Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: The Blinds

The Blinds The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somewhere out in the vastness of west Texas is an entire town with amnesia.

Officially it’s called Caesura, but the locals refer to it as The Blinds. The residents are either criminals or witnesses in hiding because all have undergone a process which removed their personal memories, and none remember which they are. The entire town is kept secure and hidden from the world, and most inhabitants go about their business quietly wondering what might have put them in a position to completely surrender their identities, and whether they were guilty of horrible crimes or an innocent who got caught up in something. However, two violent deaths shatter the quiet routine and set the entire town on edge. While Sheriff Calvin Cooper is technically a guard and not a resident, he’s got his own secrets even as he investigates and tries to keep everyone calm.

Author Megan Abbott brought this one to my attention by praising it on what the kids these days call social media, and when Mighty Megan talks, I listen. That policy paid off nicely with this one.

Aside from a humdinger of a set-up the writing is a cut above what you’d normally get in a crime/sci-fi thriller. There’s a lot top notch characterization, and the imagery of this small town out in the middle of the barren Texas landscape gives the whole thing an excellent tone of isolation. The plot has plenty of solid twists and turns, and the ultimate revelations are satisfying. However, what the novel really excels at is how it weaves together all these characters with pasts hidden even from themselves.

It combines the elements of a great page-turner with some deeper thoughts on identity and memory with a unique setting. Overall, it’s one of the better books I’ve read this year.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Review: The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Treasure of the Rubbermaids 24: Rocket Men

The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years. Thanks to my father dumping them back on me, I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depths.

If you, a 21st century person, ever sees one of the old Mercury space capsules in a museum you’ll probably be amazed at how small and primitive it seems. (Whatever device you’re reading this on right now has more computing power than all of NASA had at the time.) It looks more like a toy, something that a kid might have in his backyard to play rocket ship, rather than a vehicle that actually took men into space. Your next thought might be, “What kind of fool would have volunteered to strap himself into that on top of a giant cylinder filled with highly combustible fuel and ride it out of the atmosphere?”

To understand that you can read The Right Stuff.

This isn’t some dry account of the early days of America’s space program filled with dates and scientific facts. In fact, if that’s the kind of history you’re looking for then you’d probably find this disappointing. What Tom Wolfe did here is try to convey the mindset of an America panicked by suddenly finding itself behind the Soviet Union in the space race, and how in its desperation it turned seven pilots chosen to be the first astronauts into national heroes. Those men would find themselves in a media spotlight where the image they presented was often more important than their actual skills in the cockpit.

Wolfe starts by explaining what the ‘right stuff’ is by taking us back to late ‘40s when a hotshot test pilot named Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The fact that Yeager did this with broken ribs and used a length of sawed-off broom handle as a lever to close the hatch on his X-1 rocket plane because he was in too much pain to lean over made it that much more impressive. What adds to his legend is that he got the injury in a drunken horse riding accident the night before and hid it from his superiors for fear they’d replace him on the flight. That’s the kind of thing that shows that Yeager had the right stuff practically dripping out of his pores and put him at the top of the test pilot pyramid.

Yet when the Soviets launched Sputnik and America scrambled to catch up Yeager wasn’t seriously considered as an astronaut candidate, and to many of the other test pilots who were setting speed records and pushing the boundary of space anyhow in their rocket propelled aircraft it was only a matter of time until they'd be flying into space anyhow. To them the Mercury program was a publicity stunt in which the astronauts would only be sealed in a can and shot into space without really flying the ship at all. Hell, it was so easy that a monkey could do it, and a couple actually did.

Yet after the media declared the Mercury 7 as the best and bravest that America had to offer everyone started forgetting about the test pilots and put all the resources and attention on the astronauts. The seven men themselves would start pushing back for changes that gave them more control of their spacecraft, and while they may have started out as a little more than guinea pigs they used their popularity to get more power and control within the fledgling NASA. This led to the egghead scientists taking a backseat while a more military mindset of operational performance became the yardstick that determined a mission’s success. More importantly to them, it would show the world that they really did have the right stuff.

