Saturday, June 17, 2017

Review: Peepland

Peepland Peepland by Christa Faust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re an adult who reads comics then you probably know at least one person who gives you grief about it. “Oh, you still read funny books? How old are you? Ten?” This still happens even after Hollywood is dominated by superheroes, and there have been about thirty years worth of feature articles about how comics aren’t just for kids anymore. If you’ve got one of those people in your life just hand them a copy of Peepland, and then watch with satisfaction as their goddamn heads explode.

The story revolves around the Times Square sex trade in 1986 when a porn producer is on the run because he has a video tape that implicates a rich kid in a shocking crime. The producer stashes the tape in the peep show booth where Roxy is working, and after he’s murdered she retrieves it. This kicks off a chain of events that impacts a variety of people like the sex workers, crooked cops, thugs, a punk rocker, an innocent kid accused of a crime, and a shitbag real estate developer with a ridiculous hairstyle.

This is one the new series of comics that Hard Case Crime has started doing, and the results are exactly what you’d expect from a company with that name. It’s a gritty noir tale that doesn’t skimp on bloody violence, and of course with a story set in this world there’s plenty of sex and nudity, too. What’s refreshing is that this doesn’t veer into the territory of a cartoon blood bath with tough guy dialogue like a Sin City. This reads like a story happening in a real time and place with characters that you can legitimately sympathize with or hate.

There’s also a very matter-of-fact nature to the portrayal of the sex trade that comes from co-writer Christa Faust’s background as a peep show worker, and her afterward makes it clear that this was in part a love letter to a sleazy Times Square that doesn’t exist anymore. The artwork fits the tone of the story and gives you the vibe of it in the same way that a great ‘70s crime movie like The French Connection can make you feel like you’re walking the streets of New York back then.

A brief personal story about how I met the authors Christa Faust and Gary Phillips: (I’ve recounted this once before in review of Choke Hold.) Back in 2011 at Bouchercon in St. Louis I was talking to Mr. Phillips when Ms. Faust walked up and asked him if he was going to come to her next panel on sports in crime fiction. She said that they were going to talk a lot about boxing, mixed martial arts, and wrestling in particular, and being a smart ass I asked if there would be any actual wrestling going on. Without missing a beat she launched into an extended pro wrestler style spiel about how she was gonna get Gary Phillips in the ring and hurt him bad.

It was a very funny moment, but I wish I’d known then that the two of them would partner up to write a crime comic this good so that I could have thanked them for it in advance.

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Review: Choke Hold

Choke Hold Choke Hold by Christa Faust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yet another 2011 Bouchercon story about how Kemper-Met-An-Author….

Christa Faust was one of the speakers at a panel on sex and violence that was being held later than any other discussions, but there’d been some kind of snafu and the room wasn’t set up ahead of time. It was Miss Faust who took charge, ascertained that somebody had screwed the pooch, led the effort to commandeer another room, and essentially had moved everyone down the hall and got the whole thing going within about ten minutes. And she did all of this while wearing a dress tight enough to kill most mortals. After watching her in action, I was pretty sure that if zombies had burst into the convention hall, Miss Faust would have whipped off her high heels to use as skull impaling weapons against the undead and led us all to safety.

The next day, she walked up while I was chatting with another author to see if he’d be attending her next panel about fighting sports like boxing and crime fiction. When I asked if there would be actual fighting at the panel, she launched into an imitation of a professional wrestler ranting about all the ways she was going to destroy everyone in the room.

Later on, Dan had accompanied me to get some books signed by her, and she admired the Hard Case Crime shirt he was wearing while showing off her own HCC tattoo, and then she did a hilarious bit about how she’d been forbidden from using the profanity she wanted in the Supernatural tie-in novel she’d done.

In other words, Christa Faust is the shit.

And by the way, she writes a pretty mean hard boiled crime novel, too.

