Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Review: The Warehouse

The Warehouse The Warehouse by Rob Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

You load sixteen drones, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…

It’s the near future, and the giant company Cloud dominates the economy with its massive warehouses that are essentially cities where the employees live and work. However, the CEO of Cloud, Gibson Wells, has just announced that he’s dying of cancer so there’s change on the horizon as a couple of new employees meet during the hiring process. Paxton’s dream of running his own business was destroyed by Cloud, but now he needs a job so he finds himself on a security team. Zinnia acts like just another person looking for work, but in reality she’s been paid by a mysterious client to infiltrate Cloud and uncover some of its secrets.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for Zinnia to find holes in Cloud’s security, and even harder when she is worn out from long shifts spent running to fill orders. A relationship with Paxton might be her best way to complete her mission, but can she use him like that if she actually likes the guy?

On the surface this seems like your standard dystopian tale with some idealistic folks trying to take down an evil corporation, but this book is deeper and more subtle than that. For starters, the characters aren’t stereotypes. You might expect Paxton to be bitter and angry about his company being destroyed by Cloud and having to go to work for them, but he’s actually a guy who still believes that he can achieve his dreams by good ideas and hard work. Zinnia isn’t a radical trying to change the world either. She’s a mercenary doing a job for money, and while she has no love for Cloud she’s not looking to take it down either.

We also hear from Gibson Wells in the form of messages he’s releasing as he does a final farewell tour of the company he built, and that includes some of his history. At first his folksy tale of how he started Cloud with little more than an idea and some furniture scavenged from a closed school gives us the impression that this is the American dream taken to its fullest potential. Especially when Wells lays out that part of his goal for creating the Cloud facilities was to provide good jobs while helping to stave the increasing ravages of climate change by making the greenest facilities possible. It all sounds very reasonable, maybe even honorable. Yet as we learn more and more about how Cloud actually works Wells’ defense of his business tactics start to ring increasingly hollow.

For example, all the Cloud employees are on a rating system where their performance is constantly evaluated and a star value assigned which Wells explains came from his old grade school days when he always tried to get all the points possible on his assignments. That sounds good, but when average performance might get you fired then it’s a constant battle to be great, even perfect. Which then means that the standards shift to a point where people literally have to run themselves ragged to meet the minimum performance level.

Another thing the book does an excellent job at is showing just how falling into a routine might be the most dangerous and depressing aspect of all. There are several points where both Paxton and Zinnia get into the rut of just doing their job, returning to their small apartments, watching TV, falling asleep, and then doing it again. This, more than anything, might be the thing that lets Cloud flourish. If your employees have to expend so much physical and mental energy to get through an average workday that they just want to collapse into a stupor every night then they’re never going to have the time or gumption to try and shake things up in any way.

So this is a well written book with a timely message that I thought it was excellent. It also depressed the hell out of me because I read it on device I got from the company that Cloud is obviously based on. Now I’m also posting a review on a website owned by that same corporation. Even though I don’t directly work for that company it’s changed my life in many ways, and I went along with it because it was cheap and convenient without wondering too much where it all ends. Oops.

Even worse is that after reading this now, at a time when billionaires make the rules and the bottom line is used to justify everything they do, I don’t see a way that it gets better without humanity going all the way down Fury Road and just starting over.

But hey, it’s still a good book so go ahead and read it. Just maybe try to find a copy in an independent bookstore.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baltimore 1966 – a/k/a “The good ole days.” (For some people.)

Madeline Schwartz has been a wife and mother for almost two decades when she suddenly decides to turn her back on the boring comforts of the upper middle class. It isn’t easy for a woman in her late ‘30s to start over, but she begins pulling together a new life, including a secret relationship with an African-American cop. When Maddie discovers the body of a murder victim she manages to eventually leverage that into an entry level job at one of the local newspapers. She wants to become a real reporter, and when the body of Cleo Sherwood is found in a lake Maddie begins to research Cleo’s life and death even though everyone tells her that nobody cares about the story of a black party girl who met a bad end.

What Laura Lippman has written here is a character driven crime novel that smoothly shifts through a variety of viewpoints. Not only do we get the ghostly voice of Cleo who expresses dismay at how Maddie’s investigation is only stirring up trouble, but there are many short first-person interludes from the different people that Maddie interacts with. Sometimes these encounters make a big impact on her, like a dinner party with an old high school friend, and sometimes it’s a person that Maddie barely registers, like a waitress who serves her lunch. All of these characters have their own stories going on, and some of them are important to Maddie’s and some have no direct bearing on her at all. When you put them all together you get vivid picture of a bygone era as well as the full story of what happened to Cleo.

Lippman trusts the reader to remember what they’ve read in these parts so that very often we don’t see key events, and you have to infer what’s happened based on what we know about these other characters. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but it all fits the tone and structure of the book so that the reader comes to feel like just one of these flies on the wall that knows far more about Maddie’s business than she realizes.

The center of all this is Maddie, and again Lippman delivers with a detailed story about a complex woman whose old secrets put her on a path that she is now desperately trying to change. Her courage and determination are admirable, and yet there’s also a sense of entitlement to Maddie. Yes, she’s a woman struggling against sexism, but she also blithely assumes she can do a job that she’s had no experience or training for. She’s also willing to do some shady things to get what she wants, and she has little regard what damage she might do other people. Sometimes she comes across as the sympathetic hero of the story, but there are points where she seems like the villain of it. I didn’t always like Maddie, but I was always interested in her.

This also acts as kind of low key tribute to the newspaper business even if watching the sausage get made isn’t always pretty, and Lippman, a former journalist herself, ends the book with a moving tribute to the five employees of the Capital Gazette who were killed during a mass shooting at their office.

Top notch writing, great character work, and a unique structure all make for one compelling book.


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Friday, August 9, 2019

Review: Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation

Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation by Paul Holes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t really a book. It’s a podcast.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing because I like podcasts. In fact, I’ve listened to several hours of them about the Golden State Killer already. The difference is that those I downloaded for free while I used one of my monthly credits for this Audible Original so I’m feeling a little cheated. Plus, I already had read or heard about 99% of the information in here already so calling it 'the untold story' isn't exactly true either.

In fairness, it’s pretty well done as far as giving an account of GSK, and the story of how cold case detective Paul Holes helped identify him by using genealogical DNA information which ultimately led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo is fascinating. I could have lived without the spooky musical cues which reminded me of a trashy tabloid TV show, but with multiple interviews of victims, cops, and others involved in the case it does make for a good summary of the whole complicated story. If you don’t know much about it, and you have a spare Audible credit then you could do a lot worse.

However, if you’ve really want to do deeper dive into this terrifying story then I’d highly recommend starting with the late Michelle McNamara’s brilliant book I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK. (One of the parts I very much liked was Paul Holes emotionally talking about McNamara as he tells the story of how she came to feel like his investigative partner before her untimely death.) The true crime podcast Casefile also did an in-depth multi-part account of the history of GSK before he was caught that is very informative about his crimes. The HLN podcast Unmasking A Killer came out shortly before GSK was arrested, and then it added several episodes about the arrest and what we learned about DeAngelo after that. A lot of the info I heard there first is repeated here.

So again, this isn’t bad, but if you’ve already spent time following this whole case you won’t find out anything you haven’t read or heard before.


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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Review: The Hanged Man's Song

The Hanged Man's Song The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Remember the good old days when media revelations about illegal or unethical behavior by politicians would cause a scandal that could remove them from office? Me neither at this point, but that’s when this book is set. Way back during the mid-00s when the internet was still growing, but social media hadn’t yet turned the world into a screaming hellscape devoid of decency and hope. (Sorry. It’s been a long couple of years.)