This is all written more as a novel than a history. For example, rather than tell us what was happening on the ground during flights Wolfe sticks to what was going through the astronaut’s head at the time so that something like John Glenn finding out that his heat shield may have been loose comes to us as a realization that he had rather than giving us the full picture of what was going on. It also delves into the personal lives of the astronauts where they and their wives would try to present an All-American image even as some of the men were taking full advantage of the new celebrity they had attained.

It’s also frequently very funny. There’s a great sequence near the beginning about how if you find yourself on an airline flight with a problem and the pilot on the intercom explains how there is nothing to worry about in a calm southern drawl it’s a direct result of generations of pilots imitating Chuck Yeager’s accent over the radio to mimic his understated sense of calm.

As a space geek and historical stickler I do find it lacking at a couple of points. Wolfe doesn’t give you any details about what happened to these men later so that you wouldn’t know something like Alan Shepherd would eventually be one of the men who walks on the moon after being grounded with an inner ear problem after his first flight. I also think he also does a disservice to Gus Grissom whose mission nearly ended in disaster after splashdown when his capsule door unexpectedly blew open. Grissom nearly drowned at the capsule was lost at sea. (It was recovered almost 40 years later. It has been restored and can be seen at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS.)

Wolfe uses Grissom’s heart rate which was higher than any other astronauts during their mission to strongly hint that he was in a state of near panic during his flight, and that he probably did blow the hatch despite his claims that he had done nothing wrong. In other words Grissom didn’t really have the right stuff after all according to Wolfe. It’s still unclear as to why the hatch did blow, but even back then on a subsequent mission Wally Schirra had deliberately blown his own hatch as a test and showed that the force required to do it left visible bruises on his hand while Grissom had no marks at all. I’ve also read other accounts and seen various documentaries in which other astronauts and NASA officials adamantly claim that it must have been a technical failure, not anything that Grissom did wrong. Wolfe omits all of this to leave a reader with a very strong impression that Grissom ‘screwed the pooch’. This seems especially unfair in that Grissom wasn’t alive to defend himself when the book came out since he had died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire which also killed two other astronauts. (It’s a bitter irony that they couldn’t get out because the hatch of that spacecraft was badly designed so that it couldn’t be opened when the fire occurred.)

Despite some flaws, it’s still a fantastic read that really digs into the idea of how the macho code of these men was sometimes a crippling burden, it was also maybe exactly what was needed to get a bunch of guys to willingly climb into rockets. I also highly recommend the movie adaptation although it’s more of an emotional story than historically accurate.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Force

The Force The Force by Don Winslow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why bother calling 9-1-1 to report a crime when the cops are the biggest criminals on the streets and everyone knows it?

Denny Malone isn’t just your average police detective. He’s also one of the best cops the NYPD has who runs an elite unit nicknamed Da Force that takes on the worst cases involving gang and drug crimes, and he rules his Manhattan North turf along with the partners he loves like brothers. The thing is that Malone is also as crooked as a dog’s back leg because he beats suspects, rips off drug dealers, routinely perjures himself, and takes kickbacks from defense attorneys for referrals. He also has a steady side gig as a bag man running cash between the mob and city officials as well as cutting deals with judges and prosecutors to throw out cases. However, Malone finds himself jammed up by the Feds and is soon wrapped up a situation where all his options are bad and everything he does is a betrayal of someone he cares for.

If you’ve watched The Shield this might sound a little familiar. There’s also a lot of the same kind of behind-the-scenes exploration into all the ways that the system is broken which is what The Wire spent a lot of time exploring. This is Don Winslow exploring a lot of that same territory.

I love The Shield. I love The Wire. I love Don Winslow’s writing.

So why didn’t I love this?

I think it’s a matter of tone and character which are tied tightly together by the nature of Winslow’s style. As he’s in done in several other books Winslow uses a conversational stream-of-consciousness flow as narration. We’re getting the story from Malone’s point of view, but it’s as if it’s being told to us by a very good buddy of his who knew what he was thinking and feeling every step of the way as well as giving us the lowdown on the local history so that we understand the context of why everything is happening.

