come out and speak to readers about your work and style and introduce some of the young and under educated readers about the wonderful writers like Hughes, DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston and others who have not gotten their due through the years.

Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster by T.J. English

I may as well quit denying that I am not a gangster book groupie – looking through my library I just have so many different books on various aspects of the underworld that I have to throw my hands up and say I am all in when it comes to a good non-fiction book about the underworld.

Paddy Whacked  did not disappoint. While so many of the books focus on the Italian’s  and the Sicilian’s, there are many, many aspects of the underworld that go by the wayside but whose stories are either closely intertwined with or run parallel to La Cosa Nostra.

The Irish are as entrenched in the American underworld as the Italian’s but their story is unique and completely different.  The book is laid out in a very interesting way: it covers the period from when the greatest influx of Irish came to New York and then covers the growth of the gangs regionally which changed every few decades. The book was written prior to Whitey Bulger being captured and so ends with Whitey still on the run.

The earliest period starts in New York with the 5 point gangs as depicted in Gangs of New York. The Irish gangs at that time, and through other periods in other cities, were always an integral part of the political game. In New York, they were definitely part of the Tammany Hall  crowd and were frequently used as enforcers to get the votes swinging the right way for ward bosses.

Quite surprisingly, the next city to fall sway to the Irish was New Orleans. I was taken aback as that is not a city frequently associated with the Irish mob but the proliferation of Irish longshoreman and New Orleans role as a seaport on the Gulf and the mouth of the Mississippi made it fertile ground for the Irish mob.

Following that, the book looked at Kansas City and the political machine there who were entrenched with Irish politicians using Irish muscle to control the rackets and the votes.  It did not surprise me, in fact I thought the city would make an earlier appearance, but from Kansas City, the story swung north to Chicago.

Chicago really came into the underworld/organized crime game in the 1920’s. Capone, seeing fertile ground with boats coming in from Canada using Lake Michigan, was successful in seizing the city and making it familiar as a bootlegging capital. But the Irish were not far behind. Like many other immigrant groups, they moved west. The Stockyards were full of Irishmen doing the heavy, dirty work of slaughtering and the Irish underworld, like Capone, was able to seize wards politically and use Irish muscle to ensure votes. The Irish even today still dominate ward politics in Chicago.

The book then delves into Joseph P. Kennedy’s run as a bootlegger and how he used underworld connections as well as his wealth, to help secure political strength in Massachusetts. He was able to unseat some long standing politicos in order to get John Kennedy seats in the state senate and ultimately into the White House. It was interesting to note that he and Robert Kennedy had a long standing feud due to RFK’s stance against organized crime – the very same people he father had dealt with to secure wealth and votes.

The book then moves to the more modern era. The Irish gangs that dominated Hell’s Kitchen in New York in the 1960’s and 70’s and their running battle with the Irish Westies. Cleveland was next up with Danny Greene and finally, Boston and the Winter Hill gang and Whitey Bulger’s domination until he went on the run.

The Irish, unlike the Italian’s, organized themselves largely by neighborhood and did not seek to corporatize in the way the Italian’s did by forming a syndicate or commission. Each neighborhood was dominated by either one gang or one boss and the rackets were run by the Irish and for the Irish.

There were certainly times when the Italian’s and Irish would work together to carve up certain business interests but by and large, until the 1970’s and beyond, the Irish were left to their own devices. As the rackets were smaller and centered on their own neighborhoods they were free to terrorize their own at will.

The book is long but holds your interest. In fact, I found it hard to put down and ended up reading well into the early morning hours a few times. A really great addition to the organized crime genre. I had actually looked at the book several times to purchase but a friend had bought it and I snagged in out of the box that was on the way to be traded in – I know a bargain when I see one! Five stars. No reservations!

The Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think at some point I may have heard of Barnes’ first novel, The Somnambulist, but I can’t swear to that. This is book #2 in a series – a fact that irks me no end when I find out after I finished the book. But, I think they can be read as single novels with no detriment to the reader.

This was classified as a horror/fantasy novel. I really got no sense of horror at all. To me this novel is fantasy through and through. Darn good fantasy too. There is definitely darkness to it but nothing that at all that verges into the horror genre.