In her previous HCC book Money Shot we met Angel Dare, a retired porn star who was now an agent for others in the adult entertainment industry. Poor Angel got mixed up with some very bad people, and the ensuing events left her life in ruins. Now she’s hiding out and working in a diner under an assumed name in Arizona. Angel gets a shock when a former boyfriend and fellow veteran of the porn industry Thick Vic walks in. A few minutes later she gets an even bigger surprise when a gunfight breaks out in the diner.

Angel ends up on the run with Vic’s son Cody as they flee from a local gangster. Cody is a mixed martial arts fighter whose big break is waiting for him in Vegas in a few days if he can make it there alive. Along with Cody’s trainer, a punch drunk former fighter, Angel will have to confront some very dangerous men as well as her own past.

Angel is a unique character to base a crime novel around. As a former porn star, she wields her body as an asset to be used, and seemingly doesn’t let trading sex for favors bother her. However, she also uses the sex as a way of distancing herself from her own emotions. She’s tough and capable, but she’s not an ass kicking super woman.

The plot doesn’t end up anywhere near where I thought it was going, and I was genuinely surprised by the ending. Christa Faust doesn’t pull her punches, and Angel’s story here is as painful and brutal as a swift jab to the nose.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: Since We Fell

Since We Fell Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is going to be one of those pain in the ass books to review because you can’t really talk about it without spoiling it, and the things that really need to be discussed all happen later in the plot. Yet there’s so much wrong that I really want to get into all of it. It’s quite a dilemma.

Here’s what I can safely tell you: Rachel Childs’ mother refused to tell her who her father is which leads to a troubled childhood and rebellious teenage years. After her mother’s death Rachel follows up on various clues as she finishes school and becomes a rising star in TV journalism. While reporting in a disaster zone she experiences some terrible events that lead to the derailment of her career and crippling panic attacks that leave her a shut-in almost completely unable to deal with the world outside her apartment. Then some other things happen…

This really seems like two different books. The opening sentence tells us immediately that Rachel is headed for big trouble, but then it jumps way back to her childhood. We spend a lot of time with her growing up and being obsessed with tracking down her long lost father. This goes on for so long that it fools you into thinking that the book is more of a character drama/romance type of thing instead of a straight-up mystery/thriller, and I was actually enjoying this part.

After the turn we know is coming happens it seems like we’re in the territory of a Lifetime movie, but the book still had its head above water at this point. That’s when this plot which had been looking like a psychological suspense thriller turns into something else completely which stretches the suspension of disbelief way past the manufacturer’s recommended limits, and it shatters completely.

I yelled "Oh, bullshit!" so many times during this second part that I sounded like someone walking across a cow pasture wearing his best shoes. (view spoiler)

I’m a huge fan of Dennis Lehane so this is really disappointing. Now I know how a teacher feels when their favorite student hands in a rotten paper, and they have to give it an F. I suspect that a lot of readers will find the first half boring and pointless compared to the second half, or like me, they'll be more intrigued by the character based first part and think the rest is complete nonsense.

Lehane just got way too cute for his own good here as well as not seeming to have a good handle on what kind of book he was doing. While the writing itself is solid and Rachel is a pretty decent character it’s like he tried to make a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich, and the results taste about as good as that sounds.

Any untagged spoilers in the comments will be deleted.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Review: Darth Vader, Vol 4: End of Games

Darth Vader, Vol 4: End of Games Darth Vader, Vol 4: End of Games by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This marks the end of the run for these Darth Vader comics, but all good things must come to an end…. Uh, I mean Darth Vader isn’t good, of course. Guy’s a Sith Lord after all. But this was a generally good title so I’m sad to see it go.

This provides a satisfying end to the plot, and overall it ends up being a solid story of what kind of shenanigans Vader was up to in between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It also provides some interesting context to his relationship to the Emperor as well as how he reacted to finding out that he had a son. It doesn’t succeed as well at making us sympathize with Vader despite some attempts to give us a glimpse into what the guy behind the mask is feeling.

