Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I knew stories about Michelle McNamara before I even knew her name or that she was a true crime writer. She was married to comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, who I’m a big fan of, and several of his bits over the years have involved his wife. Per Patton’s descriptions in his routines she was a brilliant woman, far smarter than him, who was always operating at a whole other level.

Now I know what he was talking about after reading this book. It’s about a pure monster that should be one of the best known unsolved crime cases in American history, but many people have probably never heard of the Golden State Killer. In 1976 a serial rapist began terrorizing the suburbs of Sacramento. His MO was to break into homes in the middle of the night and surprise sleeping victims who he’d threaten with knives or guns. He often targeted couples or families and would rape a woman while her husband or boyfriend was tied up helpless in the next room. He’s also believed to have shot and killed a couple who had the misfortune to encounter him while out walking their dog.

His attacks spread to communities outside of San Francisco, but seemed to stop in mid-1979. Unfortunately, GSK had just moved south to the LA area where he started up again. His first known attempt was thwarted when the couple fought back, and he narrowly escaped capture. Instead of scaring him off this triggered an escalation after which GSK would kill those he attacked until stopping in 1986, ten years after he began.

The full extent of the damage he’d done wasn’t known until DNA typing of cold cases was done in 2001. This confirmed what several detectives in various jurisdictions had suspected for years. The man called the East Area Rapist (EAR) during his crime spree in northern California was the same man who’d become known as the Original Night Stalker (ONS) in the southern part of the state. The number of his victims alone are staggering with 50 women sexually assaulted and 12 murders, and those are just the ones that are confirmed. He may have also been responsible for a series of break-ins in Visalia a few years earlier, and if so there’s another murder to hang on him there for shooting a man who stopped an intruder from abducting his daughter in the middle of the night from their home.

It was Michelle McNamara who branded him the Golden State Killer after she began writing about the case on her blog and in magazine articles. She became interested in true crime after an unsolved murder of a young girl happened near her home as a teenager. A big part of this story is about how this case came to obsess her, and she does not make an attempt to gloss over how much it took over her life. She has one story of asking her husband to leave a movie premiere party because of a new lead she was given that she couldn’t wait to get back to her laptop to start working on it. There’s another heartbreaking moment when she describes an anniversary dinner with Patton where she realized that not only had he given her gifts two years in a row based on her on-going work on GSK, but that she had been so consumed that she’d forgotten to get him anything at all.

Unfortunately, Michelle died unexpectedly in 2016 while in the middle of writing this book. Two of her fellow researchers finished it at Patton’s urging, and I’m incredibly glad that happened because it would have been a shame if the work she did on this hadn’t been revealed so fully.

She was an incredibly gifted writer who can provide detail about GSK’s crime in such a way that we feel the full weight of what he did, and how incredibly scary this story is. It’s there as she details the evidence the police found that showed that GSK was a relentless night prowler who crept over fences, through backyards, across rooftops, and peeped windows from the shadows. It’s in the way she tells us the stories from the victims who were very often sound asleep in their beds and were awoken by a man wearing a ski mask shining a light in their eyes, showing them a knife, and telling them that he’d kill them if they didn’t do exactly what he said. While it never feels exploitive she conveys all the ways that the surviving victim’s lives were changed by the attacks on them. When she describes a detective’s years of chasing dead ends you can feel the frustration, and when she tells the story of a new lead you also start tapping into the hope that this might be the one to break the case.

In addition to being a great writer Michelle was a relentless researcher. I sometimes have issues with books or documentaries about true crime cases because I think it too often it shows confirmation bias or prefers wild conspiracy theories to more likely mundane facts and scenarios. She avoids those by imposing clear and logical standards to this which depended on fact checking and interviews rather than indulging in hunches or pet theories.

It’s very clear from what she wrote here that Michelle believed that this case could be solved with technology. The cops have the DNA of the Golden State Killer to use as the ultimate determination of guilt or innocence. Geo-Mapping his crime scenes should give an approximate location of where he lived. Scanning old case files and using key word recognition and data sorting can bring previously hidden connections to life. DNA databases are growing all the time, and all it takes is one hit from a relative to narrow it down to the family. Michelle was convinced that GSK’s identity was in the existing evidence somewhere, and it’s just a matter of sifting through all the clues to find it.

Because of her death there several parts that rely on her early drafts, notes, old magazine articles, and even a tape she made of the conversation between her and a police detective while showing her some of the GSK’s crime scenes. That gives the book a bit of a disjointed feeling and makes you wish even more that she’d been able to finish it herself, but considering the circumstances it’s unavoidable and doesn’t prevent the full story from being told.

