Tag Archives: Michigan

Down the Drain

Beer-Money-Cover

Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

Beer Money 2

Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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Broken Arrow

Die A Stranger (nook book)

Die a Stranger: An Alex McKnight Novel by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 288 pages)

Steve Hamilton’s Die a Stranger is his 11th novel and 10th in the Alex McKnight series. He has won two Edgars, a Shamus and an Alex Award for his crime fiction, and an award from The Private Eye Writers of America. He can write. He constructs effective plots without being overbearing and his characters are worth caring about.

McKnight, a former cop and sometime private investigator, is once again drawn into the evil that pervades and invades the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He has a shady past, but his moral center carries these novels as he throws away the book and generally saves everyone from others or themselves, while trying to reconcile his conscience with his actions. In short, with McKnight, the ends justify the means.

This is the second Hamilton-authored novel that I have reviewed (the first was Misery Bay), and I will admit that I mostly like his work. Objectively, this is how I depict Die a Stranger.

Drug smugglers exploit the Canadian border, and, by coincidence, innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders in Paradise, Michigan, become players with life and death on the line. Vinnie LeBlanc, a sober individual with a former drunkard for a father struggles with the blurred lines between life on the reservation and a life free from his onerous past. One night after a funeral, he goes off the wagon and shows up missing. Since McKnight was LeBlanc’s caretaker during that evening of modest revelry, he must attempt to find the man when he goes missing the next morning.

McKnight loses control, situations evolve, and when LeBlanc’s father reappears, McKnight pairs up with him in the quest to find the missing person. Multiple narrow and improbable escapes take the reader to the end. For me the bottom line is this: The beginning of the novel is strong and draws the reader in. A last minute plot twist (not uncommon for this genre) adds something to the ending after things have stalled out. I initially thought I would like this book – and I wanted to, but I do not think the “chase” is effective. The partnering of McKnight with LeBlanc’s father comes off as overly contrived and simply does not work.

Die a Stranger (back cover)

I thought this novel had a great deal of potential but it kind of got off track – or left the reservation. Still, this book is recommended for general readers and for fans of private investigator/private detective novels.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator in the Midwest and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Here is a review of Misery Bay: An Alex McKnight Novel by Steve Hamilton:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/misery/

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Detroit Breakdown

Detroit Shuffle: A Mystery by D. E. Johnson (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

Detroit Shuffle (nook book)

“God knows it could snap apart right now / Just like putting scissors to a string.” Bob Dylan (“God Knows”)

D. E. Johnson’s fourth book chronicles crime and graft in the Motor City at the onset of the 20th Century. Will Anderson is presumed to be insane and his lover, Elizabeth Hume – a woman’s rights activist – is the target of an assassin.

Anderson is perhaps a bit decadent, but not crazy mad. He embarks on a quest to save Elizabeth – the presumed target of bootleggers who do not wish for women to have the right to vote. The ending brings her father’s dalliances into the picture and shows that it is more complicated than that.

Will’s former infatuation, Sapphira Xanakis, a prostitute in the hands of the enemy, is central to the action and eventual resolution.

Politicians, businessmen, cops and the underground element are all in bed with one another making it difficult to sort the good guys from the bad guys. For example, Will, a supposed good guy, is fired by his father who views him as a lazy slacker.

The story is told almost exclusively in dialogue, which, for those who like that style is a plus and for others it becomes tiresome. The middle third of the novel muddles along as Will is trying to figure out the best path to heroism. The police chief, Riordan, turns out not to be such a bad guy after all (by this book’s standards) and by the end, he and Will team up to foil those who are after Elizabeth – but not until after multiple wire taps condemn and exonerate the characters.

As the book ends, it is obvious there will be another book in this Detroit Mysteries series. There are highlights but unless one is particularly drawn to certain elements or themes that permeate the book, this is a run of the mill crime novel.

Mildly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Johnson does for early 20th-century Detroit what James Ellroy did for Los Angeles.” Publishers Weekly

Dave Moyer is an educator, sometime musician and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Misery

Misery Bay (nook book)

Misery Bay delivers the goods.

Misery Bay: An Alex McNight Novel by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 320 pages).

“Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill/ I would set him in chains at the top of the hill/ Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille/ He could die happily ever after.” Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues,” Highway 61 Revisited

Steve Hamilton’s Misery Bay is in some ways a typical crime novel. In many ways, however, it is far from typical or cliche. The characters have some moxie and they intrigue the reader and the plot, which is the key to stories of this genre, is far from being formulaic. Hamilton is adept at providing subtle twists and turns just at the point when the reader thinks they finally are on track to reach a satisfying conclusion to the story.

In this novel, a continuation of the Alex McNight mysteries, the former cop and current private investigator, ever the hero, crosses many lines in pursuit of a serial killer. In the process he teams up with police chief Roy Mavens, an unlikely pairing, to jointly face treacherous circumstances at virtually every turn.

The novel takes place primarily in the solitary terrain of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, creating a perfect backdrop to the tenor of the tale and the characters who inhabit it. And, for the true cop-lovers among us, there are cops everywhere: old ones, current ones, dead ones — they’re everywhere!