Anyhow…. Professional artist/hacker/saboteur Kidd has gone mostly legit with his paintings selling well, and he is even doing a favor for a politician that involves playing slot machines as part of a statistical investigation into potential casino skimming. His occasional snuggle bunny, the professional thief LuEllen, is helping out with this when they get word that Kidd’s infamous hacker buddy Bobby has gone offline in such a way that it’s raised an alarm, and Kidd is geographically close enough to help check on him.

What Kidd finds is Bobby murdered, and his laptop filled with hacked data is missing. Then someone claiming to be Bobby starts feeding bombshells to the media about government secrets as well as political corruption. With scandal after scandal setting cable news ablaze, Kidd and his friends are sweating what information about them might be in Bobby’s files and who has them. They have to perform a delicate balancing act of trying to get Bobby’s murder investigated without tipping off the feds to his true identity as a wanted hacker until they can get the laptop and make sure they won’t get burned in the process.

Like the other Kidd & LuEllen novels this one involves a lot of hacking, breaking & entering, a fair amount of detective work, and some fairly devious scheming. All four of the novels are at a comparable level of enjoyment and quality, and the only real knock I can put on this one is that it’s just a little too close to the previous book in which Kidd also got pulled into a bad situation when a hacker friend gets killed.

It’s interesting to note that while the series ran from the late-80s until 2003 and always had a lot about computer tech that they never feel horribly dated in the way that many of ‘90s net-crazy books did. The hacking is also portrayed with a sense of practical authenticity that feels believable, unlike the near magic that computer hacking is regularly shown to be like in most fiction anymore.

However, this last one feels the most dated in some ways. Like there’s a scene in which Kidd cobbles together a WiFi antenna from parts bought a Radio Shack, and then explains what WiFi is and how it’s becoming very popular. (Although he also wryly notes that it might be obsolete tomorrow.) That all seems very quaint now, but maybe the thing that seems really old fashioned is the idea that a political scandal revealed in the media might actually get that person removed from office at the very least. Since a lot of the plot hinges on that concept it seems hilariously out of touch these days.

Still, those are minor gripes, and as always Sandford is a master of plotting to build tension and momentum. Like a good heist movie there is a lot of planning and cleverness to the things that Kidd and Lu-Ellen need to pull off, and that’s probably the aspect I enjoy most. This also has one of my favorite sequences in the series when LuEllen gets into trouble, and Kidd quickly goes to extreme lengths in an effort to pull her out of the soup. The growing closeness of the relationship between two professional criminals who are so paranoid that Kidd doesn’t even know her real name is another interesting aspect of the series.

Like a lot of fans, I wish that Sandford had done more of these. Unfortunately, the FAQ on his official website states that he probably won’t simply because they don’t sell well enough compared to his other series although he doesn’t completely rule it out. And we do get to see more of Kidd & LuEllen now and then in the Prey novels, including a big subplot in Silken Prey that seems almost like a final curtain call for them. Still, with the way this one wraps up it seems like a shame we never got more because it opened the door to a lot of interesting possibilities.

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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Review: The Chain

The Chain The Chain by Adrian McKinty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fleetwood Mac warned us about this.

Rachel O’Neil has had a rough time after a divorce and surviving a battle with cancer, but things are looking up with being in remission and a new teaching job. The promise of this next phase of her life is instantly shattered when she receives a phone call telling her that her young daughter Kylie has been kidnapped, and that Rachel is now the newest link in The Chain.

Not only does Rachel have to quickly come up with a cash ransom to save Kylie, but she also has to identify and kidnap another kid, just like the people who have Kylie did. When Rachel pays up and snatches the next victim, the kidnappers of Kylie will have their child released. Then once Rachel has gotten the parents of the kid she’s taken to kidnap another child, Kylie will be released. And so on and so on.

Rachel quickly learns that the people running The Chain have come up with a fiendishly clever and self-sustaining process. If you try to go to the police, even after the return of your own child, you’d be confessing to kidnapping. Plus, they warn that once a member of The Chain you’re never really free of it, and they may call upon you to do some other horrible task for them or risk you and your family being killed.

Essentially normal law-abiding people are turned into instant criminals. Rachel quickly realizes that appealing to the decency or humanity of the people holding Kylie is pointless once she realizes just how far she’s willing to go herself.

I’d been hearing a lot about this one even before it released thanks to authors like Don Winslow singing its praises, but I was a little leery. The whole parent with a child in peril thing has been tired for me even before Liam Neeson murdered most of Europe to protect his precious baby girl. However, I do recognize that it keeps coming up as a theme because it’s universal and effective when done well.

And it is done very well here. At least for the first two-thirds of the book. I was less happy with the origin story of those behind The Chain, and the ultimate resolution seems just a little too convenient. There’s also one plot turn that I found very hard to buy into, and irritated me even more because it seems like there was a better way to do it sitting right there. That’s what takes this from a 4 star thriller to a very satisfied 3 stars. (I’d go 3 and a half, but….you know. Thanks, Goodreads.)

Because despite my disappointment with the last act I still gotta say that it has incredible momentum for the first half. It starts with a great first line, and just absolutely cooks right along from there for a good long while before petering out just a bit at the end. I particularly enjoyed how quickly Rachel grasps the situation and how she jumps into the mode of acquiring cash and working on her own child kidnapping scheme. That idea of a parent being absolutely willing to inflict the same kind of fear and pain they’re going through on someone else to save their own child is what gives the book some more heft than just being an entertaining page-turner.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Review: Wanderers

Wanderers Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

I’m generally rooting for the end of humanity most days anymore, but if the apocalypse is gonna involve this much walking then I’ll be pretty angry about it because I’d much rather sit on my ass while the asteroid hits or the nukes fly or the zombies start gnawing on me.

A small group of people in rural Pennsylvania start walking in a trance like state one day. They can’t be snapped out of it, needles for sedatives won’t penetrate their skin, and if you try to physically stop one of them things get awfully messy. They don’t need food or water, and they absolutely will not stop. As they move across the country more and more people start joining them.

The public gets increasingly freaked out by these walkers, and a variety of people get pulled into the situation. A tough teenager frantically tries to take care of her younger sister who was the first to start walking. A former CDC doctor who trashed his career for a noble lie tries to learn the cause of the sleepwalking. An aging rock star runs away from his messy life to join the people shepherding the walkers. A preacher begins publicly painting the walkers as harbingers of the apocalypse, and he’s handsomely rewarded for his efforts by a pack of right wing conspiracy theorists who are backing a lying sack of shit for president. Behind it all is a secret that is either the salvation of humanity or its dooooooomm!!

I’ve got mixed very feelings on this one. There’s a lot of stuff I liked, particularly some of the core idea of what’s behind the sleepwalkers once it all gets revealed. There was a pretty cool and clever story to all of that. Wendig also has a readable style that keeps you turning pages, and he’s built up an intriguing scenario here that really held my interest for the first couple of hundred pages. But then the problems started creeping in.

First off, this is way too long. I’m glad I got an e-copy because it’s gotta be a real kitten squisher in print form. And it just doesn’t seem that necessary. There are big swaths of the story where not that much happens. Yeah, some of that was trying to develop characters, but it really doesn’t matter though because for the most part these people are still exactly who I thought they were the entire time. Unfortunately, that means that they’re all jerks or pushovers from start to finish.

Even the ones you’re supposed to sympathize with the most I found irritating and weak. Shana, the older sister of one of the first walkers, is supposed to the tough teenager with a chip on her shoulder, but it all seems like posturing because all she ever really does is be snarky to people. Benjy, the disgraced CDC doctor, should be our hero, but he seems so naïve, helpless, and completely overwhelmed at all times that there’s nothing there to root for. And some of that would make sense in a book like this where people would feel insignificant when faced with something like this, but the structure of the scenario leaves them so little to actually do that they feel completely pointless.

