Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Review: Slough House by Mick Herron (Slough House book 7 2021)

Slough House by Mick Herron
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 If you haven't read any of Herron's Slough house series, you need to start with the first, Slow Horses. These books are one of a very short list of favorite series for me and over seven books Herron hasn't missed a beat. Seriously, every one is a delight to read and the worst part is having to wait a year for another.

So you haven't read any of these books and are wondering if they might interest you. Here's is a summary. These are spy stories set in the world of MI-5, the British domestic security service. Agents who have disgraced themselves and won't resign and can't be fired, are sent to a dead-end job at Slough House where they are set to boring data correlation tasks. The rest of the service refers to these agents as the slow horses. Presiding over Slough House is Jackson Lamb, an obese, flatulent, alcoholic, chain smoking, abusive nightmare of a boss who respects no one and somehow gets away with it probably because he knows where all the bodies are buried. Trouble seems to find its way to Slough House and, though no longer field agents, the misfit crew has to sort things out or get sorted out themselves.

I would say that it helps reading these books if you have some idea about current affairs and public leaders in Britain. Herron pokes fun at them frequently. Brexit is only referred to as You-Know-What.

Herron has a lot of fun with the agents of Slough House. Jackson Lamb is an HR nightmare but reaction to his abusive treatment of those working for him ranges from snorting to laugh-out-loud. I've read that Gary Oldman is in the running to play Lamb in a TV series which makes me a little nervous. He can pull off the sarcastic and scathing abuse that Lamb supplies but he doesn't have the physical appearance which is a big part of Lamb's character. They can't ignore that. But, then again he did play Churchill so there's hope. 

Roddy Ho is Herron's special target. Roddy is a computer hacking genius who fancies himself as devastatingly attractive to the ladies and an ace spy. He is an ace hacker but everything else is in his mind and his colleagues want as little to do with him as possible.

The rest of the agents are also well drawn characters:

  • River Cartwright, grandson of a MI-5 legend
  • Shirley Dander, alcoholic and drug abuser prone to violence and handy to have in a fight,
  • Catherine Standish, a former alcoholic and long suffering administrative assistant to Lamb
  • Lech Wicinski, who started looking at something he shouldn't have and had child porn planted on his laptop
  • Louisa Guy, competent, not lucky in relationships

While Herron packs in humor, there are real life and death consequences for the slow horses and this is the case as well in Slough House.

It is nearly impossible to summarize Slough House plots because usually there are multiple things going on that don't come together until the end. Here is what I can say about Slough House:

  • Jackson Lamb remains Jackson Lamb and might be more offensive than usual in this book. 
  • A tit for tat operation against the Russians puts the agents in Slough House in danger.
  • There is the unexpected return of a former slow horse.
  • Diane Taverner (Lady Di), first desk at MI-5, finds that a cooperative arrangement made in the last book (Joe Country) has dangerous ramifications.
  • Behind the scenes political machinations continue
  • The book ends with three enormous cliff hangers so Herron better be hard at work on number 8.

Slough House is a little more straightforward and doesn't juggle as many seemingly unrelated plot elements and other books where you don't figure out what's going on until the end. Herron continues to be the master of complicated yet nice tight stories. I'm thinking of rereading the entire series to see how he builds layers on this environment with each book

Keywords: British security services, MI-5, spies

Review: By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret life of the Mexican Border (1996) by Luis Alberto Urrea

By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border by Luis Urrea
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By the Lake of Sleeping Children is one of the books that people who loved American Dirt and those who fear migrants and want a border wall should read. It shows the reality of the lives of the poor along the border with the US. It is also very difficult for me to write coherently about but I'm deliberately not looking at other reviews. I want the thoughts to be my own. It is a good book and one I recommend. A list of other books on the subject that I have read and recommend is at the end.

