Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review: Zodiac Station

Zodiac Station Zodiac Station by Tom Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’d think the biggest danger in the Arctic Circle would be freezing to death or being eaten by a polar bear, but as always it turns out that people are worse than anything Mother Nature can throw at us.

It starts out with a Coast Guard ship on patrol in the Arctic when a man on skis approach the ship over the ice. He says his name is Thomas Anderson, and he’s the only survivor of a disaster at a research outpost called Zodiac Station. Anderson tells a story of how he was a lowly lab tech whose once promising career had been derailed when he gets a sudden offer to come to Zodiac and work with his old mentor on a project. Unfortunately, right after he gets to the station they find his mentor dead after apparently falling into an ice crevasse, but the circumstances and several of the people at the station seem suspicious to Anderson. After the Coast Guard discovers other survivors at the station they hear other viewpoints that cast doubts on Anderson’s version, but when the tale involves possible conspiracies that might be related to climate change, oil companies, and Russian espionage it becomes impossible to know who to believe about what.

Overall, I was impressed with how well written this was. I thought it might be a pure airport bookstore type, but this is solid writing that builds up interesting characters and an increasingly puzzling scenario. The descriptive stuff about living and working at an Arctic research station was exceptionally well done, and it showed what a hard and dreary existence that would be spiced up with the dangers of living in such a harsh environment. So it’s a very solid thriller told in a unique way with an ending I never saw coming.

However, I very nearly didn’t read it.

This book popped up as a recommendation from Amazon after I read another cold weather tale of survival recently, and since I’m fascinated by the idea of scenarios involving polar research stations I thought I’d give it a try. (I blame The Thing for biting me with that particular bug in my teens.)

However, the quick skim of reviews I did before getting it nearly waved me off. A whole lot of people on Goodreads complained about an ambiguous ending that doesn’t resolve anything and some other problems. So I had doubts, but tried it anyhow since I already had it reserved at the library. I'm glad I did. Frankly, I thought the ultimate wrap up was very clever, and if I was a different kind of asshole I might say that those people who hated the ending missed the point.

In fact, I’m kind of shocked that not one of the reviews I read mentioned a key point, and I think it’s this factor that is going to shift your perspective a lot as to how you view the ending. 

Having said all that I understand if a reader knew all this and still was angry at the end because it does take a spectacular leap that might leave someone feeling blindsided. Or if you didn’t catch what I discussed in the spoilers it’s still understandable that you’d feel like you got bait-and-switched by this book. Those are legitimate views that I wouldn’t argue with if you felt like you had been burned.

However, I find a lot of what’s done in genre fiction cliched at this point, and to be completely surprised by something coming out of left field like that was a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed. So if the setup sounds like something you’d be interested in I’d just say that you should be ready for the story to go off in a wild direction at the end.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: The Fade Out

The Fade Out The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Because of its format some might say that this is fantastic crime comic. That’s true, but I’m going to take it a step further and say that it’s some of the best noir I’ve ever read which I’d rate right up there with the likes of James Cain or Jim Thompson.

Seriously, it’s that good.

It’s got the ultimate noir setting of post-war Los Angeles, and the plot involves a screenwriter with a drinking problem knowing about the cover up of the murder of an actress that the studio fixer has made look like a suicide. With that as a starting point we meet a variety of characters from despicable producers, publicists who put a glossy coat of paint over ugly truths, movie stars with secrets, blacklisted writers, commie hunting Feds, and even appearances from real people like Clark Gable and Dashiell Hammett.

There’s been no shortage of wannabe James Ellroys who try to do the old school Hollywood thing, and very often it feels just like bad actors putting on fedoras and trench coats so they can mouth clich├ęd tough-guy dialogue with a cigarette in the corner of their mouths. What really impressed me about this is that Ed Brubaker didn't fall into that trap but instead wrote an ACTUAL noir in which everyone is compromised, nobody is interested in the truth, and seeking justice is a fool’s errand.

