Saturday, March 31, 2018

Review: The Infinity Gauntlet

The Infinity Gauntlet The Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this back when it was originally published in 1991, and I remember thinking, “Wow! This is a comic that combines the best of Marvel’s more grounded heroes with its cosmic elements to create an epic story of a threat to the entire universe. Someday, maybe in about 20 or 25 years when motion picture technology advances to the point where they can make superhero movies that look really cool, Marvel could start their own movie studio and release a series of films based on some of these characters. Then they could use the Infinity Stones as the primary connective tissue that links all those films together.

After capitalizing on that for movie after movie and making piles of money, the whole thing can climax with a version of this story. Like maybe it could be an Avengers movie called The Infinity War or something like that. That’s a pretty big story for just one film. Maybe two movies tied together? Yeah, that sounds better. And I’m thinking they'd be ready to do that in…let’s say 2018 or so.”

Yep. I totally saw it coming…

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review: Robert B. Parker's Lullaby

Robert B. Parker's Lullaby Robert B. Parker's Lullaby by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert B. Parker is dead! Long live Robert B. Parker!

Here we have the first Spenser novel done by Ace Atkins who was chosen to take over the series after RBP shuffled off this mortal coil. How did Atkins do? Pretty damn well. In fact, he outshines a lot of the later RBP books.

Spenser gets hired by a 14 year old girl named Mattie whose mother was killed when she was 10. Mattie saw her mother pushed into a car by a couple of local thugs, but since her mom was a drug addicted barfly and the cops caught and convicted another likely suspect, no one was interested in listening to her. Spenser is impressed with the tough and stubborn Mattie who is driven to get justice for her mother even as she takes care of her twin younger sisters while living with her drunken grandma so he agrees to help for the princely fee of a dozen doughnuts. Investigating the case puts Spenser up against some old enemies as well as pissing off a volatile FBI agent.

I’m on record with numerous complaints about the Spenser franchise in the latter part of RBP’s career. The guy had gotten pretty lazy with repeated themes and characters types, and it often seemed that even Spenser was bored as he worked through his cases. Atkins does an impressive job of delivering all the familiar Spenser elements while injecting some fresh life into the series.

Spenser is more lively and engaged. Hawk comes across as slightly edgier and angrier, much like his earlier incarnation. Susan seems like a decent girlfriend instead of a bitchy goddess to be worshipped and obeyed, and Atkins wisely limits the amount of time she and Spenser spend together. That alone would probably make most long-time Spenser readers rejoice.

It’s obvious that Atkins was a fan of this series and probably had a helluva lot of fun writing this while adding a few winks-n-nods to Spenser’s past. I had been hoping that we’d get a James Bond Casino Royale style reboot for the series, but Atkins picks up where the last book left off yet still manages to signal that this Spenser reborn.

One tiny tidbit really caught my notice. Very early in the series, RBP had Spenser doing wood carvings as a hobby, but just dropped that with no explanation. Atkins does a nice scene where Spenser is thinking deeply about the case when he notices an old half finished carving on a shelf that he hasn‘t touched in years. He dusts it off and begins working on it again. It was a nice little statement that Atkins is taking the series back to it’s roots without dumping Spenser‘s long history.

And I guess just trying to launch a new phase of a classic detective character wasn’t enough of a challenge for Atkins. He also works in a sly homage to the western True Grit in this. Spenser is helping a spirited young girl named Mattie find the murderer of a parent, and Susan is reading a Charles Portis novel at one point. Plus, there’s a recreation of one of the key scenes from the book and films with a Spenser and Hawk twist to it.

I’m impressed with what Atkins delivered here and excited to see where he takes it next. Spenser appears to be in very good hands.

Next up: Spenser doesn't have much fun even though the case involves an amusement park in Wonderland.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I knew stories about Michelle McNamara before I even knew her name or that she was a true crime writer. She was married to comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, who I’m a big fan of, and several of his bits over the years have involved his wife. Per Patton’s descriptions in his routines she was a brilliant woman, far smarter than him, who was always operating at a whole other level.

Now I know what he was talking about after reading this book. It’s about a pure monster that should be one of the best known unsolved crime cases in American history, but many people have probably never heard of the Golden State Killer. In 1976 a serial rapist began terrorizing the suburbs of Sacramento. His MO was to break into homes in the middle of the night and surprise sleeping victims who he’d threaten with knives or guns. He often targeted couples or families and would rape a woman while her husband or boyfriend was tied up helpless in the next room. He’s also believed to have shot and killed a couple who had the misfortune to encounter him while out walking their dog.

His attacks spread to communities outside of San Francisco, but seemed to stop in mid-1979. Unfortunately, GSK had just moved south to the LA area where he started up again. His first known attempt was thwarted when the couple fought back, and he narrowly escaped capture. Instead of scaring him off this triggered an escalation after which GSK would kill those he attacked until stopping in 1986, ten years after he began.

The full extent of the damage he’d done wasn’t known until DNA typing of cold cases was done in 2001. This confirmed what several detectives in various jurisdictions had suspected for years. The man called the East Area Rapist (EAR) during his crime spree in northern California was the same man who’d become known as the Original Night Stalker (ONS) in the southern part of the state. The number of his victims alone are staggering with 50 women sexually assaulted and 12 murders, and those are just the ones that are confirmed. He may have also been responsible for a series of break-ins in Visalia a few years earlier, and if so there’s another murder to hang on him there for shooting a man who stopped an intruder from abducting his daughter in the middle of the night from their home.

It was Michelle McNamara who branded him the Golden State Killer after she began writing about the case on her blog and in magazine articles. She became interested in true crime after an unsolved murder of a young girl happened near her home as a teenager. A big part of this story is about how this case came to obsess her, and she does not make an attempt to gloss over how much it took over her life. She has one story of asking her husband to leave a movie premiere party because of a new lead she was given that she couldn’t wait to get back to her laptop to start working on it. There’s another heartbreaking moment when she describes an anniversary dinner with Patton where she realized that not only had he given her gifts two years in a row based on her on-going work on GSK, but that she had been so consumed that she’d forgotten to get him anything at all.

Unfortunately, Michelle died unexpectedly in 2016 while in the middle of writing this book. Two of her fellow researchers finished it at Patton’s urging, and I’m incredibly glad that happened because it would have been a shame if the work she did on this hadn’t been revealed so fully.

She was an incredibly gifted writer who can provide detail about GSK’s crime in such a way that we feel the full weight of what he did, and how incredibly scary this story is. It’s there as she details the evidence the police found that showed that GSK was a relentless night prowler who crept over fences, through backyards, across rooftops, and peeped windows from the shadows. It’s in the way she tells us the stories from the victims who were very often sound asleep in their beds and were awoken by a man wearing a ski mask shining a light in their eyes, showing them a knife, and telling them that he’d kill them if they didn’t do exactly what he said. While it never feels exploitive she conveys all the ways that the surviving victim’s lives were changed by the attacks on them. When she describes a detective’s years of chasing dead ends you can feel the frustration, and when she tells the story of a new lead you also start tapping into the hope that this might be the one to break the case.

In addition to being a great writer Michelle was a relentless researcher. I sometimes have issues with books or documentaries about true crime cases because I think it too often it shows confirmation bias or prefers wild conspiracy theories to more likely mundane facts and scenarios. She avoids those by imposing clear and logical standards to this which depended on fact checking and interviews rather than indulging in hunches or pet theories.

It’s very clear from what she wrote here that Michelle believed that this case could be solved with technology. The cops have the DNA of the Golden State Killer to use as the ultimate determination of guilt or innocence. Geo-Mapping his crime scenes should give an approximate location of where he lived. Scanning old case files and using key word recognition and data sorting can bring previously hidden connections to life. DNA databases are growing all the time, and all it takes is one hit from a relative to narrow it down to the family. Michelle was convinced that GSK’s identity was in the existing evidence somewhere, and it’s just a matter of sifting through all the clues to find it.

Because of her death there several parts that rely on her early drafts, notes, old magazine articles, and even a tape she made of the conversation between her and a police detective while showing her some of the GSK’s crime scenes. That gives the book a bit of a disjointed feeling and makes you wish even more that she’d been able to finish it herself, but considering the circumstances it’s unavoidable and doesn’t prevent the full story from being told.

This will be going on my Best-of-True-Crime shelf, right next to In Cold Blood. And if they do ever catch the Golden State Killer I’ll bet it’s going to be due in no small part to the work of Michelle McNamara.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review: Gunpowder Moon

Gunpowder Moon Gunpowder Moon by David Pedreira
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

They say to never judge a book by its cover, but if you show me a space helmet with a hole in the visor laying on the surface of the moon…..I’m gonna read that book.