The author is the son of a Mexican father and an American mother and grew up in Tijuana. After college he spent a decade working along the border trying to take care of the poor, the people in "a dirt-floored shack with no heat, to water, no electricity, no furniture, no plumbing, no appliances, no bed, no blankets, no rugs, no stove", no healthcare. He knows the people who make their living as garbage pickers in the giant trash dump in Tijuana —El Dompe — and he knows the children consigned to orphanages.

Urrea has an easy, almost conversational, story telling style of writing that I like very much. He has a dry but engaging and very effective of describing people, events, and locations. His descriptions of bouncy, cheerful, and clean Anglo church groups who are shocked by the reality of what they encounter has a wry humor to it. 

The author explains that he hasn't written a sociological or political text which I had sort of expected. It isn't objective and is a view of a particular subset of people. Instead it is a series of stories, each one of which could stand alone. Two chapters in particular are hard to take. "A Lake of Sleeping Children" is set among the garbage pickers of El Dompe and explains the title of the book. It is just too horrible to relate and I'm not going to try. I will say that what I read was a genuine "Oh, My God" moment. "The Bald Monkey and Other Atrocities" looks at animal cruelty and one the author suggests should be skipped by animal lovers. I agree. Urrea explains why giving a dog to these poor Mexicans is a very bad idea however well intentioned."Words in Collision" is actually a fun read and looks at cursing and shows why Anglos shouldn't casually throw in a profanity they might have read or heard and think cute. One tourist learned the hard way why the "shave and a haircut two bits" cor horn beep can be taken as an insult and get you punched. "Day in the Life" is a a nonfiction novella and his "Norman Mailer Project". It is a slice of the lives of three families and perhaps my favorite chapter along with the one on cursing. The Norman Mailer comparison is apt (Mailer was know for creative nonfiction") but I also thought of Studs Terkel and John Steinbeck.

Urrea also writes about the value that the Mexican migrants bring to the US and how, audience appeasing diatribes aside, most politicians  are well aware of the disaster of keeping Mexican migrants out of the US would be. It reminds of an internet meme that goes something like "If migrants are here to live off our welfare, why is ICE always raiding workplaces?".  Mexicans, says the author, are very hard workers. Georgia discovered to its detriment to "Be careful what you wish for, you might get more than you bargained for". The Revisionist History podcast has an episode titled "General Chapman's Last Stand" (season 3, episode 5) which examines what happened when a military man was put in charge of immigration policies. It suggests that perhaps things were better with open borders because seasonal workers would enter the US, work, then return home. With closed borders, returning is likely not possible or practical.

My road to reading By the Lake of Sleeping Children started with Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt (My review here). I am not a fan of that book for reasons that have nothing to do with the author's race. I don't think it is well written and it is a sanitized version of the migrant experience suitable for Anglo book clubs. After reading it, I turned to books by Latinx authors to find out about life on the border and on the migrant trail. Below is a list of books I've read so far. Reading these books is reading the real thing and not an  anemic imitation.

Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border by Luis Urrea. A look at the life of refugees living on the Mexican side of the border.

The Devil's Highway: A True Story by Luis Urrea. The story of an ill-fated border crossing. The author graphically shows what it is like to die of thirst.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos by Oscar Marteniz. The author traveled the migrant trail several times researching this book.

Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario. The author retraced Enrique's journey twice from his home village to the US. Like Martinez, Nazario rode the top of The Beast to the border. It is a very touching story that not only shows the dangers on the migrant trail but what happens after.

Crossing Over: A Mexican Family of the Migrant Trail by Ruben Martinez. The author explore the lives of Mexican's in their home village and working in the US.

Keywords: El Dompe, Mexico, Tijuana, poverty in Mexico 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Review: Hell Chose Me (2019) by Angel Luis Colón

Hel Chose Me by Angel Luis Colón
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Thanks to the Criminal Elements blog for alerting me to this book. Link to their review below.

This is my first book by Angel Luis Colón and based on my reaction to Hell Chose Me I need to read more of this author. The man knows how to write action. There is a running gunfight that reminds me of something you see in a John wick movie. There is a high body count and level of gore so it won't be for everyone but if you like a good, violent, action thriller with interesting characters then this is the book for you.