In fact, this entire novel is incredibly passive, and the people in it really don’t matter that much at the end of the day. There’s a few minor things they try to accomplish here and there, but usually they even screw that up. You could take every single other character out of this book and just make it about the sleepwalkers while eventually revealing what’s behind them, and the entire story pretty much ends up exactly where it eventually does. I also didn’t care for what seems like a sequel set up in the end. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but Wendig left plenty of room to return. I’d be more interested in that if I thought that any characters in the book might actually be able to impact the story.

Overall, I didn’t hate this one, but the potential it had early on seems to just fade away as the book goes on and on.

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Review: The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon

The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon by Todd Zwillich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was reading something about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing recently, and one thing that caught my eye was that apparently over 400,000 people worked on various projects related making that happen. I’d say that out of all them, the contribution of John Houbolt may be the most controversial.

Houbolt was an engineer at NASA who became an advocate for Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. In the early days of trying to get to the moon most everyone thought that the way to do it was to either build an enormous rocket that would make the entire round trip or that a ship would have to be assembled in Earth orbit and then sent to the moon. The thing about LOR was that by taking a light landing craft it would save having to get an enormous amount of weight, mostly fuel, to the moon and back. The problem was that it would mean that two spacecraft would have to rendezvous in lunar orbit, and at a time when nobody had docked in Earth orbit yet that seemed extremely dangerous, maybe even impossible.

So when most of the NASA committees and big wigs were trying to make decisions the idea of LOR was usually quickly crossed off the list. However, Houbolt had done an extensive analysis of the numbers, and to him it was clear that LOR was the only way to get to the moon by the deadline John F. Kennedy had set for the country so he started to relentlessly push the idea even when he was dismissed out of hand. Sometimes he was met with outright hostility like when another engineer angrily declared that Houbolt’s numbers were a lie in a meeting with some of the top NASA people.

Although frequently hurt and frustrated, Houbolt refused to take no for an answer and continued to push LOR, and he even risked his job by skipping the chain of command and sending letters and his report to one of the top men in NASA. Eventually the tide turned and LOR was adopted as the strategy to get to the moon. Yet, Houbolt was almost immediately shut out, and many in NASA began downplaying his role. Houbolt would end up leaving the agency just months after the decision was made, and for the rest of his life he’d insist that he hadn’t received the credit he was due.

The counterpoint to that is that Houbolt didn’t create the idea of LOR, he was just a believer who pushed it. So the NASA attitude was often that while Houbolt was an early advocate for LOR that other people were also studying it too, and that the idea was so logical that it surely would have been used even without Houbolt’s efforts.

The other odd factor is that Houbolt did, in fact, receive a lot of recognition. NASA awarded him a commendation at the time, he was interviewed and profiled in the media including Time magazine, he was invited back to NASA to witness the moon landing from Mission Control where Werner von Braun thanked him personally, and his old hometown gave him a parade and named a street after him. Houbolt and his struggle were even briefly depicted in the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon back in 1998 so it’s not like he’d been completely ignored and forgotten. However, Houbolt was eventually denied a large cash award thanks to a NASA executive downplaying his importance so maybe that’s why he seemed to feel like he wasn’t given his due.

Another interesting aspect explored in this is that while LOR was probably the only way that America could have gotten to the moon by 1970, it might have been a mistake for long term space exploration. Some engineers were envisioning a whole orbital infrastructure that would be used to not just go to the moon, but beyond. By doing it the quickest way possible to make an arbitrary deadline NASA may have inadvertently set manned space exploration back by decades.

I very much enjoyed this as an Audible original I got as one of their freebies. There’s not really enough here for an entire non-fiction book, but the 3 ½ hours audio presentation including interviews and historical clips is just about the perfect way to learn about Houbolt and this story. It seems more like listening to a long NPR feature or podcast episode instead of a book, but it’s an intriguing side story for anyone interested in the Apollo landings.

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Review: Fall, or Dodge in Hell

Fall, or Dodge in Hell Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I wasn’t hoping that death is just an endless, dreamless slumber before then I sure am now.

Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast made billions with the video game company he founded, but money doesn’t help him when a routine medical procedure goes sideways and leaves him braindead. However, Dodge once signed up with a cryonics company to have himself frozen after death, and that old legal agreement becomes the impetus for his friends and family to pour resources into tech that eventually can digitally map Dodge’s mind as part of an uneasy alliance with an ailing billionaire, El Shepherd, who is desperately trying to find a way to cheat death.

Years pass, and eventually Dodge’s consciousness is brought back in a digital realm, but he has no real memories of who he was. Operating mainly on instinct, Dodge starts shaping the world he now inhabits into something approximating his old reality, and eventually the living begin adding more dead mapped minds to that space. Slowly, a community that Dodge oversees begins to grow, but Shepherd doesn’t like the world that Dodge and his people have made so he finds a way to make sure that he’ll be in charge once he dies and gets his brain plugged in.

That’s a lot of plot for one book, but since this is a Neal Stephenson novel there’s all that and more. In addition to the story of Dodge in his digital world there’s the stuff with his friends and family dealing with all the technological and legal issues that arise from starting and maintaining a virtual afterlife. There’s also a long subplot that details how the internet and social media eventually becomes so awash in bullshit that everyone needs a personal editor to weed out the nonsense they don’t want to see, and the trend of people only believing what they choose creates whole reality challenged zones of the United States based on ‘alternative facts’. All of this stuff takes up a good chunk of the first half of the book, and I was enjoying that part quite a bit.

However, in the second half the focus shifts much more to dead Dodge in his computer world, and that’s where it got incredibly tedious. Stephenson does a lot here that draws on various religious creation myths with Dodge essentially becoming a Zeus like figure before the thing shifts into a more Christian style story with Dodge being cast in the Lucifer part by Shepherd. That’s an interesting idea, but the execution of it goes on for so long that I lost patience with the whole thing because it starts reading like someone tossed a Bible and a copy of Lord of the Rings into a blender.

Another part of the problem is that Stephenson also baked in some video game influence here, and as a guy who helped create a huge MMORPG type game it makes sense that Dodge’s approach to building and living in a digital world would feel somewhat like that. However, while it can be fun to play a video game like Civilization yourself, it’s boring to just watch someone else do it, and that’s what reading this book felt like for a good part of it.

Oddly, Stephenson also never really deals with the big questions that the story brings up. Like, are Dodge and the others in the cyber world falling into the rhythms of Greek mythology and Christianity out of some subconscious instinct that recalls those stories, or is it possible that our reality is also just some kind of artificially created existence that and the creation of these kinds of places just plays out in patterns?

Another aspect I didn’t care for was using the characters like Dodge and some of his family and friends who were also in Stephenson’s thriller REAMDE. I really enjoyed that book as one of Stephenson’s more straight ahead stories, and I especially liked Dodge in it. So to just essentially kill him off in the early going here is a bummer that puts a retroactive pall over that book.

Maybe the thing that bugs me most about this is that it’s essentially two rich guys battling to control what happens to people after they die. As the book lays out it would take an enormous amount of resources to develop something like this so it’s just cold hard reality that the first people to be able to live on past death would be wealthy.

However, it seem incredibly unfair that the privilege they enjoyed in life would then carry over to the point where they literally get to shape reality to their view of how things should be. Even good guy Dodge never questions why he gets to choose how things are going to work once everyone who dies starts getting uploaded. We just know that Shepherd was a jerk in life and in death so we’re supposed to root for Dodge, not ask why he gets all the power.

