Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: The Dark Room

The Dark Room The Dark Room by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy for review from the publisher.

Inspector Gavin Cain is in the middle of having a body exhumed when he is pulled off that case and rushed to meet the mayor of San Francisco who has received some photos which apparently show a woman being raped along with a threat to release more pictures if he doesn’t kill himself. The mayor denies knowing the woman in between gulps of bourbon, but Cain is less than convinced. As Cain investigates he quickly becomes convinced that there’s a link between the blackmail and the shocking discovery they find in the coffin he was having dug up. Coincidence? I think not!

This is the second book in what author Jonathan Moore is describing as a neo-noir trilogy that started with his excellent The Poison Artist and will conclude next year with The Night Market. However, this is a stand-alone story that just hints at a few events of the previous book so it can be read on its own.

Overall this has a couple of very compelling mystery components with some horrifying elements to them, and the way the plot unfolds make the revelations and ultimate resolution very satisfying. At that surface level it’s a well done whodunit story, but it’s a deeper and more interesting book than just a simple detective novel. While The Poison Artist was a psychological suspense thriller that had a brooding and dreamy atmosphere The Dark Room is more of a straight-up police procedural. Both books make excellent use of their San Francisco location with Moore describing rainy streets filled with fog that make you think that Sam Spade might be walking just around the corner.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about these books is that they are incredibly tight with both of them coming in at less than 300 pages, and yet they feel like full and rich stories. Moore does his business with an admirable economy that doesn’t skimp on the character details. Cain takes shape over the course of the book as a competent and moral detective who is neither an action hero nor Sherlock Holmes. He’s also got a sub-plot about his relationship with his agoraphobic girlfriend, and that’s where we see a whole other side to him that adds more layers.

I’ll definitely be checking out the third and final book of this trilogy when it releases, and I’m so impressed with Moore at this point that I’ll be checking out some of his earlier work, too.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy: New Guard, Volume 1: Emperor Quill

Guardians of the Galaxy: New Guard, Volume 1: Emperor Quill Guardians of the Galaxy: New Guard, Volume 1: Emperor Quill by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

”The entire galaxy is a mess. Warring empires and cosmic terrorists plague every corner. Someone has to rise above it all and fight for those who have no one to fight for them. Against their natures, a group of misanthropes and misfits came together to serve a higher cause. DRAX the DESTROYER, GAMORA, the most dangerous woman in the universe, ROCKET RACCOON, GROOT, and FLASH THOMPSON a/k/a VENOM all joined together under the leadership of PETER QUILL, STAR-LORD, to be the saviors of the spaceways, the conservators of the cosmos, the….GUARDIANS of the GALAXY!

But things have changed."

I still haven’t managed to read Secret Wars and the five million reboot books that Marvel launched in the aftermath, but seeing the excellent second GotG movie gave me the itch to check this out. I was a little lost on a few points. What happened ot the Kree homeworld? Why has Peter ditched the Guardians to become king of Spartax after replacing his dirtbag dad. (Who is not Kurt Russell in the comics.) When and why did Ben Grimm and Kitty Pryde leave Earth and join the Guardians?

As with most things things comic booky it’s best not to worry too much about the history and just diving in didn’t keep me from enjoying the story. It’s fairly easy to pick up the flavor of what’s going on, and Bendis’ style of dialogue is suited for infodumps among the banter and fights.

Overall, I liked this line up. Having Rocket lead the Guardians while Quill is struggling to learn how to lead a planet was a nice change of pace. Kitty Pryde taking over the Star-Lord persona gives her a cool new look while still remaining the same great character, and I really liked Ben Grimm joining the team. It’s a good start to a book I can see myself reading a lot more of if they just let them have fun adventures rather than trying to shoehorn them into crossovers.

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: Ant-Man: Season One

Ant-Man: Season One Ant-Man: Season One by Tom DeFalco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My reaction was seeing that Marvel did one of these Season One stories for Ant-Man was pretty much the same reaction I had when I heard they were doing an Ant-Man movie. Really?

But on reflection it does make a certain amount of sense. Hank Pym goes back to the early days of the Marvel comic universe, and he was a founding member of the Avengers so giving him a reboot with the rest of the gang helps create consistency. However, his history of wife slapping and mental health issues also make him problematic.

