Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: The Lonely Silver Rain

The Lonely Silver Rain The Lonely Silver Rain by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

They say you can’t take it with you, but when author John D. MacDonald died in 1986 it seems like he took Travis McGee to the grave with him despite rumors of a final novel stashed away somewhere.

McGee’s final gig involves him trying to find a very expensive yacht that was stolen from a rich buddy of his, but what seems like a straight forward job of tracking down some small time boat thieves ends up with Travis getting on the wrong side of a bunch of angry South American drug dealers. The attempts on his life start as McGee is in a particularly bad funk as he struggles to deal with the realization that he may have aged out of his boat bum lifestyle and that a life spent evading responsibility eventually leaves you with little to actually live for.

I’ve written reviews for most of the McGee novels since I started this reread several years ago, and what I’ve said before is what I’ll say again here – MacDonald was a talented crime writer who came up with an intriguing creation in McGee who functions as a hybrid detective/con man as he tries to outwit some very bad people in search of profit or revenge while also making a lot of sharp observations about the era he lived in. While MacDonald was frequently ahead of the curve in a lot of subjects like environmentalism and personal privacy the way he wrote about women can only be described as incredibly sexist at times. Since so many of the stories revolve around McGee’s relationship with women the very structure of most of the books make it hard to look past as just a minor dated element like you sometimes have to when reading older authors. As good as these books are, and they are frequently very good crime novels, there’s just too many cringe worthy moments to entirely ignore.

This one does better than average on that front, and the story itself is worthy of being McGee’s swan song. It helps that a lot of it is about Travis trying to come to terms with the idea that the world has moved on, and that the book ends on probably the most moving and emotional moments of the entire series.

I’ve also got fond memories of this as one of the best on-location reads I ever did. I’d read and reread the series in my teens in the ‘80s, and it was some of the first serious crime fiction I’d ever taken on so I’ve always had a soft spot for Travis McGee. However, by the time I’d hit my thirties I hadn’t picked one up in years so the series was little more than a fading memory at that point.

Then in late 2001 I flew into Fort Lauderdale for work and was driving up A1A along the beach to get to my hotel when I passed the Bahia Mar marina. Suddenly I remembered that was where Travis McGee docked his houseboat The Busted Flush and the memories of a 21 books came flooding back. I didn’t even know it was a real place until that moment, and I was shocked to be staying just up the road from it.

So the next day after I had finished up business for the day I found a used book store and bought a copy of this one. I took it back to my hotel where I then spent the next several evenings sitting at the poolside bar reading while drinking gin. (And I don’t even like gin, but that’s McGee drank so I did it for authenticity.) I’d read countless scenes of Travis describing the area and the weather so to sit there looking out at the ocean with that book in hand was one of my better experiences as a reader.

That’s worth an extra star to me.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Expanse humanity has spread out among our solar system, and there have been decades of political tension and hostility among the people of Earth, Mars, and the Belters of the Outer Planetary Alliance. The events of the previous books have resulted in the unlocking of a system of wormhole gates that puts literally a thousand habitable new worlds and all their natural resources within reach.

All the people put their differences aside to begin a new golden age of peace and prosperity as they work together to explore and colonize……BWAH HA HA HA! I’m sorry. I couldn’t even finish that with a straight face. I was just messing with you. Actually, most of the people in the future are still short-sighted selfish idiots who suck, just like today, and they promptly begin fighting over the very first planet that has boots on the ground.

A group of squatters from the OPA got to the planet first and set up a half-assed colony as they began mining lithium with the idea of selling it to become independent. The Royal Energy Corporation was given a charter by Earth’s government to survey the planet and exploit its mineral rights. The squatters and the RCE competing claims are complicated by the long history of bigotry and mistrust between the people of Earth and the Belt. Things quickly escalate to violence, and when the governments need a guy with a reputation for honesty and fairness to act as moderator they call on Captain Jim Holden.

So it’s a planet filled with angry people using terrorism tactics against a fanatical security chief for the corporation who will stop at nothing to protect RCE interests. Oh, and there’s lots of alien ruins and artifacts left by a long dead civilization. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything.

As usual Holden and his intrepid crew are trying to do the right thing and save people in the midst of a political tangle and general assholery. However, the first half of this book has both sides so entrenched in their hatred and grudges that I was half hoping that Holden would just throw up his hands and have the Rocinante bomb them from orbit. Things change a bit in the second half when events put everyone in a dire situation, but even then there’s no shortage of talking sphincters making a bad situation worse.

As I’ve said in my earlier reviews, that’s one of the things that I love about this series. There’s an on-going mystery and potential looming threat with all the alien stuff and the way that Holden is connected to it is very clever. The action and sense of tension are well done, and the good guy characters are all likeable and well-drawn so that you actively root for them while feeling the frustration of every set back and problem. The books also have a healthy sense of humor with a variety of one liners or funny beats drawing a laugh out of a reader at the most unexpected moments. The authors also do a superior job of figuring out bad situations to stick the characters in and equally clever ways to get them out of them.

