Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Close Reach

Close Reach Close Reach by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another story that confirms my firm belief that nothing good ever happens on a boat. The movies and TV alone provide an endless list of real and fictional disasters like Jaws, The Poseidon Adventure, Titanic, A Perfect Storm, All Is Lost, Dead Calm, Captain Phillips, that episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where the gang buys a boat and Dennis makes a chilling explanation of the ‘implications’ when sailing with a lady, that other episode of Sunny when the gang goes on a cruise and everything goes horribly wrong.... Damn. I didn’t realize Sunny had two episodes about boats…Maybe three if you count the time that Frank hijacks the tourist boat to get to the movies…

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Boats. You can keep ‘em.

But some people actually are foolish enough to leave land. Like Kelly and Dean, a couple who have spent a year going around the world on their sailboat Freefall in an effort to save their marriage. Their relationship is on the mend as they’re cruising near Antarctica when they hear a frantic radio call from someone in trouble, and the signal is quickly jammed. They try to find the source of the transmission but have no luck. As they head to South America the radar tells them that a ship is following them, and it’s getting closer.

I’ve become a big fan of Jonathan Moore lately thanks to the excellent trilogy he wrote in which each book had its own particular style. The Poison Artist was moody psychological suspense, The Dark Room had a whodunit mystery vibe, and The Night Market was a near-future sci-fi conspiracy thriller. In the tight 200 pages of Close Reach Moore shows that he can do yet another genre that is equal parts survival-at-sea and horror.

It’s a terrifying story that works in large part due to the detail work Moore put in to make even a landlubber like me understand how the boat functions and what being on your own in a remote part of the ocean is really like. The tension ramps up to nail biting levels as Kelly and Dean try to fight their way through an on-coming storm while the mysterious boat gains on them.

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the story, but suffice it say that when the confrontation comes a whole ugly level of hell is unleashed. Fair warning that this is a dark and brutal story that has blunt and graphic descriptions of all kinds of harm that people can inflict on one another. It made me wince and squirm at several points, but Moore’s skill and pacing keep it from sinking down to the level of torture porn.

The frank nature of the violence isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you’re up for it then you’ll get a fantastically gruesome tale that’ll make you practically taste the salt of the cold ocean spraying across your face.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were a single gal living in post-war Los Angeles you’d probably find Dix Steele absolutely dreamy. After all, he’s a big handsome fella who dresses well and likes to dine out in swell places. He was a fighter pilot in the war, and now he’s working on writing a mystery novel so he’s certainly leading a colorful and interesting life. Just one problem. About once a month he feels a compulsion to strangle a strange woman to death.

Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect, right?

We spend the entire book in Dix’s head starting with him on the prowl for his next victim on a foggy night in the hills, and then he visits his old war buddy Brub. Dix is such a cool customer that he doesn’t flinch when he learns that Brub is one of the police detectives working on the strangler murders, but Brub’s wife Sylvia seems a bit cool to him. As we follow Dix through this daily life we learn that he’s a man filled with anger and resentments as well as wild mood swings that intensify when he starts dating a beautiful neighbor lady.

I was only dimly aware of Dorothy B. Hughes until the recent re-release of this novel made a bunch of the crime writers I follow on social media start gushing about the book and film loosely based on it. That caught my attention, and I can see why they were excited about it. The main thing about it is that it seems way ahead of it’s a time in its depiction of the mindset of a serial killer.

Coincidentally, it also made a good companion piece to be reading while in the middle of watching Netflix’s new series Mindhunter, and Dix seems to exactly fit the pattern of a certain type of woman hating killer. And Dorothy Hughes was creating this character long before the psychology and terminology referring to them would become mainstream thanks to serial killers becoming a profitable true crime industry as well as a staple of thrillers in print and on screen.

Overall, it was a solid piece of work that I would have rated as a strong 3 stars, but then I read the afterword by Megan Abbott which made me think even more highly of it. Mighty Megan makes a lot of great points about how Hughes had tapped in a strain of misogyny that the genre often used, and that she then cleverly subverts it in places in ways that crime fiction hadn’t seen. That hadn’t occurred to me while reading, and it made me realize that there was another layer to the book that I hadn’t quite wrapped my arms around so I bumped it up to 4 stars.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review: Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a review of a Stephen King (& Son) novel being posted on Halloween. SPPOOOOKKKKYYYY!!