Brubaker’s regular partner Sean Phillips does his usual brilliant job of making the art be a perfect marriage to what the story needs, and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser adds a richness to it that is way more interesting than just a black-and-white comic which is what lesser talents might have done for something like this. This collected edition of the entire run of the title also has some great extras including high quality reproductions of the amazing covers as well as some interesting behind-the-scenes features of how it was all put together from the researching stage to the writing and artwork.

I got this as a present last Christmas, and I’m ashamed that I let it set in a stack of unread stuff for almost a year before getting to it since it’s one of the best things I’ve read in 2017.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: Persepolis Rising

Persepolis Rising Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once you get seven books deep into a series it gets really tricky to review because you can’t talk about even the basic story set-up without spoiling stuff for anyone who hasn’t read it. Since I’m really trying to encourage any sci-fi fan to check out The Expanse I don’t want to just spoiler tag the whole thing either. So how to discuss in a way that won’t ruin it for the newbs yet still be an informative review?

Weep for me, people of Goodreads!

Here’s what I can safely say to everyone: The plan is for this to be a nine book series, and it’s obvious that it’ll end up being a three act structure with three books per act. So we’re starting the end run with this one, and that’s clear from the jump. A lot of time has passed since the last book, and our main characters can now claim senior discounts. In fact, some of them are even thinking about retirement. However, one of the lingering plots from an earlier book comes back in a big way and all of humanity might find itself under the boot of a dictator if something isn’t done. And all of this struggling among people scattered among the stars continue to take place as a potential alien threat simmers in the background.

Since this is essentially set-up for the final phase of the overall story there’s a lot left up in the air, but like the previous books it’s also an entertaining self-contained sci-fi tale by itself. At this point we’ve been living in this universe for a good long while so that we know all the ins-and-outs of it as well as what to expect from the story. What continues to be fresh and engaging is that the co-authors who make up the James SA Corey name come up with new spins on moving forward so that it hasn’t become stale and formulaic.

For example, this is a book in which a whole lot of people find themselves under the authority of an autocratic ruler with an army of true believers who believe anything he says. (Sounds familiar.) As you’d expect the story becomes about a resistance rising up among the conquered people, but what’s interesting is that there’s no immediate way to win. No Death Star to blow up, no magic computer virus, no chosen one to lead them to victory. Beating these guys will mean a long term strategy of resistance and a whole lot of blood will be shed in the process.

On the heels of that is that these bad guys don’t exactly act like villains. Yes, they’re smug jerkfaces whose utter self-confidence make them insufferable, but they’re also pretty sincere about going about it a way that isn’t a brutal occupation. These are smart folks who have studied history and know that the best way to stop an insurgency is to keep it from starting by keeping people from being disgruntled in the first place. Plus, they’re stated goal is to unite the squabbling factions of humanity into a single united force so they hope to get everyone on their side through the politics of persuasion.

That’s the really insidious thing about this one. A big theme in The Expanse as stated by one character in an earlier book is that a fair percentage of humans are always going to be assholes. What’s been shown over and over again is that people are always willing to fight among themselves about the old grudges rather than put them aside to band together even when it would be in their own best long-term interest. It’s been the biggest stumbling block that the heroes have struggled against over the course of the series. And here’s finally someone who has the power to actually make that happen, and he isn’t acting like an insane dictator. Hmmmm…maybe he isn’t that bad....

Another new aspect in this is that since we know the end is coming that no one is safe. It adds some tension and drama to the action because it really does seem like all our favorites are going to make it this time. (view spoiler)

It’s another great entry in the series, and my only real complaint is that I kind of got bummed while reading because I know how few there are left. I’ll also plug the excellent TV series based on the books that the SyFy Channel airs and is getting ready to start its third season which is well worth checking out.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Cinnamon Skin

Cinnamon Skin Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every time I read this book I end up humming Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl the entire time so it’s a relief to finish it and put a stop to that particular ear worm.

