Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Close Reach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: In a Lonely Place

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

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

Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect, right?

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review: Sleeping Beauties

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

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

Eh….Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Review: The Night Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: Deadpool, Volume 8: Operation Annihilation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun enough.

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Artemis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Review: Fatherland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: Walter Hill's Triggerman

Walter Hill's Triggerman Walter Hill's Triggerman by Walter Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Filmmaker Walter Hill has written a comic. Can you dig it? CAN YOU DIG IT?!!? CAAAANNNNN YOUUUU DIGGGGG ITTT??!!!??

Unfortunately there’s not that much here to dig.

In 1932 professional gun man Roy Nash gets creatively sprung from prison by the mob in order to track down three hoodlums who double crossed them after a bank heist and killed the boss’s nephew in the process. After Roy tracks them down and kills them he can keep any money left from the robbery he comes across in the process, but his main motivation is finding the old girlfriend who ran off with one of the thieves. When his desire to find her conflicts with his mob mission Roy runs afoul of all kinds of gangsters and crooked cops.

This is a perfectly fine set up for a crime comic, and it’s done well enough. But you’d think the guy who came up with movies like The Warriors and Streets of Fire would have done something with some visual flare and memorable characters. Really, it’s just a series of bland panels in which guys with fedoras and trench coats punch and shoot each other. It’s not entirely fair to blame Hill for this since he didn’t draw it, but on the other hand it all looks very much like his lackluster Bruce Willis Prohibition-era shoot-em-up Last Man Standing so it seems like he just gave some of those old storyboards to the artist and called it a day. Plus, the story is just your standard anti-hero tough-guy killing people for personal reasons rather than for money.

It’s not terrible, but it’s not anything particularly great either.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Deep Freeze

Deep Freeze Deep Freeze by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

I got sneak preview of this one last spring when I made a long drive to attend a John Sandford signing, and he told us about the current book he was fighting a deadline on that he was going to have to spend the evening working on when he got back to the hotel. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but it makes John one of the best and most productive thriller writers on the bestseller list.

It’s another hard Minnesota winter in the small town of Trippton, but there’s spot near the sewage treatment plant where the river doesn’t freeze. That’s where the body of the lady who owned the local bank pops up, and soon state cop Virgil Flowers is on the job. Virgil is familiar with Trippton because his fishing buddy Johnson Johnson lives there, and he also worked another case there just a few books back.

Complicating the murder investigation is the side gig his bosses want Virgil to help with that involves a ring of the locals adding sound chips to Barbie dolls that make it sound as if their having orgasms and selling them on the web. The Mattel corporation has no sense of humor about these aptly named Barbie-Ohs and has dispatched a private detective to serve cease-and-desist orders, but the hard boiled lady gumshoe is having no luck tracking down the people involved. Virgil isn’t happy about such a silly distraction, but he finds out the hard way that times are so tough in this struggling small town that the people involved are desperate to keep anyone from interfering with the income they make from selling the dolls.

This is pretty typical Sandford in a lot of ways. Virgil gets a case in a rural Minnesota town, and he tries to solve it using his sneakily low key way of chatting up people and tapping into local gossip. Like most of his books we know right from the start who the killer is, and the tension comes from the cat-and-mouse game between the cop and criminal. Sandford often holds back some info from the reader that is a critical part of how the bad guy will be found and figuring that out provides the mystery element to his books rather than a straight-up whodunit. He adds a new wrinkle to that in this one because while we know who killed the woman we also know that he left he body in her house after trying to make it look like an accident. One of the interesting aspects in this one is that the killer is as confused as we are as to how her body wound up in the river.

There is also all the typical Sandford stuff about Virgil having funny conversations with people, and one of the better running gags in this one is that everyone he asks about the leader of the Barbie-Oh gang acts as if they’ve never heard of her though he knows damn good and well that every one of them knows exactly who she is.

There’s one potential problem here with a huge unresolved plot thread. Sandford doesn’t always wrap everything up neatly, but even if the cops don’t know everything by the conclusion the reader always does. It’s also possible that he’s leaving a loose thread for a future book, but that's not really his style so it’s odd that it isn’t even mentioned in the wrap-up as a loose end. It really does seem like something that Sandford just forgot to address, but I’m also reading an advanced copy so it’s possible that it might get fixed in the final published version. But Sandford’s plotting is usually air tight so it really made me scratch my head at the oversight.

Overall, it’s still another satisfying thriller from a writer whose casual readability masks how well conceived and executed his books really are.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone The Dead Zone by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnny Smith is one bad-luck bastard.

He starts off well enough as a nice guy with a talent for teaching and is in the early stages of what looks to be a very promising relationship with Sarah. However, a car accident leaves Johnny in a coma which nobody thinks he’ll recover from. Miraculously, he wakes up 4 years later, but he finds that Sarah has married someone else, his mother has turned into a religious lunatic, he’s got a long and painful rehab to endure, and he faces a mountain of debt from his hospital bills. Oh, and he now has psychic ability to learn details about a person by touching them or personal objects as well as sometimes seeing their futures. This might seem like a gift, but as Johnny quickly learns it’s really a curse that eventually puts him on a collision course with a dangerous politician named Greg Stillson.

