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Posts Tagged ‘noir’

Book Review: One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett (Series, #1)

June 26, 2014 7 comments

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish buildingSummary:
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous.  Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them.  He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire.  When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.

Review:
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list).  I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA.  The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.

Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective.  He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious.  It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire.  Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist.  Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series.  It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.

Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world.  The characters are multiple races and classes.  Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace.  Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at.  Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together.  They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.

I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself.  The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group.  I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it.  I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.  Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did.  I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA.  Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.

The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises.  There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict.  The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading.  Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!

Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series.  Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary.  Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Sleepless by Charlie Huston (Audiobook narrated by Ray Porter and Mark Bramhall)

January 18, 2014 2 comments

A city in sepia tones with the title of the book in fuzzy white letters over the black sky.Summary:
In an alternate 2010, the world is slowly falling into disarray, partially due to terrorism, but mostly due to a new deadly illness.  SLP makes the sufferer an insomniac, unable to sleep for years, until they fall into a state of insanity known as the suffering.  The sleepless, as those with the illness are known, change the structure of society. Movie theaters are now open 24/7, there’s an increase in sales of odd and illicit things, as the sleepless get bored.  Most importantly, the sleepless have moved much of their energy into online MMORPGs.  Some spending countless hours gold farming there, making a good buck with all their hours of alertness.

Park, an old-fashioned cop, is determined to save the structure of society, one bust at a time.  He’s committed to his work, in spite of his wife being sleepless and being increasingly unable to care for their infant daughter.  So when his boss asks him to go undercover to look for people illegally selling the one drug that can ease the pain of the sleepless–dreamer–he agrees.

Jasper is an elderly ex-military private investigator without much of an eye for sticking to the rule of the law who is asked by a client to hunt down and return to her a thumb drive that was stolen.  He slowly discovers that that thumb drive ended up in the middle of much more than some art thieves and finds himself sucked into the world of illicit dreamer.

Review:
My partner and I both enjoy a good noir story, so when we saw this summary on Audible, we thought it would make an entertaining listen for our 12 hour holiday road trip.  The story was so bad, we could only take it for about an hour at a time and eventually just turned it off so I could read out loud to him from a different book.  I eventually soldiered on, though, because I honestly just had to finish it so I could review it.  In what should be a fast-paced noir, there is instead an overwrought amount of description of unimportant things that slow what could have been an interesting plot down to a crawl.

Noir as a genre is a thriller that generally features a hard-boiled detective (sometimes a hard-boiled criminal).  It’s fast-paced and usually short featuring a lot of grit and mean streets.  One thing Huston does that puts an interesting twist on the noir is he incorporates both a cop who is being forced to turn detective and a criminal-style private investigator.  He features both sorts of main character.  This intrigued me from the beginning.  However, the writing includes far too much description of unimportant things for a crime thriller.  For instance, there is an at least 5 minutes long description of a computer keyboard.  I could literally space out for a few minutes and come back to the audiobook that was playing the entire time and miss literally nothing. It would still be describing the same chair.  This really slows the plot down.

A golden robot holding a gun.On top of the overly descriptive writing, the narration is overwrought, like a stage actor trying too hard.  The best explanation I can make for the narration is, if you have ever seen Futurama, the narration switches back and forth between being Calculon and being Hedonbot.  Now, I admit, the audiobook narrators played these parts perfectly. In fact, I had to check to see if they’re the same voice actors as Calculon and Hedonbot (they’re not).  I really think the audiobook narrators are what saved the story enough to keep me reading.  I kept laughing at the visual of Calculon and Hedonbot doing this overwrought noir.  But that is clearly not what makes for a good noir.  The tone and writing style were all wrong for the plot.