When the book opens, Bryan Walsh is at work. He's a hitman for Paulie Gigante, a childhood acquaintance who is the middleman for contract hits. Paulie operates out of a daycare which is a fun bit of plotting. After carrying out the hit we find out something intriguing about Bryan, he sees dead people. Bryan is haunted by those he kills who utter the last words they spoke over and over until they finally move on. These visions are extremely graphic and realistic. Bryan knows that they are all in his head but he still has to live with them. There is a slight similarity here with Stuart Neville's protagonist of his Belfast novels, Gerry Fegan, a Northern Ireland hitman who is also haunted but Colón takes it much, much further.

Bryan is a depressed loser with frayed nerves, teetering on the edge, who doesn't have the heart for what he does but can't escape. He joined the US Marines and went to fight in the first Gulf war where a horrible incident presented him with his first ghost. He deserts and his uncle Sean arranges to have him taken to Ireland where Sean, hardcore IRA, puts him to work as an assassin and bomber. Another bad experience where Bryan overreacts during a hit and he is back in the US where his brother Liam refers him to Paulie for strong arm work. Liam enters the Army post 9/11 but is dishonorably discharged after assaulting a superior office. He suffers a diabetic stroke which puts him is a persistent vegetative state. Bryan wants to do something right and can't stand to lose Liam. Desperate for the money to keep Liam on life support, Bryan becomes a contract hitman for Paulie. When a hit goes wrong, Bryan finds himself the target and on the run trying to save himself, the one person in the world he loves, Liam, and to find out what went wrong and whose after him and who is on his side.

Hell Chose Me puts the reader in the uncomfortable position rooting for a very bad person. There is just enough inner conflict and existential fatalism to make the reader understand, even sympathize, with Bryan while at the same time knowing that he'd put a bullet in your head if told to. Along the way we meet more very bad people two of which, Palestinian sisters, seriously deserve their own book.

I enjoyed everything about this book: the way the story is paced, the way the action is presented, the characters and the Palestinian sisters in particular, the way Bryan's inner turmoil is shown, the family dynamics, the way Bryan is haunted (is it real or in his head), the way the environments of the story are described. Colón takes us right up the edge of noir in this story but doesn't make that additional step and I'm ok with that.

The one complaint I have is that the author uses the term clip instead of magazine throughout the book. Bryan was a Marine and would know the correct terminology. When I was in the Army no one ever said clip.

I wondered about the cover but after reading the books, it's terrific.

Hell Chose Me is a very good read and my introduction to Angel Luis Colón whose other books I intend to pursue.

Here are some other reviews of this book

Hell Chose Me at Crime Fiction Lover

Hell Chose Me at Criminal Element

Momento Mori: On Angel Luis Colón's "Hell Chose Me" at Los Angeles Review of Books

Keywords: hitmen, assassins, existential fatalism, crime fiction, action thriller

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Retro Review: Kill Me on the Ginza (1962) by Earl Norman — Burns Bannion #6

Kill Me on the Ginza Burns Bannion #6 Earl Norman
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This is a reprint from Fiction Hunter Press (3/2/2021). The original publication date was 1962 from Berkeley Books. These books have long been unavailable so thanks to Fiction Hunter Press for bringing them back. As I described in an earlier review, I first read these books while in Viet Nam with the US Army and I have a sentimental attachment to them.

Earl Norman is the pseudonym of Norman Thomson who came to Japan after WWII and ultimately spent 30 years in Tokyo. On the Thrilling Detective blog, Geoffrey Krauss (apparently a long time student of karate) is quoted saying that Thomson was the first author to his knowledge to make karate a plot device. It was the karate action that appealed to us young GIs — well, that and Burns Bannion's lush descriptions of Japanese women. 

