Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review: Imperial Valley

Imperial Valley Imperial Valley by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jimmy Veeder is simple kind of guy who just wants to get married, raise his son, drink beer with his friends, and work on his farm. Unfortunately, he’s also the kind of guy who can accidently get on the bad side of a drug cartel kingpin while on his honeymoon in Mexico. In other words, poor ole Jimmy is just a shit magnet.

The books in this series are labeled as Jimmy Veeder Fiascos, and this third one certainly lives up to that billing. After Jimmy’s ill-fated trip to Mexico he returns to his home town in California’s Imperial Valley, but with a small army of cartel goons hot on his trail Jimmy has to turn to his friends for help. Since most of Jimmy’s pals are a collection of small town hell-raisers who thrive on drinking and fighting it isn’t exactly a group of tactical geniuses he can call on. But then again it’s not exactly like Jimmy is known for his long term planning skills either.

Johnny Shaw is one of those writers who is just flat-out funny. Both Jimmy’s first person narration and the dialogue are laced with hilarious lines that get me to laugh out loud, and he’s got a knack for mixing that with action along with some emotional stakes to feel like it all matters. I also appreciate that with Jimmy he’s created a regular fella with a good heart who isn’t a bad ass and really doesn’t want to hurt anyone even as he frequently finds himself in violent situations. Shaw does an equally good job at portraying the rural lifestyle and the oddball characters you might find there. I come from farm country so I’ve known more than a few people exactly like Jimmy’s buddies in my life. Just as Shaw presents them you’ll never have a more loyal friend who can nearly get you killed in ways you can’t imagine, and they’ll usually have a beer in their hand while it happens.

Fans of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard series should definitely give these books a try because they share a lot of the same DNA, but Shaw has got his own style and rhythm that’s he’s pretty much honed to perfection at this point. This was just pure madcap fun to read.

Full Disclosure – I once contributed an unpaid review to the Shaw’s Blood & Tacos e-zine.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review: Batman, Volume 1: I Am Gotham

Batman, Volume 1: I Am Gotham Batman, Volume 1: I Am Gotham by Tom King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full confession: I have not been keeping up on Batman in a while. Part of it is due to simple fatigue of all the rebooting and retconning that both DC and Marvel are doing these days. A larger part was that Batman v. Superman managed to kill my bat-enthusiasm for the character. (A feat that even Batman & Robin didn’t manage to do. Nice work, Zack Snyder.) But I saw Lego Batman recently, and it pepped me back up enough to give this a go even though I had no idea what the recent Rebirth did to bat-world.

As I expected, I was confused. Who is Duke Thomas? Is he a new Robin? His outfit doesn’t look like Robin, but he seems to be filling the Robin role. Wait, Bruce references Dick Grayson so I guess he still used to be Robin? Oh, there’s the Jason Todd outfit in the memorial tube so that probably means that the Death in the Family storyline happened, right? Or is he back from the dead and a bad guy again? But if he’s back from the dead then why does Batman still have a memorial to him?

Putting aside all that nonsense this wasn’t half-bad. After a one issue fight with Calendar Man the larger story shifts to Batman meeting two very powerful superheroes calling themselves Gotham and Gotham Girl who seem dedicated to helping him protect the city. Since the first thing they do is save Batman’s life things start well, and Batman kinda likes the idea of having powerful allies not named Superman around to help out. But it’s Gotham City so things go sideways and all hope is destroyed.

It’s a decent enough story, and it ends on a cliffhanger that’s got me interested in what happens
next. The art is pretty good and I like this new Bat-suit. (It is new, right?) This also is a version of Batman that walks the line between dark avenger haunted by tragedy and an actual comic book superhero who does comic book superhero kind of things. The dynamic between Bruce and Alfred was a very well done, and I particularly liked a scene in which they’re essentially saying goodbye as Batman is in what he thinks will be his final moments.

Not too shabby. Now I just gotta figure who the hell Duke Thomas is.


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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Fantastic Four: Season One

Fantastic Four: Season One Fantastic Four: Season One by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Fantastic Four is the title that launched the modern Marvel universe, but it’s also the most dated in a lot of ways. After all, it’s based on the idea that a mad scientist tried to beat the Russians into space and took along his girlfriend and her kid brother for some reason. The members have catchphrases like “Flame on!” and “It’s clobbering time!” Hell, they billed themselves as The Fantastic Four. How do you make that work in the 21st century?

God knows it’s been tried. There was the complete overhaul of the concept in the Ultimate Fantastic Four that tried to pin the wacky sci-fi elements to a more grounded reality. Meh. Fox first tried to make it work on screen with two movies that stuck close to the original idea. Both sucked. Then they went the ‘realistic’ route and coughed up a grim and dark furball that, while kind of interesting in places, still sucks.