We already live in a world where obscenely rich assholes get to make all the rules. I was really hoping that death would be the end of that so I didn’t much enjoy a long story about how these fucks could maintain control after we all croak. Can you imagine what happens if the Koch brothers were essentially gods who could shape reality to what they want it to be?

If that’s the way it was going to be then I’d take a hard pass on the afterlife and just settle for the comfort of a long dirt nap. Reading about that idea isn’t a lot of fun either even if Stephenson tries mightily to convince us that it’d be cool just so long as the right rich guy is in charge.

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Friday, June 14, 2019

Review: The Shameless

The Shameless The Shameless by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

A spray-tanned sack of crap is about to win a major election because he’s very good at firing up rubes with promises of returning to a time that never really existed, and even when his shady connections and criminal history are exposed all he has to do is claim that it’s all lies by the media to get his loyal followers to ignore the stories.

You know, I usually read crime fiction to escape reality...

Quinn Colson has been the sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, for almost ten years now, but things aren’t getting any easier for him. The rise of a populist candidate for governor who wants to turn back the clock has excited a whole bunch of deplorable people who feel emboldened to act like even bigger assholes than usual. The candidate also has ties to the Dixie Mafia, and that relationship has caused an internal power struggle in the organization which reaches all the way to the lady running the local strip club. Meanwhile, a couple of podcasters from New York have come to Tibbehah to dig into the mysterious death of a high school boy twenty years earlier. That has personal connections to Quinn because his late uncle, the sheriff at the time, declared the boy’s death a suicide to the satisfaction of no one, and Quinn’s new wife was dating the kid when he died.

This series started with a fairly simple hook of a war hero returning to his hometown and trying to stop the crime and corruption he finds there. However, that summary makes it sound like this is a bunch of books about a bad ass action hero going lone wolf and taking the law into his own hands, and that’s just not the case. While Quinn is definitely a guy who can take care of himself in a fight, the solution is never just a matter of shooting the bad guys. Quinn respects the law and due process even if the people in power around him often don’t, and so the books aren’t just the fantasy of a good guy with a gun being the answer to everyone’s problem.

Another thing is that even though the series revolves around Quinn this is not just his story. Over the course of nine books Ace Atkins has built up the population of Tibbehah County to the point where we’ve spent as much time with Quinn’s family, friends, and enemies as we do with him. By building up every aspect of his fictional county and all of its characters Atkins has made the story about much more than just one sheriff in a small rural community.

That really pays off in this one because Tibbehah is clearly supposed to be a microcosm of America, and it’s obvious who the crooked political candidate is standing in for. The book displays how the promise of preserving traditions and culture as well as returning to some imagined glory days is just racist code used by rich old white men to try and keep their power. It’s also easy to see that as a former journalist Atkins is angry how the media has been smeared to give the faithful an excuse to turn a blind eye to crimes and horrible behavior.

The podcast subplot provides another interesting angle on the media aspect. The two young ladies seem like responsible and decent people who genuinely want to expose the truth about a hidden crime. However, they’re also looking for a good story, and they're just a little too eager to jump on a juicy theory once it presents itself. Again, this seems to be a veteran journalist doing some commentary about how facts are important, but but the context and agenda of who is presenting them also needs to be considered. That's a very valid point at a time when true crime stories are being picked over and analyzed by podcasts and internet sleuths.

This one also ends on a cliff-hanger and most definitely seems like part one of a larger story. There’s always been some on-going threads from book to book that have built up a larger story in this series, but generally we also get a self-contained storyline as well. This time not much is resolved, but I’ll be counting the days until we find out what happens next.

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Review: Blood Relations

Blood Relations Blood Relations by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Lee Crowe is the kind of private investigator who isn’t above taking a shady job from a defense attorney as part of an effort to intimidate a federal witness. While working on that project he comes across the body of a wealthy young Claire Gravesend who fell from a roof and smashed into a Rolls Royce.

Damn, but the rich even get to die in luxury.

Claire had been acting oddly before dropping out of sight. The police are calling it a suicide, but her mother isn’t convinced and hires Lee to find out the truth. Investigating Claire quickly proves to be dangerous business, and when Lee makes a shocking discovery things really start getting weird.

One of the things I loved about this one is that we start with what seems to be a gritty neo-noir tale about a morally ambiguous private detective, and that’s the thread that’s maintained even when the story starts shifting into other territory. While there are elements of other genres brought in, the style and themes are constant throughout the book.

That really works because the main draw here is the character of Crowe who we eventually learn is a disgraced former lawyer who was once on the doorstep of real wealth and power, but he lost it all once his well-connected wife got bored with him. Now Crowe seems to have few lines he won’t cross like after discovering Claire’s body he takes a picture and sells it to a tabloid for a nice payday.

Despite apparently having no moral code we see throughout the book that Crowe is more complex than a guy willing to do any dirty job for money. Having once had a glimpse behind the curtain of privilege to see how rigged the game is he has no compunction about cheating himself. Even as he’s willing to work for the benefit of the wealthy there’s also resentment simmering in the background, and once he starts learning the truth about Claire Gravesend he’s capable of outrage and wanting to see some justice done.

Jonathan Moore has very quickly become one of my favorite writers, and I think this is his best one yet. There’s some very slick genre fusion going on here along with good character work, and the plot makes it a compulsive page turner. But I think the most impressive thing is how he creates an almost dreamlike atmosphere at times, and yet also blend that with much more grounded elements. This is most definitely a hard boiled crime novel in tone, but there are also scenes that would be right at home in a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick movie. It’s an intriguing mix.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’d also highly recommend all these other ones by Moore:

The Poison Artist
The Dark Room
The Night Market
Close Reach

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Review: The Devil's Code

The Devil's Code The Devil's Code by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kidd returns home from a fishing trip and immediately gets bad news. One of his hacking buddies was recently killed in Dallas while supposedly breaking into a software company that does a lot of cybersecurity work for the U.S. government. At the same time feds start a massive crackdown looking for a group of hackers going by the name of Firewall, and Kidd’s name is on the list along with several other friends of his even though they aren’t part of any organized group.

Fearing that they’re being set up to take the fall for some kind of shenanigans, Kidd recruits professional burglar LuEllen to help figure out how his dead friend is connected to Firewall through their usual methods of hacking and breaking into places to get information. As the pressure increases Kidd finds himself living like a fugitive as he tries to find a way to get the government to lay off the hackers.

This is another solid story featuring Kidd and LuEllen from Sandford, and they continue to be the kind of criminals that you really hope get away with it. There’s the usual clever scams and schemes, and Sandford makes what is essentially a conspiracy thriller plot still seem grounded and realistic. Most of all, it’s just fun to read.

This was published in 2000, and while Sandford usually does a great job of writing the tech stuff so that it doesn’t seem dated, but there’s a few aspects that haven’t aged well. There’s a plot point about how the NSA is concerned that increasingly sophisticated computer encryption is preventing them from tapping into communications so this was obviously written before the Patriot Act gave them the green light to spy on everybody. But that’s a minor complaint.


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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: Delta-V

Delta-V Delta-V by Daniel Suarez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s gold in them thar asteroids!

In the near future commercial space exploration is growing, but not fast enough to suit billionaire Nathan Joyce who believes that humanity’s only chance of long-term survival is to immediately start mining asteroids. This will not only provide critical resources and advance the technologies to let people start living in space, but it also could create an entirely new and sustainable economy. Joyce is recruiting an multinational group of risk-takers like cave diver James Tighe who have the skills necessary to be the first asteroid miners. The mission will be unprecedented and dangerous, but not all the threats come from being in space.