Eh….Not so much.

Around the world all the women who fall asleep become enveloped by mysterious cocoons that form almost instantly once they go night-night, and they aren’t waking up. They’re still alive, but if anyone tries to cut or tear open a cocoon the lady inside will pop awake in a psychotic rage in which she’ll immediately try to murder anyone around and then will immediately falls asleep and be cocooned again. (I can relate because I also fly into a homicidal fury if awoken from a nap.)

The small Appalachian town of Dooling is like everywhere else with the women struggling not to fall asleep, but as days pass the number of those awake begin to dwindle. Everything begins to fall apart as some men try to watch over the sleeping women they care for to protect them from jerkfaces who would do them harm. A lady named Evie is arrested for a horrific crime just as everything goes to hell and is locked up in the local women’s prison. Evie shows a supernatural awareness of the people and events around her, and it’s quickly obvious that she’s immune to what’s happening to all the other females. Meanwhile, the sleeping ladies find themselves someplace familiar but very different.

The main idea here is pretty clever as hybrid of a fairy tale story and the beginning an apocalyptic end-of-society-as-we-know-it novel. Trying to get that mixture right is one of the places where I think the book falls down a bit because the more hardnosed elements where people are having to come to terms with what’s happening and prepare for the worst was more compelling than when it went deeper into the paranormal realm aspects of Evie. Yet that’s a vital component to the flip side of the book where we find out what’s going on with the women while they snooze which the book needs. So I’m left struggling to put my finger on why I didn’t like this more.

Maybe the writing itself is a factor. With Uncle Stevie collaborating with Cousin Owen I wasn’t sure what to expect, and you can tell that this isn’t a Stephen King solo effort. It doesn’t feel exactly like one of his novels, but it’s not exactly unlike one either. Even his books co-written with Peter Straub felt more King-ish to me which seems odd. I listened to the audio version of this which included an interview with both authors at the end, and they talked about how instead of trading off chapters or sections that they would leave holes in the middle of what they wrote for the other to fill in a deliberate attempt to keep a reader from figuring out exactly who wrote what. Mission accomplished, but I’m not sure that made for the best book possible.

Another interesting bit in that interview is that this started out as a potential TV series that they wrote some scripts for, and I think that shows through in some of the structure. There’s something that feels episodic about this although again I’m not able to explain exactly why that that is. It’s not all that different from any other book with multiple characters in different locations doing things, but I felt like there were moments when the credits were going to roll. It just reads like a TV show at times is the best way I can explain it.

I’m sure some will be upset at the overall message here which is essentially that women are routinely fucked over by men, and that men overall are pretty awful. (Breaking News: That’s all true.) I admit that there were a few points where I found the male bashing a bit much, but not out of any nutjob MRA style faux indignation about double standards. It’s because I’m a cynic and a misanthrope so I’m fully committed to the belief that deep down all people, men and women, are pure garbage. So while I agree in general that women are less prone to violence as a solution and several other points the book makes I still don’t think that women would make a perfect world. Better? Probably. But not perfect. They’d just find more subtle ways to fuck things up. So for me the Kings’ idea that most women are saints who will always do the right thing that they present here was more wishful thinking than reality.

It’s not a bad book. (Certainly its miles better than The Fireman, another novel written by a King offspring in which a strange disease puts society in peril.) It’s got a good core plot, interesting characters, and decent writing, but it’s too long and never quite gets into the top gear it was straining for. It’ll fall somewhere in the middle of my King rankings.

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Review: The Night Market

The Night Market The Night Market by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from the publisher for review.

Here’s a New Year’s resolution you will actually enjoy. Pick up a copy of this in January of 2018 when it releases and read it as quickly as possible. I promise you that it’ll be a lot more fun than a diet.