This does a fairly good job of laying groundwork for some of the problems he’d have later with a young Hank grieving over his murdered first wife and struggling with his paranoid tendencies as well as his overbearing father. This creates a sympathetic guy you can see destined for trouble down the road. The origin stuff is OK with a plot that gives somewhat plausible reasons why a guy would shrink himself down and talk to ants.

It’s not great, but it was a decent reboot.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies

Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

I usually spend some time in my reviews of the new Spenser books from Ace Atkins talking about how well he’s done with the tricky job of taking over the series from the late Robert B. Parker. I’m not going to do that anymore because at this point this is entirely Atkins’ series, and Spenser is as good as he’s ever been.

Connie Kelley was swindled out of several hundred thousand dollars by her boyfriend, M. Brooks Welles, who has since vanished, and Connie would like Spenser to track him down and get her money back. Welles claimed to be a military veteran and spy whose experience made him a regular fixture on the cable news as an expert in those matters. What Spenser quickly finds is that Welles is a con man who has left a trail of broken promises and unpaid bills in his wake including a land scam that involved a shady gun dealer.

One of the best parts of this one is the character of Welles because he makes for an infuriating bad guy for Spenser to chase. He’s a compulsive liar who absolutely will never admit that he’s fibbing even when he’s confronted with direct evidence of it. What’s really amazing is how many people he’s burned who continue to fall for it and keep putting their faith in him. I mean, what kind of rubes continue to believe a guy who has been conclusively proven over and over again to be completely full of shit?

As usual we get a lot of twists and turns that find Spenser eventually making a trip down South where even more shenanigans are going on. Along the way he’ll have to deal with cranky cops, angry ATF agents, a wavering client, professional mercenaries, and more scams than you can shake a stick at. We also get the reappearance of a supporting character we haven’t seen in a while as well as plenty of great stuff with Hawk, too. Atkins also continues to rehab Susan so that I actually now enjoy her interactions with Spenser rather than just cringing at the sight of her name on the page.

Of course the heart of it all is Spenser who is his usual hard-punching, straight-shooting, smart-mouthed, gourmet-cooking self, but he still continues to show signs of growth in these newer books including a refreshingly pragmatic streak of how far he’s willing to take a case. Overall, it’s pretty much a book that most fans of Spenser or modern PI novels in general would enjoy reading.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Dune

Dune Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to write this review without rhythm so that it won’t attract a worm.

In the distant future Arrakis is a hellhole desert planet where anyone who doesn’t die of thirst will probably be eaten by one of the giant sandworms. It’s also the only place where the precious spice melange can be found so it’s incredibly valuable, and the honorable Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor to take over control of Arrakis from his mortal enemies, the House Harkonnen. While this seems like a great offer on the surface the Duke and his people realize that it’s actually a cunning trap being set by the Emperor and Baron Harkonnen.

The only hope seems to be allying with the local populace called Fremen whose harsh environment has led them to become an incredibly tough and disciplined people, but they have their own vision of what Arrakis should be. They also have a prophecy about the coming of a messiah figure who will lead them to freedom, and the Duke’s son Paul looks like he may be exactly who they’ve been waiting for.

This is classic sci-fi that really deserves the label. What Frank Herbert accomplished in one novel is stunning because he built a fascinatingly detailed universe in which the politics, religion, economics, espionage, and military strategy are all equally important. He then blended these more grounded concepts with bigger sci-fi ideas like being able to use spice to see through space-time, and the scope of that encompasses trying to pick the proper path through various potential timelines as well as free will vs. fate.

I think one of the factors that helps this story stay timeless is that so much of it is based on what humanity becomes vs. trying to predict what futuristic technology would be like. This is a society that once had a war with machines and has since rejected any type of computers so people have developed to fill the gap with the help of the spice. The Mentats are trained to use data to predict outcomes. The Navigators of the Guild have used so much of the spice to help them move through space that they’re mutating. The all female Bene Gesserit have developed a variety of skills to place their members alongside positions of power to help advance their breeding scheme that spans generations. Herbert also cleverly came up with an excuse that explains why knives and hand-to-hand combat are so important with the idea of the personal body shields.