Travis McGee’s best buddy Meyer has loaned his houseboat to his niece and her new husband for their honeymoon while he’s away at a conference. Unfortunately, somebody blows up the boat as they’re going out on a fishing trip and all aboard are killed. (Providing more evidence for my theory that nothing good ever happens on a boat.) While a South American terrorist group claims responsibility for the bombing, but that makes no sense to Meyer who asks Travis to help him find whoever was responsible.

McGee starts poking around and comes across evidence that the new hubby wasn’t on the boat after all. Pulling on that thread puts them on the trail of a mystery man with a chilling pattern of seduction and murder for profit. The other wrinkle here is that Meyer is recovering from a very bad moment in a previous book so catching his niece’s killer is a way to regain his nerve.

As usual when I reread one of these John D. MacDonald novels I find a lot I liked with some very good insights of what society was becoming mixed with some incredibly dated sexist attitudes. Travis and Meyer make for a good partnership of detective/con men, and a lot of good stuff comes from them trying to backtrack someone just based on some casual anecdotes he told them over dinner one night. MacDonald also uses McGee to muse on where the world is headed and really hit the nail on the head regarding some predictions about the growing computer age of the early ‘80s.

Yet Travis still has to give a mostly platonic female friend a pat on the butt in appreciation of a job well done. In fairness, the books got better in terms of this from their start in the ‘60s, and a big subplot here is that Travis is having relationship troubles with his current lady that are dealt with in a surprisingly adult fashion that gives equal time to her point of view.

The overall improvement of McGee’s relationships with women, and the personal angle of Meyer’s involvement make this one a better than average book in the series.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 2

Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 2 Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 2 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

It’s hard out here for a masked vigilante killer.

The first volume set up the premise of a young man named Dylan saved from an attempted suicide from a demon who now demands that he kill at least one bad person a month or forfeit his own life. While reluctant at first Dylan is getting better, if not downright enthusiastic, about murdering jerkfaces. Unfortunately, this makes him a little cocky and sloppy, and he soon has both the NYPD and the Russian mob on his trail. And of course there’s still a distinct possibility that the cheese is slipping off Dylan’s mental cracker, and that there is no demon.

What I’m really enjoying about this is the way that it pops the fantasy balloon of gun toting vigilantes being the best way to clean up the streets. Dylan may have a certain knack for finding and killing assholes, but it’s always a messy and bloody business that ultimately solves nothing and creates more cycles of escalating violence. Maybe best of all is that Brubaker and Phillips have stripped out any notions that this is ‘cool’. There’s no smirking Charles Bronson blowing away punks nor a Punisher with a bad ass skull logo on his chest dispensing street justice. It’s just a scared and probably disturbed young man with a ski mask and a gun causing a lot of unintentional damage to everyone around him whether they deserve it or not.


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Review: Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1

Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1 Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It turns out that being a gun-toting vigilante who kills people indiscriminately isn’t as easy and fun as Charles Bronson made it look like in those Death Wish movies. Who knew?

Dylan is a grad student with a lonely crappy life and a history of depression so it’s not that big of surprise when he decides to end it all one night by jumping off the roof of his building. What is a surprise is that he lives, but then he starts seeing a shadowy demon who claims that it saved him and now he owes a debt of one life a month. Dylan has a hard time believing this at first, but then he grows deathly ill near the end of thirty days so he reluctantly decides that it’s better to kill some bad people than die himself.

Unfortunately, he quickly learns that being a vigilante killing bad people is tough gig. How do you get a gun that can’t be traced? Or how do you find a truly bad person who deserves to die? And killing people is way messier than it looks in the movies. Also, is that demon real or is Dylan just crazy?

I’m a big fan of Ed Brubaker and his partnership with Sean Phillips has produced some great stories. They have a real knack for taking genre stories and standing them on their heads, and the idea of having this depressed everyday kind of guy becoming a murderous vigilante is right in their wheelhouse. There’s no comic book glamor in this, and Dylan has to settle for a ski mask instead of a cool skull themed Punisher outfit while becoming a killer with a double life only complicates his personal problems.