These books, starting with Kill Me in Tokyo in 1958, are not PC to a very uncomfortable and cringe worthy degree by today's standards. I can also say that having been in Southeast Asia in the early 70s, it didn't register at that time. We wanted to read about deadly karate fights and women and the books delivered on both.

Links to my reviews of the first five books in the series are at the bottom.

Here's a quick summary of Burns Bannion. He was part of the 6th Ranger Battalion, fighting in the Pacific. After the war, the 6th Rangers were sent to Japan on occupation duty. After watching one of his buddies get demolished by an unassuming little Japanese man, Bannion decided that he had to master karate. After his discharge he managed to remain in Japan ostensibly to go to college on the GI Bill but his actual intention was to pursue karate and Japanese women, pretty much in that order. He was mistaken for a private detective by a drunk American and he got his first case. Since the Japanese authorities were not about to give a foreigner a PI license, he operates unofficially though tolerated by the police since is frequently useful to stir things up.

I think Norman was having fun subverting the PI trope. In the early books, Bannion patterns himself after Philip Marlowe down to charging Marlowe's daily rates — $25 a day plus expenses. He decides he needs to look the part of a private detective and adopts the trench coat. Throughout the books he pokes fun at himself as a detective sometimes referring to himself as the boy detective.

Despite the racial stereotypes that abound in these novels, they have pretty good stories. Norman often finds a way to work in interesting descriptions of Japanese culture into his story. He finds aspects that he is certain will fascinate Americans because they are so foreign. In Kill Me on the Ginza, does this a couple of times. He has an elderly Japanese gentleman educate Bannion on his study of Japanese gods focusing on the toilet god. This is a real household deity though Norman calls it benjo no Kamisami whereas the Wikipedia article names the deity kawaya kami. Besides spelling, the author exaggerates a bit since almost nothing he says about Oshira (actually Osharisama) matches what I've been able to find. The Japanese gentleman is also a student of ninjutsu and amazes Bannion with his ability to seemingly disappear before his eyes. To further intrigue American readers, Norman has Bannion visiting oppai jinja, The Shrine of the Breast, which, with some liberties, matches the actual description.

So what is the plot of Kill Me on the Ginza? Burns' friend Hedges (supposedly a foreign correspondent but never files a story) hires Bannion to find out what happened to a freelance journalist friend. Before Bannion can get started, the friend is found dismembered. Burns, on the scene of the police investigation, observes curious markings on the body which later turn out to be important. Hedges changes the assignment for Bannion to find out who killed his friend. Coincidently (not really), Bannion happens upon an elderly Japanese gentleman being attacked by two thugs. After helping to dispose of the thugs, the gentleman hires Bannion to locate the secret Oshira shrine so that he can photograph it for his research. It turns out that the symbol for the cult matches the markings on the body. Along the way, Bannion gets involved with two Japanese sex workers (nude photography model and bargirl) who prove crucial to the story.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention there is an arch villain with a James Bond worthy name, House Charnel who appears to be connected to the cult.

And if you've read any of the other Burns Bannion books you'll be happy to know that Norman does a good job describing the deadly karate fights in which Bannion finds himself. Let's say he adds to his body count and even has to take on someone with a different martial arts skill.

This book brings in something we haven't see before, technology. Hedges gives Bannion a Polaroid camera to use to get to the nude mode, G.N. Noriko. She calls it a "minutes camera" and is offended when she later finds out that Bannion didn't have film in the camera. Later Bannion gets an advanced model Polaroid camera and Hedges educates him about electric eyes, shutter speed, and not needing a flash. With today's digital cameras, it's easy to forget when the technology was new a cameras needed film.

Kill Me on the Ginza is another fun hardboiled detective thriller. A bit dated but with a good story and you might even learn a few things.