But it’s still the commitment to making the biggest obstacle usually be rotten people of one kind or another that continues to help ground the series and make it really relatable. These people may be squabbling on another planet, but when they argue about who did what to who and use it for justifications for continuing to escalate the violence it’s all too easy to see ourselves in this collection of asshats.

Bonus Material: Check out the trailers for the TV show based on the series here and here.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review: Last Flight of the Harbinger

Last Flight of the Harbinger Last Flight of the Harbinger by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anybody know how to hotwire an Imperial Star Destroyer?

Rebellion sympathizers on a planet are being starved out by the Empire. Luke and Leia hatch a plan to hijack a Star Destroyer so they can use the massive ship to run the blockade and bring relief supplies to them. Stealing the ship turns out to be the easy part as they try to run the damaged vessel with a minimal crew, and an elite squad of Stormtroopers led by Sgt. Kreel have a plan to take the ship back and capture some valuable prizes in the process. Along with that we get another tale from the journal of Ben Kenobi about how he once faced the Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan and lived to tell about it.

Kind of a mixed bag here. The idea of the good guys space jacking a Star Destroyer is a cool one, and that story has a lot of great stuff although I question going to all the trouble of stealing an Imperial ship and not doing anything other than using it for anything other than a battering ram. It’s also fun to see a young Leia, Han, and Luke doing regular-degular missions for the Rebels. My favorite part of the collection was the side story about Kreel’s squad of Stormtroopers taking out a city occupied by Rebels forces because we get to see somebody in the Empire besides Darth Vader be good at their jobs for a change.

The problems once again come when because these are prequels and so we know how things ultimately turn out as well as that certain things can’t happen. The worst of this is the Kenobi story because once again he’s trying to do stuff on Tatooine without giving away that he’s a Jedi because we KNOW that he just hid out there on the down low while Luke was growing up. That’s extremely limiting. The other thing I didn’t care for was all the bickering between Han and Leia because we all know that it’s because they’re in love, but they can’t acknowledge it because it doesn’t happen until Empire Strikes Back so we’re stuck in this zone which even one character acknowledges is extremely irritating.

There’s good stuff here, but just the nature of when this story takes place kind of handcuffs the whole thing.

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Review: Killer Choice

Killer Choice Killer Choice by Tom Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Gary and Beth Foster are a nice couple who truly love each other, and their idea of a good time is playing Scrabble or watching Netflix. They don’t have a lot of money, but they’re happy just being together. Now that Beth has finally gotten pregnant after years of trying they feel like things couldn’t get any better. Which is exactly the point when life tends to kick nice people in the junk.

After Beth collapses while out shopping she’s quickly diagnosed with a particularly nasty brain tumor that will barely allow her to give birth before dying, but there’s a new procedure in Europe that might extend her life for years. Unfortunately, it will cost them $200,000 to try it, and they don’t have anywhere near that kind of cash. As hope begins to fade Gary receives a phone call with an offer for him to earn all the money they need. The catch is that he’ll have to murder someone to get it.

This debut novel from Tom Hunt is the kind of high concept hook that has put many a book on the best seller list and sold a lot of tickets to movies, and there’s a reason for that – it works. Or at least it works when there’s some talent behind the idea, and there’s definitely talent here. Hunt’s got a way of laying it all out in the straight forward fashion that many a crime writer has, and he’s also got the knack of making that style compelling.

There’s two things that really stood out for me. First, is that there’s a good amount of time spent on the efforts that are done by Beth and Gary with the help of their friends and family to come up with the money. They put pleas on the internet, hold events like hot dog dinners, and tell their story to the media all as part of the desperate fundraising only to realize that after all that it's not even close to being enough. It’s a bleak portrait of how Americans often have to resort to glorified begging to get medical treatment.

The other part is the story of Otto, the man asking Gary to commit a murder for hire. Otto is a ex-con who runs a pawn shop as a front for his real business of dealing drugs, and he’s got a huge problem that has made him desperate enough to try and use an average guy as a killer. We get Otto’s story told in parallel, and his criminal underworld couldn’t be more different than Gary’s suburban life. The contrast between the two is well done and underlines the desperate measures that both men feel driven to even if they have nothing else in common. On the downside Gary’s bland niceness is too much at times, and his hand wringing about the morality of murder does get a little old after a while. It was never enough to completely take me out of the story though.

What seems like an airplane read on the surface takes turns that ultimately make me think of this of outright noir. It’s solid crime story, and I’ll certainly check out what Tom Hunt does next.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: Snow

Snow Snow by Mike Bond
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Some seemingly law-abiding citizens stumble across something valuable and decide to keep it even though they know it will be dangerous to do so. Oh, you have heard it? Yeah, it’s been around a while.

Zach is a former NFL player turned television announcer, and Steve is his old friend and investment manager. They take an annual hunting trip to Montana every year where their buddy Curt acts as their guide while they camp in the woods. The guys are having trouble enjoying their vacation since Zach has run up huge gambling debts in Vegas and needs cash quickly while Wall Street shenanigans have wiped out the savings Steve was managing for him. This has also put Steve into a very deep hole that might ruin his family.