What Marvel has done here is probably the safest and blandest attempt, but it also may be the only way to play it. Because it’s still tied to the regular Marvel comics universe they couldn’t completely upset the apple cart. Instead they stick to the old core story and just update the parts that absolutely didn’t work anymore. For example, the doomed test flight now comes from Reed’s rushed attempt to be the first to set up a space tourism business to fund his other projects, and the goofy names come from focus groups and branding efforts.

The results are….fine. It’s a Fantastic Four that’s still very close to the original, but it’s been dusted off and given a fresh coat of paint. It also does a nice job of retelling a couple of their early adventures with the team first facing off against the Mole Man and one of his giant monsters, and then they meet and fight Namor. I particularly liked how the whole idea that the FF are celebrity superheroes is played up.

So this is just an update with nothing all that new and groundbreaking, but it’s a solid piece of work. If Marvel ever wrestled the film rights back from Fox and made their own FF movie it’d probably look a lot like this.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: Change Agent

Change Agent Change Agent by Daniel Suarez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

In 2045 the world has shifted to an economy based on synthetic biology rather than electronics, and the United States is now a third world backwater because of its stubborn clinging to its past and refusal to recognize and adapt to a changing reality.

Yep, that math checks out.

Genetic modifications are all the rage, but while it’s OK to prevent a disease in an embryo it’s illegal to tinker with the DNA to turn your kid into a hybrid of Stephen Hawking and Tom Brady. Kenneth Durand is a researcher for Interpol in Singapore who tracks down illegal labs. Durand and his group receive intelligence that a powerful crime syndicate run by a man named Marcus Wyckes is the main player for all genetic crime, but before Durand can act on the information he is injected with something while in a crowd. He wakes up from a coma weeks later, but now he has an entirely different face and body, and even his DNA has been altered to change him into a Marcus Wyckes doppelganger. Durand manages to escape, but now he’s the most wanted man in the world. If that’s not bad enough he also has the crime syndicate after him including a terrifying hit man who can kill with a touch.

My first thought on hearing the premise for this is that it sounded like the Nicolas Cage movie Face-Off, and there’s certainly a little of that film’s DNA present here. (See what I did there?) However, Daniel Suarez is a writer capable of looking at the current state of technology and coming up with concepts for what happens next that seem all too plausible. He thinks big, and here he’s done an impressive job of building a world that certainly seems like it could be where we’re heading. While Suarez is a champion of science and technology he also sees some of the often horrifying implications of how unregulated processes and unrestrained greed could turn new developments against humanity.

While he’s created a detailed and intriguing society for Durand to be hunted through the downside is that main story really isn’t much more than your average thriller plot about an innocent man on the run. There’s even the standard issue wife and child in order to provide Durand with extra motivation and make him seem more sympathetic. I lost track of the number of times that Durand broods about trying to get back to his wife and baby girl. (And if you want another Nic Cage reference pretend that you can hear me doing my best imitation of him in Con Air saying, “My baby girl.”)

Like Suarez’s other work the characters are one-note stereotypes for the most part, and he can be can be repetitive as well as downright comic booky. During one critical confrontation Durand says some variation on “You’ll never get away with this!” at least three times. I was more interested in this world where furniture, car frames, and knife blades are grown than I was in the fate of Durand who was just another bland lead character to me.

Still, a Suarez thriller always gives me new ideas to think about as well as several terrible things to keep me up nights, and that’s why I continue to look forward to reading whatever he comes up with.

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review: Not Alone

Not Alone Not Alone by Craig A. Falconer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

You know what’s worse than watching cable news for hours on end? Reading a book in which the main character does nothing but watch cable news for hours on end.

You know what’s worse than a book in which the main character does nothing but watch cable news for hours on end? Reading a book in which the main character is presented as a truth seeker exposing a plot that has enormous implications for the entire human race, but in reality he’s a self-righteous and demanding little prick who is a huge hypocrite.

You know what’s worse than reading a book in which the main character is presented as a truth seeker exposing a plot that has enormous implications for the entire human race, but in reality he’s a self-righteous and demanding little prick who is a huge hypocrite? Reading a book that is supposed to be an interesting sci-fi story about the world finding out that the US government has been covering up the existence of aliens for decades, but it turns out to be a maddening slog filled with terrible writing and a plot so dull that it could stun an insomniac on meth into a deep sleep.

You know what’s worse than reading a book that is supposed to be an interesting sci-fi story about the world finding out that the government has been covering up the existence of aliens for decades, but it turns out to be a maddening slog filled with terrible writing and a plot so dull that it could stun an insomniac on meth into a deep sleep? Nothing. Nothing is worse than this book. And I’m including everything from getting socks on Christmas morning to cancer when I say that.

