Monday, March 30, 2020

Review: The Last Human

The Last Human The Last Human by Zack Jordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

So this is sci-fi set in the far future where humans caused a bunch of trouble for all the other known alien worlds, and after being driven to the brink of extinction they are still the most hated and feared species in the galaxy.

I can’t fault that story logic.

Sarya is the last known human living under a false identity with the protection of her adoptive mother, Shenya the Widow. (It’s kind of like having the queen from Aliens as a parent.) They live on a space station that is part of the vast Network which connects every alien and AI as well as organizing the structure of every facet of everyday life as well as providing the faster than light travel that connects them all.

When a stranger approaches Sarya with the knowledge that she is actually Human she soon finds herself on the run as she discovers just how big and terrifying the Network really is.

This is one of more unique and well thought set-ups for a future space civilization I’ve read, and it’s filled with interesting concepts. Most intriguing to me was how there are various levels of intelligence for Network users so manipulating lesser rated beings is a key point. I also admired how the story embraces the scale of it all because space is so freaking big that the Network can be enormous beyond all human comprehension and yet still be a tiny part of the galaxy.

However, that also turned out to be a stumbling block for me because at one point the story shifts away from trying to get us to really empathize with Sarya and instead tries to blow the reader’s mind. Which it does pretty well, but I think some of the emotions of the story got lost will all the effort to impress with the vastness of it all.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Review: Jane Goes North

Jane Goes North Jane Goes North by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

And I thought Thelma & Louise had a bad road trip…

Despite recently losing her job and being low on cash, Jane is determined to attend her estranged sister’s wedding so she goes looking for someone headed north that she can catch a ride with. Unfortunately the only candidate she finds is a surly one-eyed woman named Henry who doesn’t seem like the kind of person you want as a traveling companion on a long car ride.

With no other options, Jane and Henry set off but have one misadventure after another involving a weird assortment of oddballs like an unusual thief, a washed up country & western singer on her last tour, and redneck slavers. Will Jane be able to make it in time for the wedding? And what kind of gift she should buy?

Joe Lansdale has written several types of novels over the years ranging from horror to westerns to crime novels. This feels like something different, and I mean that in the best possible way. There are similarities to his other writing like the Hap & Leonard series in the style and characters, but things take a turn in the second half of the book. What starts off as a goofy romp with some rednecks turns into a pretty moving character story by the end.

That mainly comes from what we learn about Jane along the way. At the start Jane seems like just an aimless women in her mid-thirties with a string of failed relationships and dead end jobs behind her, and she has absolutely no idea what to do next. One thing compounding her problems is that Jane has got a stubborn streak that compels her to resist listening to anyone, especially when they’re right.

Jane also lacks basic planning skills and is extremely limited in her thinking. For example, since she had a bad bus ride in school years ago she refuses to take a bus to the wedding because she assumes every bus trip would be just as bad. It's also not very endearing that the main reason Jane wants to go to her sister’s wedding is because she realized that nobody really wanted her there so this is all for spite at a time when she has far bigger problems like trying to make sure she keeps a roof over head.

In short, Jane seemed like the kind of moron who consistently always does the wrong thing but never understands why her life is so crappy. However, despite seeming like the kind of person I've been actively avoiding for most of my life I came to like Jane quite a bit. Through all her trials and tribulations we learn that Jane is essentially a good-hearted and honest person who can be tough as hell when need be. Lansdale pulled off a two-part trick here in the way that Jane realizes some important things about herself, and then he also subtly shifted my perspective of her until I realized that I had been thinking of Jane as just a stereotypical red state rube because of her circumstances rather than as a complex person whose opportunities were so limited to begin with that a few bad choices left her with increasingly shitty options.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think it’s Lansdale’s best book since The Bottoms.

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Monday, March 9, 2020

Review: My Darkest Prayer

My Darkest Prayer My Darkest Prayer by S.A. Cosby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want to know where the bodies are buried in a small town, ask the local undertaker. You can take that literally or figuratively.

Nathan Waymaker is a former Marine, an ex-cop, and he currently lives and works at the funeral home owned by his cousin. Despite being a generally good guy he also has a temper that would make the Hulk nervous, and his anger problems weren’t helped by the corrupt sheriff’s department he used to work for letting the man who killed his parents go free. When the leader of a local church was shot to death it seems like the cops may be tanking the case so some of the parishioners ask Nathan to check up on the police. Soon Nathan finds himself on the bad side of the cops as well as a dangerous gangster, but on the good side of the church leader’s estranged daughter who is a gorgeous porn star.