This will be going on my Best-of-True-Crime shelf, right next to In Cold Blood. And if they do ever catch the Golden State Killer I’ll bet it’s going to be due in no small part to the work of Michelle McNamara.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review: Gunpowder Moon

Gunpowder Moon Gunpowder Moon by David Pedreira
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

They say to never judge a book by its cover, but if you show me a space helmet with a hole in the visor laying on the surface of the moon…..I’m gonna read that book.

It’s the year 2072 and Earth has just begun to recover from a global climate catastrophe. Part of that comeback has been based on using helium-3 as a fuel source, and since the moon has oodles of the stuff there are now large scale mining operations happening on its surface. When Earth was in trouble all the nations worked together to do moon mining at first, but now that things are getting better everyone is ready to get back into greed and power grabs.

Caden Dechert is the chief of a small mining crew who just wants to do the work and keep his people safe, but when some of their equipment is sabotaged the American government is more than happy to point the finger at a nearby Chinese base. As things escalate Dechert may be the only person who can head off a full scale war on the moon.

There’s a lot to like in this one. It’s got a realistic and gritty portrayal of a near-future tech on the moon as well as having enough hard science to keep things grounded and relatable. The setting is well established so that you feel like you’re walking the corridors of this cramped underground moon base as well as experiencing the exhilaration and terror of doing long rocket assisted hops into pitch black craters. The plot has a lot of solid twists and turns with the set-up of a pretty intriguing mystery which then becomes more of a conspiracy thriller as events unfold.

I also was intrigued with the character of Dechert who is an ex-military guy who had a belly full of all the wars that popped off when Earth was at its most desperate and fighting for scant resources so he got off planet. Going to the moon to get the hell away from most people is an attitude I can relate to these days.

There’s an incredible tightness and economy to the writing so that David Pedreira is able to set up a detailed sci-fi concept as well as telling a good story. In fact, it’s just a little TOO economical. It’s less than 300 pages, and even though I’m all for an author getting it done that quickly I found myself wishing for a bit more story which came across as a little rushed at times.

It’s a good sign when the worst you can say about a book is that it left you wanting more.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Righteous

Righteous Righteous by Joe Ide
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. At least that’s the general rule, but unfortunately if you cross a Chinese triad it may not apply.

Isaiah Quintabe (a/k/a IQ) is a brilliant young man who acts as an informal private detective and problem solver which has earned him a lot of respect from the people of his neighborhood in East Long Beach, but he’s haunted by the death of his big brother Marcus who was killed by a hit-and-run driver that was never caught. Marcus’ old girlfriend contacts Isaiah looking for help in trying to get her gambling addicted younger sister out of a jam with a loan shark in Las Vegas. Isaiah asks his old partner Dodson to help him out, but the two of them quickly learn that the little sister and her idiot boyfriend have also made the enormous mistake of trying to blackmail a Chinese triad with some business records they’ve obtained. All of this is happening as Isaiah is trying to deal with a new lead that indicates that his brother was murdered and not just the victim of a careless accident.

I very much enjoyed the first novel IQ in this new series from author Joe Ide, but this doesn’t meet the highs of that one. I won’t go so far as to call it a sophomore slump, but it didn’t seem as fresh or fun this time out.

One of the bigger problems is IQ himself. The whole concept here is a modern take on Sherlock Holmes with an African-American detective living in a poor area instead of white sleuth in upscale Victorian London, and that worked really well in the first book. However, here Isaiah comes across as more of a na├»ve jerk rather than the more sympathetic portrayal of a person isolated by his brilliance and lack of patience with social skills. I also liked that rather than have Dodson just be his ass-kissing sidekick like Watson is to Holmes that his relationship with Isaiah is much more contentious, and that Dodson is continually frustrated by Isaiah’s methods. Again, that’s a lot less fun this time, and the constant bickering between the two got on my nerves.

The ending of this with Isaiah finally uncovering the circumstances of his brother’s death is also a whole lot of convoluted nonsense with an ending that feels less than satisfying.

I also had some problems with the time hopping between Isaiah in Vegas vs. Isaiah at home investigating his brother’s death. I was listening to the audio version, and there weren’t any indications of this so that I actually thought I’d screwed up and was listening to the wrong part a couple of times. It eventually all comes together, but it was fairly confusing for a chunk of the book.

Despite these problems I still liked this overall. Isaiah is still interesting even if he bordered on seeming like a complete jerk for much of the book, and I found Dodson even more entertaining this time. The other characters are also well developed, and the whole plot about the triads was a lot better than the stuff about finding who killed his brother. The ending also seemed to set things up for Isaiah to grow as a person as well as maybe move on to bigger and better cases so hopefully that’s what we’ll get more of in the future.

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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Review: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Guess why I read this one?

Like the rest of the world I’ve gone Black Panther crazy after seeing the new movie, but aside from thinking he was pretty cool as a kid in the late ‘70s reading Avengers comics I wasn't all that familiar with T’Challa or Wakanda. So this seemed like a good place to start.

