Thieves by Steven Max Russo: 2 Crooks, 1 Realtor, 1 Housekeeper and a Whole Lot of Thievery

Thieves

Thieves

by Steven Max Russo

Kindle Edition, 280 pg.
Down & Out Books, 2018

Read: November 11-15, 2019

Last month, I posted my thoughts on Steven Max Russo’s second novel, The Dead Don’t Sleep, and now I get to focus on his first book.

Skooley (I kid you not), is a small-time criminal with aspirations of greater things (and, let’s be honest, delusions of at least a bit more grandeur than he actually possess). He runs afoul of actual bad guys in Florida and makes himself scarce, hiding out in New Jersey for awhile. He gets a job in a restaurant and meets Ray. Ray isn’t as an accomplished thief as Skooley, but he’d like to be. And he knows where to start: their fellow co-worker Esmeralda had an idea.

You see, she’s got aspirations and dreams of her own. Hers are on the legal side, it’s nice to say. She’s a housekeeper, a restaurant hostess at night, and does some grunt work at a hair salon when she’s not working as either of those. She’s trying to save money for beauty school while taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She’s making progress, but it’s slow and she could really use a little boost.

Esmerelda tells Ray about the owners of a house that she cleans who take off for a month or so every year at this time. They’re the kind of people who leave cash and expensive things around with no one to check on them. Ray tells Skooley.

So Ray and Skooley break and enter, with the idea of spending a couple of days carefully and thoroughly pillaging this house. Almost immediately, things don’t go according to plan and the three conspirators are mired in distrust, frustration, and assorted moments of larceny.

There’s a subplot involving a real estate agent named Loretta. She blows off a little steam one night after work by having a little too much to drink. Somewhere between being one and three sheets to the wind, she runs into Skooley on a break from his plundering. In case there was any doubt at this point for the reader, what happens next definitely qualifies Skooley as a villain. Other than that, it wasn’t until the very end of the book that I saw anything redeeming about this storyline. Once I did, it all made sense. But man, I spent a long time wondering just what Russo was trying to accomplish with it.

I wouldn’t call this fast-paced, it’s more of a slow-build. More than that, it’s steady and always tantalizing about what’s coming next. Steady enough that you won’t want to put it down.

This is really an Elmore Leonard-esque plot and batch of characters, but it has none of Leonard’s style. Which is not a complaint—I’m trying to describe, not challenge—if he’d tried, I’d spend a few paragraphs describing the ways that someone who isn’t Elmore Leonard shouldn’t try to ape his style. Instead, you get the same types of characters in tight situations, which is good enough.

There are really two conclusions to this novel—and both are a lot more satisfying than anything I thought the novel might be leading to. And the last line is a killer, make no mistake.

All in all, a solid Crime novel featuring lowlifes, misguided people, and a few hardcore bad guys. It’s also enough evidence for myself that I’m going to grab the next Russo novel in a heartbeat. I dug this one, I think you will, too.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion. I am grateful for that, but not so grateful that I changed my opinion.


3 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Hurricane Vacation by Heather L. Beal, Jasmine Mills: A cute little book with some important hurricane safety lessons for kids

Hurricane Vacation

Hurricane Vacation

by Dr. Heather L. Beal, Jasmine Mills (Illustrator)

Kindle Edition, 36 pg.
Train 4 Safety Press, 2019

Read: November 18, 2019


Heather Beal’s back with another book for early readers/pre-readers about natural disasters—this time (in case the title doesn’t give it away), it’s about Hurricanes. I really appreciate this way of educating children about these types of disasters—it’s not about facts and figures, it’s about assuring them that people can be safe in the face of disaster as well as helping them understand what’s going on.

Lily and Niko are visiting their family when a Hurricane watch is issued, so they join their family in preparing the house for the storm and getting ready to go to a shelter. Along the way, they learn about what a hurricane is as well as all the ways that people can protect themselves, themselves, and so on.

