Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
Publisher: Crown Publishing
ISBN: 0385348991
256 pages, hardcover
Published 14th January 2014
Source: Blogging for Books
(Crown Publishing Group)

I had wanted to review this novel closer to its initial release, but my reading queue was just too full at the time and the opportunity unfortunately had passed. I was happy then to learn about Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books program and request this for my inaugural selection. The plot description seemed like something that would be right up my alley, a genre mashup between the gritty, hard-boiled, noir thrillers you might expect to find in the Hard Case Crime lineup and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Count me in for the fun.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I cracked this open not long after it arrived and finished it within a couple of sittings over the course of the day. If I were able I probably would have just torn through it in one, and would have had just as much fun savoring it. During the opening section of the novel I wondered why it had the sci-fi setting to it, the story could have just as easily existed in a present reality. Thankfully my worry dissipated as the novel continued and the science fiction element became integrated seamlessly into the plot beyond the post apocalyptic setting.

Shovel Ready is set in a near future New York City that has been decimated by a terrorist dirty bomb detonated in Time Square. This event, in conjunction with smaller coordinated bombings and follow-ups has a greater psychological and economic effect on the city in aftermath than the actual physical destruction it causes. New York becomes fragmented between a wealthy upper-class able to hire security and care in high-rise apartments, permitting their retreat into virtual reality utopias, and a lower class seeking to survive in the lawless rubble below. If they choose to stay.

As in Delaney’s Dhalgren, the New York City of Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready is an isolated zone of chaotic culture, an apocalyptic blip within an America that otherwise may be completely ‘normal’. The people who have chosen to stay in New York have nothing else, are committed to its condition and either the opportunities or curses it provides. The novel thus fits into a fascinating area of apocalyptic literature where the disaster and subsequent conditions are relatively localized.

Within this environment is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Spademan, a former city garbage collector who lost his wife in the initial dirty bomb-related attacks, and who now survives as being a dispassionate hitman operating under a strict professional code. Despite wanting to keep a professional distance from his clients and targets, Spademan finds that his latest client is a powerfully famous religious leader (cultish one may say) involved with providing the hopeless ‘heaven on Earth’ through virtual reality tech. More problematic, the target given to Spademan turns out to be his client’s own rebellious daughter, and she may not fit into Spademan’s code.

Spademan is a fantastic character, worthy to fill the pages of any pulp or ‘serious/literary’ crime novel. Sternbergh does a fabulous job introducing the reader to the flawed and vulnerable character, establishing the rules of his hitman profession, and slowly divulging the details of his past that have led him to his current employment.

Mixed into the great hard-boiled protagonist creation Sternbergh includes many noir hallmarks, from shady thugs, double-crosses, big bad crime leader villains, and a femme fatale. Spademan’s initial target, who becomes an asset he desires to protect fits the femme fatale mold generally well. On a surface level she seems painted the weak female needing a strong male figure (a rather awful misogyny of course on its own), but in reality she is in greater control, and more capable, than one may think, and from the start Spademan learns that she can pack a deadly bite.

In some way these noir aspects of Shovel Ready make it familiar and expected. This could have led it being a decent, slightly above-average hard crime story. The setting and the use of the virtual reality technology as an integral element to the plot make this rise above to something even better. While becoming relevant to the plot, the technology is also used as commentary for class division in this post-apocalyptic New York. While this ‘have vs have not’ kind of message is nothing new or handled rather superficially here, it is refreshing to see it in the kind of entertaining quick read here that could easily still be an enjoyable novel without its inclusion.

By putting the sci-fi aspect in with a dash of blatant social commentary, Sternbergh manages to give a little weight to Shovel Ready without stifling the pure entertaining joys of the thriller. This is a mashup that will certainly appeal to almost all crime/hitman-type story lovers and as a mashup to certain speculative fiction fans. Though I probably shouldn’t encourage more series out there, Spademan and his gritty environment could easily expand into further works, and I’d pick up one of them without hesitation. On the other hand, this makes me curious to see how far Sternbergh’s talents extend.