Sadly, it isn’t.

Getting an acclaimed writer like Ta-Nehesi Coates to do your funny book shows yet again that comics aren’t just for kids any more, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff that draws on African history and culture. The art does a nice job of immersing a reader in the world of Wakanda. So just as a comic book it’s pretty good on the surface.

However, the problem is that Marvel has done a piss-poor job at making their comics accessible these days. You’d think with the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point that someone in charge would have realized that fans want to read more about these characters. Yet despite way too many reboots and retcons in the last ten years since Robert Downey Jr. put on the Iron Man suit they have failed miserably at cleaning up the continuity to the point that readers can pick up a book and know what’s going on.

This isn’t just limited to creating jumping-on points for new fans either. I’ve been reading Marvel off-and-on for going on 40 years now, I have the Marvel Unlimited subscription which gives me access to thousands of comics including newer stuff, and I have no clue what's been happening in recent years other than managing to slog my way through Secret Wars. (And that didn’t exactly help clear things up.)

That’s the problem here. This run of comics was released after Panther’s film introduction in Civil War and should have been a place for readers to start with or get reacquainted with T’Challa before his solo movie. Instead the story picks up after recent huge events have left Wakanda in serious trouble. I’ve read part of those stories, but even I wasn’t entirely sure of what was going on here. What chance would a kid picking up Black Panther for the first time have of making sense of it all? Plus, it doesn’t help that one of the best characters in the movie was killed before this book started. (But in true comic book fashion she is only mostly dead.)

So even though we’ve got a title with real potential the demands of continuity of the Marvel universe force all these other recent events into it instead of providing a clean starting point. It’s the dilemma of trying to balance all the history of these characters vs. trying to let new readers into the world. It’s such a problem that even though the MCU gave the Marvel comics about 14 billion reasons to streamline stuff it’s just never happened. I know one of the reasons I like the MCU so much is that it’s the only place I get stories about these characters these days where I understand what’s going on.

That’s the shame of this. I think if they’d have given Coates a mandate to do a soft reboot on Black Panther without worrying about fitting it into the aftermaths of countless crossovers that he might have hit it out of the park, but he was handcuffed by the same thing that makes new Marvel comics not a helluva lot of fun to read these days.

But hey! They’ve promised a new reboot with this Fresh Start thing that sounds like maybe they finally understand what they need to do. I’m sure they’ll get it right this time…….*cough*

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: The Far Empty

The Far Empty The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To put this book into cowboy terms - it was more hat than cattle.

Caleb Ross is a high school student in a Texas town near the border which his father, the sheriff, rules by playing the classic western lawmen. However, Caleb knows that his father has a secret sinister side, and that he may have killed Caleb’s mother who he claims abandoned them both. New deputy Chris Cherry is a former football hero who has just returned home after an injury ended his playing days, and both he and his girlfriend are struggling to adjust to the situation. When Cherry investigates a body found in a shallow grave Caleb is positive that it’s his mother.

This starts a series of events that involve others in the town like the drug addicted and crooked chief deputy, a beautiful classmate of Caleb’s, a substitute teacher with a huge skeleton in her closet, and a deadly cartel hitman who has far more bodies to his credit than candles on his birthday cake.

This started off very strong rural crime novel with some good writing done that establishes all of the characters while giving us their viewpoints. The setting is also very well done so that you get the vibe of this desert town that’s a stone’s throw from the drug violence in Mexico. I was really into it for the first third of the book and thought it was going to be a next level book.

Unfortunately, it seemed to get stuck in a rut at the midway point and just keep going over the same old ground again and again. This was the debut novel from author J. Todd Scott, and it almost seems like he didn’t quite trust himself enough to think that he’d gotten the point across with the characters so that he felt the need to keep telling us about them when he’d already established everything we needed to know. It’s over 400 pages but could have easily been tightened up to around 300 without losing any of the richness of the better parts.

It’s one of those that’s not a bad book and had a lot of things I very much enjoyed, but the early expectations might have hurt it for me when it didn’t quite reach the heights I was hoping for. I also see that the sequel to it is even longer which makes me worry that it might suffer from similar problems. Still, Scott is a talented writer, and I’d be willing to check out more of his work someday.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: The Lonely Silver Rain

The Lonely Silver Rain The Lonely Silver Rain by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

They say you can’t take it with you, but when author John D. MacDonald died in 1986 it seems like he took Travis McGee to the grave with him despite rumors of a final novel stashed away somewhere.

McGee’s final gig involves him trying to find a very expensive yacht that was stolen from a rich buddy of his, but what seems like a straight forward job of tracking down some small time boat thieves ends up with Travis getting on the wrong side of a bunch of angry South American drug dealers. The attempts on his life start as McGee is in a particularly bad funk as he struggles to deal with the realization that he may have aged out of his boat bum lifestyle and that a life spent evading responsibility eventually leaves you with little to actually live for.