It starts out with a guy named Dan McCarthy literally bumping into a thief who just robbed the office of a man who runs a fictional US space agency. The thief drops a folder of documents before fleeing which Dan glances at and is stunned to find what he believes is proof that the government has been hiding proof of alien contact.

Dan just so happens to be a big believer in that very conspiracy theory so he takes the folder to a library where for a completely contrived reason he only has 20 minutes to examine it. Turns out that Dan doesn’t even need the full 20 to be sure that it’s all true so he immediately scans and leaks the file to the press. He tries to do it anonymously but fails miserably so Dan finds himself at the center of the controversy and media firestorm that follow. After that he goes on TV a couple of times, and he watches cable news for about 600 pages. Then some more stupid shit happens at the end.

The 20 minute thing really highlights everything that is wrong with this book. This guy spends less than a half-hour Googling some things and can’t even translate an important looking German letter in the file yet is 100% convinced that it’s true and immediately leaks it. That tells you exactly what kind of shithead Dan McCarthy is.

First off, the 20 minute thing is a completely arbitrary deadline. There’s no real reason that Dan couldn’t be patient and do more research on the documents. Secondly, there’s nothing in these documents or what Dan looks up that would remotely be considered credible evidence. Third, even if he had absolute proof that it was true Dan doesn’t stop for a moment to consider what releasing the file will mean for humanity. He’s completely blind to his obsession of proving that aliens exist and his bone deep conviction that the truth is all that matters.

At or least he cares about it as long as it suits him because Dan is a goddamn hypocrite of the highest order. Despite his contention that the truth is the most important thing he willingly doesn’t disclose a lot of things like a damning phone call made by the president of the United States to him later in the book just because he doesn’t want to deal with the media hassle it would bring him.

Think about that for a second. The guy who constantly gets on his high horse about the truth being everything does not disclose evidence he has of personal wrongdoing by the President of the United States just because it would inconvenience him. And that’s far from his worse hypocrisy in this book which I won’t get into because of spoilers, but let’s just say that for a character who leads a campaign with a rallying cry of “Truth! Truth! Now! Now! Now!” Dan McCarthy doesn’t have much of a problem with lying his ass off on a massive scale just so long as it makes things easier for him.

Plus, he’s just an asshole in general. Despite being a healthy adult he depends on his brother, a military contractor overseas, who has to hire a house cleaner and have meals ordered on-line delivered to Dan because he’s apparently incapable of sweeping a floor or feeding himself. He talks like a whiny teenager who constantly questions every single thing anyone says or requests of him. “Why do we have to do that?” “Why don’t they do it this way?” “What difference does that make?” “Why can’t you just fly me home from Europe in your private jet?” Yes, Dan literally demands that a rich guy who is already helping him out and flown him and his companions to Europe first class use his private plane to get him home immediately for no good reason other than they can’t get a commercial flight back the minute Dan decides he needs to leave.

In fact, Dan is so inflexible and demanding that I seriously thought for a while that the author was indicating that he might have a mild form of Asperger’s which would at least provide a valid excuse for him to behave this way. That got shot down with two other characters actually discuss this and it’s conclusively stated that Dan has seen doctors and does NOT suffer from any disorders like that. So again, he’s just an entitled asshole.

A lot of other problems come from Dan’s interactions with the media which is the major part of the book. We’re told that Dan hates all the attention, and he’s the victim of smear campaigns against his character. Despite this he’s so dedicated to the cause of getting the government to admit the truth (Or at least his version of the truth.) that he agrees to work with a PR consultant who starts booking him for appearances on various shows.

This is where things get really stupid because on one hand the book is trying to critique the modern media, but the author’s idea of journalism seems to be the equivalent of a certain orange skinned whiner who complains that anything he doesn’t like is fake news. In the world of this book there is apparently no serious journalism because Dan’s first appearance is on a show that is set up as being this world’s version of 60 Minutes yet the format is instead a panel show like Bill Maher with celebrities and hacks with political agendas on it. His subsequent appearances are on a show hosted by a famous UFO believer and he agrees to be hypnotized by another famous TV personality to see if he’s telling the truth.

I know we’re a civilization in decline, but I can’t think of a single nationally popular TV program that features conspiracy theorists and hypnotists as hosts. (YouTube doesn’t count. These are supposed to be well-known TV shows.) Dan is supposedly the guy who just leaked the most explosive news in human history and his credibility is in question. If he really wants to prove that he’s telling the truth wouldn’t it make more sense for him to sit down and do extensive interviews with real reporters? In this world apparently Trump got his wish because newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post don’t seem to exist anymore, and there’s not one serious mention of Dan doing anything but shitty cable news.

The problem is compounded by the author’s apparent belief that 'good' journalists don’t try to independently question, document or verify anything. Instead they just show up when the subject of a massive story tells them to and pretty much do what he asks.