Winslow is a master of this, but it went a little wrong for me this time. The other books where he used it such as Savages and Dawn Patrol were set in Southern California and had this laid back voice to them. Like some half-stoned surfer was telling you the tale over a Corona at some beachside bar. Since The Force is set in New York it now feels like we’re being told the story in some grimy tavern over a shot and a beer, and the guy telling it is a streetwise cop with a go-fuck-yourself-if-you-don’t-like-it attitude. And that’s as it should be.

However, the problem becomes that Malone is a NYPD cop who wants everyone to know that his balls are bigger than anybody else. When he gets into tight spots where those balls are being squeezed his reactions are always to push back hard, and since he’s as much a criminal as anyone he ever arrested all of this starts to come out as blustery rationalizations. So it’s a whole lot of the things a dirty cop is going throw out as reasons why it’s all bullshit. “I’m out there on the street risking my life like a real cop! The real crooks here are the politicians and the judges and the lawyers and the real estate swindlers. They’re the ones who are really corrupt!”

Again, that’s as it should be, and it’s a natural reaction for this type of character. In the context of the story it’s also true. The issue becomes that it just goes on and on. And then on some more. Since it’s told in such a bombastic in-your-face fashion it gets annoying. Winslow commits so hard to making Malone the biggest swinging dick in the room who refuses to admit defeat as well as responsibility for what he’s done for so long that I actively started to root against him after a while.

That’s not to say that I’m playing the old “But he’s not a likeable character!” card. He isn’t really, but he’s not supposed to be. Vic Mackey wasn’t ‘likeable’ in The Shield, but the show managed the tricky balance of alternately making him the hero and an appalling villain at times. However, at the end of the show’s run the story also had a definite moral judgement about him that was the culmination of the story. I think part of why this suffered in my opinion is that Winslow tries to play the same game by showing the good sides of Malone as a cop and person, but although he does lay a final verdict of a kind on Malone it feels half-hearted and weak.

This is because Winslow continues to make excuses for Malone until the end by carrying on with the storylines regarding the outside corruption so it seems like he tried to split the difference and make Malone both the bad guy and the victim. Which I can see to a certain extent. It is ridiculous to nail a cop to the wall for taking a free cup of coffee while a politician can collect huge campaign donations from business people he can help, and that's all perfectly legal. However, what Malone did goes way beyond taking a cup of coffee, and he was happy to go along with the corruption while it helped make him one of the most connected cops in the city so him crying and beating his chest about it when he gets his hand caught in the cookie jar just came across as self-serving garbage to me after a while.

A lot of my friends have read and loved this book, and I can see why. Winslow is a great crime writer and this is a helluva tale about a dirty cop with all kinds of action and shady deals in a corrupt city. There’s a lot to like, and maybe if I’d never seen an excellent morality tale about one dirty cop with The Shield or a grim portrayal of how corruption and bureaucracy can consume a city like The Wire I would have liked this more. As it is, I couldn’t help but thinking that I’ve heard this story a couple of times before, and I liked those versions better.

It’s certainly not a bad book, but it will be well down my Winslow rankings.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers

Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

Elvis and horror go together like a peanut butter-n-banana sandwich. Which is to say that it catches your attention, but it might not be something you’d want to make a regular part of your diet.

This is a prequel story to Lansdale’s Bubba Ho-Tep in which we learned that the rumors about Elvis faking his death were true, and that he was living out his final days in a shitty nursing home where he gets into a scrap with a mummy. Here we’ve got The King and one his minions, a bodyguard/hanger-on named Johnny Smack, who secretly fight evil supernatural beings under the command of Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The Colonel pulls Elvis away from his Las Vegas shows to go on a mission to New Orleans where interdimensional vampires have been turning people into living basketballs while draining away their essence. Several other monster fighters are brought in to help vanquish them, and they all soon fight themselves in a terrifying fight for their lives.