I love Daniel Suarez’s books because he’s great at looking at where we’re at both technologically and as a society and then coming up with very plausible stories about what comes next. Here, he’s selling the idea that humanity’s future hinges not on colonizing the moon or Mars, but instead on coming up with ways of living in space using the resources we could get from the hunks of rock floating around out there. He’s very persuasive on this point, and his conclusions make a lot of sense. (I kept finding myself thinking that this could be the prequel to The Expanse series which finds humanity spread out through the solar system.)

It helps that this isn’t a tale filled with wide-eyed optimism, and there’s a lot of cynical pragmatism in how the plot unfolds. Suarez creates a world in which it’s greed as much as anything that would make this happen, and that getting this going would take the resources of the mega-rich. That certainly fits the direction we seem to be heading with guys like Elon Musk and Richard Branson putting big money into space. But when you get people driven by profit margins and massive egos involved you can’t really trust them to do the right thing for the greater good or even their own employees either. Throw in a bunch of murky laws related to this and competing national interests, and it’s probably inevitable that mining asteroids will be just as cutthroat and messy as business on Earth.

If you’re into space stuff, especially near future hard sci-fi, then there’s a lot to like here. Suarez is better at coming up with cool ideas and tech then he is writing about people, but he does an adequate job of creating a cast of characters and putting them in interesting and sometimes hazardous situations. While a lot is wrapped up here the book also ends on what seems to be a pure sequel set-up so I don’t think we got the whole story, but I’ll be happy to check out the next one, too. 3.5 stars.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review: Brothers Keepers

Brothers Keepers Brothers Keepers by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A small order of monks have lived on New York’s Park Avenue for almost two centuries. They managed to keep their monastery as the city grew thanks to a ninety-nine year lease, but they’re surprised to learn that the lease is almost up and that their entire block is about to be sold to build a new office building.

As part of the attempts to save their building Brother Benedict is forced to leave his beloved quiet monastery several times to deal with the family that held the lease and the business people who are buying it. When Brother Benedict meets and falls for a woman involved in the deal he finds himself questioning whether he belongs with her or with his fellow monks. He’ll also learn that all’s fair in love, war, and New York real estate.

This continues the trend I’m on of reading a Hard Case Crime novel only to find it distinctly lacking in hard case crime. Several of the recent ones have been character based stories with a few crime elements in them, and despite this being a long out-of-print novel by a legendary mystery writer it’s more of a low key comedy than anything.

That’s not to say that it’s bad. I’m a big fan of almost everything Donald Westlake did, and the man could shift gears from gritty crime stories to goofy capers and make them both entertaining. Like most of his lighter stuff it’s entertaining and provides plenty of chuckles although the ending is a little abrupt and bittersweet. It’s fun enough although I’m still scratching my head at why HCC printed it other than to put the Westlake name on the cover.

Slightly off-topic bonus thought: Reading this story about quirky monks dealing with a 1975 New York City reminded me in a weird way of a Wes Anderson movie. I’m not saying that a Westlake book exactly seems like an Anderson screenplay. More that I think that the ‘70s setting, quirky characters, and style of dialogue would be a good fit for an Anderson adaptation. Once that idea was in my head I couldn’t stop thinking of Bill Murray playing the abbot. So if anybody out there knows Wes Anderson, do me a favor and get him a copy of this.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: A Touch of Death

A Touch of Death A Touch of Death by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lee Scarborough is a former football star who has been failing as a salesman. When he meets a woman by chance he gets embroiled in a scheme to recover $120,000 of stolen money.

Guess how that goes?

This is a tasty slice of pulp fiction that has a unique hook and provides plenty of twists and turns. The book doesn’t end anywhere near where you think it will based on the early chapters, and there’s plenty of paranoia fueling the plot by the end of it. I hadn’t read any of Charles Williams’ work before this, but now I’d like to check out more.


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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review: The Empress File

The Empress File The Empress File by John Camp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This involves a small group of people running an operation to take down a bunch of corrupt politicians who use extreme gerrymandering and dirty tricks to stay in power while they steal everything they can and screw over everyone they claim to represent in the process.

I kinda feel we should all be taking notes from this one.

Longstreet is small river city in Mississippi where the local officials are crooked as a dog’s back leg. After an innocent unarmed young black man is mistakenly killed by the police the whole thing is quickly swept under the rug. However, a group of left-wing activists have had enough and want to take over the town by any means necessary.

This brings artist/computer-expert/saboteur Kidd into it by his hacker buddy Bobby who was a friend of the murdered kid. The idea is Kidd will come up with a plan to dismantle the local political machine so the activists can take over the city council. Kidd is sympathetic to the cause, but his real motivation is that corruption means money being involved so there’s a good chance of a big payday. To help with that angle he contacts his friend/professional thief/sometime-lover LuEllen to help find a way to get the dirty officials out of office and steal all they can from them while doing so. However, they’ll have to be very careful because they’re kicking an awfully big hornet’s nest.

One of the primary reasons I really like it is that it’s just such a cool concept. A shady hacker tries to take down a ring of crooked politicians who control a small city? I could read about that all day long. As with the first book, The Fool's Run, the schemes that Kidd comes up with are devilishly clever and seem realistic. As he and LuEllen track down where the locals have stashed their loot so they can rob them, they’re also working on a scam to expose them as well cooking up a way for the activists to take over once the dust settles. Sandford has a knack for writing people planning and executing criminal acts, and these play out as essentially elaborate heist novels.

Another Sandford talent is creating characters that are fun to read about. Kidd and LuEllen are two great examples of this because they’re smart, funny, interesting, talented, and come across as real people instead of the kind of cartoon characters you get in lesser thrillers. They also don’t make excuses or rationalizations about who they are, and they have a clear-eyed pragmatism about being criminals despite sometimes having good intentions. Even though they try their best to avoid violence they’re also starting to question how many people still end up dead when they pull one of these jobs.

It’s also interesting that even though this book was published in 1991 and involves some computer tech that it doesn’t feel dated at all. In fact, even though Sandford has been writing these kinds of books for 30 years and frequently includes technology of the moment, they all age exceptionally well. That's probably because the main plots are rooted in ideas and themes that don’t change, and the tech is just window dressing. This book starts with a trigger happy cop killing an unarmed black kid, and then it rolls into massive political corruption. He obviously could have done that set-up today and just changed a few minor things like subbing wi-fi for dialing into a modem.

The only thing I disliked is that the main thug is the town’s animal control officer, and there’s a pretty nasty stuff in his treatment of dogs and cats to make it clear that he’s a sadistic bastard. Sandford doesn’t engage in misery or torture porn, but he does know how to write a scene that will make your skin crawl. Since I can’t stand to read about animals being abused I could have lived without that, but again, it’s relatively brief, and we don’t have to dwell on the details so it’s fairly easy to skim over and get the essence of that character.

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Friday, May 3, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #7

Avengers (1963-1996) #7 Avengers (1963-1996) #7 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Odin banishes the Enchantress and the Executioner from Asgard for their latest scheme, and they promptly team-up with Baron Zemo once on Earth. The results are more Avenger-on-Avenger violence once Enchantress puts Thor under a spell which means that once again the superheroes spend more time fighting each other than anyone else.

Random Observations:

• Captain America pays wrestlers to attack him as part of his daily workout. That seems like it’d get expensive.
• Iron Man gets suspended for a week for failing to answer an Avengers call. So essentially the others throw Tony Stark out of his own house for a while.
• Tony may have a bad heart, but since this is the ‘60s that doesn’t stop him from casually having a cigarette.

Previous Issue: Avengers #6

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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Review: Recursion

Recursion Recursion by Blake Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

I’ll bet Blake Crouch filled up at least five large whiteboards with diagrams trying to figure out the plot for this one.

