The Lazarus Files, by Matthew McGough*

It’s almost as if two crimes are committed inside these pages: the first is the premeditated murder of Sherri Rasmussen, and the second is this atrocious book.  How many writers can take a compelling story—that of a cop killing her romantic rival, and her arrest and conviction—and make it this dull? So I still thank Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy, but nothing and nobody can make me read anything written by this author again. It appears that very few reviewers even forced themselves to finish it; those of us that soldiered on till the end either deserve commendations for our determination, or a mental health referral for not cutting our losses.

The book’s beginning comes the closest to competent writing as any part of this thing. We get background information about Sherri and John’s courtship and marriage, as well as John’s relationship with the murdering woman he scorned, Stephanie Lazarus. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying this part is well written. Even here, there are serious issues with organization and focus, yet I continue, believing that when we get to the meat of the story where the truth is revealed and the killer arrested, tried and convicted, it will be worth the wait. In that, I am mistaken.

The author wanders anywhere and everywhere, apparently unwilling or unable to exclude one single fact about anyone, even those tangentially involved. Why do we need pages and more pages devoted to the life and times of people the victim barely knew? To add insult to injury, many of the facts he’s uncovered are inserted into multiple places in the narrative in a way that emphasis doesn’t justify.  It appears as if he is attempting to reveal a cop cover-up, but his inner attorney forces him to equivocate, hinting throughout without ever reaching the punchline. He infers that maybe Sherri’s husband John knows more than he’s saying, but again we see innuendo everywhere without an accusation being made outright. The writing is riddled with clichés. In many places he tells us how one character or another feels, or what they are thinking, and yet there are no citations anywhere for anything; this is a cardinal sin in writing nonfiction. I go to check the notes at the end of the book and there are none. The copious gushing over Sherri’s excellent character and intelligence, while it sounds warranted, is salted so liberally over 597 interminable pages makes me wonder if there is a connection between the author and the victim’s family, but again, if it’s true, he doesn’t say so. All told, it’s a very unprofessional piece of…writing.

By the time I consider abandoning this thing, I have put in the time required to read over a hundred pages, and so I see it through. I skip the section about the murder of someone else; had it shown up before I was completely disgusted, I’d read it in case it provides strong evidence to back up what the author is inferring but not saying, but as it is, I just want to get to the meat of the matter and be done with this thing.

Imagine my surprise when the Rasmussen murder case is not reopened, and Lazarus is not investigated, arrested, tried and convicted until…the epilogue.

There is not one redeeming feature of this book. It’s a train wreck from the start to the blessed ending. If I feel this way after reading it free, how might you feel if you paid money for it?

Alumni Association, by Michael Rudolph**

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Alibi. It’s a short book, but the time I took to read it felt like forever. The teaser says it is for fans of John Grisham, but this story is nowhere even close to the caliber of Grisham’s legal thrillers. It isn’t much of a thriller at all. 

Our protagonist is Beth Swahn. An old school has come up for sale, and there is all sorts of subterfuge involving nepotism, drug smugglers, and international intrigue surrounding the deal to purchase it; Beth’s stepfather is part of it. The premise is a decent one, but by the time the author is done with it, it’s dead on arrival. The book will be available to the public February 5, 2019. 

There are overlong passages of deadly dull dialogue, and then there are overlong passages of tedious narrative. The transitions are ragged, and all told it is surprising to me that Random House would go anywhere near this thing. It’s possible that the hand of a high profile editor might be helpful, but were anyone to weed out the extraneous crud, what would be left would be either a lengthy short story or a short novella. I would love to point to some positives, but beyond the premise, I simply cannot find any. 

Not recommended. 

Texas Sicario, by Harry Hunsicker**

I enjoyed the first book in the Arlo Baines Series, The Devil’s Country, and so when I saw that this, the second in the series was available to read and review, I dove in gladly. Thanks go to Net Galley as well as Thomas and Mercer. This book is for sale today, but it’s disappointing, and you shouldn’t buy it.

The back story is that Baines was once a Texas Ranger, but after the murder of his family, he quit and now is a drifter that works on his own terms. When we join him, he has taken on the care of an orphan named Miguel in a platonic partnership with Javier, a friend whose life Arlo once saved. And right off the bat my antennae are flickering. How does anyone share custody, legal or otherwise, of a child if that person is a drifter? We learn at the outset that Arlo doesn’t want to stay anyplace more than a month or two, so how…? To be fair, later in the book he acknowledges that something must be worked out if he is to continue taking care of Miguel, but right from the get-go it’s obvious that more than one thing is off.

