Book Review-The Last Jazz Band by Charles Boeckman

Title: The Last Jazz Band

Author: Charles Boeckman

Format: Paperback Edition by Jazztex Publishing Company

Published: 2011

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Charles Boeckman recently passed away, less than a month from the day I’m writing this review. For those who are not familiar with Mister Boeckman, he was 94 when he passed and had been writing since the 1930s, beginning in Pulp Magazines and moving to the digest magazines of the 1950s and on into books and collections, right up until last year when Pro Se Productions published his last fiction work.  Known largely as a writer of mysteries, crime stories, and westerns, Mister Boeckman was also quite well known as a jazz musician and band leader in Texas.  As a matter of fact, much of Boeckman’s fiction blended the genres of mystery and crime with his love for jazz, many of his characters actually being musicians of some type, everyone from Johnny Nickle who played the trumpet on a cursed song to Big Lip who solved a murder out of loyalty to a friend.

The Last Jazz Band in a way can be seen as autobiographical fiction to a point as it focuses on a Jazz band that forms shortly after World War II in Corpus Christi, Texas, Boeckman’s hometown.  Boeckman’s own life experiences definitely color every word, you can almost hear every peal of laughter and every note of music as the story of Charlie Niel unfolds. Neil, a veteran of the Second World War, returns home to find his wife has died. Without a life now, he returns to the one he’d known before flying dangerous missions overseas and reconnects with his old buddy, Ted Riley, a rounder of drinker who blows a mean tenor sax.  Along with Skinny Lang, a bass player, and Cemetery Wilson, the piano player who owns the car that will be their transportation, Niel and Riley put a combo together that really sings. And that’s just where the fun, pathos, and adventure starts.

The Last Jazz Band is a book that actually makes me think a lot of M*A*S*H, the Richard Hooker books, not the movie or tv series.  The way these two works are similar is the almost real life, accidental way that the characters in both come together and how they blend in unexpected, yet heart touching ways.  Boeckman not only nails the jazz musician aspects of these characters, but he really captures the emotional weight that their own individual lives leave them with and how their time in the band both relieves and adds to what they carry.

The only true negative to The Last Jazz Band is the feeling that Boeckman could have gone even further.  The disconnected way the story is told, sort of how real life happens, is engaging, but it also feels like that just about when the characters are on the verge of blossoming or collapsing, when it seems we are just about to get some really neat insight, Boeckman moves on to the next episode in their lives.  It is usually a desire of a reader to be left wanting more, but there were too many places in The Last Jazz Band where that feeling was one of emptiness, not anticipation.

Charles Boeckman’s The Last Jazz Band deserves four out of five pages. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz, there is something in this book for every person who has ever had that one friend that might not be the best person, but was the best friend you could have at the moment.  Combine that with Boeckman’s love for Jazz almost rising off the page and this is a winner.

The Last Jazz Band gets Five out of Six bullets in my gun as well.  Although I wish there’d been a bit more meat on the bone, it delivers fairly well as it is.

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Book Review- The Sleep Detectives by Matthew Bieniek

Title: The Sleep Detectives

Author: Matthew Bieniek

Format: Paperback edition by Matthew Bieniek

Published: 2013

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This review, in all honesty, is actually an older review of mine.  It is not one that has ever appeared here, but was posted once long ago on my now deceased personal review blog.  The reason it is being posted here, slightly updated to allow for the passage of time and new thoughts, is that due to a series of circumstances worthy of a fictionalization at some point when I’m really hard up for material, my previous blog is completely missing from the ether of the internet now, a vacant lot on the information superhighway.  The author has asked more than once to see this review, so after scrounging up the document I originally posted, I have decided to make sure he- and the rest of the world- sees it here.

Set in 1983, The Sleep Detectives focuses on Tony, who is a regular run of the mill type guy who works in a grocery store. That is, a regular guy who has the ability to use his dreams to essentially go back in time to watch past events as they actually occurred.  Using this strange ‘power’ to catch legendary concerts and such that he’s missed, Tony, with the encouragement of his two friends, Danny and Mike, decides to try to put this mental time travel to better use, to help others find things they’ve lost.  What follows is the development of not only Tony’s ability, but also his growing pseudo career of uncovering secrets and finding the truth while he sleeps.  Although this is not a high action adventure novel, Tony and his friends end up in a situation that places them and those they hold close in danger and have to decide if it is best to continue to use Tony’s gift for others or if he should go back to watching Jimi Hendrix in action.

The Sleep Detectives is an odd little book, and that is very good in this case.  It is quite honestly as if the author has put a camera into Tony’s world and just so happened to catch an interesting situation, one that he continues to follow, much to the joy of the reader.  Bieniek builds characters slowly, deliberately, revealing things about Tony and his buddies as necessary, not wastefully.  The author carries this skill even further by giving a vibrant life to even the most rudimentary of supporting characters, such as the bad guys involved and Tony’s boss.  This book is equal parts mystery peppered with the supernatural in a sense and slice of life/growing up in the 1980s.  All in all, a pleasant experience with just enough unique to stand out.

As far as the writing goes, the author’s voice is strong overall.  There are moments in the book that could be more intense, have more impact. Most of those relate to the actual danger that Tony and others find themselves in.  It feels as if the author is trying to make those events seem as commonplace as the rest of the ‘slice of life’ aspect of the book.  I understand that desire, but I think those scenes would have benefitted from a tighter narrative and more descriptive phrasing.

The Sleep Detectives definitely demands a 4 out of 5 pages from me.  It is most definitely a book anyone interested in quirky action and characters to match would enjoy.  Using my own scale, this book definitely gets 5 out of 6 bullets, only losing ground slightly during the scenes fraught with danger.

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