NYPD Detective Barry Sutton tries to stop a woman about to jump off a high rise building, and she tells him that she’s suffering from the rare False Memory Syndrome which has given her the memories of another entire lifetime including a son who doesn’t exist. Barry become intrigued by the woman’s story, in part because he is mourning his own daughter who died years earlier, and he begins to look into her life. In a parallel story set 11 years earlier, Dr. Helena Smith is struggling to get funding for plans to build a machine capable of recording a human memory, and her project seems dead in the water until a mysterious investor steps in.

That’s all I want to say about the plot to anyone who hasn’t read the book, and I’d urge any reader to go in not knowing more than that because what follows mixes a clever sci-fi concept with an engaging thriller that turns the very idea of existence inside out.

To dig into this deeper without giving the ending away….**SPOILERS FOLLOW**I absolutely loved the time travel aspect of this with the idea that reality is shaped by consciousness so it should be possible to go back into our own memory and change things. The fallout from that, with the other memories eventually kicking in for those affected by it, is a terrifying way of expanding the scope that eventually scrambles the eggs of all of humanity. Helena’s chair is a Pandora’s Box that can’t be unopened even with time travel, and that creates a cruel trap. You can’t make this right without using time travel, but every trip back once things go to hell just means that eventually another timeline comes crashing down on everyone**END OF SPOILERS**

I was a little worried about the whole ‘sad Daddy’ aspect of Barry having a dead child at first because my complaint about Crouch’s other reality bending book Dark Matter was that it leaned on the trope of a man-doing-it-all-for-his-family, but I was pleasantly surprised with how the book eventually became a much bigger story without ever losing the emotional component of that backstory either.

Overall, this was mind-bending and horrifying page turner with some very cool ideas that had me on the edge of my seat while reading.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #6

Avengers (1963-1996) #6 Avengers (1963-1996) #6 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil attack New York City, and their weapon of choice is….glue?

Lots of fun goofiness in this one. My favorite bit was Cap and Giant Man street surfing on a hunk pavement behind a tow truck driven by Iron Man after they get glued to the ground.

Random Observations :

• Thor refuses to keep the Black Knight’s winged horse after capturing him because even though BK is going to jail, it still technically belongs to him. That brings up a whole bunch of legal questions regarding supervillain property rights.

• If Baron Zemo got his mask accidentally glued to his face years ago, how is drinking or eating anything?

• This ‘Teen Brigade’ thing with Rick Jones and his buddies is annoying the hell out of me. We’ve already seen the US military and the UN cooperating with the Avengers. Why would they need a bunch of punk teenagers hanging around?

Previous Issue : Avengers #5

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Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #5

Avengers (1963-1996) #5 Avengers (1963-1996) #5 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s the Avengers vs. the Lava Men, and somehow they end up fighting the Hulk yet again so that streak is still going. Thank god Rick Jones was there to…. I dunno why he’s in here actually. He even gets listed as part of the full roster at the start. I guess being Captain America’s teenage companion has perks.

The cool thing about this one is the way that Kirby drew some of the the Lava Men with monstrous oversized faces that look genuinely creepy.

Random Observations:
• Wasp actually comes through in a big moment, but then is miffed when she gets complimented on that instead of her beauty.

• I didn’t realize that it’s not generally known that Bruce Banner is the Hulk. Which makes General Ross and Betty seem pretty simple when they’re complaining about how Bruce just vanished after the gamma bomb incident.

Previous Issue: Avengers #4

Next Issue: Avengers #6

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review: The Dispatcher

The Dispatcher The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What if anyone who gets murdered returned alive almost instantly? That sounds like an improvement for humanity, but just think about what it would do to Netflix’s stock price if new true crime documentaries were no longer a thing.

That’s the big idea here. For an unknown reason the nature of death changes one day. If someone is killed by another person their corpse vanishes, and they appear unharmed back in their homes. Only deaths from natural causes or accidents are permanent with only one in one thousand victims of violence not returning. Not only does this guarantee that the homicide rate drops to zero, it also offers opportunities for do-overs. Like if someone is getting surgery and they’re about to expire on the table, you could kill them instead, and then they’d reappear in the same shape they were just a few hours earlier. You aren’t fixing any long term health issues, but you could give doctors a second chance or save someone who was just in a car accident.

That’s where Tony Valdez comes in. He’s a government approved Dispatcher who is authorized to terminate people about to die so that they’ll return. A lot of people find what he does creepy or immoral since he has technically murdered over a thousand people, but Tony looks on it as saving lives, not taking them. However, when another Dispatcher vanishes, and there are signs of foul play Tony ends up reluctantly helping a detective by showing her some of the shady underground ways Dispatching is used.

This is a really intriguing concept, but unfortunately it was John Scalzi who came up with it. I’ve liked some of his books and generally think he’s entertaining, but the reason I stopped reading his stuff is that he relies almost exclusively on dialogue with almost no descriptions or deep dives into the sci-fi concepts he comes up with. This is a prime example because this is a pretty cool premise that opens up a whole bunch of potential storylines, and you could go crazy deep with some of them.

However, rather than sit down and really dig into that Scalzi is content to just toss together a quickie mystery that only hints at the bigger implications of what this would mean for the world. Yeah, he gives a few glimpses of it, but it’s mostly just relayed from Tony to the detective in exposition. There’s only a tiny bit of acknowledgement payed to how this would be a massive game changer in terms of religion, philosophy, and science, too.

Still, as a free Audible Original read by Zachery Quinto, it’s a fun two-hour listen. I just wish that a writer willing and capable of really making a meal out of this idea had come up with it.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #4

Avengers (1963-1996) #4 Avengers (1963-1996) #4 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After the Avengers fought the Sub-Mariner on an island in the previous issue, an enraged Namor goes north far enough to find a frozen man in the ice that he throws into the water. Then the Avengers just happen to come across the thawed out guy as they’re on their way home in a submarine. It’s a happy coincidence because he turns out to be the legendary Captain America who has been a Popsicle since World War II. There’s the usual thing of the superheroes have to fight each other before teaming up to stop a stranded alien and then fight Namor again. Then they’re all buddies and Cap is now an Avenger.

Resurrecting old characters like Namor and Cap from the Golden Age days when the company was called Timely Comics was a good idea, and it is cool that Jack Kirby, one of the original creators of Captain America, got to bring him back. As always with these old comics the story is silly and wonky, but Cap returning and joining the Avengers is a huge Marvel milestone.

Random observations:

• Cap is crushed by the memory of the death of his sidekick Bucky, but instantly recovers when he sees Rick Jones and immediately asks him to be his new partner. An adult man swapping one teenage boy for another who looks just like him? Uh……OK.
• The Marvel history I know has Cap and Namor teaming up to battling Nazis as part of the World War II super-team The Invaders so it’s strange that they don’t know each other here.
• When asked where she was after vanishing during the end of the big battle Wasp replies, “I was doing what ANY girl would do in a moment of crises – powdering my nose, of course!” *sigh*

Previous Issue: Avengers #3

Next Issue: Avengers #5

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Review: The Fool's Run

The Fool's Run The Fool's Run by John Camp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Listen all y'all, it's a sabotage.

Corporate sabotage, that is.

Kidd is an artist who uses his computer skills to pay the bills that selling paintings won’t cover. He’s also willing to engage in some hacking if the price is right. The wealthy owner of an aviation company approaches Kidd to help him even the score after one of his rival corporations stole a breakthrough piece of technology developed to help sell a new type of jet to the military.

It’s a risky operation that has to be done on a deadline, but the paycheck is a small fortune so Kidd takes the gig. He also recruits some allies to help. His friend/sometime lover LuEllen is a professional burglar who can help him get into the homes of employees for passwords and other info, and Dace is a disgraced journalist who still has the contacts to start smearing the rival company in the media once they throw several monkey wrenches into the works. If they can pull it off they all walk away rich. If not, they might wind up in jail. Or worse.

