Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Reviews: The Devil's Hatband, The World of Ice and Fire, Gotti's Rules

The Devil's Hatband
by Robert Greer
This was Greer's first novel and the beginning of his C.J. Floyd series which we earlier discussed here. The title refers to the barbed wire that ranchers use. There were lengthy and magnificent descriptions of the great western outdoors in all of its glory. I guess that if you are a person who enjoys being outside all the time then these vivid portrayals might be right up your alley. I found a few of them slightly overdone, like a sweet potato pie left in the oven too long. Speaking of food though I did appreciate the culinary accounts, as they reminded me of many family dishes or other kitchen creations found in traditional African-American restaurants. So there was that. Floyd can't always or at least openly enjoy much of this food as he is on a diet. Or at least he is supposed to be. When you cheat on a diet you're only cheating yourself but Floyd is okay with that.
Although C.J. Floyd is a lowly Denver bail bondsman and occasional bounty hunter he's really effectively a private eye in this story. He's a Vietnam Vet who's done his share and then some of killing. Back in the US, he's inherited his uncle's business. It's not much of a business but it is his. He always makes payroll but rarely has enough left over for profit. One of Floyd's fellow bondsmen is a bigoted white man who works Floyd's nerves but always stops just short of anything that would require fisticuffs. Still given Floyd's internal nationalist critiques I was surprised that there were not more verbal confrontations between Floyd and this man. After all it's not like Floyd works for him. The bond business is color coded. It's rare that Floyd gets the opportunity to work with wealthier or white criminals. Many of the black criminals either try to play on his nascent nationalistic feelings to avoid paying him back or literally just don't have the money. So when two shady black corporate executives enter his office and promise Floyd big money plus expenses and cash up front to find a young woman named Brenda Mathison and the documents she stole from their company, Floyd isn't exactly in a place where he can say no. He hems and haws to make it look like he isn't desperate but we all know, the bills must be paid no matter what.

Brenda is the daughter of a black federal judge. The judge sits on the board of directors of the company from which Brenda stole. The judge wants his daughter and the documents back ASAP and the whole affair kept quiet. The last thing the judge wants is the attention of the media or the police. Brenda has joined with a militant environmentalist movement named PlanetFirst. These are people who want to go way beyond things like spiking trees or suing polluters. Along with two men Brenda leads the group's most extreme faction. Brenda is involved romantically with at least one of the men. Her group's plans have encouraged possibly violent opposition from local ranchers, many of whom are hard men who don't like people messing with their business. But when Floyd finds Brenda strangled to death he has to figure out who killed Brenda and why. There's also someone who's literally gunning for Floyd. There are many suspects, including a particularly nasty gang member with a long memory and a serious grudge against Floyd. Someone might have been trying to set him up for Brenda's murder. There are also subplots about good love gone bad, racist cops, pathological science and the aforementioned beauty of the great outdoors. I was curious about the fact that Floyd chooses to eat in a diner where an ex works. They even have a relatively cordial relationship. I might reach that emotional state many years after the breakup I guess but initially I think I'd absolutely have to find someplace else to eat!!! Otherwise looking at her would bring up too many bad memories. Floyd occasionally has reason to regret his dining location. His former flame reminds him (usually obliquely but occasionally directly) of the reasons why they couldn't make it work. That would just get on my nerves. This was an okay read but I didn't like it as much as Greer's later work. Some plot twists came out of left field to surprise me. Others were very predictable. I don't mean that in a bad way. Maybe a better phrase might be comfortably familiar. The book reminded me of why it's never a good idea to let strangers into your home or place of work.

The World of Ice and Fire

By George R.R. Martin, Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson
Ok. This is not, repeat not, an entry in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire. So if you're expecting that don't get this book. It's not a prequel either. It's not even a mostly definitive "this is what happened" Silmarillion style backstory for the world that Martin has created. However that last description is likely the closest. This is a hardcover lavishly bound coffee table book with high quality paper, great illustrations and plenty of sly comedy within. A Ser Kermit has a son named Ser Elmo. 
This book purports to be the history of Westeros and much of the known world. It's allegedly told by different people who likely have reasons for putting their own spin on past events. So the narrators are quite unreliable. Some people argue that history is not about what happened so much as it is trying to convince or make people in the present day accept a particular interpretation about what happened and why. For example if the Lannisters remain on top and win then certainly their history books will detail Ned's failed northern conspiracy to take the Iron Throne, the Tully treason and the desperate Stannis' ugly lies about his sister-in-law, nephews and nieces. If the North should restart the war and successfully defeat the Boltons and their Lannister overlords then Northern history texts written afterwards will gush about the Stark Restoration led by Queen Sansa or King Rickon. And so on. Anyhow this book details the beliefs and practices of the First Men, the invasions of the Andals and Rhoynish, and ultimately the Valyrian Targaryens. This tome (in some cases exhaustively) lists the various kings(Targaryen and otherwise) who ruled over Westeros or its constituent sub-kingdoms. The book is organized by region so if you just want background on say the Tyrells you can read the section concerned with The Reach and learn all about their rise to power. Different cultural practices are examined and exalted or derided. We learn the story of Robert's Rebellion, the creation of the Wall, why and how Tywin Lannister dealt so sharply with his father's enemies, Targaryen incest, the great deeds of Barristan Selmy, how dragons can be killed and many other historical events that have mostly been only briefly alluded to in the HBO show and only somewhat more so in the previously published books. The World of Ice and Fire also gives some information about Essos and the Free Cities and the Summer Isles. It gives short shrift to eastern continents and an alleged continent to the far south of Essos. The book also points out that there may be unknown lands over the western sea.