My reviews of the first five books in the series:

Keywords: hardboiled detectives, Japanese cults, crime fiction, Japan, karate, thrilling adventure

Friday, March 5, 2021

Review: Dead Head 2021 (Sweetpea #3) by C.J. Skuse

Dead Head Sweetpea #3 by C.J. Skuse
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Since this is the third book in a series, there may be spoilers for the first two books in this review. In any case, you really need to read the first two books to understand the character. Go get Sweetpea an In!

Rhiannon Lewis, AKA Sweetpea, is a serial killer. Her targets are bad people: paedophiles, rapists, and abusers of women. Mostly. This invites a comparison with one of fictions' more famous serial killers, Dexter Morgan. There are similarities between Rhiannon Lewis and Dexter Morgan. They both target bad people, suffered horrible tragedy when young, and both are compelled to kill. The main differences are Rhiannon's anger at what most of us would just call life's everyday irritants and the sexual release she gets from killing.

That Rhiannon is wired different than most of us shouldn't come as a surprise. At a very young age she was the sole survivor when her creche was attacked by a deranged man with a hammer and she herself serious damage to her head. Add to that her ex-boxer/vigilante father who would take her along on his attacks and observing her sister being abused and Rhiannon is seriously messed up, something of which she is very self-aware.

The first two books, Sweetpea and In Bloom, chronicle Rhiannon's life as a serial killer. As with Dexter Morgan, it is difficult not to feel some satisfaction with her dispatching bad people while still feeling uncomfortable with her actions as both judge and executioner. So, yes, I root for her to get away with it the same way I didn't want Dexter caught. I does get a bit difficult because there are innocent victims who unfortunately jeopardized her freedom.

In the second book, Rhiannon found herself pregnant and trying to integrate into the mommy-to-be social scene while adding to her body count. The foetus became her alter ego, trying to get her to stop killing. Unfortunately killing is something Rhiannon has to do and she is ever on the lookout for someone who needs eliminating. The end of the book sees Rhiannon outed by her sister, giving birth to her daughter, Ivy, who's adoption by someone she trusts she arranges, gives her journals (books one and two) to a reporter, and goes on the run.

As Dead Head opens, Rhiannon is on a cruise ship under an assumed name. The title, by the way, cleverly operates on several levels.When her carefully arranged escape plan appears to have collapsed, she is forced to continue the cruise despite hating everything about the cruise and everyone on it (with a couple of exceptions). I don't want to say too much more because that would reveal spoilers. I realize this is a pretty meager synopsis on which to try to promote a book and I've been wracking my brain for something to say that won't spoil the action. Since the book opens with Rhiannon on a cruise ship it isn't a spoiler to say that half the books takes place there with Rhiannon hoping she won't be recognized and finding herself forging some relationship amidst most to the passengers she would happily see thrown overboard. It also reinforces that large cruise ships are not for me. Rhiannon also has to come to terms with the possibility that her daughter, Ivy, might have killed her killer instinct.

While Rhiannon does add to her body count, this book is more about her wondering if a normal life and love are possible for someone like her. I enjoyed the journey—both internal and geographical — on which the author takes Rhiannon. Her desperation to belong somewhere, with someone, has real poignancy. The author also has much to say about the celebrity status afforded some criminals and how criminals can gain a rabid fan base. There is actually a word for it which I didn't know until now, hybristophilia.  It ends with a cracking good set up for book four in the Sweetpea saga.

As with the other books, each chapter opens with a list of things Rhiannon hates that day. Honestly, most of us wouldn't have a problem with items on her list. One in particular directly appealed to me:
2. People who say they genuinely prefer Scandi Noir to normal noir. No you fucking don't.
Perhaps a bit harsh but I'm not a fan of Scandi Noir. None of it, so far for me, is really noir.

Oh, and there is a cute reference to another book the author has written. If, like me, you've read the book, you'll chuckle. If you haven't read it, go get it. it's a good read as well. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

So Skuse is three for three in this series. She has added to Rhiannon's story with each book and, I'd say, gives the reader a greater attachment to the character. Loved it and can't wait for the next one.

Keywords: crime fiction, serial killers
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