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.”


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 Ad├ín 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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Friday, March 29, 2019

Review: Captain Marvel, Volume 3: Alis Volat Propriis

Captain Marvel, Volume 3: Alis Volat Propriis Captain Marvel, Volume 3: Alis Volat Propriis by Kelly Sue DeConnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The adventures of Captain Marvel in SPAAAAACCCEEE continue… At least for a while.

After returning to her ship Carol finds that it's been trashed and that her friend Tic and beloved cat flerken have been taken by pirates. Getting them back requires a dangerous journey across a wonky patch of space. Then there’s some crap about that Black Vortex crossover that I could care less about. And then we get the big finale with Carol returning to Earth, but her homecoming is bittersweet.

The first part of this with Carol chasing the pirates was pretty good and had kind of a Star Trek feel to it. (In fact, there’s an idea in there that makes me wonder if some of the creators on Star Trek: Discovery hadn’t read this and *ahem* borrowed it.) The crossover storyline issue is pure trash. It makes no sense if you hadn’t read the rest of it. Hell, I read some of the Black Vortex stuff, and I still don’t know or care what was going on here with it. Finally, Carol’s return home had some good emotional heft and provides a fitting ending to this particular run of the title. (Seriously, Marvel, do we have to change the volumes every 15 minutes?)

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 3

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 3 Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 3 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Marvel comic book is in the middle of an excellent run of stories only to be sidetracked by a huge crossover? Who could have seen that coming? Other than anyone who has read Marvel since the first Secret Wars, I mean…

The first part of this is excellent as young Miles is being blackmailed by his Uncle Aaron (a/k/a The Prowler) into helping him take out the Scorpion so that he can take control of New York’s super underworld. Peter Parker was certainly a lot luckier in the uncle department. Then the crossover kicks in, and the next thing you know Miles is going off to war with the Ultimates to try and save the United States from Hydra.

The crazy thing of it is that I didn’t entirely hate the big war storyline. The Miles character arc is so strong and well done that even when he’s dragged into some other huge happenings it still feels very much like a continuation of his on-going efforts to be Spider-Man. And he’s getting pretty good at it.

So 3 stars for an excellent first half and a second part that wasn’t nearly as awful as it could have been.

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Friday, March 8, 2019

Review: Neon Prey

Neon Prey Neon Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. And if what happens is that you get eaten by a cannibal while there you'll definitely be staying in Vegas.

Clayton Deese was an enforcer/hired killer for a loan shark in New Orleans who gets arrested after one of his jobs go wrong. Since Deese has a lot of skeletons in his closet he jumps bail and disappears. Actually, the skeletons are in graves behind his house, and Deese had a habit of cutting prime cuts off his victims and throwing them on the grill. Once that grisly discovery has been made Deese is the country’s most notorious fugitive, and US Marshal Lucas Davenport is brought in to help track him down.

Deese has hooked up with his brother who is running a nasty home invasion crew that Lucas tracks from Los Angeles to Las Vegas as the trail keeps getting bloodier. There’s also a complication that Deese’s old boss is worried that he’ll flip on him if caught so he’s trying to either kill him or make sure he gets out of the country.

This is the 29th book of the Prey series, and it’s got all the usual stuff. The plotting is tight with multiple characters all working their own agendas, the tension builds nicely to some big moments, and we get to hang out with Davenport as he uses a mix of deduction, manipulation, and intimidation to find the bad guys. Sandford even throws a pretty wicked curve ball at the reader about a quarter of the way into the book that literally made me sit up and curse aloud in shock when it happened. Lucas’ new role as a marshal continues to be interesting, and the Vegas setting is used well as the kind of place where trying to follow a suspect through the maze of a casino is a challenge.

However, it doesn’t quite hit the peaks of the series at its best. There’s some great set-up of Deese as a people-eatin’ leg-breaker, but more time is actually spent with other members of the home invasion crew so that he doesn’t come across as the best of the Prey bad guys. It’s a little disappointing that more isn’t done with the cannibal angle. (What? If I read a book where I’m told the villain eats people then I expect somebody to get eaten. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not the only person who watched Hannibal.) In fact, it’s more used for shock factor and almost a running gag than anything. The twist that we get early on doesn’t really amount to much either at the end of the day and is kind of quickly forgotten.