As with Elephant Wind and Tummy Rumble Quake, the information is given in an accessible way that’s mildly entertaining. Beal did a good job interweaving the information with interaction with the characters—even young readers/listeners don’t want to put up with infodumps, I guess.

I’m not sure the part of the story about Niko’s missing stuffed animal really fit—it seemed like it was tacked on as an afterthought. It may not have been one, it just felt that way. It was nice to see everyone working to make Niko feel safe (and that his toy would be safe) during this—very reassuring.

The art was cute and helped the story—I particularly enjoyed the “eye” in the storm showing how the term was misunderstood.

Beal delivers another helpful book that should be of good use for parents/grandparents/teachers/caregivers trying to help children cope with and understand the ways this world can terrify them (and adults). Recommended.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion (above)..


3 Stars

Flying Alone by Beth Ruggiero York: A Young Woman Takes Flight

 

Flying Alone

Flying Alone: A Memoir

by Beth Ruggiero York

eARC, 202 pg.
2019

Read: October 14-15, 2019


When she was 14 years old, Elizabeth flew for the first time—as she says, it was the first time she’d been that excited since her father died the previous year—and she made a promise to herself that she’d learn to fly.

Her plan had been to join the Navy and become a pilot, which would put her on the fast track to being an airline pilot (her ultimate goal). This was derailed by a diagnosis of probable MS, the Navy would no sooner train a pilot who’d likely develop MS than they would one who had the disease. So, that door closed, she’d go the private sector route—it’d take longer, but it’d still get her where she wanted to go.

The book really takes off (ouch, sorry, didn’t mean that pun, but I can’t bring myself to edit that) as she’s about to get her private license at a small flying school in Massachusetts. The book traces her development as a pilot in a culture not really receptive to female pilots (but not hostile to the idea, it didn’t seem), through various stages in her progress—eventually through different employers. We see her navigating through both successes and setbacks, and how she’d move on from either up to the point of making it to her goal—flying for TWA.

A near-constant presence in the book is her primary flying instructor and eventual significant other, Steve. I never liked the guy, and I am not sure I can understand why anyone would. But, this is written years after Steve and the author had gone their separate ways, and she’s writing with the full advantage of hindsight. So York displays all the warning signs she spent years ignoring while they were together because it seems like she can’t understand all of what she was doing with him either.

If this were a novel, I’d be complaining about how little we get of Elizabeth’s friend and student, Melanie. Melanie sees Steve for who he is and encourages Elizabeth to take some of the early steps she’ll need to advance her career. She also encourages her to get away from Steve—advice that is rejected (but maybe takes root). I enjoyed her presence in the book and can imagine she’d have been fun to hang out with at the time.

For me, seeing the various kind of jobs that a pilot can hold—and what they entail—was the best part of this book. Yeah, it’s disillusioning how many corners were cut (when not ignored) along the way (and I’m guessing the statute of limitations has passed for many of these)—but the various companies and duties were fascinating. It was also refreshing to see some of the pilots worrying about things like that, as well as displaying that there were people around her that had her best interests at heart (or at least would back her when needed).

It’s been a while since I saw anyone do this, but remember back when movies would end by telling us what would happen to various characters in the future? York finishes this book with a quick summary of what befell many of the people/companies we’d met along the way. It’s a nice touch here.

But before that, we get a very quick recap of her life in the last chapter and epilogue. Between the penultimate and the final chapter, she jumps a little over a year in time to get us to her interview (and hiring) by TWA. After taking things so methodically up to that point, it felt abrupt to make that jump, like we’d missed a lot. There’s probably a good reason for York’s choice there, but it felt like she was in a rush to meet a deadline so she skimmed over that year. And then didn’t really give us a lot about the early days with TWA. I think that’s my major criticism of the writing—she just sped past that last year and stopped. I think a little time talking about her initial experience flying for a major airline would’ve been nice—maybe she’s saving that for the sequel? (It didn’t seem like that was the intention, but it’d work)

You really feel like you’re getting behind the scenes of small airports, freight and charter companies. People like Tom Wolfe can make maverick pilots sound exciting and romantic. York makes the idea sound dreadful and a real threat to safety in the air and on the ground below flight paths. Superman tried to reassure Lois when he said, “I hope this hasn’t put you off of flying. Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel.” Frankly, after reading parts of this book, I could use someone telling me that.