It’s worth reading for the murderous droids Triple-Zero and Beetee who are the best part of the series, and this features of a side adventure they have that also functions as the origin story of how two robots ended up so blood thirsty.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: Unsub

Unsub Unsub by Meg Gardiner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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

You know a book is in trouble when it’s about a crazy maniac slaughtering people left and right, but you find yourself yawning a lot while reading it.

Back in the 1990s a brutal serial killer known as the Prophet terrorized the San Francisco area, and Detective Mack Hendrix was unable to catch him. Hendrix’s obsession with the case eventually destroyed his career and his family, but his daughter, Caitlin, has grown up to be a cop despite seeing what happened to him. Now the Prophet is back again, and Caitlin is on the team trying to find him despite Mack’s warning that she should stay away from the whole mess.

Familiar is the word that best described this book for me because almost every aspect of it seems drawn from other works. The whole thing about detectives having to think like a madman to catch one at the risk of their own sanity is straight out of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. A young lady detective driven by the tragic fate of her cop father to track down a terrifying bad guy is from that other Harris novel Silence of the Lambs which also got turned into a movie you may have heard of. The elaborate ritualistic killings as punishment are pure John Doe in the film Seven including both bad guys having the same source of inspiration. David Fincher comes up again because he also directed the excellent Zodiac based on the real unsolved case, and that was obviously another big element with a killer who terrorized the Bay Area and loved the limelight. (To be fair, the book was drawing from actual events so similarities between this and Fincher’s movie may just be from them both using the same true crime case, but it still seems like the film was a huge influence on it.)

A serial killer story is almost inevitably going to incorporate some tropes just as any other genre work will so it’s not a cardinal sin if you’re reminded of something else while reading one, but unfortunately that’s all this book did for me. It never seemed to have anything new or original to say, and the clich├ęs piled up fast. 

It’s all stuff we’ve read and seen in the works I cited before as well as countless others, and what it boils down to is that it’s just another bland lead character with a troubled past trying to track down a murderous Insane McGenius who is constantly a step ahead of the cops and whose intricate schemes that depend on perfect timing almost always play out exactly as planned. I was also supremely angered by the ending which employs one of my least favorite plot twists. 

It’s disappointing because I’ve heard good things about Meg Gardiner, and I had high hopes for this. The writing is decent enough to keep it from being complete trash, but it’s just a generic serial killer thriller that runs over the same old worn ground. Most of her effort seemed to have been centered on coming with all kinds of gruesomely elaborate ways to murder someone, but again, Seven did it first and better.

I'm not surprised to see that it’s been bought by CBS as the basis for a potential TV series because it seems exactly like what their brand is built on in the form of a procedural crime story we’ve all seen a thousand times before.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: Thor: Season One

Thor: Season One Thor: Season One by Matthew Sturges
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Way back in days of yore when I still rode a dinosaur to school I got into superheroes mainly due to these three-packs of Marvel comic books they sold at our local grocery store. (Three comics for ninety-nine cents!) Since I could only get one of these packs per trip I had to choose carefully, but the catch was that you could only see the two comics facing out on either side of the package with one sandwiched in between that you couldn’t see. It was always a supreme disappointment to me when I’d open a pack and find an issue of The Mighty Thor in the middle.

So obviously I’ve never been the biggest Thor fan which is why I’m kind of surprised that I liked this the most out of the Season One comics so far. (Granted, this is only the fourth one I’ve read.) It does a nice job of blending some of the classic Thor origins with some of the stuff from the movies. I’d forgotten the whole thing about Thor once having a secret identity/dual personality as Dr. Donald Blake back in the day so that was kind of interesting to see again as was the modernized version of his relationship with Jane Foster.

It’s a little light on the Asgard part of things although it still has Loki being a sneaky jerk-face as usual, but overall it was fun and gave Thor a facelift without dumping the elements that would appeal to old school fans. One of my favorite parts was after Thor has become a known superhero on Earth there’s a series of panels that satirize that the kind of click-bait headlines and ads you’d see on the interwebs if there really was a god of thunder among us.

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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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Monday, April 3, 2017

Review: Golden Prey

Golden Prey Golden Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

The twenty-seventh book in a series would be when you’d really expect an author to run out of gas and just coast along on the fumes of creativity and the goodwill of hard core fans. So how do you explain John Sandford writing one of the most exciting Prey novels in the entire series now?

You can’t. So just enjoy it.

Lucas Davenport is now a deputy US marshal, and he got the gig thanks to his political connections. In fact, Lucas has so much juice that he gets to pick and choose his cases, and he’s still got a taste for hunting the worst of the worst. That’s why he decides to track down Garvin Poole, an armed robber who shoots first and doesn’t bother asking any questions later because he killed anyone who could have answered.

Poole dropped out of sight until he recently ripped off a massive amount of cash, but a small child was collateral damage on that caper so Poole is back on the government’s radar. He also mightily pissed off a drug cartel because it was their money Poole stole, and they want it back so badly that they’ve dispatched a pair of cold blooded thugs to viciously torture and kill anyone who ever knew Poole on the off chance that they might know where he is.

Giving Davenport a new gig with the US Marshal’s Service was an inspired choice because Sandford writes great manhunts and a big part of what marshals do is chase fugitives. (It also makes me fantasize about a crossover between Lucas and the late Elmore Leonard creations Raylan Givens and Karen Sisco.) So the book immediately plays to Sandford’s strength as Lucas first sniffs around for a lead on Poole, and then finds himself in a race against the cartel to find him.

Having Davenport run around various Southern states gives the whole thing a sense of momentum, and the cat and mouse games between him, Poole, and the cartel killers shows off the kind of fantastic plotting and pacing that Sandford can seemingly do in his sleep. He almost always manages to make everything seem realistic, natural, and intelligent while keeping a reader turning pages as fast they can to see what happens next.

Taking Davenport out of his usual Minnesota setting also freshens things up. I don’t think that Sandford ever fell into a rut, but any long running series is going to develop a certain rhythm to it after a while. Lucas had his home life to ground him along with his cop buddies and a bunch of friends he’d turn to for help regularly, and while it was all still good it was also very familiar. This isn’t the first time that Sandford has mixed things up because Davenport has changed jobs before, and he’s grown and mellowed as a character over time.

That’s all still here, but by putting Lucas into a completely new branch of law enforcement as well as changing his geographic location it took away all the old support systems. Which means that Sandford has to develop new characters, new ways of handling things, and new problems for Davenport. All of which he’s done very well, but Sandford also knows where his bread is buttered so it still seems very much like a Prey novel. It’s like he’s given Lucas a makeover. He’s still the same old ruthless bastard he's always been when he's on the hunt, but now with a new haircut and a spring in his step as he does it.

Also, since I've reviewed a lot of Sandford on here I regularly get asked if it's the kind of series you can read any book or if you need to read the whole series to understand. My standard answer is that most are self-contained stories that can be enjoyed by themselves, but this one in particular would make a great place to jump in for anyone looking to try it out.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Review: Under the Bright Lights

Under the Bright Lights Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jewell Cobb is a small town Louisiana boy who has come to the city with dreams of making it big in crime, and he gets hired to kill a crooked politician. Detective Rene Shade grew up on the streets he now works, and he knows every lowlife around. His own brother runs a bar so shady that Rene can ruin business just by walking in the place and scaring off the customers. As Shade tries to run down Cobb and figure out what’s behind the gang violence things get messier than trying to eat a bowl of gumbo without a spoon.

This is Daniel Woodrell’s first book, and it’s the start of a trilogy he’d do featuring Rene Shade. It’s a short and snappy piece of work that focuses on vivid characters and colorful atmosphere that includes smoky pool rooms and swamps. It’s not nearly as good as Winter’s Bone, but it shows off Woodrell’s talent that he’d continue to develop over his career.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