I’ve always thought this was one of King’s better books but hadn’t read it for years. A new audio version with James Franco narrating and doing a pretty good job of it got me motivated, and I’m pleased to find that it mostly lives up to my memory of it.

The elephant in the room on this one is that even thought it was published in 1979 the Stillson plot is about a populist demagogue who manages to rise in politics despite being a crazy and corrupt piece of shit just because he has talent for making rubes think that he’s a maverick who tells it like it is even as they willfully ignore the obvious warning signs. So it’d be easy to say that King is a prophet these days. Yeah, he hit the mark with that one, but on the other hand there’s plenty of writers who have done stories about shady politicians.

What I found more interesting here is what King did with Johnny’s mother, Vera. She starts out as someone with strong fundamental religious beliefs, but Johnny’s accident sends her over the high side and into the realm where she starts believing tabloid stories about Jesus living underground at the South Pole. She’s completely immune to facts and logic, and she’d rather rely on prayer than medication to handle her high blood pressure.

It’s fascinating to read a character like this in the ‘70s setting where tabloids and poorly printed tracts are how Vera gets her crackpot theories, and how even then she uses them to create her own view of the world because reality doesn’t suit her. Fast forward to the 21st century where some people pick their news web sites based on how it conforms to what they want to believe as they spread rumors on Facebook about child sex rings in the basement of pizza restaurants that don’t even have a basement, and you realize that King had tapped into something that was on the rise even then.

Leaving aside the eerie similarities to America today, what sets this apart from his other novels is the way that King focused on John Smith and made his story a genuine tragedy. Johnny just wanting to try and resume some kind of normal life, but unable to stop himself from using his power to help people and put himself in a media spotlight is incredibly compelling.

Uncle Stevie takes his sweet time with this so that it comes across as more a slow burn, and it’s not really a horror novel although it can be creepy at times. You can see where the bigger plot involving Johnny and Stillson is headed for a good long while although King still makes the journey there worth the trip, and Johnny is one of his characters who haunts me the most.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: The Blinds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Review: The Right Stuff

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

Treasure of the Rubbermaids 24: Rocket Men

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

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

To understand that you can read The Right Stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Force

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

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

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

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

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

So why didn’t I love this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange: Season One

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

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

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


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Review: Easy Death

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

Dear Santa,

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

Thanks,
Eddie

*****
Dear Eddie,

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

Sincerely,
Santa Claus


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

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

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

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

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

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

As you might expect, things get complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

This is one of those impossible reviews because I’d have to get into huge chunks of third act plot to talk about the parts I found the most intriguing so I don’t want to spoil it, but on the other hand I suspect that this is the kind of book where a lot of readers are going to think it’s one thing and be pissed off when it turns out to be another so providing some warning seems to be in order.

It’s a real pickle we got here, folks.

Let’s start with the basic plot which is about an introverted teenage girl named Lee who thinks of herself as being completely invisible and unremarkable except for her talent for shoplifting. Lee’s life is derailed when she’s falsely accused of a crime, and eventually she ends hiding among the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. (That Bruce Springsteen reference was not intentional.) Eventually she finds shelter in an old building dubbed the Crystal Castle run by a strange group of people that Lee soon grows to distrust. When Lee ends up on their bad side she once again finds herself on the run and caught up in a conspiracy centered around the works of French artist Marcel Duchamp.

That description makes it sound like this is just The Da Vinci Code, but that really sells the book short and would be misleading because while this definitely has elements of a conspiracy thriller it’s closer to being serious Lit-A-Chur than a genre book even though it also has some sci-fi elements to it. Plus, it’s not terrible. So it’s probably better to compare it to Night Film which is another book that blends some solid real-world thriller aspects with a general tone of uncertainty that makes you scratch your head a lot while reading because you’re pleasantly baffled.

The writing is deceptively straight-forward. There’s no real lines that blew me away in and off themselves, but where Rose excels is in creating haunting imagery. Whether it’s an abandoned aquarium at night or a rave in an old missile silo with an inflatable clown head by the entrance or a guy in old-timey clothes riding an antique bicycle down the street you really see these things, and they all combine to help create the aura of mystery that hangs over everything. He also does a very good job of breaking down the visual aspects of Duchamp’s work which ties into his philosophy about the observation of art.

Since it isn’t a straight line thriller that’s as concerned with atmosphere as plot there are some points where I found myself wishing that things would move along and that Lee didn’t spend quite as much time on the run and in hiding as she does. There’s one sub-plot in particular that didn’t seem to go much of anywhere other than to provide Lee with one skill that’s critical for her a couple of key points. And in fairness the sense of desperation Lee has is built by these extended periods of her in survival mode.

While I enjoyed this quite a bit I also think it’s going to be a real Love-It or Hate-It book that will be impossible to predict how another person might react to. It’s general WTF tone for much of the book leaves a reader on uncertain footing and that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and the payoff is only going to appeal to some folks, not all. Still, it checked off a lot of boxes for me, and it’s one of the more unique and original things I’ve read in a while despite it’s basic familiarity of starting out as a conspiracy thriller. It’s an intriguing debut novel, and I’ll be looking for more work from Augustus Rose.