Four and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Crown Publishing via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

More info from the publisher

Author bio from the publisher

Bleeders, by Anthony Bruno

Bleeders, by Anthony Bruno
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B004BA5EUQ
274 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

I greatly enjoyed the first Gibbons & Tozzi novel by Bruno – and have the second one to read – but I decided to take the opportunity to also read this stand-alone one. Lacking the moral ambiguity set up by the other series, “Bleeders” seemed a far more common story, a standard serial killer thriller that makes use of personal, past connections between the killer and the investigative protagonist.

The most successful element of “Bleeders” is the serial killer, effectively rendered suave and profoundly creepy. The novel is decidedly not a mystery, the killer is known from the start and it is fairly obvious how the story will proceed. Interestingly, it could be argued that the killer is the actual protagonist of the novel rather than the investigator, who is also not as interesting or strong of a character. “Bleeders” focuses on the killer’s psychological problems, the event that fully set him on his course, and his absolute obsession with fulfilling his deviant desires and fantasy. Yet even looking at the story as being centered around the killer, he is flat-out evil and obsessed, not remotely complex.

“Bleeders” is an enjoyable crime thriller, despite being standard in many respects. If reading this genre is something you enjoy for a good easy read, you won’t go wrong here, particularly if you are interested in a story centered a little more on the killer than the law. If you are looking for complexities and compelling well-rounded characters, or if you could be easily put off by the creepy dysfunction of the killer, this probably won’t suit.

Three Stars out of Five

Ice Shear, by M.P. Cooley

Ice Shear, by M.P. Cooley
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0062300709
320 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 22nd July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This is a very impressive debut genre novel that I didn’t expect to enjoy quite so much. My initial expectations were somewhat low because so many of the elements of “Ice Shear” I would describe with the word ‘average’. The plot is suitably complex. The writing is straight-forward, though very descriptive, with realistically rendered dialogue. The protagonist seems like a regular woman. The pace is constant and the small town setting is well-rendered.

Together this makes an enjoyable police procedural read, a novel that is really good, but where nothing really screams out as being exceptionally unique, innovative, controversial, or profoundly insightful. So what sets it apart from any other mystery novel out there is it is so ‘average’? Why in my heart do I feel like this is a really successful novel that was well-worth reading?

I think the answer to those questions lie in just how effectively Cooley manages to take the ordinary and produce a tight, well-crafted mystery out of it where everything does feel satisfying without becoming dull and mundane. Most impressive to me is Cooley’s protagonist June, a former FBI-agent returned to her hometown to serve on the police force. June is deceptively simple, one of the most realistically rendered female characters I’ve come across. Here strengths and weakness are given subtly, and her personality is one of straight-forward perseverance, simply being a good investigator and human being. Relatable and likable, she is flawed and challenged, but she overcomes and the reader enjoys the experience of seeing how she does so.

Cooley also manages to put in just the right amount of ‘outside’ information and personal conflict outside of the main crime plot thread. You learn a bit about June’s past and her family and professional relationships, but readers aren’t pulled too far down any side-tracks that don’t have bearings on the novel itself. This leaves Cooley room to further develop the character in future novels, hopefully just as effectively.

Four Stars out of Five

The Sound of Broken Glass, by Deborah Crombie

The Sound of Broken Glass,
by Deborah Crombie
Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James Series Book 15
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0061990647
384 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Normally I don’t sign up to win books that are in a series because I try to use this to discover authors and works that I otherwise wouldn’t discover or read anytime soon. So if it’s a series, I probably haven’t read any of the others. Even if novels are supposed to be ‘stand-alone’ I’d much rather read them all, in order, or not bother reading any of them. This makes getting into mystery novels hard though. So I must’ve read the description for this and decided my interest was worth giving it a try. I’m glad that I did because it was an enjoyable book, but I’m not sure if it is a series that I’d rush to find more of over the others I have in queue.