John Sandford came up with this series at the same time as his Prey novels, and it originally came out in 1989 under his real name John Camp because they were both being published by two different companies who didn’t want to have the same author competing with himself. The Prey series sold better so many more books followed while the Sandford name became the brand. After two books, Kidd would only appear in the Prey series as an unnamed artist until Sandford finally got the full rights back, and once he was a regular best-seller Kidd and LuEllen would return in two more books as well as popping up in the other series now and then.

It’s surprising that this book holds up as well as it does considering it should have several dated aspects. Kidd, like the early version of Davenport in Prey, seems to be constructed as the prototypical ‘80s action/thriller star. He’s a computer expert who is a Vietnam vet that studies martial arts who also engages in shady business. The artist angle makes him a little eccentric, and there’s the added quirk of his using tarot cards as way of spurring outside the box thinking. However, just as he did with Davenport, Sandford manages to keep Kidd grounded and relatable enough that you feel like you’re reading about a smart person with skills, not some completely unrealistic macho asshole.

The other dated element the book manages to skirt is that although a lot of this based on computer hacking circa 1989, it doesn’t read as being ancient. Unlike many a thriller writer in the ‘90s, Sandford always had a knack for incorporating tech of the day and using it for plot points without having people talk about it with wide-eyed awe. While Kidd has to explain some computer stuff and what he’s doing it always seems kind of matter of fact and keeps it a high enough level that the same concepts still apply today.

Overall, this is just a really solid thriller done by a writer early in his fiction career who would go on to become a master at plotting and building tension and momentum. He’s not quite there yet, and the last third of book doesn’t have the same kind of climax you get in his best work.

I’d probably go 3 stars if I just didn’t like Kidd and LuEllen as characters so damn much. Plus, I really appreciate just how deviously clever the sabotage plan is with Kidd being absolutely diabolical in the changes he makes to the company’s computer system coupled with their media campaign to smear it's name. There’s a reason Prey became the more popular series, but there is still fun reading to be had here for Sandford fans.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Review: The Last Stone

The Last Stone The Last Stone by Mark Bowden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I’m a huge fan of mystery/crime fiction I’ve long known that I never could have been a cop. One of the main reasons is that if I were faced with a suspect I knew was lying to me that I lack the patience to work the truth out of them with long interrogations. Instead I’d immediately shine a bright light in their eyes and grab the nearest phone book. That was never clearer to me then while reading this book when I found myself gritting my teeth and wishing I could reach through the pages to choke the shit out of this lying asshole.

In the spring of 1975 two pre-teen sisters, Sheila and Kate Lyon, vanished from a suburban Maryland mall just outside of Washington D.C. Despite a huge police investigation and being covered all over local media the girls were never found.

Almost 40 years later a cold case detective was going through the file again and came across something new. Days after the girls disappeared, an 18 year man named Lloyd Welch had given a statement to the police about seeing them talking with a man at the mall and leaving with him in a car. However, Welch’s statement seemed fishy, and he promptly flunked a lie detector test which led to him admitting that it was a combination of things he’d seen in the news and made up. The cops dismissed him as just another attention seeking kook that was wasting their time.

However, this detective noticed that Welch’s statement about the man he claimed to have seen had a detail that matched his prime suspect, a child molester who had died in prison. Believing Welch may know something after all the cops tracked him down only to find that he was serving a long prison term for molesting a young girl. It also turned out that one composite sketch from a witness in the mall at the time looked a lot like Welch at 18.

What began there was a series of long interviews with Welch who they quickly learned seem almost allegoric to telling the truth. When caught in a lie Welch would refuse to admit it, blaming any mistakes on faulty memory brought about by age and drug abuse, while eventually shifting to a completely different story that ignored what he previously said. Or he might backtrack and start repeating a story the police had already discredited. When faced with absolute proof of false statements and finally admitting something he’d say he lied because he was scared and trying to protecting himself.

Pinning Welch down to a story was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall, and it took a team of detectives working variations on several different tactics for over a year to eventually tease something approaching the truth out of him. This would lead to new directions and other suspects involved in the crime which were mainly members of Welch’s family. They would turn out to be a clan of transplanted hillbillies that seem to be something out of a Rob Zombie movie with child abuse and sexual assault being common place.

Mark Bowen was a young journalist just starting his career when he reported on the missing Lyon sisters, and as he explains the case haunted him for years afterwards. He’s done some interesting things structurally with this because it doesn’t follow your typical true crime format. The story begins with Lloyd Welch and that’s where most of the focus is. There’s not a lot of time spent on the original abduction which is what you’d usually get in a true crime story. Then there’d be some background on the family, the investigation, and the break with Welch might come in at the halfway point. Bowen gives us that as background and essentially starts very early with the cops going to Welch.

That’s because this is mainly about the interviews and how the cops managed to tease and cajole information from Welch when he was feeding them mostly bullshit, and then how they kept him talking long past the point where he realizes that he should just shut up. That makes sense because this case hinges on how they eventually learned to read what Welch was telling them and how to work him. In the end the major break comes not from what Lloyd actually said, but instead from a detective following up on one his lies but realizing that the truth was actually in the other details Welch kept putting in his various stories.

This is an interesting way to do a book like this, and the case is fascinating. However, it can also be frustrating because a great deal of time is spent just reading Welch’s shifting lies and repeated justifications. It also doesn’t end as neatly as an episode of Law & Order. While some justice is done there is still a lot left unanswered and probably some guilty parties will never be charged.

It’s a solid piece of crime true crime writing, but reading about Welch wore me out. I don’t know how the cops who had to actually deal with him could stand it.

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #3

Avengers (1963-1996) #3 Avengers (1963-1996) #3 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Avengers are worried about the Hulk after he quit the team and go looking for him. After yet another battle with his former team, the Hulk flees to a deserted island. There he meets Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who dislikes humanity as much as Hulk does so they decide to join forces. They challenge the Avengers to a fight, and hilarity ensues.

Three issues into this, and the Hulk has fought the other Avengers in every one of them so far. So that’s getting pretty tired already, but the team-up with Sub-Mariner puts a new spin on things. My favorite part was how Hulk and Namor immediately plan to betray and destroy each other the second they beat the Avengers.

Random observations:
• Iron Man has upgraded to a better looking red & gold suit, but the helmet still needs work.
• Wasp’s main role continues to be panting over men, particularly Thor.
• Hulk first fights the Avengers in the American Southwest, and he gets away by hiding in a truck loaded with gravel. That gets dumped in some body of water. Next thing you know the Hulk is in…. the Atlantic Ocean? How far was that truck going to dump a load of rocks into the sea?

Previous Issue: Avengers #2

Next Issue: Avengers #4

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #2

Avengers (1963-1996) #2 Avengers (1963-1996) #2 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We’re only in the second issue and already Hank Pym has shifted from Ant-Man to Giant-Man, and the Hulk has quit. Things move fast in these early Marvel comics!

An alien creep named the Space Phantom comes to Earth, and starts immediately causing trouble by using his power to imitate someone while sending the original into some kind of limbo. The catch is he can only do one at a time and the other person gets returned which is kind of an interesting twist on the ole shapeshifter thing.

More ‘60s fun with Kirby and Lee.

Random observations:
• I don’t blame Hulk for quitting because all the other Avengers are real jerks to him.
• Wasp continues to be boy crazy.
• It already seems ridiculous that nobody figures out that Tony Stark is Iron Man or that Dr. Donald Blake is Thor.