Henry Lamb is a civil servant. He is also a child star with an annoying catch phrase that follows him through life. His father died when he was young, his mother is a little daft with a series of boyfriends in tow. His grandfather, Henry’s mentor, is in a coma in the hospital.

Out of the blue, Henry is promoted to a top secret assignment in the civil service. An area known only as “The Directorate” and which is housed in a mirage inside one the cars of the London Eye. A top secret prison/holding facility is located deep within the bowels of 10 Downing Street and in this facility are The Domino Men. They are a creepy set of twins, dressed as schoolboys and they have a very sadistic side to them.

The Directorate is made up of all manner of interesting and eccentric characters who have been carefully recruited. Henry’s grandfather is one of these. And now, so is Henry. Their mission? To control and/or destroy a deal that Queen Victoria made during her reign signing away all of the souls of London to an inhuman entity.

The House of Windsor is now in a position to carry out their end of the bargain and at the same time that The Directorate is trying to foil the plot, the House of Windsor is being infiltrated by the baddies to move the plot forward.

This is a very English book with very English humor. I noted the disparity in opinions about the book and I know that English humor is not for everyone. The ending is a very dry, very black and extremely witty ending and I loved it. But that’s not say it will hit all readers the same way.

While I am not constrained by genre, I am the first to admit that fantasy is probably one of my weaker categories in that I have not read as widely in this area. But I loved this book and I am going back to find the first novel. It took me a bit to get into the story but once I locked in, I found it hard to put down. I had to hurry up and get this review done! The book is already being snatched out of my pile to be read by someone else. And that speaks volumes about how good it is!

The Gone Dead Train by Lisa Turner

This was a solid three and a half star read. The pros definitely outweigh the cons but I will start by outlining the cons first because there are only a few and they aren’t that serious. The first would be that there are some cliché’s which is not surprising given that the genre is a police procedural/action/thriller type of book. The lead character is ruggedly good looking and heart broken and his friendships are often down on their luck local characters.

The second con is that as usual, the cop lives in the most unlikely situation one can imagine. He of course got a great bargain on a barge, anchored in the Mississippi River in Memphis. Formerly a restaurant, it is now his home and has all the mod cons. It always makes me laugh that these cops have these great lofts or interesting homes. All the ones I know live in regular houses.

The last con, which is only a con for me, is that this book is part of a series. All of a sudden, every book I seem to pick up is part of a set. This book can easily be read as a stand-alone, but throughout the story, things that previously happened were mentioned. There was enough detail that this did not distract from the story at all but it can be disquieting for readers who feel the pressure to read the whole set.

Now for the great stuff. There are a lot of interesting pieces to the mystery. The first is that a couple of old time bluesmen, on the run from New Orleans, end up in Memphis hiding out. Both of these men, it turns out, are in fear for their lives because they believe they have a curse on them from a woman practicing Santeria.

There was a description ascribed to the book as being a “supernatural” crime thriller. The Santeria aspect does not play out as a supernatural theme or motivator in the story. It is a part of the criminal activity and it is explained very well from several different points of view. It certainly adds to the story.

The main character, Billy Able, is coming off a nine month leave of absence and is skating on thin ice as he involves himself in investigations in which he is not supposed to be involved. There is also a female character, currently a patrolmen, who wants to become a detective.  She admires Billy and together they make a good team.

Memphis is a great place for the story to take place. Much of it centers in and around Beale Street because of the blues aspects of the story. Memphis has so much to offer as a setting. I remembered how much I enjoyed it in Grisham’s The Firm. The sights, the smells and the sounds jump off the page and bring you right to the city. The only far-fetched aspect was the place the cop lived which I have expounded on already. Unrealistic, but fun.

The story has a lot of moving parts. There is the murder of the bluesmen, the murder of an ex-major league catcher with mental health problems, a reformed pimp and madame from New Orleans, a Jamaican con artist, an evangelical preacher with a sordid past and a mystery going all the way back to the Civil Rights rallies in Memphis and Dr. Martin Luther King’s killing at the Lorraine Motel.

This was a thoroughly entertaining read and I enjoyed it. I have no problem recommending this book to others with an interest in a good crime novel.