This book is obviously going to appeal primarily to Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire hardcore fans. Everyone else might be better off flipping thru this at the library, borrowing it from a hardcore fan you know or just browsing it at your local bookstore. Everyone should enjoy the wonderful elaborate artwork detailing the characters, banners and houses. However to be honest the text drags and becomes repetitive in a few places. There's only so many times that you can read that King so-n-so was a lech or King what's-his-face murdered his mother or King who-shot-John was a transvestite before it all starts to run together. This came out in October for $50 but you can currently pick up a new copy for $25 or less if you're so inclined. Again, this is not a novel. It's a compendium. There aren't "spoilers" for the TV show or the published books. It's very long but then again I suppose it should be. It is very obviously not Martin's writing style throughout--thus the co-authors.

Gotti's Rules: The story of John Alite, Junior Gotti and the Demise of the American Mafia

by George Anastasia
If you're not into mob stories then this is not a book for you. George Anastasia is a notable crime reporter and author who usually writes about organized crime in Philadelphia and the South Jersey area. For this book he heads north to New York City to tell us the life story of one John Alite, a vicious Albanian-American mobster who started out in Queens, befriended Junior Gotti, John Gotti's son, and rose to brief prominence in certain organized crime circles. Obviously things didn't quite work out like Alite planned. Alite ignored cryptic and not so cryptic warnings from Willie Boy Johnson, an Italian-Native American hoodlum who soured on the life and on John Gotti's racist insults. Johnson allegedly said that although it was too late for him Alite had non-criminal talents which he ought to pursue. Of course maybe Alite made this up. We can't ask Johnson because John Gotti had him murdered shortly after he was revealed to be an informant. You might say that as Alite can't physically get to Junior Gotti, whom he hates worse than cancer, and saw the government fail in its numerous attempts to incarcerate Junior Gotti, this book is his attempt to murder Junior Gotti's reputation as well as that of the entire extended Gotti clan. Although organized crime is an equal opportunity employer, the Mafia is most definitely not. Although he and his Italian-American partners, friends, rivals and bosses bond with each other over serious contempt for non-whites, primarily Blacks, as an non-Italian Alite is ineligible to be admitted to the Mafia's inner circle to become "made". That's reserved for Italians only. Alite doesn't mind this at first because he is a better earner and more physically dangerous than some made men. However the Mafia bylaws are clear that in any dispute between a made guy and a non-made guy the made guy is always right. So the enthusiastically violent Alite suffered a humiliating public pistol whipping from a made guy named Carmine Agnello. For Alite to even raise his hands in defense or attempt to seek revenge would have theoretically meant his own death. But all things considered he got off light because we later learn that Alite claimed to have had physical relations with Agnello's wife (and Junior's sister) Victoria Gotti. 

There is a death penalty for seducing or even flirting with any made man's wife or female relative. However people being people this rule is often ignored. Victoria Gotti has steadfastly denied that any such relationship ever took place. A proven affair would have 
greatly embarrassed Victoria Gotti and forced the hands of the Gotti-Agnello clan. Alite was earning a lot of money for Junior and his father. Alite initially had a healthy respect for the elder Gotti but had increasing disdain for Junior Gotti. Alite thought that Junior was an example of both low intelligence and nepotism. As Alite learned exactly how disposable all the Gottis considered him to be his disillusionment increased exponentially. And so did his dislike for and disrespect of Junior, often called "Urkel" behind his back because of his glasses and poor fashion sense. Alite was quick to take offense to slights. Alite describes ignoring Junior's order to get him an ashtray precisely because Junior "ordered" instead of "asked".

Alite's primary business was drug dealing, under the secret aegis of the Gotti crew. He later branched out into bookmaking, extortion, armed robbery and loan sharking among other things. Although Alite was relatively slight at 5-8 and well under 200 pounds, he was an athlete and boxer with a widely known and well deserved reputation for being extremely quick and equally dangerous with his hands, gun, baseball bat or knife. There were a number of murders and countless beatings or other assaults which Alite committed for Junior, the elder Gotti or for his own reasons. Alite even shot his cousin over a business dispute.
This is yet another book which gives the lie to the whole "Men of Honor" myth. So many of Alite's stories are EXACTLY the same as those you might read from a Hispanic or Black criminal. A thug is a thug regardless of race even though that word has become racialized. People are often shot or otherwise badly hurt not just because of "business" but because someone was drunk or was allegedly seen talking to someone's girlfriend/sister/wife/mother or lost a card game or just because it was the weekend and someone felt like flexing their muscles or bullying someone. There's no gallantry or respect for women. Alite was briefly a pimp; one of Junior Gotti's uncles allegedly raped and murdered a woman. Although Alite glories in pointing out Gotti hypocrisy (he provides proof of a Gotti initiated proffer to the feds) like most of us he overlooks his own nonsense. He claims to have never hurt anyone who wasn't "in the life" but seemingly forgets about the Florida bouncers he shot, beat and terrorized for an extortion racket he ran. The story is told almost entirely from Alite's POV with Anastasia interjecting undisputed facts only rarely. The book was interesting but as more and more mobsters testify against each other there is a nagging "been there, done that" feel to much of this story.
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