One prime example of this is during Dan’s trip to Europe where he meets with the press, but his PR lady insists that he will only answer questions asked directly in English and not translated. She’s got a legitimate fear that a translation issue will cause problems, but maybe she should have told the reporters this BEFORE the press conference so they could send English speaking reporters. And it’s the height of arrogance to go to a foreign country, willingly attend a press conference where you’re pimping your own agenda, and then assert that you won’t answer questions translated from the native language. Again, this is presented as if it’s a reasonable request by Dan’s representative, and that the ‘good’ reporters immediately agree to this demand.

Another example of the glass house this book lives in while chucking stones comes from Dan watching a cable news show where they get one minor fact about him sort of wrong. Not entirely wrong, but there’s some context missing which leads to Dan bitterly complaining about the media not doing their research before rushing to air. So a guy who leaked a file saying that the government had been covering up the existence of aliens for decades after less than 20 GODDAMN MINUTES of research is complaining about the media not doing their due diligence, and it’s presented with absolutely no sense of irony of self-awareness. It’s the constant parade of crap like this that almost gave me a rage stroke.

All of this ends up being incredibly frustrating because there’s no real reasons that any of this couldn’t have been dealt with in rational ways. Why couldn’t Dan have the file for a couple of weeks and do research that would at least convince us that he’s thoroughly vetted it? Why couldn’t some of the endless pages of him dealing with the media include at least some encounters with real journalists who ask him tough but reasonable questions? Why must the world immediately treat Dan like an expert on aliens rather than just a guy who works at a coffee shop that bumbled onto something big? Why is Dan such a huge douchebag?

In addition to all this the writing itself is also excruciating. The author doesn’t believe in things like sub-text or a reader inferring anything. In fact, he apparently thinks readers are incapable of forming short term memories because of the way he repeats things to explain in the most simple and obvious way possible what’s going on.

Here’s an example:

"It’s not that simple,” Jan pleaded. “McCarthy has representation. He’s with XPR."

Richard raised his eyebrow at the surprising news that McCarthy had secured such powerful representation.


Notice that the author feels the need to tell us exactly why Richard raises his eyebrow. He didn’t just say, “Richard raised an eyebrow in surprise.” Or even simpler. “Richard raised an eyebrow.” Then the sentence repeats the same information conveyed in the previous one.

Here’s another about a character who (Big surprise.) has been watching the news.

“Not knowing what Thursday might bring she decided to call it a night and catch up on any developments in the morning.”

Think about what the author is telling us here. Rather than just say nothing is going on so she turns off the TV and goes to bed he feels like he must explain to us that the character doesn’t have the psychic ability to know what events the next day might bring so she’s going to get some rest in case something happens and then catch up any new developments tomorrow. Which is what every single one of us do every goddamn time we go to sleep. There's no reason whatsoever to stress to us that she is turning off the TV and going to bed at that point, and yet he feels the need to explain to us exactly why she's going to quit watching the news and go to sleep.

That’s the sneakily awful nature of this writing. It doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, and a few of these could slip by unnoticed but it’s literally like this for the entire book. Every action or decision, no matter how minor, has to be explained and analyzed in the most painfully obvious terms. It gets to be incredibly annoying after a while.

Like if I slammed my thumb in the car door this author would write it up like this:

“Kemper slammed the car door on his thumb. He had not meant to do it because previous experience had told him that slamming a car door on his thumb would be quite painful. It was an accident, and yet he had indeed slammed his thumb in the car door and it was quite painful. Kemper closely examined the thumb to see if had been broken when he slammed it in the car door, but it appeared to only be swollen and red because he had slammed it in the car door by mistake, not on purpose because he knew it would hurt to do so.”

And then the next morning:

“Kemper woke up and felt his thumb ache. He remembered that he slammed it in the car door the day before which had been very painful. It still hurt somewhat because he had slammed it in the car door, and he knew that he would have to be careful with it for some time. Because it hurt. Because he slammed in in the car door.”

OK, I admit I’m exaggerating. But not much.

I could go on and on about this. The supporting characters are all one-dimensional and don’t end up mattering a bit to the main story. It’s boring. You can see every plot twist coming a mile away. There’s a long bit about Dan doing TV ads that made me wish someone would set his hair on fire like Michael Jackson when he filmed that Pepsi commercial. The abomination of an ending alone would be worth another lengthy rant, but I’m not going to waste more time and energy on it.

Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of ways that this book might have been interesting and good. It could have been an exciting thriller about a guy who discovers a huge secret. It could have been a fascinating character study about what happens to an ordinary person who accidently finds himself thrust into a media spotlight. It could have been an insightful commentary about modern media driven culture. It could have been a great sci-fi story about humanity coming to terms with the existence of aliens.

Instead it tried to be all those stories and failed miserably at every single one of them.

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