Previous Issue: Avengers #1

Next Issue: Avengers #3

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Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #1

Avengers (1963-1996) #1 Avengers (1963-1996) #1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The death of Stan Lee a few months back got me thinking about the old school Marvel comics so I decided to take advantage of my Marvel Unlimited subscription to go back and read some of the oldies.

Loki makes it look like the Hulk is rampaging as part of a plan to trap Thor, but he doesn't count on other heroes like Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp showing up as well. The good guys win and decide to form a new super-team called Avengers. (Why? Because it's the first name Wasp throws out there, and it sounds pretty cool.)

It's pretty silly compared to modern comics, but there's Jack Kirby art and the hammy charm of Lee's melodramatic prose even if the dated elements like Wasp rhapsodizing about how handsome Thor is while Ant-Man berates her for being a silly woman don't play very well. Nor does a reference to dumping atomic waste in the ocean for disposal, but it was the '60s so why not? Iron Man's clumsy gold suit also looks pretty bad, but I think that improves quickly.

Next Issue: Avengers #2

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Review: Black Mountain

Black Mountain Black Mountain by Laird Barron
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

A former Mafia hit man turned private detective hunts down a serial killer who also used to moonlight as a mob hit man? Man, I really wanted to love this book. Sadly, I didn’t.

Isaiah Coleridge was introduced to us in Blood Standard, and to say that his backstory is complex is an understatement. He used to make his home in Alaska where he worked as a top notch killer for the Outfit, but after he had a bloody falling out with one of the bosses Isaiah was exiled to in upstate New York. Determined to leave his old ways behind Isaiah has become a private detective, but he also doesn’t mind jobs where his skills as an enforcer might come in handy. He also has to maintain a delicate relationship with the local mobsters so when one of them comes to him with an ugly job Isaiah is in no position to refuse.

Two of the local thugs have been murdered in gruesome ways, and the boss wants to know if they’re connected and who might be behind it. Isaiah reluctantly begins to check out it out and quickly learns that a legendary hit man long thought retired or dead might be behind it. It also turns out that this guy’s hobby when not killing people for money was killing people for fun. If the mob connections weren’t bad enough it also seems like this man might have ties to the military and there’s some very rich people in the mix as well. Despite his plate being pretty full Isaiah also has taken on a gig trying to protect a local woman from a family of thugs because she's dating the ex of one of them.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? And it is. Frankly, it’s too much. This was my problem with the first book, too. There’s a great concept with an ex-mob hit man trying to kinda go straight but getting tangled up in bloody messes. However, everything has to get so complicated that it all gets bogged down as Isaiah just pinballs from one thing to the next. The core story of an ex-hit man hunting a legendary ex-hit man is great, but the bad guy can’t just be an insane serial killer too. He also has to be wrapped up in a vast conspiracy that is pretty ridiculous so I guess mob killer/serial killer just wasn’t enough.

And that’s kind of the problem to all of it. Barron has good ideas and is a capable writer, but he just never knows when to stop adding layers to the cake and focus on shaping the elements he already has into something edible. Eventually it just collapses on itself from it's own weight. For example, the big subplot in this book is dumped to the back burner and is pretty much resolved with a couple of sentences late in the book as action that we don't see. So it was just a distraction in an already overstuffed book.

There’s the core of a really cool character and series here, but it took too much effort for me to dig it out. More bloody violence and less plot, please.

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Review: Tiamat's Wrath

Tiamat's Wrath Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of this series the very first sentence will break your heart.

Do things get better after that? Let’s see what one of the characters has to say about the possibility of good things happening after bad things:

”Sometimes it’s just one shit sandwich after another.”

Truth.

So yeah, there are a couple of moments in this that absolutely suck if you’re invested in these characters. That’s not to say that all hope is lost, and that there aren’t some good fist-pumping “Hell yeah!” moments. There are plenty, but there is a steep price to pay for them. It’s still worth it though.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about this one. It’s nigh on impossible to talk about the eighth book in a nine book series without spoiling the previous ones so I’m just going to once again urge that any sci-fi/space opera fans try this if they haven’t already. Oh, and the TV show based on it that is now on Amazon Prime is well worth watching, too.

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Review: The Border

The Border The Border by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. So maybe America should start questioning its ‘war on drugs’ which is almost 50 years old now?

Nah. Let’s just keep doing the same thing we always have. It’s gotta work eventually.

Art Keller’s story began in The Power of the Dog when he was a young DEA agent dispatched to Mexico in the ‘70s. There he got into a feud with Adán Barrera who becomes one of the most powerful cartel kingpins, and their bloody fight would go on for years. Keller’s efforts to bring him to justice were complicated by the US’s covert support of the drug trade to fund anti-communist operations in Central and South America. The war between Keller and Barrera goes on past the turn of the century in The Cartel when a power struggle in Mexico leads to stunning levels of violence and corruption.

Now America’s dependence on opioids has created an expanding market for heroin and fentanyl, and Keller has been appointed head of the DEA to try and stem the tide. Keller’s strategy is to adopt a more tolerant attitude to low-level users and dealers while going after the high level money men profiting from the trade. Unfortunately, a loud-mouthed presidential candidate accuses him of being soft on crime while pointing the finger at illegal immigration and Mexican government corruption, and Keller has to beware of right wingers in his own agency trying to sabotage him.

Then Keller gets evidence indicating that the candidate’s son-in-law is about to launder hundreds of millions of dollars in cartel money under the guise of a real estate deal, but just trying to investigate it will mean being smeared by the alt-right even as he fears that the cartels have just bought the White House. Meanwhile, there’s another vicious war for control of the drug trade going on in Mexico, and host of people like a small time junkie, an undercover cop, the son of a slain DEA agent, a young boy fleeing gang violence in his own country, and a retired hit man are all caught up in the chaos in various ways.

Don Winslow has been researching and writing about the Mexican drug trade for years now, and he’s got a lot to say about the ultimate futility of trying to stop it with cops. He’s also not shy about pointing out the hypocrisy of how America is the biggest customer of this trade while blaming other countries like Mexico for it. Winslow’s trilogy makes these social and political points while also delivering an epic crime tale with Art Keller at its center. These aren’t just entertaining books, they feel like important books.

Unfortunately, this one was a little hard for me to read because it all too accurately mirrors current events with the character of John Dennison, a liar/ racist/ fraud/ criminal/ asshole who somehow becomes president of the United States that was obviously created as a stand-in for the real thing. For the purposes of this book Winslow has shifted the dirty dealings from Russian oligarchs to Mexican drug lords, but honestly, if we found out that the orange shitbag had taken cartel money, would anyone really be surprised?

Since reality is such a bummer these days it made reading this even more depressing than the other books. It’s relevant and good, but it is tough to read a fictional version of America destroying itself in ways that are really happening.

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Monday, April 1, 2019

Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 4

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 4 Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 4 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, good. Venom is here...*sigh*

Yeah, I know so many people love the symbiote that a movie featuring just him can be a huge hit so this was inevitable, but he's never done all that much for me. Plus, the version here seems kind of flat with so little done with the host that he's pretty bland and boring as far as murderous creatures go. Plus, I'm not super thrilled with Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy showing up as part of Miles' support staff. It makes sense to have them there to help pass the torch, but they did that already. Having them still in the book ties Miles into Peter Parker's story even more, and I'm itching for more Miles, less Parker legacy now. Which is another reason that I don't much like having Venom here at all. How about a brand new arch enemy for Miles not based on Peter's time as Spider-Man?

Still, I continue to love the stuff with Miles struggling to be Spider-Man, and I enjoyed Detective Maria Hill's role in this one. It does end on a huge moment, too. That stuff is keeping me engaged fully even while I'm nitpicking.

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