47 Movies - The Director's Cut

Picking one favorite movie for every year of my life required a lot of deep soul searching.  Here’s the finalists along with some random silly thoughts about why I chose each particular one.  I ranked each year in descending order.
1970 – Patton
Kelly’s Heroes
MASH
I was born into war!  Or at least born into war movies because all three I considered here are war flicks. I’ve only watched MASH entirely a few time so it didn’t seem to fit the criteria of favorite.  Kelly’s Heroes is a great twist on a war flick done as a heist with a fun cast of kooky characters, but that awesome George C. Scott’s speech in front of a giant American flag tips the balance.
1971 – The French Connection
Dirty Harry
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Two cops and a crazy candy maker in competition here, and Popeye Doyle wins by driving like a maniac down the gritty streets of ‘70s New York.
1972 – The Godfather
The Getaway
Would I really pick anything else?  The Getaway is a classic '70s crime fim, but I only considered it for a hot second before bowing to reality.
1973 – The Exorcist
The Sting
Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee made a strong case with the sheer force of his martial arts skill and screen presence, but how can you top Newman and Redford conning Robert Shaw during the Great Depression?  Why, only the devil himself could do that!
1974 – The Godfather Part 2
Blazing Saddles
Chinatown
Again, it’s pretty much impossible to go up against the combo of the first two Godfather movies. It’s a testament to how strong Godfather is that both Blazing Saddles and Chinatown could be my #1 pick in a lot of other years.
1975  - Jaws
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson needed a bigger boat to win this one.
1976 – All the President’s Men
Rocky
The Bad News Bears
As someone who grew up in the ‘70s when parenting and child safety standards were a bit different than today I still get a huge laugh out of Walter Matthau giving beer to foul-mouthed children, and who could root against Rocky Balboa?  Still I slightly prefer the true story of dogged reporters taking down a corrupt president.  Ah, the good ole days…
1977 – Star Wars: A New Hope
Smokey & the Bandit
Star Wars was always going to be my pick, but that Trans Am was pretty cool.
1978 – Halloween
National Lampoon’s Animal House
Dawn of the Dead
Full confession: Animal House would have been the favorite at an earlier point in my life because it’s one of those movies that I could pretty much quote from start to finish thanks to watching it a few thousand times in the ‘80s.  However, the appeal of frat boy behavior has faded.  So instead I’m giving the nod to a deranged mass murderer in the mask instead.  And I still think of zombies whenever I somehow find myself in a mall.
1979 – Apocalypse Now
Alien
The Jerk
North Dallas Forty
This one was tougher than I expected.  I’ve got a huge soft spot for the dingy ‘70s atmosphere that surrounds a cynical and battered Nick Nolte, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said, “He hates these cans!” I could retire.   A chest bursting alien is also pretty good, but it still doesn’t smell as good as napalm in the morning.
1980 – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The Shining
The Blues Brothers
Caddyshack
Yet another time where comedies that I’ve quoted an unhealthy amount of times just can’t overcome superior completion, and Nicholson really could have used a dead Tauntaun when he was in that hedge maze.
1981 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Stripes
Escape From New York
Two tough dystopian warriors and Bill Murray with a military grade RV still can’t take down one archaeologist with a whip.
1982 – Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan
48 Hrs.
Blade Runner
This was an incredibly tough pick between two of my favorite sci-fi classics and a great buddy action/comedy, but only Wrath of Khan can still make it seem dusty in my living room at the end.
1983 – WarGames
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
The Right Stuff
National Lampoon’s Vacation
Star Wars could have had a three-peat here if not for the Ewoks, and while the Mercury astronauts may have had the right stuff what they didn’t have was a computer that could talk and destroy the world.  The moose should have told the Griswold family that this pick was closed.
1984 – Ghostbusters
The Terminator
Romancing the Stone
If Terminator had come out a year sooner it could have easily taken out geeky Matthew Broderick, but not even a murderous cyborg and the charm of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in their ‘80s prime is enough to overcome a Twinkie this big.
1985 – Fletch
The Breakfast Club
Real Genius