Still, it’s John Sandford so it’s a pretty satisfying thriller that will keep you turning pages even if it isn’t Lucas’s most memorable case.

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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review: A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself

A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

A mob widow, her granddaughter, and a retired porn star go on the run with two bags of cash, and a hammer wielding psychopath hot on their trail.

If that sentence doesn’t sell you on this book then I don’t know what would.

Rena Ruggiero has been living a quiet, lonely life ever since her mobster husband was murdered in front of their house in Brooklyn. After an elderly neighbor gets too aggressive in making an advance on her, Rena clocks him with an ashtray and takes his car. In a panic, Rena goes to see her estranged daughter, Adrienne, thinking that she can finally reconnect with her and the granddaughter, Lucia, she hasn’t seen in years. When her hopes of a reconciliation are instantly crushed Rena meets Adrienne's neighbor, Lacey Wolfstein. Wolfstein starred in a lot of porn movies back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then she moved on to hustling old men for cash. Now she has a sack of money stashed in the wall of her house as she spends her golden years drinking vodka and watching old movies.

Things go sideways after Adrienne's mobbed up boyfriend and an old victim of Wolfstein’s both show up at the same time with their own agendas, and Rena, Wolfstein, and Lucia have to flee with Wolfstein’s retirement fund. Their stolen Cadillac also has a briefcase full of stolen mob money and a machine gun in the trunk.

William Boyle’s two novels, Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, quickly made me a fan of his, and this one is an early contender for my favorite of 2019. While the other two are loosely connected and focus heavily on the their Brooklyn setting, this is more of a plot based crime novel with incredibly well developed and offbeat characters. It reminded me a lot of Elmore Leonard at his best, and that’s just about the highest praise I can give a book.

Boyle’s characters frequently act irrationally which makes sense because they do really seem like people instead of characters. However, since this one is more plot heavy that came across as a bit more frustrating because those actions continue to drive the plot. Lucia, in particular, was irritating as hell at times, but on the other hand, she’s a teenager. So it makes sense.

That’s a relatively minor nitpick in an otherwise great book. Wolfstein, in particular, was incredibly fun as this pragmatic woman with a wild history who is also incredibly compassionate and empathetic. I’d love to read an entire novel that was about her younger days as a porn star and grifter. His portrayal of Rene is also very well done as a woman whose whole world was her marriage, her kitchen, and her church, and who know finds herself struggling to figure out who she wants to be from now on. Their odd couple friendship is at the heart of this story, and it’s compelling reading.

A friend may be the gift you give yourself, but you could also give yourself the gift of reading this book.

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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review: The Sweet Forever

The Sweet Forever The Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s the spring of ’86 in Washington D.C. and while Reagan may technically be in charge of the country, cocaine is ruling the streets.

Marcus Clay is trying to run the record stores he owns and catch as many of the college basketball tournament games as possible on TV. Unfortunately, the record business could be better, he and his wife are separated, and his best friend and employee Dimitri Karras has a growing coke habit. When a drug runner wrecks his car right outside one of Marcus’ shops somebody snatches the money out of the car before the cops show up, and that kicks off a series of events that eventually find Marcus and Dimitri mixed up with drug dealers and dirty cops.

This is set 10 years after King Suckerman which also featured Marcus and Dimitri, but much like that one this isn’t just their story. In fact, they’re almost supporting players in this although much of it is filtered to us through their experiences. As always, Pelecanos manages to create an authentic sense of time and place by constantly working in the music, clothes, cars, and television shows of the time, but those are just the details. Where he really shines in telling us what it’s life is like for these characters whether it’s Dimitri going out for a drug fueled night of partying or a dirty cop struggling to deal with his wife’s mental health issues.

The story of the money is the connective thread that makes this a crime novel, but what Pelecanos is really doing is telling us the story of D.C. at a certain time and place. There’s a sense of impending doom over this one with many characters noting how the drugs and street crime are taking over the city, and crack was on the horizon. Pelecanos has characters casually mention rumors that the mayor is a drug addict as well as a local basketball star which are hints at how much worse things will get if you’re familiar with their true stories.

This is Pelecanos following his usual template, and he was already very good at using that to write compelling stories.

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Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: Gravesend

Gravesend Gravesend by William Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you live in a neighborhood called Gravesend you should probably expect things to be kind of depressing, but damn…

Ray Boy Calabrese is being released from prison after sixteen years for causing the death of Conway’s brother, and Conway wants revenge. Meanwhile, Conway’s old school classmate Alessandra has returned home from LA following the death of her mother, and Ray Boy’s nephew Eugene has heard all the stories about his bad ass uncle and dreams of being a neighborhood legend like him.

I’d read William Boyle’s excellent The Lonely Witness without realizing that it’s a follow-up novel to this one, and while they can be read as self-contained stories I wish I’d read this first because it does add some layers to it. Better late than never though, and this one is just as good, maybe even better in some ways, than that one.

This isn’t the kind of crime novel that the set-up makes it sound like. It’s much more of a Richard Price style of thing with the characters and place being far more important than the plot or action. Boyle does an exceptionally good job at establishing this Brooklyn neighborhood which feels more like a small town then a part of New York in many ways. The characters are all extremely well-done, and all of them feel like confused and sad human beings rather than stereotypes in a book which they easily could have been.

That’s two books from Boyle that I thought were top-notch, and I can’t wait to get to the third which is being released soon.

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Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 2

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 2 Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 2 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mile Morales has only been Spider-Man for a few days, but he’s already finding out that being a masked superhero is a complicated business. Especially since his shady super-villain uncle has figured out who the new Spidey is.

This is pretty much set-up for what’s to come, but it’s very well done. Miles continues to be an engaging character that you can’t help but like as he struggles at learning how to do the whole Spider-Man thing. There’s also some intriguing groundwork laid for future stories with things like J. Jonah Jameson seeing a new masked vigilante to vilify while Aunt May and Gwen Stacy are shocked to see someone else taking on Peter’s old role.

There’s also some nice character work being done with Uncle Aaron in his role as the Prowler who uses a combination of blackmail and appealing to Miles’ desire to put some bad guys in jail to suit his own agenda. Miles has been told by his parents that Aaron is a bad guy, but now we’re starting to see it even if he can’t yet.

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Review: My Detective

My Detective My Detective by Jeffrey Fleishman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

I know the dating scene can be tough, but if you’ve resorted to murder as part of your plan to hook up with your dream guy then maybe you should give Tinder another try.

Sam Carver is a LAPD homicide detective working the case of a prominent architect who got his throat cut. What Sam doesn’t know is that the killer is a beautiful woman who is infatuated with him after she read a story about him in the local paper. Dylan Cross has scores to settle and romance with Sam on her mind so she’s come up with a plan to get her revenge while stalking him.

This is kind of an odd one. I guess I’ll call it character based crime fiction because it mainly shifts first person perspective from Sam to Dylan, and through this we get their history and personalities. Sam was a bit of bohemian in his younger days, playing in rock bands and backpacking around Europe before he settled into the role of detective which is due in no small part to being haunted by the memory of his father’s murder which was never solved. Dylan was a college tennis star and rising architect in an industry dominated by men. Both have an appreciation for the finer things like classical music and art. Thanks to Dylan they’re now linked together by murder.

And that’s kind of it. There’s not really much else going on other than Dylan killing a few people, Sam going over the evidence, and then they both brood about things. There’s not much detecting going on and very little action, either. It’s also awfully one sided with Dylan knowing everything about Sam thanks to her magical hacking ability and his habit of writing down all his thoughts and feelings on his computer.

This could have worked as a thriller with some crazy stalker getting obsessed with a detective and carrying out murders to create a bizarre connection between them, but here that’s undercut because Dylan isn’t full-on crazy town banana pants. She actually has very good reason for being angry with her victims, and the plot is designed to create sympathy for her. However, her fantasies about Sam undercut it as a revenge story, too.

I also had a hard time with the lack of reality with Sam’s role as a cop in this. Even though he’s a homicide detective in a huge city he only has one case he’s working on, and Sam somehow has enough juice to refuse to work with a partner instead of being told to shut up and quit being such a diva. He tells his lieutenant that he’s going to fly to New York to interview the ex-wife of the victim, and for some reason his boss doesn't tell him to use the phone and spare the budget. There’s the trope of the lieutenant complaining about how the mayor is on his ass because of the prominent nature of the victim. It’s also never explained how Dylan knows that Sam will be the detective who works the murder in the first place, but I guess since he's apparently the only police detective in LA that it was a safe assumption.

Despite all of this, there were things in this book I liked. It’s got a nice tone to the melancholy observations about LA and modern life, and both Sam and Dylan are interesting as characters. I just wish they’d found a few more interesting things to do in a more realistic and less TV-movie-of-the-week kind of way.

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Review: Taken

Taken Taken by Robert Crais
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I ever get kidnapped I want Joe Pike looking for me.

Private detective Elvis Cole gets hired to find a young woman because she dropped out of sight for a few days. The mother suspects that her daughter is with a boyfriend that she disapproves of, and that this is a case of college aged kids just off having some irresponsible fun. However, Elvis quickly figures out that the couple were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were swept up as part of scheme in which illegal immigrants crossing into the US are kidnapped and held for whatever ransom their loved ones can scrape together. Cole enlists the help of his partner Joe Pike and has a plan to locate the missing kids, but things go sideways and Cole ends up being held, too. With the help of a fellow mercenary Pike begins a methodical hunt for his friend.

This one has all the hallmarks of your typical Cole & Pike novel. Elvis runs around doing some clever detective work while Pike shows up at opportune moments to unleash hell, and Crais has mastered using that formula with these characters to deliver exciting crime/action novels. Unfortunately, I think Crais fell into a trap of his own making here that hurts the story.

It’s clear from the title and book jacket summary that Elvis is going to get kidnapped and that Pike will have to find him. I saw Crais in an interview at Bouchercon back in 2011 in which he mentioned that the book he was writing at that time involved Elvis being taken and Pike getting him back. So that’s obviously the hook he started with and built the novel around. It’s a good idea for a story so I understand why Crais committed to it early on.

However, to really do that idea then Elvis should probably get snatched by the end of the first act, and that means that rest of the story would be on Pike’s shoulders with Elvis being a supporting player. Crais has done that before in a couple of Pike-centric book so it shouldn’t be a problem, but for some reason he wanted Elvis to be a big part of this one doing his usual detective thing. So to keep the core idea of Elvis being kidnapped in place while still making him an active figure in the plot Crais structured the book so that it flash forwards to the point after Elvis has been taken with Pike on the hunt along with the parallel story of Elvis trying to find the woman.

The problem is that by telling us that Cole is going be kidnapped from the jump it just makes his story a foregone conclusion which robs it of its drama. At the same time even with the flash-forwards he doesn’t get the Pike on the hunt piece really moving until the third act. Since that’s the story I was told this book was about and because the structure keeps reminding me that it’s coming, I was kind of tapping my foot the entire time I was reading and just wishing that we’d get to the fireworks factory already.

I probably would have liked this better if Crais had just fully committed to Cole kidnapping plot and had it happen much sooner and told the story in a linear fashion. Or he could have sold this book as it just being another Cole/Pike case about them looking for a kidnapped woman and saved the Cole kidnapping as a plot turn at the end of the second act. Crais is pretty good at throwing unexpected twists in at times, and that could have been a real doozy. Then the third act could have been Pike’s relentless hunt to find his friend, and it would have been a lot tenser.

As it is, it felt like Crais really fell in love with that elevator pitch of “Cole gets taken. Pike has to find him.” But then he couldn’t bear to just let Cole play that role. So he tried to have his cake and eat it, too.