In addition to the writing style, there’s the plot.  In this world that Huston has imagined, gamers have become all-important.  When people go sleepless, they become intense gamers.  If they don’t do this then they become zombie-like criminals.  I don’t think this is a realistic imagining of what would actually happen if a huge portion of the population became permanent insomniacs.  Not everyone is a gamer or a criminal.  There’s a lot more options in the world than that.  Additionally, in this alternate 2010, the art world now revolves around MMORPGs as well. The art work that is now sold is thumb drives of the characters that people make in the games.  There is a long speech in the book about how making a character in an MMORPG is art.  Yes, somepeople might think that. But it is incredibly doubtful that the entire world would suddenly overnight start viewing character building in an MMORPG as an art form.  I won’t explain how, because it’s a spoiler, but the gamers also come into play in the seedy underworld of illegal drugs.  At the expense of a plot that follows the logic of the world the author has created, gamers are made to be inexplicably all-important.

hedonbot holding grapes and apologizing for nothingI also must point out that the science in this book is really shaky.  SLP was originally a genetic disease that suddenly becomes communicable.  That’s not how diseases work.  Communicable and genetic diseases are different, they don’t suddenly morph into one or the other.  Additionally, in the real world, there’s no way an illness would be given a scientific name that is an abbreviation for the common name (SLP for sleepless).  Think about swine flu.  The common name is swine flu, the scientific name is H1N1.  Similarly, the drug to treat SLP’s official name is DR33M3R, which is just the street name, dreamer, in leetspeak.  This isn’t fiction based in true science.

One thing I did appreciate in the book is that the semi-criminal private investigator, Jasper, is gay.  He’s extremely macho, ex-military, and he bangs his also macho helicopter pilot.  I like the stereotype-breaking characterization of Jasper.  It’s nice to see a gay man given such a strong role in a thriller.

Overall, this alternate 2010 noir gets too caught up in overly long descriptions of mundane things and an overwrought narrative style to keep the plot moving at a thriller pace.  The plot features an unrealistic level of importance for MMORPGs and the gamers who play, as well as unsound “science.”  One of the hardboiled main characters is a stereotype-breaking gay man, however, which is nice to see.  Recommended to those who enjoy an overly descriptive, overacting narration style with gamers featured unrealistically at center stage who don’t mind some shaky science in the plot.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: David Goodis Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s by David Goodis

Black Library of America cover showing covers of 5 original books.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  This collection is David Goodis’s best works, all of which happen to be noir.  Obviously the most well-known noir author is Raymond Chandler, but one of Goodis’s works was made into a Bogie and Bacall movie, so he’s not too far behind.  The books in order of year published included in this collection are:

Dark Passage–A man framed for his wife’s murder escapes San Quentin and investigates the case with the aid of a beautiful woman in San Francisco.

Nightfall–A WWII veteran on his way to Chicago for a job finds himself inextricably linked to a robbery and murder and goes on the lam.

The Moon in the Gutter–A dockworker becomes obsessed with figuring out who raped his sister, leading to her ultimate suicide.

The Burglar–A man in his 30s who fell into the world of thieving during the Great Depression tries to get out but his tutor’s daughter keeps sucking him back in.

Street of No Return–A hobo finds himself implicated in a cop murder in the middle of race riots between whites and Puerto Ricans.

Review:
I am a huge fan of noir.  I even took a noir class in undergrad, so when this showed up on Netgalley, I knew I wanted to read it, particularly since I recognizedDark Passage as a film I had watched last year.  Surprisingly, we didn’t read any Goodis in that class, so it was fun to try out someone who’s not Chandler.  I think Chandler found more of a niche than Goodis what with the fact his main character is the same in every novel.  Goodis explores a bit more.  His books all have a noir feel, but they don’t follow the exact same formula.  For instance, instead of a hardboiled private dick, you might get a hardboiled thief or artist or hobo.  Plus the books tend to be a bit more tragic than most noir I have read.

Goodis’s writing at the sentence level has the tongue-in-cheek wit that I so enjoy.

“Madge is a fine girl.”
“Maybe one of these days she’ll get run over by an automobile.”
“It’s something to pray for.” (location 801)

He also is fabulous at setting a scene so richly that it seems as if it is our world but simultaneously is Wonderland.