The primary strength I see in “The Sound of Broken Glass” is atmosphere. Crombie’s characters each exude particular British regions or classes, and the city itself is used almost as a character in defining the roles of the others, their pasts and how those circumstances now collide in the present. These past events are conveyed through italicized, flashback, passages, rather than in-time. This method seems largely employed to keep the secrets of the mystery hidden to the investigators in the novel until the last possible moment. The reader therefore has a greater, though still very vague sense, of what lies behind the murders than the protagonist does. Yet despite revealing more to the reader, Crombie still keeps the mystery unsolved and identities unclear through red-herrings, convolutions, and reader mis-assumptions.

Thus, it stands an effective mystery. The downside as I saw it, was that the structure of the novel with its flashbacks takes away significantly from any procedural aspects. The case is ultimately unveiled not completely through the investigator’s skill, but rather in large part due to chance coincidences and shared acquaintances, well-crafted connections on the part of the author between her characters that leave the entire events partially artificial in feeling. Crombie also uses the story and its themes to try to wedge in side plots involving the protagonist and her family, all of which seem highly tangential and never actually brought to conclusion. I suspect these aspects of the story relate more to the overall series as opposed to the novel itself, highlighting that a series novel never can really be ‘stand-alone’.

Three Stars out of Five

Silent City, by Alex Segura

Silent City, by Alex Segura
Publisher: Codorus Press
ISBN: 0983978360
160 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

There are some aspects of “Silent City” that work well for a detective mystery. Foremost is the setting. Murder and Miami spring “Dexter” to mind immediately, colors and vibrance of a shiny city. The Miami here goes beyond that cliché to something darker. The novel is also economical in its writing, scenes are not wasted, and the story stays moving at a good pace through a short read. Moments of inaction (particularly the start) are helped in that Segura creates an interesting protagonist in Pete Fernandez, a man lost in depression, digging his life into a deeper hole, a very unwilling and naive detective.

The problems with “Silent City” ironically stem from some of these potential strengths above. Pete Fernandez is interesting because he is such an ordinary guy, not your typical detective. This is a nice change from the witty, brilliant, and generally lovable hard-boiled detectives of noir. But without that ‘performance’ from a witty protagonist, a Marlowe or a Spenser, there needs to be something else to really make the novel captivating or enjoyable. For “Silent City” there just isn’t. It’s economical in construction, but thereby becomes very standard and predictable. Nothing comes as a surprise. Fernandez is so ordinary that he becomes dull, so clueless that the reader figures things out well before Pete happens to stumble upon the truth. He is so hapless that it simply stretches disbelief to breaking that he wouldn’t be executed by the killer almost immediately.

The setting, culture, and language of Segura’s debut novel are great, but “Silent City” is missing any element to really set it out as a noteworthy mystery or thriller, the sole novelty of its protagonist sadly dissolving with nothing to support it into the predictable plot, becoming a bland paste.

Two Stars out of Five

The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins

17797436The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime #114 (Quarry Book 11)
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
ISBN: 1781162662
221 pages, paperback
Published January 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I’ve read a few of the Quarry novels featured in the Hard Case Crime series and they are always a hard-boiled pleasure. Rich pulp at its finest, Quarry is a captivating antihero despite his predictable qualities of a good conscious down deep, a pride in his work, and that weakness for women. Coupling his wit with sleazy, sinister characters up to no good, you have all the ingredients for a good noir.

Compared to other books in the series what is enjoyably unique about this one is just how far off course the character of Quarry is driven by being fooled into losing sight of who the bad guys are, and the truth behind the situation in which he find himself. Knowing that our protagonist assassin is on the trail of the ‘wrong quarry’ ruins the surprise of the existence of this final twist in the novel, however the interesting aspect for the reader switches from being about the existence of the twist to more about how Quarry is being fooled.

Overall another great entry into the Hard Case Crime series, a novel that takes retro pulp trashiness and delivers a pure little guilty pleasure for fans of the genre.