Why it’s almost as if murder is wrong and engaging in it takes an immense toll even if you try to do it only to those who deserve it.

I’m looking forward into reading more of this title.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit

Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is going to be as much about comparing it to the new Netflix series as it is the book itself. You have been warned.

John Douglas was a FBI agent who spent most of his career working for its Behavioral Science Unit. Along with other agents Douglas interviewed a wide variety of violent offenders including such notorious figures as Charles Manson, Richard Speck, and David Berkowitz, and then he tried to apply what they learned to develop criminal profiles of active unsolved cases. If you’ve ever read the books of Thomas Harris like Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs or seen the movies or TV show based on them then you might be familiar with the character of Jack Crawford who was based on Douglas. Over the course of his career he worked on famous cases like the ‘80s Atlanta child murders and the Green River Strangler.

This is your basic true crime stuff written by a law enforcement professional. Douglas gives us his background as a fairly aimless youth who ended up as an FBI agent by pure chance and found that he had a taste and talent for digging into the history of criminals to see what made them tick. The book mixes his war stories of cases he worked along with a fair amount of bitching about the criminal justice system, and a little griping about he sometimes felt ill-treated by the FBI. He sprinkles his story with tidbits of his meetings with serial killers, and brags a fair amount about how accurate his profiles turned out to be for several cases he worked. In fact, you sometimes get the impression that the only reason that there are active killers who haven’t been caught was because someone failed to heed his advice.

In fairness, Douglas does spread a lot of credit around to his fellow agents and local cops he worked with over the years, and he goes out of his way to note that the agents of his department are essentially consultants who don’t catch criminals themselves. The guy did dedicate his professional life to studying the worst of the worst in the hopes of finding better ways to identify and catch them in the future. While that’s obviously a noble calling you do get a sense of smugness and self aggrandizement from him at times. You can tell that he gets a huge kick out of playing Sherlock Holmes and dropping predictions on people that turn out to be right, but there’s a notable absence of him ever being wrong about any of them other than minor discrepancies.

What’s most interesting about this book is how it was adapted into the a TV series. The first season of the show is about the early days of the Behavioral Science Unit when they were still coming up with the terminology and methodology they’d use to research and study violent offenders in prison. Douglas and fellow profiler Robert Ressler have been turned into fictionalized characters, but the killers and their crimes are historically accurate. Many of the scenes and stories are drawn from this book, but using created characters as the leads frees them up to add more drama as well as pick and choose their spots on the non-fiction bits.

So while Douglas certainly has had a colorful career and has many interesting things to say I found it a lot more satisfying as a TV show than a book.

Also, if you’re watching and liking Mindhunter be sure to check out Zodiac which producer/director David Fincher also did.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: Deadpool, Volume 9: Institutionalized

Deadpool, Volume 9: Institutionalized Deadpool, Volume 9: Institutionalized by Daniel Way
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I told you that Deadpool was in a mental hospital, and his psychiatrist is an unhinged woman who falls in love with him you might reasonably assume that it was the title engaging in some of it’s typical meta-satire of the genre to poke a little fun at DC’s Harley Quinn, right?

Unfortunately, instead of doing anything clever the entire story is an extended gag about how she’s not a supermodel so DP finds her disgusting. This is a guy whose face would let him play Freddy Kruger without using make-up, and he was recently hooking up with a disgusting alien during his space adventure. But hey, this chick is UGLY!

They could have done something with this if they would have played up the angle of it being a twisted version of the Harley/Joker story, or if the main point was that this woman is just too crazy even for Deadpool. That’s actually touched on, but you always get the impression that if this lady was hotter than DP would be totally into the whole thing. Even though there’s actually a few good moments where the shrink is making some valid observations about DP’s mental state it’s all tossed aside for the lazy and cheap stuff.

Disappointing.


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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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