She had seated herself in a deep sofa that looked like it was fashioned from pistachio ice cream and would melt away any minute. (location 5039)

The mystery aspects of his storylines are unpredictable, don’t always wrap up neatly, and yet make sense once they are revealed to you.  Unfortunately, these strengths are offset by his weak romance writing.  Every single romantic interest in all of the books are a small-framed, lean woman with light brown hair.  The author has a type, we can definitely see that.  Beyond that, though, the love is always instant.  They see each other across the room and fall for each other.  And both people acknowledge this and say it’s something that can’t be helped and they are at its beck and call.  This would be less of a bother except that the main characters often make important decisions based on this new “love.”  For instance, one of the characters gives up his career for this woman he barely knows.  Who does that?! It’s therefore difficult to be sympathetic to the characters when you are thrown out of believability.  That’s unfortunate because the scene setting and mystery plots are so strong.

The best work of the bunch is The Moon in the Gutter where the impetus for a lot of the action is not the romantic interest, but the love between siblings.  Additionally, it looks at issues of class, being stuck where you are, having who you can love and build a life with dictated to you by that classism innate in society.  The grittiness is extreme.  We’re talking about a dockworker dealing with his sister’s rape and subsequent suicide.  Yet Goodis acknowledges the good there too for the blue collar dock workers and their families.  Their lives are passionate and intense in a way that sitting around sipping wine and discussing the symphony just isn’t.

Overall, Goodis exhibits a lot of the qualities of good noir writing.  His style is dark and gritty, often with a femme fatale.  His stories offer more variety than those of other noir writers, but still fall solidly within and as a great example of the genre.  I recommend this collection to those who know they are a fan of noir, and the book The Moon in the Gutter to those who aren’t and would like to dip their toe in.

4 out of 5 stars

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Source: Netgalley

Book Review: The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

September 26, 2011 8 comments

Book cover featuring a tumbler of whiskey.Summary:
Everyone’s favorite hard-boiled private eye Marlowe is back, and this time he’s been hired to track down a respectable entrepreneur’s wild wife.  She sent a telegram weeks ago stating she was going to marry her boy toy, Lavery, but Lavery was spotted in Hollywood and claims to have no idea where Mrs. Kingsley is.  The last place she was known to be was at the Kingsleys’ lake-side country cottage, so that small town is where Marlowe starts his investigation.

Review:
I first encountered Chandler in a film noir class I took in undergrad at Brandeis.  Ok, so that class was my first encounter with noir too, but it introduced a whole new genre to me to fall in love with.  The cores of the genre just scream my name from the hard-boiled, alcoholic detective with a “work bottle” of whiskey in his office drawer to the ever-present femme fatale.  *sighs*  Can I live in that world?  Can I?  Anyway, so whenever I stumble upon a Chandler book in a used bookstore, I absolutely must buy it.  There’s simply no question.  This will probably continue until I have collected them all.

The entries are always narrated by Marlowe, and The Lady in the Lake does not fail to smoothly represent everything there is to love about him.  He’s darkly cynical yet possesses a striking wit even in the face of getting a beat-down from the cops (which happens in pretty much every book.  Lots of dirty cops in Marlowe’s world).  Without Marlowe’s voice and ever-present intelligence, the books would not be what they are.  Thankfully, his presence is just as perfect here as in the other Chandler books.

So what about the story?  Well, this time the story is not set entirely in LA.  A solid half of it is in the countryside.  While I enjoyed those scenes, I must admit I did miss the LA grittiness a bit.  Although the scene where the grieving husband drags his wife’s corpse out of the lake on his back was every bit as gritty as any city scene.

The mystery made so much sense in the end that I was kicking myself for not figuring it out.  I still can’t believe I didn’t figure it out!  How Chandler came up with these twists and turns and managed to write them without giving it away is beyond me.  I doubt anyone will be disappointed with the mystery.  I literally had no idea what was going on into Marlowe explained everything in the classic film noir wrap-up scene.

The femme fatale was a weak point in this entry, however.  I think this is why I really liked it but didn’t love it.  She just didn’t seem sexy enough.  Violent, yes.  Brutal, yes.  But sexy? Ehhhh.  Personally I always perceive the femme fatale as a gorgeous black widow spider, and well this one just failed a bit on the gorgeous glamor aspect.  She was still a femme fatale, but perhaps a bit disappointing.