Zach comes across the crash of a small plane with hundreds of kilos of cocaine in it, and Steve immediately seizes on the idea of taking drugs and selling them to as a way of getting out of their mutual financial crisis. Because there’s no chance that an organization capable of filling a plane with millions of dollars of drugs will ever come looking for it, right?

Despite Zach’s reservations they haphazardly start a scheme that involves keeping the secret from Curt. Things escalate quickly. Mistake piles upon mistake. And just like that Zach and Steve are in deep trouble and soon realize that they can’t even trust each other anymore.

The trope of an ordinary person finding a bag of money or drugs which takes them straight down the path to hell is one I generally appreciate. However, this one seemed pretty clich├ęd. It starts out with a very similar set-up to Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan and then quickly morphs into an attempt at doing something like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. (And those are two way better books I’d recommend if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing.) From there we cycle through all the checkpoints you’d expect to cross. You’ve got your ruthless enforcer from the drug cartel, a dedicated cop, some innocent people getting screwed over, etc. etc.

There’s also the odd way that it veers into social commentary and existential angst. Many a good crime novel includes these elements, but the writing here just seems to swing wildly from following the plot to going off on tangents about the environment, the perils of capitalism, and the way everyday life can chip at the soul. Those are all subjects that can easily and naturally pop up in a book like this, but the way they’re presented here often seems clumsy and ill-timed.

The most original aspect are the characters of Zach and Steve. The set-up leans in the direction of treating the football hero Zach as the good guy led astray by the fast talking Steve, but we get a more interesting perspective as we learn more about them. Zach is actually more of a hypocrite and selfish guy then he first appears while Steve isn’t quite the Wall Street d-bag you’d assume from the beginning. The way they almost accidently create an escalating mess is a great depiction of how quickly things can fall apart for someone once they decide to cross the line.

Despite its shortcomings I’m still a sucker for these kind of crime stories, and there was some very good character work done as well as some nicely atmospheric stuff that takes us from the snowy woods to the streets of Las Vegas. It’s not bad, but I can think of several better ones.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole the World

Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole the World Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole the World by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Velvet comes to Washington D.C. as part of her effort to clear her name and expose the conspiracy that set her up. To do this she’ll need to blackmail Gerald Ford and kidnap Richard Nixon.

And I thought Jason Bourne was dangerous.

I gotta admit that I was a little let down by this one. Velvet is still an awesome character as a middle-aged lady spy kicking ass, and the artwork continues to be top notch as we see her get into a variety of situations that would make great action scenes in any blockbuster movie. Yet as we wrap things up the plot starts to collapse under the weight of it’s spy-vs-spy machinations with so many betrayals and twists that even John le Carre would need a flow chart to keep track of all of it. Frankly, I’m still kinda confused as to why the entire thing happened to begin with.

The ending also seems to indicate that there will be more Velvet at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet so it’s kind of unsatisfying. Although I guess there is a TV series in development so maybe that’ll motivate Ed Brubaker to return to this at some point.

Still, the three volumes that made up this story were some great comics that were well worth reading, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we see Velvet return in a slightly more coherent story someday.


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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review: Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men

Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everyone at the super-secret British spy agency ARC-7 thought Velvet Templeton was just the Director’s secretary until their best agent was murdered, and she was accused of turning traitor and killing him. It also turned out that she used to be a top notch field agent.

See, that’s why you should always be nice to the admin in your office….

Actually, we know that Velvet was framed, and to clear her name she’s going on the offensive against her old organization to try and flush out the real traitor. Through the course of the story we’ve also learned the tragic event that took Velvet out of the field and put her behind a desk for years. Fortunately for her sake and our entertainment value Velvet hasn’t lost a step as she uses sneaky spy tactics and a general ability to kick ass to find out the truth.

This could be just your standard betrayed-spy-on-the-run story, but there’s two factors that make it seem fresh. First, the ‘70s setting was a smart choice and not just for the retro style it brings into it. The 21st century has given us all James Bond gadgets with the average smart phone acting as a handheld computer, camera, and tracking device, but by setting this back in days of yore it allows for some fun with classic spy stuff that modern technology has made commonplace. It also makes the things they do use like Velvet’s stolen bulletproof stealth suit with glider wings seem more inventive.

Velvet herself is the second thing that makes this stand out. The idea of essentially taking Miss Moneypenny and making her a bad ass was a nice hook, and in a time when females in comics is a hot topic having a 40-something woman be the fully formed hero of a series like this seems way more revolutionary then it should be. (It also probably means we’ll never see a movie version of it because Hollywood believes that old ladies such as Marisa Tomei can only play characters like Aunt May.)

Ed Brubaker is one of the best writers in comics, and here he teams up with artist Steve Epting to create a humdinger filled with spy vs. spy action.

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