Yes, Real Genius was one I seriously thought about just because I’ve seen it even more than Back to the Future.  Which I like just fine but I don’t have the deep love that some people do so I’ll have to rely on Breakfast Club’s honorable mention to save my ‘80s street cred.  Fletch was the easy choice here.
1986 – Aliens
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Stand By Me
The recent death of Bill Paxton reminded me just how many times in my life I’ve said, “Game over, man!  Game over!”
1987 – Full Metal Jacket
Raising Arizona
Princess Bride
Predator
Robocop
The Untouchables
Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Lethal Weapon
1987 was a helluva movie year, and it’s the first one that I really struggled with because of the sheer number and variety of candidates.  How do you compare Full Metal Jacket to The Princess Bride?  Or Predator to Planes, Trains & Automobiles? In the end it came down to my memories of seeing Full Metal Jacket in a packed theater and walking out with a crowd just as stunned and silent as I was.
1988 – Die Hard
Bull Durham
The greatest action movie ever made steamrolled the minor league baseball team even though I still call anyone who is moving too slowly to suit me a lollygagger.
1989 – Major League
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Batman
Glory
Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
Say Anything
Lethal Weapon 2
I was fairly shocked that Batman wasn’t #1 with a bullet since I saw that movie four or five times in the theater and wore out a VHS copy of it back in the day.  Yet, I eventually started criticizing it more than enjoying it and hadn’t seen it many years.  A recent viewing didn’t do much to boost it in my eyes either.  I’m even more shocked that I put Major League in first place of the box scores here, and it’s probably one of my few real offbeat choices.  Still, it hits the criteria of being the one I’ve probably seen the most, and I will almost always watch it again if I come across it on TV.
1990 – Miller’s Crossing
Goodfellas
Total Recall
This was an upset that happened after a lot of careful consideration.  Total Recall is goofy fun but never stood a chance with these two heavyweights.  Goodfellas is a fantastic flick that would win almost any other year, but Miller’s Crossing has a special place as my favorite Coen brothers’ movie. I also love the story and setting which were influenced by Hammetts’s Red Harvest.  So after looking in my heart I decided that it had a slight edge.
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The ‘90s are almost nothing but hard choices on here, and it's two of my all-time favorites head-to-head. Hannibal gets the win just because it’s a great adaptation of a book I also love.
1992 – Unforgiven
Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino’s first work against Eastwood’s best?  The crusty veteran takes the prize, but it was close.
1993 – Groundhog Day
The Fugitive
Tombstone
It’s cold out there, campers.  So cold that I gotta cut movies like The Fugitive and Tombstone.
1994 – Pulp Fiction
The Shawshank Redemption
Speed
Another near impossible choice here.  Speed is a distant third even at 50 mph, but there’s no shame in that with this kind of competition.  I just can’t go against Pulp Fiction here, but Shawshank made it tougher than I thought it’d be originally.
1995 – Seven
The Usual Suspects
Heat
This is where I very nearly threw in the towel on my rule about not having any ties.  These are three movies that would probably rank in all-time top twenty so cutting two is particularly cruel.  As with 1987 the tie-breaker came from the stunned audience reaction to Seven in the theater that got it the top spot.
1996 – Fargo
Star Trek: First Contact
Finally, an easy pick from the ‘90s.  First Contact is great, but Jean-Luc Picard has to take a backseat in Marge’s police cruiser.
1997 – LA Confidential
Jackie Brown
Sweet bloody Christmas, but this is another heart breaker.  Two fantastic crime movies based on two fantastic crime novels from a couple of my favorite crime authors?  It’s just not fair.  LA Confidential squeaked ahead because I think it’s just a tiny bit more enjoyable to watch.
1998 – Saving Private Ryan
The Big Lebowski
Out of Sight
Once again it’s three movies that would rank highly among my all-time greats.  I hate to slight an Elmore Leonard adaptation for the second year in a row, but Out of Sight just can’t hang in there with the other two. In almost any other year Lebowski would bowl a strike, but Tom Hanks and his squad once again defeat the Germans.  Sure, they’re just nihilists, not Nazis, but the results are the same.
1999 – Fight Club
The Matrix
This is getting goddamn ridiculous.  But we all know what the first rule of Fight Club is: Don’t tell Neo about Fight Club because he’d just cheat by showing up with a bunch of kung-fu moves he downloaded. And if Neo doesn’t know about it then he can’t beat Tyler Durden.