Overall, I truly enjoyed my time in Marlowe’s world with this entry.  Marlowe is someone whose presence it is always worth being in, regardless of whether his surroundings are perfect or not.  I recommend this to noir fans, highly.  Those new to the genre, I recommend start with The Big Sleep.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Harvard Books used book cellar

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Book Review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

March 23, 2011 2 comments

Red cover with part torn out revealing a person on a street.Summary:
In classic noir style, Higashino tells the tale of a mathematician, Ishigami, and a physicist, Yukawa, facing off utilizing only their brilliant minds in a quest to save someone they each love from a life of tragedy.  Simultaneously a story of love and betrayal amped up with academia and set against the quintessential backdrop of gritty Japanese city streets–not to mention a lunch box restaurant.

Review:
I fully admit that I put myself in to win this book purely because it’s Japanese literature, and I’m trying to expand my reading horizons to include more non-western lit.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see so many classic noir elements present in this modern day detective mystery.  Noir is one of my favorite genres and adding in the touches of Japan gave it a really fun twist.

It takes a bit for the story to get going and to get into Higashino’s writing style.  The sentences lean toward shorter in length than I’m used to.  Once I became used to the length difference though I really got into the different type of flow shorter sentences give to a piece of writing.  Naturally, this could partly be due to it being a work in translation, but good translators try to give foreign language readers a sense of the original author’s style.  I hope the translator succeeded in this regard, because this different style helped give this noir story an extra push in uniqueness.

The mystery itself is nearly impossible to completely solve before the final solution is revealed.  The final solution also contains some serious betrayal and an emotional scene that reminded me a bit of some Japanese cinema I’ve seen.  So intensely shocking and gritty and occurring in the very last few moments of the story.  It moves the story up from a fun way to pass the time to a memorable tale.

The pacing is a bit off, however.  Intensity speeds up and slows down repeatedly making it difficult to be totally sucked into the story.  A few edits would probably solve this problem leaving the same basic tale but without any unnecessary diatribes.  Some may not find the pacing variety as distracting as I did, however.

This Japanese noir piece is artfully pulled off and leaves the reader guessing to the very end.  I recommend it to noir and Japanese literature fans alike.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Won from EarlyReviewers via LibraryThing

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Book Review: The Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories by Ernest Lehman

March 4, 2010 2 comments

Black and white image of the hood of a car.Summary:
A collection of Ernest Lehman’s noir style short fiction, including The Comedian and The Sweet Smell of Success, which was turned into a film in the 1950s.  Varying in length from flash to many pages, most of the stories address the damage caused to individuals by the overly hungry theater, movie, and television industries.  Some of the stories also look at individuals suffering from discontent in marriage.

Review:
My first entry in my reading challenge to read books I bought for university but never got around to reading.  This was assigned for my Film Noir class in conjunction with watching The Sweet Smell of Success.  I loved that class and at least enjoyed the assigned books that I read at the time.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for these short stories.

Lehman’s writing doesn’t just evoke the past of the 1950s, it evokes an alternate, incredibly depressing universe.  I have the feeling that was his point in writing these stories.  The entertainment industry is evil and will slowly rob you of your soul.  There’s definitely merit in that, but it can get a bit depressing and redundant to read the same theme over and over again.

I also found the dialogue jarring.  The characters do things like call other men “baby,” and I can’t help but wonder if people actually talked like that back then.  It made the stories ring a bit more fake to me than I think they should have.

Three of the stories revolve around press agent Sidney Falco and columnist J. J. Hunsecker.  While I enjoyed these short stories it felt as if someone had ripped out three chapters from a back and handed them to me out of order.  I wish Lehman had written this as a book or novella.  He clearly had an affinity for these characters, as he repeatedly came back to them to explore them, so I wonder why he never just wrote a long piece about them.

The Comedian though is where Lehman hits his stride in this style and theme.  He takes just the right amount of time to tell the story.  He subtly lets us know the background information vital to feeling something for these characters on this crucial day, and the overarching them of the story is deeper than “the entertainment industry is evil.”  Oh, it is still represented as bad, but that is not the main point of the story, which makes it stronger.  I recommend reading this short story if you can get your hands on it.

Overall, if you’re in the mood for a marathon session of dark noir, you’ll enjoy this book.  Otherwise, I’d recommend finding one of the short stories to get a taste of the 1950s version of the genre.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: University bookstore

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