Fresh from a short trip back to the States and newly energized to present only blogs that have met strict quality-control standards, I come to you today with another essay on books that have recently made their way through my reading list. I actually wrote this a while back, so I’m basically phoning it in this week, but let’s keep that our little secret, shall we?
These aren’t really reviews. Just short snapshots of what the books are about, and maybe a nugget or two about my reaction to them. If you’re a big reader, maybe you will find them useful.
Also: It’s a way to pimp my own book. So fair warning……
Cold Caller, Jason Starr: Jason Starr is one of my favorite contemporary crime fiction writers, but if you asked me to explain why, I doubt I could tell you. There is nothing flashy about his books. He tends to write in a series of short and simple sentences, one after the other, none particularly memorable, some written as if they were scribbled down by a kid, many describing the most mundane actions or thoughts. You don’t think much of it until at some point, maybe 30 pages in, you find yourself completely sucked into the story and the characters inhabiting it.
Cold Caller is told from the POV of a 30-something telemarketer named Bill Moss who makes “cold calls” to random people, trying to sell them things they probably don’t want or need. It’s a job he’s decent at but hates, partly because he misses his former life as an up-and-coming advertising exec with a good salary and a bright future, and partly because he reports to a couple of asshole bosses. At some point Moss snaps, putting into motion a series of events that place him in a position of power with the company and lead to his own undoing. Saying more would spoil the plot.
Anyway, it’s one of those simple-yet-gripping stories in which the protagonist unravels in bits and pieces as the world starts collapsing around him. Starr is a master at this kind of thing, making it look easy even though it’s one of the hardest things to pull off as a storyteller.
The Governor, Vanessa Frake: This is a memoir of sorts about the author’s life as a prison officer in the UK, and some of the sticky situations and bad apples she ran into. She spends an awful lot of time telling the reader how tough a job it is, and how only someone with an iron will and stout heart can pull it off. She keeps reminding us (over and over) that she is that iron-willed and stout-hearted person – to the point of making me want to rip out my eyeballs. The reader is privy to such majestic insights as, “Nobody forces people to do drugs. Just say no.” This book is about as interesting as a pile of gravel, and half as enlightening. Harper Collins somehow saw fit to publish it. There is no God.
The Case of the Lazy Lover, Erle Stanley Gardner: The 30th book in Gardner’s famed Perry Mason series and the third I’ve read personally, all in the last year. This installment finds our hero surprised to get two checks in the mail from a stranger named Lola Allred. Perry speaks with Lola’s husband about it, only to learn that the woman has run off with her daughter’s boyfriend—who happens to be a key witness in a lawsuit. Soon Perry is entangled in a complicated case involving not only a missing witness but also forgery and ….MUUUUUURRRRderrrr!!! This is another fun and suspenseful read from a master of mid-20th century crime/legal thrillers.
Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell: Here we have an almost-excellent novel about life in London’s swinging 1960s music scene. It follows four struggling, fictional English musicians – Dean, Elf, Jasper, and Griff – brought together by a Canadian manager to form a group and try to make a name for themselves. The group, named Utopia Avenue, spends their early days bouncing from pub gig to pub gig in the UK before finally breaking through with a modest hit. They gained wider fame following a drug bust in Italy, then got just big enough to take their show to America (the real prize), where they hit New York, L.A. and San Francisco during the Summer of Love.
The main attraction for many readers will be an endless parade of cameo appearances by various real-life luminaries, most of whom made early departures from this mortal coil. The list includes Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Sandy Denny, Syd Barrett, Keith Moon, David Bowie, Little Richard, Leonard Cohen, Brian Epstein, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsburg, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Jerry Garcia, Pigpen, David Crosby, Frank Zappa….you get the idea.
It’s kind of a kick to see these people pop up in the novel at various gigs, parties, recording sessions, stoner sessions and whatnot, and start chatting about this and that. In one sequence Dean takes an acid trip with Jerry Garcia, so that’s cool. The novel also does a good job of laying out life as a musician during those halcyon days.
I won’t go too much into the overall value of the novel itself, other than to say that there are times when it is mesmerizing, and times when it plods along waxing poetic about the power of music, maaaaan. There are subplots involving the main characters, the most interesting of whom is Jasper, a guitar wizard with a sketchy background that involves a rich Dutch family that more or less abandoned him. At one point we take a deep dive into Jasper’s tortured mind, and the book really grabs you and carries you along for pages and pages. But then that ends, and we are back in the world of music, where the main character is Dean, a much less-interesting pretty-boy bassist. Still, an entertaining read overall.
Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene: As a reader I often gravitate toward certain authors when I can’t decide on what else to read (John Le Carre, Stephen King, Donald Westlake, Ross MacDonald), and Greene is one of them. Some of his novels are powerful – The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor – and some less so. Our Man in Havana falls into the latter category. Published in 1958 during the Castro-led Cuban revolution, its protagonist is a mild-mannered vacuum cleaner salesman and native Brit named James Wormold who gets unwittingly corralled into taking part in espionage that either aims to undermine the revolution or…I’m not really sure. It’s more of a satire on international espionage than a thriller, and not really the best at either. There are some funny moments, and of course Greene was a splendid writer. But the story is thin, and most of the characters seem half thought out.
Literary Noir: A Series of Suspense, Vol. 1, Cornell Woolrich: Woolrich was among a handful of notable American writers who cranked out pulpy crime fiction during the middle of last century, along with the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane. This collection of seven short stories from the 1930s and ‘40s tends more toward whodunit type mysteries than gritty crime noir. None will knock your socks off, but they make for engaging enough reading.
Voodoo Hideaway, Vance Cariaga. This superb crime noir thriller recently got a new 5-star review on The Book Commentary website. I’ve included it below, along with other reviews. Links are included to the full reviews.
The Book Commentary, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway is an intelligently imagined tale with a setting that feels eerie and transporting…The humor is exacting and even when Vance Cariaga writes about scenes with smoking guns, there is that element of humor that keeps the reader alert and engaged. Overall, Voodoo Hideaway is a captivating tale full of drama and sparkling dialogue, a fun ride that pulsates with action.”
Reader’s Favorite, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway by Vance Cariaga is a fascinating crime novel with an incredible twist…The author creates and develops some very colorful characters, each of whom gave readers the whole cinematic treatment.”
OnlineBookClub.org, 4 out of 4 stars: “This was a well-told story in a well-written book that got me wishing there was a sequel. Vance Cariaga’s Voodoo Hideaway was a thrill to my imagination, and it was filled with suspense. The author did an excellent job connecting dots to one central piece that climaxed to an explosive end...Science fiction, mystery, and adventure lovers would relish this book.”
Manhattan Book Review, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway shines as an absorbing mystery/sci-fi tale from the outset…Vance Cariaga has written a clever story in which the action is as ceaseless as the plotting, with danger lurking around every corner.“
Here’s how to order it: