Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review: Seven

Seven Seven by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting collection published in 1971 as the popularity for MacDonald’s Travis McGee series was taking off. The four shorter stories were published in Playboy and likely solicited. “Dear Old Friend” has an epistolary structure where through four shifting attempts at a dictated letter we learn the story. “The Annex” is sort of a white light story or a dream of a dying man. “Quarrel” is a bit of hilarity about an “accidental play” via tape recording. “Double Hannenframis,” my favorite of the shorter stories, is a neat noir about an executive caught insider trading and siphoning cash. The three longer stories were all previously unpublished. “The Random Noise of Love” can best be summed up by what a friend says to the protagonist: “Don’t lose your head for a piece of tail.” Oops, too late. The story has a five-page obsessive description of the girl as she comes out of the shower, gets dressed, does her makeup, etc. Yes, he’s lost his head. “The Willow Pool” is novella length with multiple narrators each describing their view of the events, which is a good technique for broadening the scope of the narrative in ways it couldn’t otherwise. “Woodchuck” seems the class of the collection, with MacDonald at the top of his craft using concrete descriptive writing, insightful psychology, and wicked characterization via action in this long story about a man cynically seducing the wife of a man who works for him. The woodchuck of the title is a story within the story and MacDonald even pulls that digression off and makes it work thematically. Three of the stories I’d give five stars, but the others are not to that level.

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Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: —And the Girl Screamed

—And the Girl Screamed —And the Girl Screamed by Gil Brewer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where I wish Brewer had spent the time to revise instead of cranking it out in five days because it is just completely uneven. Incredibly written scenes are followed by stretches of lackadaisical writing. The beginning was atypical for Brewer, just a grindingly slow setup. And then blammo! Finally, at the start of chapter four, the girl screamed and the novel got going, as ex-cop Reddick witnesses a murder but manages to become the prime suspect and while the police are searching for him he is trying to find the murderer. Unfortunately Brewer didn't then go back and trim the first three chapters down to five pages! There's some really great stuff in this one but you also have to wade through some crap.

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Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review: The Girl from Hateville

The Girl from Hateville The Girl from Hateville by Gil Brewer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This one is such a mess it is almost incomprehensible how it got published in this fashion. Even if it is a one of Brewer's first-draft-written-in-three-days novels, the lack of editing is astounding. The basic plot line is that Al Harper returns to his home town after being away for eight years only to find that everyone hates him because his father, the town's banker, apparently cleaned out the bank vault with everyone's savings before committing suicide and leaving everyone to default on mortgages etc. That plot line has some truck as it puts Harper in harms way immediately after he hits town. From that point on, though, the writing is chaotic. Too many characters just start showing up for no reason and Harper starts doing one thing and then changes to doing something else in mid-course for reasons unexplained. The best writing is found in the scenes where Al is getting the crap beat out of him, and there are three or four of those scenes, so Brewer was on his game for those at least. The novel could have been OK with a decent edit, but it would have taken a complete rewrite to get it up to the level of Brewer's other novels.

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Monday, August 22, 2022

Review: The Lonely Silver Rain

The Lonely Silver Rain The Lonely Silver Rain by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the 21st and final book in the Travis McGee series and I put it in my top five of the series. McGee, and his friend Meyer, have had numerous close calls with death in the novels leading up to this last McGee, and that theme continues. I won't spoil the ending for those who haven't read it yet. Felt pitch perfect to me. The story here has McGee tracking down and recovering a stolen yacht and in the aftermath he becomes a target for the Peruvian drug cartel. Plenty of action as McGee deals with the hit men coming after him. A further mystery is the strange pipe cleaner cats which are being left around his boat, it's a message he doesn't understand and that amps the tension from another direction as the novel progresses. What makes this one so good is that MacDonald delves deep into McGee's character as both character and author are feeling their mortality. Beautiful balance between the action adventure aspects and the McGee/MacDonald philosophy of life. Resonates as a great series finale, but it also works well as a stand alone.

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Sunday, August 21, 2022

Review: Dark Trail

Dark Trail Dark Trail by Ed Gorman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leo Guild, the damaged and heroic bounty hunter, finds himself pulled into two intersecting love triangles that both seem to be headed for hell. The five characters drawn into this mess are exceptionally well drawn with dialog that sparkles and shines, and a plot that is wholly original and cinematic in scope. If I was a film producer I would buy the rights and film this damn thing. As you may have noticed I loved this short novel. The late Ed Gorman was a terrific writer, his Guild books are exceptional, and this is now my favorite one. Five stars.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Review: Cinnamon Skin

Cinnamon Skin Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Number 20 of the Travis McGee series continues a couple of themes from where Free Fall in Crimson left off. McGee is still playing touchy-feely with Annie and he's still trying to help Meyer deal with his residual depression after his take down by the biker Dirty Bob. When Meyer's boat is blown up, killing his niece, we are in uncharted territory for the series. No salvage job for a client this time. It's all about revenge and MacDonald is at his best exploring the psychological depths of the characters. Structurally, the story is also quite similar to Crimson in that we have a powerful villain who is off stage until the end. We know him from stories of his exploits without actually seeing him in action. I'm not a fan of this structure, much prefer learning about a villain by having them do evil in real time. Also disappointed that we didn't get one of those great multi-scene climactic sequences that MacDonald was such a master at writing. Just one, slightly implausible, setup that delivers an uppercut for sure, but was much shorter than the usual McGee endings and that kept this from being one of the great books in the series. The high points are McGee and Meyer investigating to learn the villain's past, Meyer's recovery, and the varied settings as they go from Florida to Texas to upstate New York and eventually to Mexico. Good stuff, but just mid-tier for me.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Review: Free Fall in Crimson

Free Fall in Crimson Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started off liking this 19th book in the Travis McGee series as it quickly delves into solving the mystery of why a guy dying of cancer gets beat to death at highway rest stop. McGee's investigation takes him to a biker bar run by an old war buddy in search of a lead, which he finds. And then he's off to Hollywood and Lyssa Dean, an actress he helped in The Quick Red Fox, to track down the Director and some bikers/actors from a biker-movie. She steers him to Iowa and the set of movie about hot air ballooning. After that it just felt like the energy left the book even though there is a formidable villain. The problem is we mostly hear about this bad ass second-hand, instead of seeing him live an in action. At least until the ending, where he shows up in the flesh. Doesn't have MacDonald's trademark rollercoaster sequence of climactic scenes as do so many of the McGee books. Instead we have a quick confrontation, with a partially recycled device from, I think, Bright Orange for the Shroud, and an older, wiser McGee (not a spoiler) survives again.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Review: Roanleigh

Roanleigh Roanleigh by Gretchen Mockler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Superb gothic suspense novel. Full of atmosphere, mystery, and tension. At the beginning, Roan is an amnesiac invalid being cared for by her mother, brother, and family nurse. But she knows something is off with the narrative they are spinning. So she quits taking the pills the nurse has been pushing. Soon snippets of memory return and she is certain that she is not Roan. She knows she is someone else, just not who else she might be. The writing craft is so good that I couldn't put the book down after that rolling start. It is packed with concrete details that amp up the moods. The dialog seems always strewn with subtext. And Roan's actions and interactions are fueled by her at any means approach. All of which makes this a virtual master class in how to write a gothic novel. My research has turned up no other books or any other information on the author Gretchen Mockler. The novel seems too good to have been a one off, so I suspect it might be a pseudonym of some other well-known gothic writer, but maybe not.

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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Review: Subdued

Subdued Subdued by Bud Conway
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Cover art is by Bill Alexander, who, along with Gene Bilbrew, Bill Ward, and Eric Stanton did most of the highly collectible cover art for the Satellite Publication imprints After Hours, First Niter, Unique, and Wee Hours. In case the trench coats on the cover didn’t tip you off, this 1966 Wee Hours book is an espionage thriller. Bob Baker is a pinup photographer for Girl Parade magazine and after an interlude shooting at a nude beach on the French Rivera he’s off to Paris on assignment where, surprisingly, he’s recruited into the CIA. After some period of training in German (and Judo) he’s sent behind the lines into communist East Germany and Poland. His mission to photograph plans for a nerve gas factory. The task is intricately plotted with plenty of secret meetings and double agents and all the usual spy genre shenanigans. The writing style, however, is too breezy to take this seriously as a spy novel. It’s a spy plot with opportunities, in between taking pictures with his spy camera, of course, for Bob Baker to have sex. Baker gets plenty of action, but nothing is described too explicitly. So a sleazy spy novel. The smooth prose made this a quick and easy read. Unfortunately the proofreader took the day off and the text is marred by an enormous amount of typographical mistakes.

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Saturday, July 30, 2022

Review: Ex-Virgin

Ex-Virgin Ex-Virgin by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the fifteen novels Orrie Hitt had published in 1959. (From the grave he says I see your nanowrimo and, I raise, all in!) This first edition is Beacon 267 with the painted cover art. The second and third Beacon/Softcover Library editions have lame photo-covers. I'm rating this a bit higher than it probably deserves because on a close reading I found enough "writing surprises" relative to some of Hitt's other books that made me think he wasn't just going through the motions. Sticks to his formula, for sure, and after 50 some books to his credit by this time he had the formula smooth as creamy peanut butter. The title suggests this is a good girl gone bad story. Kinda, sorta. Mary is the virgin who becomes the ex-virgin of the title. But not willingly and Hitt's rape scenes are some of his most explicit pre-1960 descriptions. Many ways to go with this review as Hitt recycles several plots and themes and character types from his earlier books and will do so even more in the 100 books that will follow this one. What struck me, though, was his character assassination of Ferry Street in this unnamed town which surely is a stand-in for Port Jervis, New York where Hitt lived for many years. "Ferry" is a stand-in street name. When I was growing up in Seattle we had "First Avenue" and "Pike Street." Dive bars, flop houses, hookers, pimps, and drug dealers. Hitt's world has Mary, Joe, Janice, Anne, and Sam. Five dollars gets a guy laid in this riverside slum. The sad tale here, however —and it's a noir tale—is that Sam has the world at his feet. He has Mary, the 41-26-36 figure girl that every other guy in town wants. The owner of the gas station where he works is ready to retire and willing to practically give the place to Sam. Yet . . . Head shake. Sam, Sam! Stay away from the bosses wife! You know he won't. And Hitt's morality play—teen sex, pregnancy, abortions—becomes noir as Sam slides down the slippery slope to oblivion. That's all top-notch, but unlike Whittington, Brewer, MacDonald, Hitt sticks to his grade school prose style, at which he was something of a genius, which is easy to miss until you've read enough of Hitt and a lot of the others. Not his best. Not is his worst. But I can steer you towards many better reads than this.

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