In the near future San Francisco is a city where most neighborhoods are so desperately poor that people scavenge wiring and bricks from crumbling buildings to sell for a little cash yet the upscale retail area can wrap a swanky hotel in silk as part of an elaborate launch event for a new perfume. Inspector Ross Carver and his partner Jenner have been doing their best to maintain order, but things seem to get worse by the day.

Carver and Jenner get called to a house where patrol officers have found a body, and the two detectives walk into a horrific sight. Before they can begin to process the scene some federal agents show up claiming jurisdiction and rush the cops through a decontamination process that finishes with the men being drugged.

Carver wakes up in his apartment days later with no memory of what happened to find a mysterious and beautiful neighbor lady taking care of him. Supposedly he’s been down with a bad case of the flu, but he quickly finds clues that make him determined to figure out what really happened. As he begins to unravel the conspiracy behind everything Carver will be shocked to his core at what he learns.

I was hooked from the opening scenes of this, but during the first part I thought that Jonathan Moore had made an error by telling us what happened to Carver and Jenner. It seemed like starting with Carver waking up and piecing together the night they found the body would have been a better way to do it, but when other revelations are made all my reservations went right out the window. Moore knew exactly what he was doing with every step in this novel, and letting us in on one mystery from the jump makes a reader feel fully in the know which makes the twists later that much better when we realize we were as clueless as Carver all along.

Technically this is the conclusion to a trilogy, but it’s not your traditional three-part story. The books are part of a shared universe in San Francisco with some previous events referenced and one supporting player showing up in all of them yet each have different main characters. All could be shelved in the crime/mystery section, but they’re in distinctly different sub-genres. The Poison Artist is a psychological suspense novel, The Dark Room is pretty much a police procedural whodunit, and then The Night Market shifts to a future setting and is a sci-fi conspiracy thriller.

The most common factor is the atmosphere that Moore creates with his vivid writing. There’s a touch of the surreal to each in which characters seem to be almost drifting through a dreamscape at times. Yet there’s also a reality to it all that keeps a sense of tension and momentum and also give you firm footing even when things get weird. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and Moore does it with style that make these books a successful fusion of literature with genre fiction. With the shift to a future version of San Francisco he creates a dystopian vibe that reminded me of Blade Runner while still being original and unique.

There’s no shortage of grim versions of the future and on the surface this has some of the tropes of any sci-fi conspiracy story, but one of my favorite things was all the secret at the heart of this. I’m not even going to discuss it under a spoiler tag because it’s just too good to risk ruining so I’ll just say that I thought it was clever in its originality and terrifying in its implications as well seeming all too plausible.

Barring any unforeseen dark horse candidates popping up in the next two months this is going to be my best book of 2017.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: Deadpool, Volume 8: Operation Annihilation

Deadpool, Volume 8: Operation Annihilation Deadpool, Volume 8: Operation Annihilation by Daniel Way
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deadpool wants to end it all, but death doesn’t come easy when you’ve got a super-duper healing power. What’s a half-insane motor-mouthed mercenary supposed to do?

Well, if you’re in the Marvel universe you can try having the Hulk pound on you until even your atoms are squished into jelly. But how do you make him angry enough to kill you? That’s easy. Just nuke him. Twice.

As you can tell rational schemes aren’t really Deadpool’s thing.

This was pretty entertaining and had just a little more to it than the silly fanboy question of “What would happen if Hulk and Deadpool fought?” I think DP has been at his best when interacting with the other super types. Wade makes an interesting dilemma for somebody like Spider-Man because he isn’t a villain in the sense of doing evil like a Dr. Doom and he’s often trying to do good in his own way, but his insanity and general disregard for the damage he does make him extremely dangerous.

Which is exactly the position that Hulk gets put into here because he really doesn’t want to kill Wade, but when DP is setting off nuclear weapons and saying that he won’t stop until somebody stops him permanently it kind of limits the options.

Fun enough.

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Artemis

Artemis Artemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this for review from NetGalley.

M-O-O-N. That spells Andy Weir’s new novel. (OK, if you haven’t read Stephen King’s The Stand that joke won’t make sense to you, but rather than think that’s a failure of my review I’m going to say that it’s your own fault for not having read The Stand. Serves you right.)