About a third of the way through, each chapter is introduced with director comments on film scenes. At first, one can see that they generally relate to the story, but they don’t truly make sense until much further into the story. This tactic is a bit annoying initially, but it does spark the reader’s curiousity, and in the end, it clearly works as the story reaches its intriguing climax and ultimate resolution.

If one suspends disbelief just a bit (hey, this is a novel after all), and tolerates a few minor leaps of faith, there is little to quibble with. Mystery Bay satisfies.

Purists might argue with minor specific aspects of the dialogue, details of the police interactions, or the reality of the film scenes or script references, but none of that gets in the way of the reader’s overall enjoyment of the story.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “A wonderful book. A wonderful series.” Harlan Coben, author of Six Years.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Summer of ’68

Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel (Da Capo, $25.00, 288 pages)

“…in 1968, we of the pitching profession came as close to perfect as we’ve ever come in modern times.”   Bob Gibson

There’s a reason the phrase “inside baseball” has come to be used.   And the phrase represents the problems with trying to determine who will want to read the rather awkwardly titled Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel.   If you’re a baseball fanatic, you probably already know about every detail, every fact in this account of the 1968 World Series.   If you’re not, you won’t be able to relate to the names that pop up on every page – many of the details seem to pile on without context.

And then there’s the problem with the sub-title.   Yes, there were assassinations and riots that year that horribly marred the country’s history, but this reader felt that Wendel never adequately made the connection between the socio-political events and the sport covered here.   The story of Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals will spark an interest for some – but, again, if you’re not already a deep-in-the-weeds baseball fan, this retelling will not mean much.

Wendel also tries a bit too hard to make the case that Bob Gibson may have been the best pitcher ever – a case that won’t convince fans of Sandy Koufax and others.   Summer of ’68 is sometimes interesting, but more often it’s just passable reading.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Drive My Car

Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers by Bill Vlasic (William Morrow, $26.99, 400 pages)

The Germans couldn’t change their company’s name back to Daimler fast enough.   Chrysler was a bad memory, and the automotive merger of the century a regrettable failure.

In 2005, the Ford Motor Company built 4.8 million cars and trucks, and sold 3.3 million of them.   This meant that 1.5 million sparkling new cars, SUVs, trucks and pick-ups were destroyed.   Such was the prelude to the disaster that fell upon the auto industry when the U.S. economy hit rock-bottom three years later in the summer of 2008.   Ironically, Ford was the manufacturer left standing, while General Motors (GM) and Chrysler came within days and weeks of shutting down operations forever.

How bad was it?   Well, by the end of ’08, GM was losing $60 million every single day.  Instead of buying 16 million cars a year, Americans were purchasing just 10 million.   Gas prices were up, leases were non-existent, and the home mortgage crisis was in full swing.   As Vlasic puts it, “The U.S. car market had imploded.”

GM had made some tough decisions, but it had not made them soon enough.

This is the tale of that implosion caused by faulty leadership and tepid management at two of the Big Three auto firms.   GM was within just weeks of insolvency when Barack Obama took over as president.   Yet GM’s then-chief, Rick Wagoner, “refused to even discuss bankruptcy as an option” and flew on a fancy corporate jet when he first traveled to D.C. to ask the nation’s politicians for a hand-out.   Wagoner’s leadership proved to be so disastrous that the Obama administration made Wagoner’s resignation one of the pre-requisites for federal support.

In its time of need, GM was missing the one attribute that could save it: credibility.

Wagoner was so detached that, “…he left the actual duties of building cars at arm’s length.”   Vlasic, though, not only details Wagoner’s many failings in this “fly on the corporate wall” account, he also takes us through the hopeful marriage and subsequently messy divorce of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler; and he shows us how and why forward-thinking leadership ensured that Ford would survive without needed dollars from American taxpayers.

Did America care enough about the autoworkers to save them?

(The) help was not simply to save GM or Chrysler, but rather to prevent an economic catastrophe on the order of the Great Depression.

Vlasic’s uber-detailed 400 page reporting will leave even the most skeptical reader with a full and fair understanding of why the federal automobile bailout of 2009 was essential; well, anybody not named Mitt Romney.   For years, the Big Three had been operating on razor thin profits (literally, working for cents on the dollar); in ’08 Ford brought in $38 billion in revenue, of which only $100 million remained as profit.   It was a business model that could not last, especially because more than 3 million jobs in the U.S. were tied to the auto industry.

The Big Three had to hit bottom – or avoid doing so, in Ford’s case – and refocus in order to see a future in which American consumers would prefer to drive a Ford Focus rather than a Hummer or Escalade: “It had a special, European-style direct injection turbocharged engine.”   It’s a new day in Detroit and Once Upon a Car tells the story of how we arrived here, for better rather than worse…  And, baby, you can drive my Focus.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer once served on the Ford Motor Company Consumer Advisory Board.

General Motors lost $45 billion in the last 15 months of Rick Wagoner’s tenure as CEO.

Bill Vlasic is also the co-author of Taken for a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler (2001).

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