You win some, you lose some…

SA Cosby is another author I learned about at last year’s Bouchercon. He caught my attention with his reading of a short story at the Noir-At-The-Bar event. Then he impressed me even more with his participation on a panel about modern noir, and I saw him attending other panels in the audience where he asked great questions so I made a point out of meeting him at one of the signings. Every time I was around him it was obvious that not only was he a dedicated and intelligent fan of crime fiction, but that he was living his dream by being there as an author and loving every second of it. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I’d say he deserved a MVP award for the conference as well as the Anthony Award he won for best short story.

As for the book, it’s a gritty, violent, funny, and almost as entertaining as its author. It follows some of the tropes of crime fiction with a well-intentioned detective of sorts taking what seems like a simple job and getting in over his heard. There’s even the obligatory bad ass friend in the form of Nathan’s buddy Skunk. If a good friend helps you move, and a great friend helps you move a body, then Skunk qualifies as a great friend. There’s also some humor along with it that reminded me of how Joe Lansdale mixes violence, profanity, depth, and laughs. Some angles of the story also reminded of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

Yet Cosby has his own voice that firmly establishes the small town Virginia setting, and then he built an intriguing lead character to guide us through it. Nathan’s history as the biracial son of a white man dedicated to a life of peaceful non-violence and a more pragmatic black woman makes him conflicted in that he feels like he’s constantly failing his later father in some ways. Yet deep down he’s just not the kind of guy who thinks that turning the other cheek is the correct response to a cruel and unfair world.

While Cosby’s personality may have sold me on reading this book, his writing is what will get me to buy his next one.

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Friday, March 6, 2020

Review: The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bookstore owner/professional burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr returns home from a successful night of stealing on to find his best friend Carolyn in a desperate state in his apartment. Someone has taken Carolyn’s pet cat from her apartment and is now demanding a ridiculous amount of money to return the feline. It quickly becomes clear that the catnapper was trying to get Bernie to pull a job by going through Carolyn, but stealing a Mondrian painting from a museum is a bit much for a humble burglar. However, Bernie has the bright idea to steal another Mondrian from an apartment he was just in. What could possibly go wrong?

There’s all the usual things to like in this series with witty conversations and clever schemes to break into places. However, the plot gets incredibly complex and even after Bernie has laid it all out at the end I’m not sure I fully understand what happened which feels like too much in a book that features a kidnapped cat. It also seems like a cheat that a lot of the explanation brings in characters we haven’t even seen in the novel until that point.

Still, it’s Lawrence Block doing his thing with Bernie and Carolyn so there’s a lot to like. Block fans will also probably notice that this involves art, stamp collecting, and jogging which are all subjects he’s interested in that have come up in other books.

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Friday, February 28, 2020

Review: City of Margins

City of Margins City of Margins by William Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this for review.

Back in the ‘90s, Donnie Parascandolo was a disgraced ex-cooooooppppppp….

And now I offer my sincere apologies to Bojack Horseman, Grouplove, and William Boyle.

Starting over.... In a Brooklyn neighborhood during the ‘90s a group of people impact each other in various ways. Donnie was a dirty cop whose son committed suicide, and his wife Donna left him in the aftermath. As part of his grieving process Donnie once hit Mikey Baldini with a baseball bat for trying to hook up with the underage Antonina, and then later when Donnie went to collect a gambling debt from Mikey’s father, Donnie ended up killing the man. A few years after that Mikey has dropped out of college and lives with his clingy mother, Rosemarie, who is still grieving her husband. Donnie has been fired from the cops and works for the local mob guy. Ava is another neighborhood widow living with her alcoholic son Nick who works as a high school teacher but dreams of being a writer.

A couple of chance encounters bring a few of these people together, and the results are….not great for everyone.

As you can tell from that description there’s a lot going on in this book. Even though it’s not that long the characters and their backstories make for a dense story that explores how these people have already been connected, and how them making new connections with each other triggers a string of unintended consequences. The strong character work makes you understand everybody’s behavior and choices even if those decisions are frequently bad.