The book feels honest—it doesn’t seem like she glossed over her own faults or highlighted others’ at her own gain (or the other way around). There’s a sense of “here’s some smart things I did,” “here’s a bad decision I/he/they made,” “here’s stuff that happened that could have gone either way and worked out okay.” It’d have been pretty easy to make herself “the good guy”, or everyone else “the bad guy”. Instead, we got a bunch of humans being human.

This is a quick read, an insightful read, and an effective read—I wasn’t sure what to expect out of Flying Alone, but I don’t think I got it. What I got, however, was better—I’d recommend it. A story about a woman succeeding on her terms—while overcoming issues and problems beyond her control and as a direct result of her choices—not overly romantic, not overly sentimental, and not afraid to show her own deficiencies. This is the kind of memoir we need more of.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Which is what she got. Honest, not timely—I do feel bad about not getting this up in late September, or anytime in October. I tried.


3 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

A Bloody Arrogant Power by Malcolm J. Wardlaw: One of the Darkest Dystopias I Remember, with Just a Hint of Light

A Bloody Arrogant Power

A Bloody Arrogant Power

by Malcolm J. Wardlaw
Series: Sovereigns of the Collapse, #1

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
Plutonic Books Ltd, 2019

Read: October 3-7, 2019


When Wardlaw approached me about reading this book he described it as ” My best effort is to say it is ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Downton Abbey’, although I’m not sure that is really all that helpful.” He’s right—it’s a good effort, and it’s not all that helpful. But it’s close—A Bloody Arrogant Power doesn’t have any of the kind of stories you’d find in Downton, but a dystopian Lady Mary and Mr. Carson could absolutely exist in this world. I’m not sure that’s more helpful than Wardlaw’s pitch, but I think it gets closer.

It’s 2106, and we’re a couple of generations past the societal collapse and the first attempt at rebuilding Western Society—or at least English Society (not really sure what happened in the rest of the world, assuming something did). There are some hints at what led to the economic and political collapse (I think the former precipitated the latter), but what we mostly see are the systems that arose to replace them and how they were designed to ensure the mistakes of the past weren’t repeated (in what’s dubbed “The Glorious Resolution”).

One of the things that developed was the idea that each parcel of land could support X amount of human life. Each year those ruling each territory would have to balance out their resources and the population—eliminating the “surplus” to keep things moving, “discharging them to the public drains.” True to form, to keep people from thinking about this too much, it’s always about the surplus population, never about people, individuals, etc.—no, it’s the dehumanized “surplus.” The most disturbing part of this idea is that the whole of England seems to think this way—it’s not until the last 10% of the book that anyone seems to have a problem with this. I certainly don’t want to suggest that it’s a problem with the book that this is the case, it’s not surprising at all that an entire nation (if not the world) will temporarily buy into a horrible idea to the degree that no one thinks of objecting to it. I can absolutely accept a world where people are officially deemed as “surplus” and disposed of accordingly. In fact, there are those who’ve been warning us about being on that slippery slope. It’s just depressing to see that idea so prevalent. I don’t know if Wardlaw intended readers to fixate on this, but I sure did. It permeated so much of the book and horrified me at each brush with the idea.

On the whole, the infodumps he uses to explain the world to his readers are done very well—he never overwhelms or bogs down the story with them. We get a little here, a little there, scattered throughout. I do think Wardlaw could’ve been a little closer to overwhelming in the beginning—I had to read a little too far into the book before I really had an idea how things worked here (and I’m not convinced I sussed it all out correctly). It’s clear that Wardlaw did a fantastic job creating this world, I just wish he’d done a better job showing it to the reader so we could appreciate it.