It’s a real mixed bag here with Lansdale doing some genuinely creepy horror of a kind I haven’t read from him in a while, and the idea that Elvis led this double life as a fighter against the evil is kinda enjoyable. My favorite part involved Elvis and his crew trying to hold off the bad guys by going Alamo in a house protected by magic and a horny ghost, and there’s another good bit that involves taking a pink Cadillac into another dimension which is wonky fun. However, a lot of time is spent trying to explain how the guy who became a fat jump-suited pill-addicted joke about this time was actually a tormented bad ass. If you’re going to do a book like this then I get that Lansdale has to pump Elvis up into more than a handsome guy with a great voice and sex appeal who eventually became a victim of his own success into something more substantial, but it just didn’t work for me.

I also really liked both the original story and movie adaptation of Bubba Ho-Tep which played more into the idea of a ‘realistic’ older and faded Elvis who doesn’t know anything about monsters looking back at his life with regret and making one last stand to reclaim some of his old glory and dignity. This undercuts that idea with the revised history although Lansdale makes a mighty attempt of stitching it together into a retconned timeline.

This also has one of my pet peeves of an author putting a bunch of similar looking names together with Elvis’ team consisting of Johnny, John Henry, Jack, and Jenny so apparently this book was sponsored by the letter ‘J’. It’s extra aggravating when you’re reading a poorly formatted advanced e-version that has turned much of the text into word salad and makes it even more confusing.

As a Lansdale fan who got it for free I enjoyed it well enough, but it looks like this is going to be originally released as another one of his collector’s edition hardback, and the current price on Amazon is $40 for 200 pages. That’s way too much money both the quantity and quality of story you’d get for the price.

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange: Season One

Doctor Strange: Season One Doctor Strange: Season One by Greg Pak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon, but he’s also selfish and arrogant. After a car accident screws up his hands he turns to magic hoping for way to recover his old skills, but as a student of the Ancient One he is forced to choose sides against the evil Mordo. Strange races to find three powerful rings and discovers his true destiny as a master of the mystic arts.

These Season One books are obviously not trying to rewrite the history of Marvel’s characters or put a new spin on them like the Ultimate line did. Instead these are just designed to update and modernize the old favorites enough to keep their origins from seeming too outdated, and this one is no different. Nothing groundbreaking, but it’d make a good entry point for someone who had never read Doctor Strange but wanted to give it a try.


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Review: Easy Death

Easy Death Easy Death by Daniel Boyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dear Santa,

All I want for Christmas is a clean getaway after I rob this armored car.

Thanks,
Eddie

*****
Dear Eddie,

Not only are you way too old to be asking for me presents, but you’re also being very naughty. So the answer is no.

Sincerely,
Santa Claus


With its straightforward set-up set-up and 1951 setting this fits the bill as a Hard Case Crime offering that really feels like an old school hardboiled paperback delivered in a quick 236 pages.

The primary focus is on the two men whose getaway is complicated by a blizzard and other events, but there’s also a lot of shifting to focus on various other characters. It’s also got a few tricks up its sleeve with some clever time jumping to points before, during, and after the robbery that work with the shifting points of view to provide some surprising twists.The writing is also very good with each character well defined, and plot zig-zags nicely without ever feeling like the author got too cute with it.

Overall it’s a sharp throwback of a crime novel that I quite enjoyed.

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Review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What happens when you put time travel, magic, quantum physics, witches, a top secret military operation, alternate timelines, Vikings, a family of shadowy bankers, and government bureaucracy in one book?

As you might expect, things get complicated.

The story begins with the written account of Melsianda Stokes, a woman from our present who has become stranded in London during 1851. Mel tells us how she’s an expert in ancient languages who was stuck in a dead end academic career until she is recruited by military officer Tristan Lyons to take part in a top secret effort translating old documents that make repeated references to magic being done by witches. Mel learns that magic was indeed once real, but that it ceased working in the mid-19th century. Now Tristan is leading the government’s effort to bring it back.

