Saturday, September 28, 2019

Review: Bloody Genius

Bloody Genius Bloody Genius by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

If a dead body was found in a library I’d assume that he must have had some serious overdue fees. Those librarians don’t play around.

A professor who does high end medical research is found murdered in a college library so Minnesota state investigator Virgil Flower is assigned to help out when the local Minneapolis cops hit a dead end. As Virgil digs into the case his problem isn’t that there aren’t any clues, it’s that there are far too many. Sex, drugs, blackmail, lawsuits, ex-wives, an estranged daughter, and a bitter academic rivalry are all angles that come up. Sifting through the noise and finding the killer’s motive is the key to cracking the case, but the more Virgil digs into it, the less sense the entire thing makes.

This is a crackerjack of a whodunit. Sandford’s usual MO is to let the reader know the villain is from the jump, or at least give us their point of view. His books are generally a cat-and-mouse game between the cop and the bad guy so his stuff is often more thriller than traditional mystery although detective work always plays a major role. He has done a few where the reader is completely in the dark as to the killer and their motives, and this is one of his best pure head scratchers.

We’ve got an intriguing scenario with plenty of viable red herrings so that I was as stumped as Virgil for the entire time. When the killer’s identity is revealed it’s a very satisfying answer because Sandford plays fair, and the clues were all there the entire time.

There's also a good tense situation built up at the end that plays into Sandford’s strength of building momentum in action scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat. Virgil continues to be a strong lead character with his laid back persona making for a nice change of pace from your typical thriller heroes. There’s a little less humor in this one than the last couple of Flowers books, but still some good chuckles that make this a touch lighter than the Prey series.

Overall, it’s a very nice piece of crime writing with a solid mystery and a great ending.

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Monday, September 23, 2019

Review: Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder

Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of THOR.”

Or she.

The events of the latest crossover have left the mighty Thor unworthy in Mjolnir’s judgement so the hammer is just sitting on the surface of the moon. Then when frost giants rise out of the ocean’s depth and Thor tries to stop them he gets his arm chopped off by the dark elf Malekith.

Talk about a bad day

Fortunately, there’s a mysterious lady who can wield the hammer as the new Thor.

Thor is a character that I never really gave a damn about in the comic books. After reading this, I do. Not just because there’s a new Goddess of Thunder, but because the old Thor is going through a lot of crap in this one, and that’s a lot more interesting than just the big blonde dude who talks funny and has a stupid helmet like the Thor of my youth.

There’s just a lot of intriguing stuff going in with the mystery of the new Thor, the turmoil of old Thor, and Odin being a real overbearing jerkface ruler on Asgard. There’s also a lot of fun action with new Thor battling frost giants as well as then having to take on old Thor when he shows up thinking that the hammer is still is. Best of all is the new Thor, and I particularly like how her thoughts tell us that she is not an Asgardian even if her speech comes out just as flowery and bombastic as old Thor’s at times.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

Review: Breakneck

Breakneck Breakneck by Duane Swierczynski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s like the TV show 24. But with sex toys!

Joe Hayward is at a seedy motel to confront the man he believes is having an affair with his wife. Unfortunately, Joe walks into the middle of an elaborate covert operation to stop some kind of super weapon, and thanks to his interference the city of Philadelphia might be doomed in a matter of hours. Now Joe has to rush to save the city with the guy he fears his wife is sleeping with.

I had a lot of fun with this one. The ticking clock mixed with flashbacks telling how all these characters ended up in this situation works really well, and there’s a good sense of humor that capitalizes on the over-the-top nature of the entire plot. The art adds to the action and increasing sense of increasing desperation. It’s also nice to be able and sit down a read a quick and complete four-issue comic story.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

Review: The Dain Curse

The Dain Curse The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Continental Op is brought in after some diamonds go missing, but instead of solving a simple case of theft he ends up embroiled in the on-going troubles of a disturbed young woman who believes herself to be the victim of a family curse.

This certainly isn’t the best Hammett you can read, but it’s not bad. The plot is all over the place and doesn’t make much sense, but the main appeal is the attitude of the Op who still shines as the cynical private detective who has seen it all.

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Thursday, September 5, 2019

Review: What If? Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1

What If? Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 What If? Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 by Roy Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I read the 12 issues this contains on the Marvel Unlimited app, not the actual book.

What if way back in the ‘70s Marvel Comics started a title that explored alternate versions of if it’s stories? And then 4 decades later the company was now owned by Disney who was planning on bringing this idea back as an animated TV series on its new streaming service to capitalize on their string of blockbuster movies?

Nah…couldn’t happen.

So we’ve got a set of stories where the Watcher is used as an on-going framing device to show us ‘alternate worlds’ in which changes to the events of Marvel comics play out differently. I remember seeing this advertised a lot as a kid, but never really ran across too many of the actual issues. And frankly I found this a bit disappointing. It’s not terrible stuff, but it seems awfully limited at times.

That’s because most of these are set-ups that go back to the origins of the characters, and then they played those scenarios out in terms of some events in those early issues instead of taking a bigger view of how that would impact the whole Marvel universe. The most interesting ones for me were when Captain America doesn’t become a Popsicle at the end of World War II and when Jane Foster found the hammer of Thor instead of Don Blake. Those are the two that take a long view as to the implications instead of just looking at a few issues after the change is made.