So even though we still got a good sci-fi’s novel worth of cool gadgets the emphasis is on what the people can do and how that’s developed over a long period of time. It also adds a lot of depth to the political dimensions because all of these groups have different agendas that cause them all to mistrust each other, but because they all fill these various roles none can exist with the others.

There are also parallels to our world that are still in play because the idea of a desert people caught up in the power struggles of various outsiders because of their valuable natural resource is an obvious allegory to the Middle East that still works today. Plus, the classic film Lawrence of Arabia came out a few years before Herbert published this, and you have to think that it had some influence on him because there are elements of the story that seem very much inspired by it.

While the whole concept of a Chosen One has gotten a bit worn over time that’s not Herbert’s fault, and this is still a fantastic sci-fi story with big ideas that also works as space opera as well as being an epic adventure story.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment

Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment by Roger Stern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Greetings, Dr. Strange. I, Victor von Doom, have come to offer you an opportunity to assist me in a magical quest.”

“You must be mad, Doom. As the Sorcerer Supreme you know that I’d never use my powers to help a villain like you. I’ll see you in hell first!”

“Funny you should say that….”

Dr. Strange and Dr. Doom are summoned to a magical trial with some other contestants to determine who will be the next Sorcerer Supreme. Strange walks away with the title, but Doom wins the right to make a request of him. Doom wants help in freeing his mother’s soul from Mephisto which means going to Hades and fighting the devil himself on his home turf. Hilarity ensues.

This one started out with two strikes against it with me. First, it was written back in the late ‘80s so I knew going in it’d probably seem somewhat dated. Second, I’m not a fan of Mike Mignola’s art. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this.

While the dialogue is very overblown and comic booky it actually kinda works when you’re dealing with a couple of verbose characters like Strange and Doom. Teaming up a hero with one of Marvel’s worst baddies adds a fun mismatched partners dynamic like you find in a good buddy action movie. The story itself is pretty strong and the battle between them and Mephisto features some really clever twists in the way it uses as magic and plays with the idea that Doom will almost certainly betray Strange to save his mother’s soul.

I also liked it because I generally find Doom to be a hoot because he is just such an unbelievably arrogant jerk, but this manages to add a tragic dimension to the character. By the end you feel almost bad for the guy.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Review: The Ridge

The Ridge The Ridge by John Rector
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

I’ve lived in the suburbs for years and despite what books, movies, and TV would have you believe I’ve yet to see any evidence of evil lurking beneath the surface. Except for leaf blowers. Leaf blowers were created by the devil for morons to run for hours on end and drive me insane because how in the world can you possibly have that many leaves in April and will you just PLEASE TURN IT OFF BEFOREIHAVETO COMEOVERTHEREANDBEATYOUTODEATHWITHAHAMMERINFRONT OFYOURCHILDREN?!?!?!?!?!

Uh…where was I? Oh, right. Yeah, I haven’t found a beating heart of darkness beneath the surface as popular fiction likes to depict. Still, it makes for some good creepy stories like this one.

Megan and Tyler Stokes have recently moved to Willow Grove for Tyler’s new job at the Institute which sits on a ridge overlooking the planned community. Megan is struggling to adapt to their new area, and she’s got a particular problem with her attractive neighbor Rachel who Megan believes is interested in Tyler. After a few bottles of wine Megan decides to confront Rachel, but a bizarre incident makes Megan start to suspect that there is something very wrong with her neighborhood. However, Tyler thinks that Megan’s unhappiness with Willow Grove is making her imagination run wild.

I’ve read a couple of good noirish crime novels from John Rector, but he’s trying something different here. This is more of a moody blend of psychological suspense and conspiracy thriller, and it’s a nice piece of work. It starts off with just an inkling that there’s trouble in paradise with Megan being obsessed with Rachel, and then it quickly veers into some much darker territory before settling into a mode of gradually increasing the unease into paranoia and then outright terror.

There’s a few very big clues as that made it fairly obvious to me what the underlying cause of the whole thing was so Rector didn’t pull off a major twist. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s what he was really trying to do. This seems more about the journey than the destination, and Megan’s gradual unraveling as the weirdness piles up is what makes it a page turner that will have you feeling vaguely creeped out the entire time.

This is one where I really wish we had those half stars because it’s too good to be an average 3, but 4 seems just a tad high.

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