It’s the near future, and there’s a city on the moon called Artemis. Jazz Bashara is a young woman who has grown up there, and knowing the place like the back of her hand makes it easier for her to hustle a living legally by being a porter who hauls stuff around. Illegally, she makes money on the side with a smuggling business. If she could get her EVA certification she could make a lot more money by showing tourists the sights outside, but a hardware problem makes her fail the test as well as nearly killing her. So when a rich guy offers her a huge payday to perform a dangerous act of sabotage on a business rival Jazz takes the gig. Things don’t go quite as planned and soon Jazz is in danger of being deported back to Earth or murdered, and she isn’t sure which one would be worse.

Just to get this out of the way: No, it isn’t as good as The Martian. But it’s still a pretty fun read and got a lot of the stuff I liked about that one so no shame there.

Weir has built up a lot of detail about life on the moon from the nuts-and-bolts stuff science stuff as well as how the Artemis society functions. One detail I particularly liked is that the moon citizens trade in ‘slugs’ which stands for ‘soft landed grams’ which is a weight based credit system to have things shipped from Earth.

We’ve also got another likeable lead character in Jazz just as we did with Mark Watney in The Martian. Jazz is a borderline criminal, not an astronaut, but like Mark she’s got a can-do attitude mixed with a fun way of explaining all the technical stuff to the reader. She’s also got a similar smart-ass nature, and that could have gone wrong because snarky leads can turn into annoying joke machines if not done well. Yet Weir never lets it get away from him and keeps it funny.

So why not as good as his first book? While it’s great that Weir made his main character a young woman who is a lapsed Muslim he didn’t exactly do anything with those traits. Jazz could have easily been a young male of any religion so it seems like an easy nod to diversity rather than incorporating anything that might have deepened her. Also, while this one has Jazz getting into plenty of predicaments it lacks the tension that The Martian had its best. Granted, one is a survival story and one is more of a sci-fi thriller so it’s comparing apples to giraffes to some extent, but I just never felt like Jazz was in any real danger whereas I legitimately didn’t know if Watney would make it off Mars.

Still, it’s got the same kind of enthusiastic attitude of his first book, and it’s nice to read about smart people doing smart things. This isn’t great literature, but Weir has an entertaining style. He’s also great at blending science, story, and humor into a nice little sci-fi stew.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Review: Fatherland

Fatherland Fatherland by Robert Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes it seems like every Tom, Phillip K. Dick, and Harry Turtledove wrote books that asked what would have happened if Hitler won the war.

It’s 1964 and Germany is preparing to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday. Police detective Xavier March is called in when a body is pulled out of a river, and he soon discovers that the dead man was a prominent member of the Nazi party. March’s investigation eventually leads him to secrets going back to the war that his government is desperate to keep buried.

So yes, this is another book about the most asked question in alternate history: What if the Nazis won World War II? But by framing this as mystery thriller Robert Harris has taken a different approach to it by using March as tour guide of a victorious Germany. We eventually have the bigger picture of what the rest of the world is like, and there are some interesting elements like the US did fight and defeat Japan yet Europe is Nazi controlled so that America and Germany have had an extended Cold War.

While the details of the world are well done this is really more of a story about what life would be like in this society. It’s all well-ordered prosperity on the surface, but the police state nature of it all lurks just below the surface with the average citizen’s paranoia encouraged by the government to keep them fearful and obedient.

March is an interesting character in this as a man who did his part in the war on board a U-boat, but he doesn’t much like the SS uniform he wears now. He reminded me a lot of the series by Martin Cruz Smith about Russian detective Arkady Renko. Like Renko, March is a basically good man who knows he’s working for a bad system, but he’s too cynical to think of trying to change it. Instead he just tries to find what justice he can even as he still has too much integrity to entirely go along with the program which is something that the true believers can sense and hate.

This all sounds like a 4 or 5 star book, especially in the capable hands of Robert Harris, but unfortunately it’s one of those where I liked the idea of it more than the actual finished product. This alternate world is intriguing and well thought out, and March is an interesting lead character, but the actual plot just seems kind of flat and obvious. You can tell much of what’s coming for a good long while so there’s not much suspense or shock to it.

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