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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: Forever and a Death

Forever and a Death Forever and a Death by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Westlake...Donald Westlake.

This is one of the more intriguing back stories to a novel being released years after an author’s death that you’ll ever hear. Back in the ‘90s Donald Westlake worked up an outline to a James Bond movie that would have been the follow up to Goldeneye, but for various Hollywood reasons the studio went in a different direction. Westlake then reworked those basic ideas into a novel he stuck in a drawer that Hard Case Crime is now publishing almost ten years after his death.

The book focuses on a dastardly plot put in motion by Richard Curtis who made a fortune in Hong Kong when the British ruled it, but who was pushed out in the cold when the Chinese took over in 1997. An engineer named George Manville has been helping Curtis by developing a brilliant technique to clear land, but he doesn’t realize Curtis’ true intentions for his work until an accident involving a young woman diver working for an environmental group brings his plan to light.

Once you know the background it’s very easy to pick out the elements that could have been used in a Bond flick. A powerful man with an elaborate scheme is the most obvious piece, and he employs a couple of henchmen in the book who you could certainly see as the heavies going against 007. The characters move through several countries like Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong over the course of the book. There’s even a segment where Manville is held hostage in very posh circumstances instead of being handcuffed to a chair or just killed outright which is another very Bondian thing.

However, it’s also clear that Westlake was working very hard not to get sued because there’s actually no James Bond character in this. Manville seems like he might be the guy for a while, but over the course of the book it turns into more of an ensemble story with multiple characters playing important roles. So while it seems like he thought his general idea was good enough to use on it’s own he didn’t go the cheap and obvious route of just creating a knock-off version of Bond to use as the hero.

There’s also a great afterwords by Jeff Kleeman who was the production company executive and Westlake fan who brought him onto the Bond project originally. He provides a very interesting account of the whole story as well as why it didn’t come to pass which was mainly due to nervousness about basing a story on the Hong Kong handover which had some tricky political ramifications. Maybe the most interesting bit of trivia that comes out of it is that Donald Westlake apparently was actually in a Bond movie once as an extra riding in a car during a chase scene in Live & Let Die which filmed in New York back in the early ‘70s.

Overall, it’s a pretty entertaining story although it’s far from my favorite thing that I’ve read by him. Westlake couldn’t quite bring himself to go all in on his comic book premise, and the rest of the book reads more like one of his standard novels so it’s got a bit of an odd tone to it. Kleeman points out in the afterwards that it seems like if the story had shifted a bit in one direction it could be a Parker novel, or if Westlake had gone a slightly different way it could also be one of his Dortmunder farces.

That keeps it from being one of Westlake’s best books, but it’s certainly an entertaining curiosity and well worth a look for any fans of his work or the Bond franchise.

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Fallen

The Fallen The Fallen by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won a free advance copy of this from Goodreads.

Quinn Colson is back in office as sheriff, and he’s got no shortage of problems to deal with. A crew of ex-military combat vets have started robbing banks. Two underage teenage girls have gone missing, and Quinn’s born again sister is obsessed with finding them. The lady who owns the local strip club is as crooked as a dog’s back leg and has connections to the bank robbers as well as the Dixie Mafia. A miserable old bastard of a politician has vowed to make Mississippi great again by turning back the clock to the days when everyone went to church and segregation was still the law of the land. And a childhood friend of Quinn’s has returned to town leading him to a new romance even as she’s still waiting for her divorce to be finalized.

Tibbehah County definitely isn’t Mayberry.

This is the seventh book in the series, and Ace Atkins has built this world up to the point where it’s now got it’s own internal logic and rhythm to it. The basic idea of a ex-military bad ass returning to his old home town to clean it up sounds like the plot of an action movie. However, rather than make his ex-Ranger straight-talking straight-shooting hero into the focal point that all the other characters orbit around Atkins has been content to let Quinn be like the leading man of a TV show with a great supporting cast. The action usually involves him eventually, but he doesn’t need to be in every scene. This lets the whole thing play out as a crime story that has room to explore other aspects, and we end up spending as much time with the owner of the strip club and the bank robbers as we do Quinn. That makes everyone feel like real characters and not just targets to be shot or arrested.

Recent political events have added an interesting undercurrent to this one. The developing situation with the politician demanding a return to his version of the good ole days as a populist hook to get people on board with his agenda lurks throughout the book. This feeds into a larger plot about large scale corruption taking the form of hypocritical old rich white men who line their pockets while feeding the rubes lines about factory jobs coming back as soon as we have a return to decency. The guys robbing the bank may be dangerous thrill seeking criminals who wear Donald Trump masks, but at least they’re honest about what they’re doing.

It’s another very strong crime novel from Atkins who continues to resolve some stories while leaving some things up in the air to be part of future books. When I finish one book about Quinn Colson and Tibbehah County I’m always anxious to get the next one, and this has a final scene that will make it a long year waiting for the next installment.

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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 sure 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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