Grief is a big factor here with several characters mourning a dead loved one, and their reactions are varied. Donnie has lost his job as a cop and seems to content to live on booze and cigarettes in his increasingly filthy house. His ex-wife, Donna, has retreated to a shabby apartment where she spends most of her time listening to her record collection and rereading her son’s suicide note. Mikey is completely adrift with no idea of what to even try to do even as his mother is torn between wanting him to get his act together vs. wanting him to stay as her needy son. Ava has become all about her work at a nursing home although she doesn’t enjoy it, and she worries about Nick who seems to have come down with a terminal case of arrested development in the way that he is content to stay with her.

All of this character work is done extremely well by William Boyle, and like his other books, there’s an incredibly rich sense of place and the people. You feel like you know this Brooklyn neighborhood as well as its residents by the end of the book, and he also did a great job with the ‘90s setting by making it seem familiar to someone who lived throughout without ever descending to the nostalgia porn levels. I also caught a few connections to his other books so this feels like getting more history on a place I’ve visited before.

Overall, it’s the epitome of what I look for in a character based crime novel. After reading his three previous books I’ve said that Boyle was quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, and now he sits high on that list.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Strange Planet

Strange Planet Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this collection of humorous drawings so I have posted this message on the part of the computer network known as Adequate Eye Scans. It is owned by the same large company from which I purchased the collection so that they might sell more of them and become even larger. I am mildly uncomfortable about this process.

I also am aware that if other beings disagree with me assessment of the drawings, they will tell me in rude tones that I am incorrect.

Ah, but seriously folks...

I find Nathan Pyle's cartoons of aliens going about their daily lives wildly funny. There's just something about how he uses language to describe common things that makes me laugh. For example, instead of teeth, they are your mouthstones, and most of us fail at the recommended daily task of pushing string through them.

Reading his cartoons on social media every day are the closest thing I get to that old feeling when I'd crack open a newspaper and read the comics so I was happy to support him by buying this. It's not long, but it put a smile on my face.

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Review: Atlanta Deathwatch

Atlanta Deathwatch Atlanta Deathwatch by Ralph Dennis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

I knew I was in for a good time when I saw this warning at the start of the book:

“Publishers note: This book was originally published in 1974 and reflects the cultural and sexual attitudes, language, and politics of the period.”

That’s right, baby! It’s 1974 so let's get sleazy!

Jim Hardman is an ex-cop who now makes his living in Atlanta as an off-the-books private investigator, and he supplements his income by occasionally transporting narcotics. Hardman is doing what seems to be a simple job of following a young college girl for her father, but a thorough beating from some thugs get him to drop the case.

Unfortunately the girl is then murdered and a black gangster known only as The Man hires Hardman to find the killer. This is a little odd since it was The Man who had Hardman scared off the case originally. Investigating her death results in increasing carnage all around him, but fortunately Hardman can count on his best friend, a former NFL player named Hump Evans, to back him up and let him sleep on his couch when Hardman is afraid to go home.

I got interested in checking out this series after attending last year’s Bouchercon and hearing author/publisher Lee Goldberg talk about how he had become obsessed with this mostly forgotten series and had made it a mission to reprint the books in order to make sure that Ralph Dennis wasn’t forgotten. You can read all about that here.

After finishing the book, I’m very glad that Goldberg got these out here. Dennis was a far better writer than the original publication of these as ‘men’s action adventure paperbacks’ would indicate. In his introduction of this edition, Joe R. Lansdale credits these books as being an influence on his creation of Hap & Leonard so I think it's fair to say that the Hardman & Hump partnership was one of the pioneers of the whole detective-character-with-bad-ass-friend dynamic that a lot of modern PI novels use.

The morally flexible Hardman becomes a fairly complex character over the course of the book. He isn’t operating on some kind of strict moral code like a Marlowe or a Spenser, and he lacks the polish of a Sam Spade. Overall, Hardman comes across as a good guy who once got a raw deal and is now just doing the best he can.

The ‘70s factor might be a plus or a minus depending on each reader’s own preferences. I loved the whole grimy atmosphere of the book in which Hardman and Hump think splitting a pint of booze in the car while tailing someone is just standard operating procedure. If this book was scratch & sniff the odor would be of an old shag carpet filled with cigarette ash and spilled Pabst Blue Ribbon.

There are some things that come across as cringe-worthy in terms of race and sexism, but overall Dennis’ writing isn’t nearly as dated as you’d expect from a book of this genre written in this era.

I had a lotta throwback fun with this, and I’ll be checking out more of the series.

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