The protagonist, Donald Aldingford, is a barrister. He’s not one of the ruling class—but he’s adjacent to it. He gets to see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes in the government and is on the cusp of moving up in society to a position of distinction and honor. Then a few things happen that threaten to derail this.

First, he meets a younger woman who is about as far from privilege as you can get. There’s something about her that appeals to Donald. Secondly, she brings news of his brother. Donald’s spent years pretending he doesn’t exist—in fact, there are few people who are aware Donald has a brother. He’s in legal trouble that seems impossible to fix and there’s a growing chance that this association will become public knowledge and the scandal will probably ruin Donald’s career and family. Thirdly, a reform group is gaining momentum, and there are rumors flying about a Revolution coming.

None of the characters that we spend much time with are in the forefront of the reform party, but they are in the general orbit of that. I like this approach to things, we’re not dealing with Katniss or Tris here—we’re dealing with someone from Katniss’ town, or one of the students that rallied behind Tris—that kind of thing. So we can see what’s going on, but we don’t have to be in the thick of it.

While that’s a nice touch, the characters all could’ve used a little more work. I think it’s largely a space/time issue—there’s so much being established and happening in this book, that Wardlaw doesn’t get a chance to round out the characters—they’re all close (except for the sovereign that Donald spends most of his professional life serving—he might as well be twirling a mustache and tying people to railway tracks), but I never felt like I knew enough about them to care if they survived. It’s an understandable problem given what he set out to accomplish in this book, but it is a problem.

I liked A Bloody Arrogant Power—just not as much as I wanted to. It’s a wonderfully conceived novel—the execution could use a little more work, though. It’s one of the best worlds I can remember (narratively speaking, not literally) in dystopian fiction lately. I expect in future books (there are a couple planned) that Wardlaw won’t have to spend so much time establishing the world/culture and he can just jump into what the characters are doing, who they are and how can they make their way in the world. He sets the stage for some intriguing sequels, too. I really do want to know what happens after the rather abrupt ending and will be watching for the book.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for this post, but as always, my opinions remain my own.


3 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

XYZ by William Knight: A Grouchy Computer Programmer Struggles to Find his Place

XYZ

XYZ: One Man, Two Kids, Ten Devices and an Internet-Sized Generation Gap

by William Knight

Kindle Edition, 216pg.
2019

Read: October 11, 2019

I’m one of the original computer geeks…

I was in the first intake for Computer Science O Level at my local college, and I signed up for a computer programming degree when the rest of the world was still using slide rules and copying documents in purple ink…

I was part of a small wave of silicon-brained cool kids that was destined to become a tsunami. My generation was going to make the world a better place and in record time. We had ideas of perfect information, total transparency, evidence-based-government and university for all. We were the builders of Utopia and the founders of global prosperity…

I hadn’t then realised the destiny for which I was headed. It was nothing more than fun. Fun to spend 10p on a video game and bash the console into submission. Fun to program pretty patterns on a screen and load games from a floppy disk, and fun to be part of the BBC’s Micro Live phenomenon, when the broadcaster sponsored its own computer as part of its remit to educate the masses.

And it remained fun until it became a trap, when computers ceased to be the promise of progress and instead became the terrorists of truth. Somewhere along the way, I turned from God of Silicon to an anorak-wearing dweeb, and from dweeb to a lonely fifty-five-year-old bastard. One at the end of his career, hopelessly out of touch, and unable to operate his own phone.

WTF happened?

What becomes of someone who saw himself as one of those who’d bring in a technological utopia and finds themselves trying to survive in the era of smart phone-ubiquity and social media dumpster fire? Well, judging by our protagonist, Jack Cooper—you get (at best) a curmudgeon who feels alienated in the industry he helped establish, estranged from your family, and hoping to remain relevant and productive (and employed!) long enough to retire.