Mel and Tristan are able to determine what what caused the death of magic, and with the help of a physicist and a very old witch are able to get it working in a very limited fashion. The government demands an immediate practical application to justify the taxpayer expense and using magic to send people back in time to alter events in a way beneficial to the US meets that criteria. However, changing the past turns out to be harder than everyone thought with multiple trips required to make the revisions in several timelines, and causing a paradox has immediate and dire consequences. Soon Mel and Tristan are part of a growing covert department that sends operatives to the past to recruit a network of witches and perform complex missions to make subtle changes, and they find themselves working for infuriating bureaucrats who think they can control everything with PowerPoint presentations and policy memos.

That’s a very boiled down summary which is what you have to do when reviewing a Neal Stephenson novel because as always there’s layer upon layer that you could write essays about. The explanation as to why magic stopped working alone gets into a whole Schrodinger’s cat thing about how observation collapses quantum wave functions which is then tied into the rise of technology like cameras. Throw in the usual Stephenson digressions like an explanation of the sexual harassment policy related to issues like wearing codpieces, and you get one of his typical kitten squishers.

Stephenson isn’t flying solo on this one, and although I haven’t read co-author Nicole Galland I could sense that this was a bit more reined in and scaled down from his usual thing. Still, you can see stray bits from other works, and one of the big sci-fi aspects seem drawn directly from one of his other books. Which means that if you’ve tried Stephenson and get irritated with his quirks then you’re probably not going to like this. Usually I love a big fat Stephenson novel for its tangents and offbeat nature, but I found myself tapping my toe with impatience a bit during this one.

The second act of this book is mainly concerned with the ‘rise of D.O.D.O’ part of it, and it’s told in a series of emails and policy directives which gives us the picture of how a government agency dedicated to time travel would take shape. I’m usually interested in things about how big projects come together and this also lays the groundwork for ‘the fall’ piece by showing the development of David Simon Syndrome in the way that any large institution will almost inevitably become about projecting the image of competence rather than risk failure by doing the job it was created for in the first place. In this case the narrow vision and arrogance of those in charge also leaves them vulnerable to threats from within.

I get what the authors were going for there, and there’s also some good humor laced throughout that part. Yet it just seems to go on for too long, particularly since we know big trouble is brewing because of Mel being stuck in the past.

Secondly, for all the explanation and set-up for how the time travel and magic stuff works we never really know WHY it’s being done in the first place. There’s some mention about the government having indications that others are time traveling and changing things so that would be motivation yet we never get enough detail on that. Plus, no one stops to question whether they should be doing this at all which seems like a glaring oversight. Even when they see first hand the catastrophic results when too big of a change happens they don’t hesitate for a second. With poorly defined motivations this seems especially foolhardy.

It also seems as if the schemes ignore common sense and get ridiculously complex. For example, the first mission is for Mel to travel back to Puritan controlled Boston and obtain a copy of a book which will be incredibly rare in the future. This is supposed to be proof of concept as well as a fundraising expedition. Fair enough. Since the time travelers can take nothing forward or back with them Mel has to get the book sealed up tight and buried near a rock that still exists in the present. She also has to do this multiple times to force the change through the various time strands to the one they’re in.

A problem occurs when her strands undergo a shift that has a new factory built on the spot in the past so that she can’t bury the book in the location they originally pick. So they start a second campaign which involves Tristan going back to London to shift the investor from building that factory, and again, he has to do this repeatedly to get the change to stick in their timeline.

Sooooo….Why not just come up with another location for Mel to bury the book rather than go through the effort of a second mission that requires trips to the past? It’s not even discussed that I remember, and it seems like a much simpler solution to the problem.

That’s kind of the issue overall with this one for me. While it had a lot of stuff I loved (view spoiler) and a lot of deep thought was put into the concept it seems like the obvious was often overlooked. I also wasn’t crazy about the ending that seems to be more sequel set-up than resolution.

Generally I liked it, but it wasn’t the usual home run of a book I’ve come to expect from Stephenson. More like a solid double.

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