There is more than a faint whiff of the White Knight here, the “gringo”—a tired word I never want to see used in fiction again now that Hunsicker has used it a gazillion times here—who uses his training and superior judgment to help Latino people (referred to in the narrative as ‘Hispanic’) that somehow can never save themselves. We have Latino—uh, Hispanic—criminals, a woman-in-distress, an orphan, a good buddy, a murder victim, gangsters, and a villain—but what we don’t have is a Latino that’s a good person who can express himself or herself articulately in English.

But wait, I am not done. The women! Not that there are many of them here, but once again when they are present, they are here either as victims to be saved, or as a fem fatale. No women here are the competent sort that can save their own butts, let alone anybody else’s. For that, we need a man I guess. A gringo.

The sad thing is that Hunsicker seems to be making a genuine effort at working a social justice, immigrants’ rights angle, and for this reason I continued reading longer than I otherwise might have to see if he could pull it out of the water; this, of course, in addition to having enjoyed his work previously, (and this is my reason for providing the second star in my rating). I suspect he doesn’t realize that this novel comes across as patronizing toward women and people of color, rather than as a work that expresses solidarity and progressive values.

To top it off, toward the end of the novel he hits not one but two of my most-hated, overused devices in mystery and detective fiction.

What the heck happened?

No.

A Long Time Coming, by Aaron Elkin**

ALongTimeComingAaron Elkin has been writing mysteries for a long time, but he is new to me.  When I saw this title listed on Net Galley, I went to Goodreads and found that his work is well regarded by some of my friends; add to this his residence in my own Pacific Northwest, and I am ready to give his work a try. Thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

The story starts well. Val Caruso is an art curator, and his personal life is a mess. He’s stone cold broke, and so when he is approached to do a job involving a stolen-but-found Renoir, his interest is piqued. An ancient Holocaust survivor claims ownership of a painting that has been sold to someone else, and Caruso is hired to help. I particularly enjoy the character of Esther, the domineering but charming friend that connects the two men; alas, we will soon leave her behind when we go to Milan.

At the outset the amount of art related information feels just about right to me. The book is sold as a popular read rather than a niche item for art aficionados, and I am cheered by this, since I have little to no interest in art. As we travel to Milan, however, the art lectures become oppressive. By the forty percent mark I find myself watching the page numbers roll by, oh so slowly, and cursing myself for having taken the galley. Brush strokes? Historical nature of paint color? Who the hell cares? The travelogue aspect of the book also starts well, but eventually the level of detail slooows this story to a crawl. I find myself cynically wondering whether this series is simply a ruse for the author to claim his globe-trotting expenses on his tax returns.

Elkin has a solid reputation built on an earlier series, and at some point I may give that one a whirl, but Val Caruso and I are done.

Baby Teeth, by Zoe Stage**

babyteethI appreciate the DRC from Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; however, this is too ludicrous to even continue. The premise is remix of the ’70s movie, The Omen, in which an evil, small boy seeks to kill his mother, but this one is with a girl child; however, if it was well written, I would push myself through the rest of it and write something up. However, anyone that attempts an inner narrative of a preschool child of any stripe has to have some concept of what a little kid’s vocabulary and development look like, unless they provide some reason for the tot to use an adult-level conversation.  If it was established that some supernatural entity had endowed special intellectual powers on the brat, I could halfway buy into it. But this? This is sad. How did a good house like St. Martin’s end up with it? Go figure.

No.

In It for the Money, by David Burnsworth***

InItfortheMoneyHere’s the thing that makes this title so difficult to review. It has tremendous strengths–strong concept, engaging protagonist, fearless prose. I like his animal sidekicks, Dink and Doofus. Crome is one of the finest sidekick characters I’ve seen in a mystery.

Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

On the other hand, there are some serious issues with pacing, which is clearly uneven, and also some of the worst grammar disasters I have ever come across in prose written by an adult. “Had brang” comes to mind, but they are legion. I wanted to ignore this aspect, given that it’s a galley, but I’ve seen hundreds of them, and yet nothing that isn’t self-published has grammar this awful. The result is a deeply frustrating read.

What I suspect is that this could be a terrific series given the services of a high profile editor.

The Day Fidel Died, by Patrick Symmes*

thedayfidelThose that admire and stand in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution will not find any measure of satisfaction here.  When I read the promotional blurb, I noticed that this account was written by a Rolling Stone Magazine journalist, and that it was written soon after President Obama opened relations between the US and Cuba. I thank Net Galley for permitting me to read a review copy free of charge, but that cannot diminish my disappointment and irritation (thus one star) at the patronizing, reactionary vantage from which Symmes writes.

Has no one noticed that even the United Nations has recognized that Cuba is the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean to eradicate malnutrition? And has nobody noticed that when Fidel died, the revolution didn’t die with him?

Most nations do not offer visiting heads of state a forum and opportunity to locate and meet with the disgruntled fringe citizens that might be open to overthrowing the government of the host nation. Symmes’ punch line here seemed to be that by Obama cutting his trip short, he was somehow making the Cuban Revolution ‘irrelevant’.

Do the other nations of Latin America and the Caribbean see it thus? Has Africa adopted this stance? I didn’t think so. It is only possible to see the Cuba in that light if one filters world news through the view of international business conglomerates and the U.S. government.  Happily, there are independent thinkers here that can appreciate the contributions made by Cuba in ending hunger and oppression in that country and making medical advances from which the whole world benefits.

This book is a waste of ink, and a waste of space in one’s digital library.

Raising the Dad, by Tom Matthews***

RaisingtheDad2.5 stars rounded up.  I was invited to read free and early by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, which is one of my favorite publishers.  It looked promising; original and, the teaser said, “brutally funny” in places.  I wanted to like it, but yet.

The title is a play on words (raising the dead, raising the dad, get it?)  I didn’t realize it at the outset or I might have dodged it. “Dad” was declared dead many years ago. He was not going to make it, and everyone agreed to turn off the machines and let him go in peace. The widow believes she is a widow, but the fact is, he’s still alive.

What happens when a patient is brain-dead and you turn off the machinery and the patient continues to live? What if he lives a long, long time?

The question provides a great premise—though the particulars here are far-fetched– but if it had been my choice, the pitch and the cover would have been different. This is a gritty, dramatic topic, and the cover shouts that this is going to be a light, fun read. Oh reader, it really isn’t. There are some funny moments, mostly involving the protagonist’s badly behaved brother, Mike, but they aren’t enough to keep the story from being a grim, miserable grind.

When my confidence in a galley flags, I go to Goodreads to see what other early reviewers have to say. At least one other reviewer argued convincingly that although most of the story is slow and unpleasant, the last 100 pages are brilliant and illuminate the reason for the rest of the story being as it is. Because of this, I soldiered my way through to the 70% mark, waiting for genius to reveal itself. But for me, that train never arrived at the station though I was well into the denouement, and with a mixture of relief and disappointment, I gave myself permission to abandon the journey.

This book is for sale now, but it is not a good choice for a Father’s Day gift. Trust me.

Grant, by Ron Chernow**

grantI’m tempted to add this title to my Southern fiction shelf. For a Pulitzer winner to be so careless with his facts is egregious. I got 200 pages or so in, and I found a glaring error. To be honest, I thought maybe it was me. I haven’t taught the American Civil War in 8 years now; am I slipping? Because I could swear that the famous tidbit about a single battle killing more soldiers than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and war with Mexico all added together was about the battle of Antietam, yet here is Chernow, saying it’s Shiloh.

This is when it’s nice to have a physical library nearby. I rummaged on my Civil War shelves and plucked Battle Cry of Freedom, which he (rightly) appears to cite more often than anything except perhaps Grant’s Memoirs, and I also grabbed McPherson’s book on Antietam, and I double-checked. Yup. The reference is to to Antietam, not Shiloh.

At this point I wondered what else might be amiss. There’s a Sherman quote that’s supposed to be in a section in BCF, but the page number Chernow cites is actually in a section about the nurses of the ACW. Well, of course there are different editions, so page numbers may shift a bit, especially in a lengthy source. But I chose–randomly, from the citations at the back–3 other quotes from BCF, and read 8 or 10 pages before and after the page where the quote or fact is supposed to be located, and didn’t find them. A more meticulous reader might have different results, but I am not running a courtroom prosecution; I am trying to decide if I now trust this author enough to believe him regarding other information. And I am not all that sure I do.

I have a lovely hardcover copy of this biography given me by one of my sons at Christmas, and I would hate to abandon it entirely at the 200 pp. mark; but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m rereading Battle Cry of Freedom again before I turn another page of this biography. Because at the very least, this is a work to be read critically, rather than with innocent faith in its author. I like some of the analysis Chernow offers, but I would hate to see a newbie miseducated by using this title as an introduction to Grant or to the Civil War. As for me, I am going to strengthen my own foundation before I approach this tome, which must be read cautiously.

The Big Get Even, by Paul Di Filippo*

TheBigGetEvenDon’t do it, don’t do it. Put your wallet away.

I received a galley of this story free and in advance from Net Galley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for this honest review. That said, if I’d been given a free copy plus a million dollars, I wouldn’t be able to write this thing a favorable pitch. An indifferent product rates 2 stars, sometimes 3 if there are redeeming aspects; when I give 1 star, it means I’m pissed.

Part of my indignation, to be sure, comes purely from disappointment. The book jacket looks for all the world like an entertaining read is in the offing. I was so certain this would be a rousing good time that I held it away from myself as an incentive to make myself plow through what I thought would be a couple of less promising projects. And the story’s hook, the voice that arrests us at the outset, also promises us big fun. My first reading note to myself says, “Oh hell yes.”

As we move into the story, a tale of a combination of grift and revenge on the part of two ex-convicts, cracks start to form. For starters, Glen, our protagonist, who tells us he is lazy, free of all ambition, and has enough gold buried in the backyard to keep him happy for a good long while, is attacked by a man that has been watching him. Our protagonist is offered two options: to go in with his attacker on a plan to buy land on speculation and fraudulently sell it to a man the attacker hates, or else be robbed. This is the basis for a partnership. Glen agrees to let all of the gold be placed in a bank account bearing the name of the attacker’s girlfriend, a large, fierce woman that doesn’t do much in this story except make out with Stan and at one point, Glen. And at no point does Glen hatch a plan to get his money back and escape; instead, an instant friendship forms. The hell?

So the story doesn’t hang together very well from the start, but a strong writer can get us to believe almost anything, and I am ready to buy this premise in order to move forward.

There are a number of nasty little remarks about “queers” that frankly don’t set well with me, and they have nothing to do with the plot, apart from establishing Glen and Stan as real live he-men. But at this point I am still prepared to breeze past the offending references, make brief mention of them, and look toward a 4-star rating. If the rest of the book had been well-written and as engaging as the first chapter, I could even have seen a 4.5 rating rounded up. I had seen the bad reviews others had written, and I wanted to be the blogger that steps forward to tell the world that those folks are wrong, and that this is a terrific novel. I was primed and ready.

“Oh hell yes” becomes “Oh hell no” when the partners settle into their newly purchased resort and our middle-aged protagonist wakes up to find the barely-legal desk clerk giving him a blow job. Because, you know, she couldn’t stay away from him.

There is one other female character here. Vee also wants revenge against the mark targeted by Stan, and so she is brought aboard. But like Sandy (Stan’s girlfriend) and Nellie (the blow-job clerk), she has to have a roll in the hay with Glen, and as with Sandy and Nellie, Vee’s greatest role in the story is sexual. At this point I feel as if the author cannot decide whether he wants to write a tale of bold adventure and high stakes crime, or soft porn for middle-aged men; my eyes rolled so high they nearly lodged themselves in my hairline. However, there is foreshadowing that lets us know that the women in Glen’s life are “not through with me” and are going to surprise him, so I read to the end, hoping against hope that there will be a second shoe dropping, a colossal punchline in which the three women turn out to have pulled one over on him and his testosterone-laden (but not queer, oh please!) buddy. Maybe this whole absurd fuckathon is actually leading up to the revenge of the women.

No.

As if the whole thing wasn’t a big fat mess already, Di Filippo puts one last, ruinous flourish on this pitiful tale by adding a host of additional information right at the end that makes it impossible for readers to guess the outcome. This hunk of junk is so badly crafted that not only do I not recommend it, I won’t read this author again.