The wackiest one is about what if the original Marvel bullpen had gained the powers of the Fantastic Four. So you’ve got real life Marvel employees Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Sol Brodsky, and Flo Steinberg becoming superheroes. It’s silly and stupid, but it was also Jack Kirby writing and drawing a book that sorta looks like the old FF for the first time in years so it’s worth a look as a curiosity.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Review: The Warehouse

The Warehouse The Warehouse by Rob Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

You load sixteen drones, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…

It’s the near future, and the giant company Cloud dominates the economy with its massive warehouses that are essentially cities where the employees live and work. However, the CEO of Cloud, Gibson Wells, has just announced that he’s dying of cancer so there’s change on the horizon as a couple of new employees meet during the hiring process. Paxton’s dream of running his own business was destroyed by Cloud, but now he needs a job so he finds himself on a security team. Zinnia acts like just another person looking for work, but in reality she’s been paid by a mysterious client to infiltrate Cloud and uncover some of its secrets.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for Zinnia to find holes in Cloud’s security, and even harder when she is worn out from long shifts spent running to fill orders. A relationship with Paxton might be her best way to complete her mission, but can she use him like that if she actually likes the guy?

On the surface this seems like your standard dystopian tale with some idealistic folks trying to take down an evil corporation, but this book is deeper and more subtle than that. For starters, the characters aren’t stereotypes. You might expect Paxton to be bitter and angry about his company being destroyed by Cloud and having to go to work for them, but he’s actually a guy who still believes that he can achieve his dreams by good ideas and hard work. Zinnia isn’t a radical trying to change the world either. She’s a mercenary doing a job for money, and while she has no love for Cloud she’s not looking to take it down either.

We also hear from Gibson Wells in the form of messages he’s releasing as he does a final farewell tour of the company he built, and that includes some of his history. At first his folksy tale of how he started Cloud with little more than an idea and some furniture scavenged from a closed school gives us the impression that this is the American dream taken to its fullest potential. Especially when Wells lays out that part of his goal for creating the Cloud facilities was to provide good jobs while helping to stave the increasing ravages of climate change by making the greenest facilities possible. It all sounds very reasonable, maybe even honorable. Yet as we learn more and more about how Cloud actually works Wells’ defense of his business tactics start to ring increasingly hollow.

For example, all the Cloud employees are on a rating system where their performance is constantly evaluated and a star value assigned which Wells explains came from his old grade school days when he always tried to get all the points possible on his assignments. That sounds good, but when average performance might get you fired then it’s a constant battle to be great, even perfect. Which then means that the standards shift to a point where people literally have to run themselves ragged to meet the minimum performance level.

Another thing the book does an excellent job at is showing just how falling into a routine might be the most dangerous and depressing aspect of all. There are several points where both Paxton and Zinnia get into the rut of just doing their job, returning to their small apartments, watching TV, falling asleep, and then doing it again. This, more than anything, might be the thing that lets Cloud flourish. If your employees have to expend so much physical and mental energy to get through an average workday that they just want to collapse into a stupor every night then they’re never going to have the time or gumption to try and shake things up in any way.

So this is a well written book with a timely message that I thought it was excellent. It also depressed the hell out of me because I read it on device I got from the company that Cloud is obviously based on. Now I’m also posting a review on a website owned by that same corporation. Even though I don’t directly work for that company it’s changed my life in many ways, and I went along with it because it was cheap and convenient without wondering too much where it all ends. Oops.

Even worse is that after reading this now, at a time when billionaires make the rules and the bottom line is used to justify everything they do, I don’t see a way that it gets better without humanity going all the way down Fury Road and just starting over.

But hey, it’s still a good book so go ahead and read it. Just maybe try to find a copy in an independent bookstore.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baltimore 1966 – a/k/a “The good ole days.” (For some people.)

Madeline Schwartz has been a wife and mother for almost two decades when she suddenly decides to turn her back on the boring comforts of the upper middle class. It isn’t easy for a woman in her late ‘30s to start over, but she begins pulling together a new life, including a secret relationship with an African-American cop. When Maddie discovers the body of a murder victim she manages to eventually leverage that into an entry level job at one of the local newspapers. She wants to become a real reporter, and when the body of Cleo Sherwood is found in a lake Maddie begins to research Cleo’s life and death even though everyone tells her that nobody cares about the story of a black party girl who met a bad end.

What Laura Lippman has written here is a character driven crime novel that smoothly shifts through a variety of viewpoints. Not only do we get the ghostly voice of Cleo who expresses dismay at how Maddie’s investigation is only stirring up trouble, but there are many short first-person interludes from the different people that Maddie interacts with. Sometimes these encounters make a big impact on her, like a dinner party with an old high school friend, and sometimes it’s a person that Maddie barely registers, like a waitress who serves her lunch. All of these characters have their own stories going on, and some of them are important to Maddie’s and some have no direct bearing on her at all. When you put them all together you get vivid picture of a bygone era as well as the full story of what happened to Cleo.

Lippman trusts the reader to remember what they’ve read in these parts so that very often we don’t see key events, and you have to infer what’s happened based on what we know about these other characters. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but it all fits the tone and structure of the book so that the reader comes to feel like just one of these flies on the wall that knows far more about Maddie’s business than she realizes.

The center of all this is Maddie, and again Lippman delivers with a detailed story about a complex woman whose old secrets put her on a path that she is now desperately trying to change. Her courage and determination are admirable, and yet there’s also a sense of entitlement to Maddie. Yes, she’s a woman struggling against sexism, but she also blithely assumes she can do a job that she’s had no experience or training for. She’s also willing to do some shady things to get what she wants, and she has little regard what damage she might do other people. Sometimes she comes across as the sympathetic hero of the story, but there are points where she seems like the villain of it. I didn’t always like Maddie, but I was always interested in her.

This also acts as kind of low key tribute to the newspaper business even if watching the sausage get made isn’t always pretty, and Lippman, a former journalist herself, ends the book with a moving tribute to the five employees of the Capital Gazette who were killed during a mass shooting at their office.

Top notch writing, great character work, and a unique structure all make for one compelling book.

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