Five Stars out of Five

Bad Guys, by Anthony Bruno

Bad Guys, by Anthony Bruno
Gibbons & Tozzi #1
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00I36D8RA
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
(Original Publ: 1988)
Source: NetGalley

Reading this I couldn’t help thinking of the titles from Hard Case Crime that I’ve read and how perfectly it fits into the mold, Diversion offers a great ebook deal with this for people who like gritty pulp crime stories. This one has all of the hallmarks: hardened cops skirting and surpassing the law, a femme fatale, low life crooks, demented mafia kingpins, and a keen sense of period style – in this case the ’80s, which we can now look back in nostalgia not unlike the classic noir set in decades prior.

There isn’t anything particularly new here then, rather tried and trusted tropes of noir and mafia crime stories, put together into a fast-paced intensity that keeps the reader engaged amid the twists of plot. Though vigilantes with questionable morals, the protagonists perfectly serve as vicarious fulfillments of that need for justice and revenge.

The only downside to the novel was that moment when my brain engaged fully enough to look past the entertainment to really question the logic of the plot and the ability of Gibbons and Tozzi to avoid being offed by the baddies. Really, how long could they meddle in this stuff without being more effectively targeted for elimination?

Despite this, “Bad Guys” is a simply fun book for those that like this genre, and I’d be happy to read others in the series.

Four Stars out of Five

The Last Dead Girl, by Harry Dolan

The Last Dead Girl, by Harry Dolan
David Loogan Series Book 3
Publisher: Putnam
ISBN: 0399157964
416 pages, hardcover
Published January 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Aside from a few pages at the start, and a handful of pages at its close, I devoured “The Last Dead Girl” in one gulp, late into the night, unwilling to put the story down. That is simple testament in itself to Dolan’s talent in crafting a superb thriller. There is nothing here but seriousness, a gritty, raw, and at times disturbing look into criminal horrors. Some mysteries are part comic, filled with witty dialogue and over-the-top characters who cut like knives. Dolan has a talent for dialogue that keeps things taut and dark, foreboding. There is no extraneous fat in this book, no sentences other than that to serve the purpose of providing a solid thrill, telling a captivating tale.

Filled with twists and turns, the story is built around the common mystery framework of deep personal secrets. The characters in “The Last Dead Girl” are all interconnected by their secrets and lies. Some of these secrets involve acts both immoral and illegal, some immoral but legal, and some moral but illegal. Yet regardless, these secrets have the power to destroy. Dolan relates these secrets to the reader in small steps, by stepping back and forth in time and through point of view. The majority of the book is written in first person, from the point of view of the protagonist, David, but this is interspersed with sections from the third person point of view of a murdered character, and of a killer. At times this provides revelations to the reader before they are made to the protagonist, thereby making the continuing mystery about how David will arrive at the knowledge himself before it is too late.

I haven’t read any of the previous works by Dolan, so was unfamiliar with the character of David. Thankfully this is a prequel to the existing novels, so reading this first is easily feasible. I’m looking forward to checking out the others now.

Four Stars out of Five

Return of the Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Return of the Thin Man,
by Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Mysterious Press
ISBN: 080212156X
256 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

The “Thin Man” movies are among my favorite, and I can always go for a good film noir, but I haven’t yet read Dashiell Hammett, the writer responsible for so many of the classic characters and styles of these movies. It was a pleasure to finally read some of his work, though when it says “novella” it really does mean the ” “.

The two stories here are really informal scripts, written in a distinctive simple style intended for film production, in this case what became the movies “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man”. The eventual films produced (that you should see if you haven’t) are not far removed from these treatments by Hammett. The witty dialogue was left largely intact in the screen version and surprisingly few details of the plot were taken out or altered.

As such, reading these is just as fun as watching the movies. So, if you are a fan of “The Thin Man” series and are open to experiencing them in a slightly different version in a different medium, then I’d highly recommend reading these. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the films but like crime mysteries and good humor and wit, then these will be entertaining stories to read, particularly the first, which is a bit more original than the second ‘novella’, which is largely a re-working of another Hammett story.

If you are familiar with the movies inside and out, then I’m not sure how much will be gained from reading these, other than that experience through a different form or getting to note the deviations from the final film product where they occur. It is interesting to note that those in control of enforcing the Production Code of the day were just as arbitrary and illogical as the MPAA today.

Three Stars out of Five