We meet Jack on his first day at a new employer—a personal finance app corporation. He’s had a number of first days at various corporations lately, and his daughter is concerned that if he’s not careful this could be the last one. Despite his wide-ranging experience lately, he’s still in for a giant dose of culture shock and unclear expectations when he gets to work. Even after a period of acclimation, he’s still feeling like a fish out of water amidst these young people more focused on the internal chat program, employee fulfillment/empowerment, and lack of accountability than they are on actually producing something useful and on-time.

In other words, things aren’t going well for him. But at least he can go home and drink to excess at the pub across the street, right?

Meanwhile, he and his wife are separated (he’s still paying the mortgage on their home, in addition to the rent on his flat), he’s not speaking to his son (Jack can’t accept his life as a furry), and his relationship with his daughter is on the precipice of disaster. Which makes that drinking to excess a lot more tantalizing.

Then, while in a meeting with his superior about his job performance, he finds himself telling her how attracted to her he is. Jack’s last chance is looking pretty slim indeed.

This is a novel clearly in the vein of Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss/A Man Called Ove, where a grumpy older man clashes with a world that’s changing faster than he’s ready for it. Yes, that’s right, Gen Xers are now old enough to get our own books like this, which is depressing enough to suck the fun out of this book. Typically, these books are written from a Third-Person POV, but XYZ is a First-Person Narrator. This puts the reader firmly in his cantankerous, drunken, obstinate, and angry head. Honestly, it’s a little easier to have any sympathy for these types of characters when you’re not drowning in their anger (or at least steeping in it), but seeing it from the outside.

Still, there is plenty of fun to be had in this book. A lot of it is fun at Jack’s expense—laughter is the best way to react to his cringe-worthy behavior, otherwise, you’d end up being pretty censorious. Although you won’t be able to avoid judging Jack a little bit. There are times (the Prologue is a great example) when Jack’s loathing of the cultural moment (particularly in tech corporations) comes through stronger than the humor and it’s hard to take (and I agree with Jack in almost every bit of his counter-cultural thinking).

But, as with Ove/Chandra and the rest of the type, Jack manages to find a measure of acceptance for those around him, and is even able to do some work on repairing familial relationships (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say either of those things, that’s sort of how this kind of book works). As this happens, the book is at it’s strongest and easiest to enjoy/relate to. I do wonder if that portion of the novel is a bit rushed—we get plenty of time to watch Jack make a train-wreck of his professional and personal lives (which weren’t in great shape before he makes it worse), it’d be nice if we could see him get his feet back under him a bit more clearly.

On the whole, it’s a fun book—a great combination of humor, heart, and growth. Sure, some of the edges could be a bit smoother, but on the whole, this is an entertaining read. It can be easily read by a wide-range of readers—those of us who played Space Invaders when it was near the cutting-edge of technology, as well as those who can’t get over its primitive design and game-play. It’s charming, it’ll make you smile, it’ll give you a feel or two (to use a phrase Jack would hate). Recommended.


3 Stars


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

Love Books Group

The Dead of Winter by A. B. Gibson: A Creepy Tale Perfect for October Reading

The Dead of Winter

The Dead of Winter

by A. B. Gibson

Kindle Edition, 154 pg.
Consolidated Gibson, 2017

Read: October 10-11, 2019


I’m going to preface this post with this: The Dead of Winter is not my kind of book. That’s not an evaluative statement—I didn’t read the blurb as carefully as I should’ve, it’s just not the kind of thing I’d typically read. Like collections of haiku, Amish Romances, or Military Fiction. Given that, take what I’m going to say with the appropriately-sized portion of salt, it’s probably better than I think it is.

When I was in junior high/high school, I remembered we’d frequently find ourselves watching some Horror/Thriller kind of movie where a handful of teens/young adults would go on a trip, find themselves in a remote area being terrorized/hunted/killed by locals. Sometimes they’d get away (sometimes they wouldn’t); sometimes they’d stop the locals (sometimes they wouldn’t); more often than not, it’d be a mixture of the two and any victory would be Pyrrhic.

In this case, we have 5 twenty-somethings who agree to meet at the Pumpkin Patch Bed and Breakfast for a weekend of picking apples and pumpkins and having fun with hayrides and the Giant Corn Maze.

One of their number (the one who was supposed to arrive first), isn’t around when the others check-in, they assume she’s uncharacteristically decided to not come at the last minute. Then another guest comes to them with a warning about strange happenings and disappearances around the B&B, which they just laugh off. The hayride features some horror F/X that’s disturbingly real and the scarecrows are dressed really fashionably.

Which gets the friends set on edge and starting to wonder if the other guest was on to something—if only she hadn’t left in the middle of the night so they could ask her some questions.

Before they realize what’s happening, the four are separated and largely isolated; Ma and Pa seem to be less hospitable and down-homey; and their children are less eccentric and not-well-socialized and more menacing and disturbing. Things get worse from there.

The plot was at the same time exactly what you know it’s going to be, yet it kept going in unexpected directions with unexpected results. It plays to the conventions of the genre but not always in the ways you’d predict.

The young professionals and other guests weren’t as fleshed out and developed as you might hope—but they don’t need to be for this kind of story. Their antagonists aren’t either, but they are more multifaceted and are the embodiment of hazardous. Which is exactly what you want.

As I said, the book was never really going to work for me. But it kept me engaged, kept me turning the pages, and kept me wondering just how messed up the ending was going to be (the answer: very). The Dead of Winter didn’t make a fan out of me, but I can easily see where it’d make fans of many other people. I hope it finds its audience—and if you’re the kind of reader who likes this sort of story, you should really give it a shot.


3 Stars

My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

Love Books Group

Relief by Execution by Gint Aras: Reflections on Societal Woes from a Different Angle on the Holocaust

Relief by Execution

Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen

by Gint Aras

eARC, 94 pg.
Little Bound Books, 2019

Read: September 21, 2019


This is a short book (long essay), that to really get into would render the reading of the content pointless, so I’ve got to hold back some of what I want to say. The official blurb is a good starting point for a few thoughts I have in reaction to this essay:

Between the years of 1996-1999, Gint Aras lived a hapless bohemian’s life in Linz, Austria. Decades later, a random conversation with a Polish immigrant in a Chicago coffeehouse provokes a question: why didn’t Aras ever visit Mauthausen, or any of the other holocaust sites close to his former home? The answer compels him to visit the concentration camp in the winter of 2017, bringing with him the baggage of a childhood shaped by his family of Lithuanian WWII refugees.

Thus far, I’m on board with it—Aras blends recollections of the visit with glimpses of his past—the racism, the abuse, the ways of thinking that he was raised in, and then applying that to American society. I think this is a solid idea, but not terribly uncommon. What makes this better is the perspective Aras brings to it. Rather than identifying with the inmates, the victims of the holocaust; he puts himself in the shoes of the guards, of the soldiers carrying out the orders that those of us separated by a distance of miles, years and context can’t imagine.

Or, as the blurb concludes:

The result is this meditative inquiry, at once lyrical and piercing, on the nature of ethnic identity, the constructs of race and nation, and the lasting consequences of collective trauma.

It’s this part that I found wanting. The length of this essay didn’t work for me — Aras either spent too much time on things he didn’t properly develop, or he spent too much time talking about things that didn’t add enough value to the essay. Either fully developing things—which would probably take another 50 or so pages (just a guess)—or trimming about half the length to give a tighter, more controlled argument would have made this a stronger piece of writing.

I enjoyed the writing generally, but too often (not really frequently, but not rarely enough) his writing got in the way of what he was trying to do. His style was too elaborate, his vocabulary obfuscated, and he just got in his own way.

Lastly, I think the essay would’ve been better served with more about his actual time in Mauthausen.

In summary, I think this is a great concept, but I couldn’t get behind the execution—often overwritten, and either too short or too long. Still, this is worth your time. You’ll end up thinking about things in a different way, which is always beneficial. It’s a short read. It’s a compelling read. Sure, it’s a problematic read—but the positives outweigh that.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via Lori @ TNBBC Publicity in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


3 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge