Good Behavior, by Blake Crouch****

goodbehaviorcrouchLast spring I advance- read and reviewed the riveting sci fi thriller Dark Matter, which was my introduction to author Blake Crouch, who has already met with success as a screenwriter. When I saw that something else he had written was up for grabs at Net Galley, I landed on it eagerly. Thanks go to them as well as Thomas and Mercer at Amazon for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Good Behavior consists of a trilogy of Letty Dobesh stories, along with a brief narrative that follows each one explaining how it was tweaked (pardon the pun) as it was adapted to television. Our protagonist herself is, in fact, a recovering meth addict, and there is only one activity that comes close to the rush she experiences when she uses it, and that’s crime. Not just the seamy survival type of theft; not just cleaning valuables out hotel rooms while the guests are off in tourist-land. A big theft with huge risk and a potentially tremendous payday provides the adrenaline rush Letty needs to stay clean, not forever, but for one more day.

Letty is a kick-ass character, a woman who’s been knocked down a million times and gotten back up a million and one. I love the way Crouch works her motivation. Actor-director Jodie Foster once commented that when men in the film industry want to reach the core of a character’s motivation, they reach every damn time for rape, and I’ve noticed that male authors do this with female protagonists a lot also. It’s a fascination they can’t seem to let go of. I am cheered to see that Crouch does something much different, with Letty’s main motivation being the need either to stay clean, or on bad days, the need to score. Behind the need to stay clean is the possibility of seeing her six year old son, Jacob, again. He is living in Oregon with his paternal grandparents; he’s in a stable, loving environment, and though Letty yearns to see him, she won’t let herself go there until she is convinced she can stay clean. But there are triggers out there in the everyday world that some of us could never have imagined:

“She could almost taste the smoke. Gasoline and plastic and household cleaners and Sharpies and sometimes apples. Oh yes, and nail polish.”

Around every corner, temptation calls to her. She can’t even get a pedicure without the fumes invoking a primal craving.

My hunch is that Letty will be with us a long time, and I am curious to see whether this child will remain six years old forever; grow up, but more slowly than real-time chronology; or be aged as if in real time. I can think of some hit mystery series that have been frozen in time to good effect. Crouch could keep Jacob small throughout the life of the series, and this might make more sense than having him grow up and be independent; on the other hand, this series is so full of surprises already that there’s no telling what will happen.

To see the first television episode, in which the protagonist’s name is different from the book:

https://www.goodbehavior.tntdrama.com/?sr=good%20behavior%20video

The first story involves a murder for hire. The second is a complicated rip-off of a billionaire who’s about to go to prison. The last and by far the best is a scheme to knock over a casino. The casino plot is proof positive that a relatively old concept (theft of a casino’s funds) can be made brand new in the right hands.

I believed Letty nearly all of the time; the only weak spot I see is when she considers dialing 911, a thing that former prisoners just never, ever do. No matter how big and ugly a situation gets, for someone who’s been in jail, and especially for those that have gone to a penitentiary, calling cops will only make it worse. Even if the caller is Caucasian, and even if she believes she can do so anonymously, cops are never desirable. They’re just not on the menu of choices anymore.

This is a super fast read, one that might make for a fantastic holiday weekend. There’s lots of dialogue, crisp and snappy. Best of all, it has just been released, and so you can get a copy now. If the turkey is dry and the marshmallows on your yams catch fire, Letty Dobesh can knock everything back into perspective for you.

Recommended to those that love dark humor and big surprises.

Doubt in the 2nd Degree, by Marc Krulewitch*****

doubtinthesecondThis is the fourth and best installment to date in the Jules Landau series. Thank you Net Galley and Alibi for the DRC, which I scooped on the date of publication in exchange for an honest review. This title is for sale now, and if you like a good whodunit, you should get it too.

The shores of Lake Michigan are inhabited by rich white people, and Jackie Whitney is one of them. Once she is found dead and stuffed on the shelf in her own walk in closet, however, the good times are over.  Kate, Jackie’s girl Friday who hails from Appalachia, is arrested and the public defender asks Jules to look into the case. She doesn’t trust the state’s own people to find reasonable doubt without some outside assistance, but she cautions him that she isn’t going to pay him to find out who did it; all she needs is for him to muddy the waters enough to prevent conviction.

She might as well spit into the wind.

Landau is fired up, and he knows that Kate will be convicted if he can’t find another suspect. Partly this is because cops like to wrap up a case, and once they think they have someone they can convict, they stop looking anywhere else; but there’s another reason, too:

“Corruption and Chicago followed each other like conjoined twins.”

The more rocks Landau turns over, the more suspects he finds. It’s getting to the point where he hardly has time to get home and feed the cat. There are many wry remarks that give this story its kick; it’s a novel that’s part noir, part cozy locked-room-mystery, and whereas the author’s disinclination to settle himself neatly into one area of the genre may cost him in sales, I have to admit that I really like it this way. His clear eye on class divisions and his snarky sense of humor lit me up like Christmas, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Although this is the fourth book in the series, I think it works just fine as a stand-alone novel.  Highly recommended!

Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch****

“Julia hated thinking about money. There’d always been enough. Other people provided, but she had to work. She could sweep and wash and light fires, or she could sing and dance and let them look. Singing and dancing won all, hands down.”  orphansofthecarnival

Thank you to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book comes out Tuesday, November 8.

Orphans of the Carnival is a fictionalized account of the life of Julia Pastrana, a Paiute woman born in Latin America in the nineteenth century, a time in history when people born with serious birth defects have no surgical alternatives, and are viewed by many as having been cursed by God; often they find themselves, as Julia does at one point, as traveling circus acts, with their physical difference providing them with a means of making a living, however degrading, during a time when there is no medical alternative and no government safety net.

Her early life is spent as a servant and nurse to an elderly relative after her mother abandons her. Given the chance to perform—and be stared at—for a wage with room, board, and transportation thrown in, she chucks her broom, chamber pot, and scrub brush and hits the road with a circus.

Part of the allure in Julia’s performance is that she begins it completely covered, with a dress, long sleeves, and a veil covering her face; she sings and dances, saving the  big moment when her veil is lifted for the end of the act. In order to make a living largely based on the need of the public to see what she looks like, she cannot go out in public or be seen outside of the show, which makes for a lonely existence. But over the course of time, her circumstances change once she places her career in the hands of a manager named Theo Lent.

There are few remaining records existing of Pastrana, and so when Birch tells this story, most of it is invented. On the one hand, she has little information to work with, but on the other hand, she is also not constricted in her storytelling by a long list of historical details to be attended to. I love the wry way in which she wraps the whole thing up, particularly with regard to Theo, who even the scant available data demonstrates was a real piece of work. I won’t give you any more than that, because there are twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

There’s also an alternate narrative that takes place in the present, involving a woman named Rose, a hoarder with a mysterious background. I think the story would work just as well and perhaps better without Rose, but this is a minor aspect of the overall story, and it also doesn’t detract much if at all from the main plot.

About halfway through the book I run a Google search for an image of Pastrana, and of course, Wikipedia doesn’t let me down. I am shocked, not by how horrible she looks, but by how normal she appears. She does have more body hair than most women, but there’s skin showing through; the appellate of “bear woman” is a tremendous exaggeration. She is born with an overly extended jaw line and a second row of teeth, two separate disorders; in addition, there’s another disorder that causes the excess body hair. But the response of the crowds seems overwrought, though it is undoubtedly what happened at the time; if the public, or a part of it, didn’t see Pastrana as truly unusual, she wouldn’t have made this her livelihood, because the crowds would not have come.

Why read this book? I was initially drawn by the cover, and then again by the unusual topic. In this troubled election period, I am more than ready to escape to a completely different time and place, and to be sure, Julia’s problems make others seem miniscule.

What keeps me interested once I commence is Birch’s writing. She knows how to drive a plot forward, and when to step back from the midway craziness and insert something wry and understated to make us smile slyly. I find myself wondering where she plans to take this or that aspect of the tale, and she never disappoints.

US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

Murder in Dragon City, by Qin Ming**

murderindragonIs there a killer on the loose in Dragon City, one that’s trailing body parts everywhere he goes?  I received my DRC in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and Amazon Crossing.  This collection of stories l is written by a Chinese medical examiner, translated to English by Alex Woodend. I’m always up for something new, and so I took my galley and curled up. Unfortunately, this one just never gelled for me. I tried setting it aside, reading other things and coming back to it, hoping that with fresh eyes I would like it more than I had before; finally I had to face the fact that I couldn’t write a happy review and also be honest.

It happens.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of this story in my view is, as one might expect, the forensic detail and physical knowledge the author commands. But that can cut two ways, if you’ll pardon the expression. Some of us just love gore, and the more fleshy fingers or toes that land in sizzling oil, the more we eat it up.

On the other hand, some of us are completely grossed out by frequent, grisly findings, and this author put his thumb on my “ick” button and never took it off.

One other thing I like and that’s consistent is that Chinese cops that find corpses or find themselves in strange, scary situations don’t feel compelled to feign indifference. There’s no noir to be found here, just honest cops that yelp when they are scared and that dive when they hear a loud noise near a crime scene. The candor is refreshing and sometimes funny.

Obviously, each story has a different spin to it, but the tone overall is much the same.

I confess that the last time I studied Chinese government and culture was in the post-Mao period, before the largest Stalinist types of government fell apart; I don’t know what life is like for women these days in China. But the author never seems comfortable portraying women as people that are female. Women are featured and discussed as political bigwigs, servants, and technicians, but we never see them acting in concert with men or each other. There’s a clump of men, and then…there’s this woman. Sometimes. The woman is always featured as “other”. The male cops gather and discuss whether any woman would be ruthless enough to commit the crime in question, but by this point I was so green around the gills that I didn’t want to find out whodunit or why. I just wanted to be done, which I am.