2000 – Memento
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The Way of the Gun
Finally a choice that doesn’t make me break out in a cold sweat.   Way of the Gun is a crime flick that only about thirty people in the world have ever seen, but it’s one I return to again and again.  Ang Lee’s film is gorgeous violent poetry, but the structure of Memento is something that can only be experienced, not explained.
2001 – LotR : The Fellowship of the Rings
The Royal Tenenbaums
Ocean’s 11
There’s no better way of symbolizing the shift from ‘90s crime dramas to 21st century sci-fi spectacle than the first Lord of the Rings movie.
2002 – The Bourne Identity
LotR: The Two Towers
Spider-Man
I loved Spider-Man, but the CG hasn’t aged well and the Green Goblin’s mask is still stupid.  The forgetful spy holds Helm’s Deep against the Orcs.
2003 – X-Men 2
LotR: Return of the King
Kill Bill Vol. 1
And here we have my first comic book movie winning out.  It won’t be the last.
2004 – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Kill Bill Vol. 2
Shaun of the Dead
The Bourne Supremacy
Spider-Man 2
Will Farrell kept his head on a swivel during this fight that escalated quickly.   
2005 - Serenity
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Batman Begins
Brick
Another oddball pick, but if loving a movie based on a short-lived TV show is wrong then I don’t wanna be right.
2006 – Casino Royale
Inside Man
Bond.  James Bond.  
2007 – There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
Zodiac
Here we are back again with three amazing movies and a choice that will seem flawed no matter what I do.  If you asked me to do this pick three times I might pick a different one for each round depending on my mood at the moment, but for now Daniel Day-Lewis wins the showdown and drinks my milkshake.
2008 – The Dark Knight
Iron Man
I really should have thought about this no ties policy harder because it’s two great comic book characters going head to head in movies that would set the stage for the next decade. DC gets the pick thanks to Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker and Christopher Nolan’s top notch film making skills.  However, while Marvel lost this particular battle they’ve been winning the war ever since.
2009 – Star Trek
Up
Zombieland
Inglourious Basterds
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Some really strong choices here, but I simply love this reboot of classic Trek.
2010 – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
True Grit
Inception
Anyone who doesn’t have tragically Canadian sensibilities recognizes that this is the clear pick.
2011- Moneyball
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Tom Cruise hanging off a skyscraper is fun, but not as much fun as watching arguments about compiling baseball stats.  I like this movie so much that I actually root for the A’s over my own Royals while watching it. (But only in this movie.)
2012 – The Avengers
Skyfall
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
No real contest despite some stiff competition.  It's pretty much how it looked in my head when I’d read Avengers comics as a kid so what more could I ask for?
2013 – Pacific Rim
Snowpiercer
Gravity
This is the pick that I’m the least happy with.  I enjoyed Pacific Rim, but it’s got problems. Same thing with Gravity.  I suspect that Snowpiercer might one day claim this spot, but I need to see if it passes the multiple viewing test first.
2014 –Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Grand Budapest Hotel
John Wick
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Yes, it’s another one based on comic books, but when you combine that with space adventure, great action, a fun cast, a catchy soundtrack, and a heavily armed talking raccoon you get a movie that I think has high potential to remain one of my all-time favorites for many years to come.
2015 – Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Martian
I’m a little surprised that I didn’t go with the return of Star Wars because I did enjoy the hell out of that movie, but there is just something about the look, pace, and action of Fury Road that make me lean in its direction.  Poor Matt Damon will just have to keep eating potatoes by himself. 
2016 – Captain America: Civil War
Deadpool
Dr. Strange
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
More comic books and Stars Wars.  I’m sensing a trend here.  However, I don’t have the same level of enthusiasm for this as the other comic book picks. Plus, there’s still a lot of well-regarded movies from 2016 that I haven’t seen yet so it’s very possible that there will be some shifting around once I do some catching up.