It’s the year 2072 and Earth has just begun to recover from a global climate catastrophe. Part of that comeback has been based on using helium-3 as a fuel source, and since the moon has oodles of the stuff there are now large scale mining operations happening on its surface. When Earth was in trouble all the nations worked together to do moon mining at first, but now that things are getting better everyone is ready to get back into greed and power grabs.

Caden Dechert is the chief of a small mining crew who just wants to do the work and keep his people safe, but when some of their equipment is sabotaged the American government is more than happy to point the finger at a nearby Chinese base. As things escalate Dechert may be the only person who can head off a full scale war on the moon.

There’s a lot to like in this one. It’s got a realistic and gritty portrayal of a near-future tech on the moon as well as having enough hard science to keep things grounded and relatable. The setting is well established so that you feel like you’re walking the corridors of this cramped underground moon base as well as experiencing the exhilaration and terror of doing long rocket assisted hops into pitch black craters. The plot has a lot of solid twists and turns with the set-up of a pretty intriguing mystery which then becomes more of a conspiracy thriller as events unfold.

I also was intrigued with the character of Dechert who is an ex-military guy who had a belly full of all the wars that popped off when Earth was at its most desperate and fighting for scant resources so he got off planet. Going to the moon to get the hell away from most people is an attitude I can relate to these days.

There’s an incredible tightness and economy to the writing so that David Pedreira is able to set up a detailed sci-fi concept as well as telling a good story. In fact, it’s just a little TOO economical. It’s less than 300 pages, and even though I’m all for an author getting it done that quickly I found myself wishing for a bit more story which came across as a little rushed at times.

It’s a good sign when the worst you can say about a book is that it left you wanting more.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Righteous

Righteous Righteous by Joe Ide
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. At least that’s the general rule, but unfortunately if you cross a Chinese triad it may not apply.

Isaiah Quintabe (a/k/a IQ) is a brilliant young man who acts as an informal private detective and problem solver which has earned him a lot of respect from the people of his neighborhood in East Long Beach, but he’s haunted by the death of his big brother Marcus who was killed by a hit-and-run driver that was never caught. Marcus’ old girlfriend contacts Isaiah looking for help in trying to get her gambling addicted younger sister out of a jam with a loan shark in Las Vegas. Isaiah asks his old partner Dodson to help him out, but the two of them quickly learn that the little sister and her idiot boyfriend have also made the enormous mistake of trying to blackmail a Chinese triad with some business records they’ve obtained. All of this is happening as Isaiah is trying to deal with a new lead that indicates that his brother was murdered and not just the victim of a careless accident.

I very much enjoyed the first novel IQ in this new series from author Joe Ide, but this doesn’t meet the highs of that one. I won’t go so far as to call it a sophomore slump, but it didn’t seem as fresh or fun this time out.

One of the bigger problems is IQ himself. The whole concept here is a modern take on Sherlock Holmes with an African-American detective living in a poor area instead of white sleuth in upscale Victorian London, and that worked really well in the first book. However, here Isaiah comes across as more of a na├»ve jerk rather than the more sympathetic portrayal of a person isolated by his brilliance and lack of patience with social skills. I also liked that rather than have Dodson just be his ass-kissing sidekick like Watson is to Holmes that his relationship with Isaiah is much more contentious, and that Dodson is continually frustrated by Isaiah’s methods. Again, that’s a lot less fun this time, and the constant bickering between the two got on my nerves.

The ending of this with Isaiah finally uncovering the circumstances of his brother’s death is also a whole lot of convoluted nonsense with an ending that feels less than satisfying.

I also had some problems with the time hopping between Isaiah in Vegas vs. Isaiah at home investigating his brother’s death. I was listening to the audio version, and there weren’t any indications of this so that I actually thought I’d screwed up and was listening to the wrong part a couple of times. It eventually all comes together, but it was fairly confusing for a chunk of the book.

Despite these problems I still liked this overall. Isaiah is still interesting even if he bordered on seeming like a complete jerk for much of the book, and I found Dodson even more entertaining this time. The other characters are also well developed, and the whole plot about the triads was a lot better than the stuff about finding who killed his brother. The ending also seemed to set things up for Isaiah to grow as a person as well as maybe move on to bigger and better cases so hopefully that’s what we’ll get more of in the future.

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