I’ve written reviews for most of the McGee novels since I started this reread several years ago, and what I’ve said before is what I’ll say again here – MacDonald was a talented crime writer who came up with an intriguing creation in McGee who functions as a hybrid detective/con man as he tries to outwit some very bad people in search of profit or revenge while also making a lot of sharp observations about the era he lived in. While MacDonald was frequently ahead of the curve in a lot of subjects like environmentalism and personal privacy the way he wrote about women can only be described as incredibly sexist at times. Since so many of the stories revolve around McGee’s relationship with women the very structure of most of the books make it hard to look past as just a minor dated element like you sometimes have to when reading older authors. As good as these books are, and they are frequently very good crime novels, there’s just too many cringe worthy moments to entirely ignore.

This one does better than average on that front, and the story itself is worthy of being McGee’s swan song. It helps that a lot of it is about Travis trying to come to terms with the idea that the world has moved on, and that the book ends on probably the most moving and emotional moments of the entire series.

I’ve also got fond memories of this as one of the best on-location reads I ever did. I’d read and reread the series in my teens in the ‘80s, and it was some of the first serious crime fiction I’d ever taken on so I’ve always had a soft spot for Travis McGee. However, by the time I’d hit my thirties I hadn’t picked one up in years so the series was little more than a fading memory at that point.

Then in late 2001 I flew into Fort Lauderdale for work and was driving up A1A along the beach to get to my hotel when I passed the Bahia Mar marina. Suddenly I remembered that was where Travis McGee docked his houseboat The Busted Flush and the memories of a 21 books came flooding back. I didn’t even know it was a real place until that moment, and I was shocked to be staying just up the road from it.

So the next day after I had finished up business for the day I found a used book store and bought a copy of this one. I took it back to my hotel where I then spent the next several evenings sitting at the poolside bar reading while drinking gin. (And I don’t even like gin, but that’s McGee drank so I did it for authenticity.) I’d read countless scenes of Travis describing the area and the weather so to sit there looking out at the ocean with that book in hand was one of my better experiences as a reader.

That’s worth an extra star to me.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Expanse humanity has spread out among our solar system, and there have been decades of political tension and hostility among the people of Earth, Mars, and the Belters of the Outer Planetary Alliance. The events of the previous books have resulted in the unlocking of a system of wormhole gates that puts literally a thousand habitable new worlds and all their natural resources within reach.

All the people put their differences aside to begin a new golden age of peace and prosperity as they work together to explore and colonize……BWAH HA HA HA! I’m sorry. I couldn’t even finish that with a straight face. I was just messing with you. Actually, most of the people in the future are still short-sighted selfish idiots who suck, just like today, and they promptly begin fighting over the very first planet that has boots on the ground.

A group of squatters from the OPA got to the planet first and set up a half-assed colony as they began mining lithium with the idea of selling it to become independent. The Royal Energy Corporation was given a charter by Earth’s government to survey the planet and exploit its mineral rights. The squatters and the RCE competing claims are complicated by the long history of bigotry and mistrust between the people of Earth and the Belt. Things quickly escalate to violence, and when the governments need a guy with a reputation for honesty and fairness to act as moderator they call on Captain Jim Holden.

So it’s a planet filled with angry people using terrorism tactics against a fanatical security chief for the corporation who will stop at nothing to protect RCE interests. Oh, and there’s lots of alien ruins and artifacts left by a long dead civilization. What could possibly go wrong?


As usual Holden and his intrepid crew are trying to do the right thing and save people in the midst of a political tangle and general assholery. However, the first half of this book has both sides so entrenched in their hatred and grudges that I was half hoping that Holden would just throw up his hands and have the Rocinante bomb them from orbit. Things change a bit in the second half when events put everyone in a dire situation, but even then there’s no shortage of talking sphincters making a bad situation worse.

As I’ve said in my earlier reviews, that’s one of the things that I love about this series. There’s an on-going mystery and potential looming threat with all the alien stuff and the way that Holden is connected to it is very clever. The action and sense of tension are well done, and the good guy characters are all likeable and well-drawn so that you actively root for them while feeling the frustration of every set back and problem. The books also have a healthy sense of humor with a variety of one liners or funny beats drawing a laugh out of a reader at the most unexpected moments. The authors also do a superior job of figuring out bad situations to stick the characters in and equally clever ways to get them out of them.

But it’s still the commitment to making the biggest obstacle usually be rotten people of one kind or another that continues to help ground the series and make it really relatable. These people may be squabbling on another planet, but when they argue about who did what to who and use it for justifications for continuing to escalate the violence it’s all too easy to see ourselves in this collection of asshats.

Bonus Material: Check out the trailers for the TV show based on the series here and here.

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