It’s still a pretty solid book in an entertaining series, but I still feel a little disappointed in the way it played out.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: Work Done for Hire

Work Done for Hire Work Done for Hire by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The only good thing about having a major snowstorm knock out power to your house for three days is that you can really catch up on your reading. Thankfully once the Kindle ran out of juice I still had a stack of stuff from the library as well as some recent purchases from a used book store to keep from thinking about how my toes were growing numb.

It’s the near future and America is still so tangled up in various conflicts overseas that the draft was re-instituted. Jack Daley was one of the reluctant citizens called to duty. Jack turned out to be a pretty good shot and was trained as a sniper and during his deployment he killed several people before being wounded and sent home. Despite some dark times thanks to his PTSD Jack has started building a career as a writer as well as enjoying his relationship with his girlfriend Kit.

Jack receives a chance to make some serious money by writing up a novelette based on the idea for a horror movie about an obese serial killer who might be an alien. The assignment comes from a famous film director who has the basic story concept but is looking to get it written up as a book to see if it would make a good film. With a potential fat payday on the line Jack throws himself into the work and is making good progress. That’s when he receives a mysterious package with a rifle inside it as well as a demand: If Jack follows instructions and uses the gun to kill a ‘bad man’ he’ll make a small fortune. If he refuses then Kit will be killed.

Since he doesn’t want to murder anyone Jack and Kit try to alert the authorities as well as make themselves impossible to find. However, they can’t get anyone to take them seriously, and the bad guys have an uncanny ability to keep tracking them down.

I’ve been a big fan of Joe Haldeman for some time, but his novel is hard to get a handle on. Even though the concept seems easy enough as a sci-fi thriller it takes a long time to get going. The first part is mainly about Jack’s life as he works on the book and goes on some bicycle trips as part of his research for it. We even get a chapter in which he meets Kit’s parents for the first time that really serves no purpose. There’s also the book-within-the-book with Jack’s chapter’s about a really gruesome serial killer doing his business. The rifle and the threat don’t even arrive until about halfway through a book that isn’t that long.

Even when we get to the aspect you’d think would be the conspiracy thriller it seems disjointed and low key with Jack and Kit kinda sorta trying to lay low, but there’s not really a sense of danger in any of it even when they get found. The ultimate resolution doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

So this book is a mess, but it’s an oddly fun mess. I really liked the character of Jack who is a funny guy just trying to live his life. Despite being a decent sniper in the army he’s not really a bad-ass, and as he points out several times he’s not a super assassin. He wasn’t even the best shot in his platoon, and he really doesn’t want to ever hurt anyone again.

Despite the plot not making a lick of sense and the book seeming kind of aimless overall, I had a pretty good time reading it just because I liked Haldelman’s story about this guy writing a serial killer story. Maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I had anything else to do, but it was fun enough when you’re huddled a blanket with no TV or heat.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 1

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 1 Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 1 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What's up, danger?

I’ve been meaning to read this title for years, but it took the utterly amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie to finally motivate me to get to it. And I’ve really been missing out.

The idea of a new Spider-Man could have been yet another cheap gimmick yet the old Marvel Ultimate universe allowed them to take some chances like killing off Peter Parker for realsies, and then introducing MIles Morales as the new kid under the mask. It turns out that actual consequences make for good drama in stories. Who knew?

Bendis did a great job of crafting a new character as well as coming up with a plot that mirrors the the classic Spider-Man origin story yet still has a fresh and original feel to it. Miles has many of the same qualities that Peter has, but he’s not just a clone of him. (Which is good because Spidey doesn’t have a great history with clones.)

I was also surprised to discover that the new Marvel movie version of Peter Parker pretty much lifted the idea of Miles’ best friend who knows his secret. Only steal from the best, even when stealing from yourself.

It’s a great take on Spider-Man, and I can’t wait to read more about Miles and his adventures.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: A Time to Scatter Stones: A Matthew Scudder Novella

A Time to Scatter Stones: A Matthew Scudder Novella A Time to Scatter Stones: A Matthew Scudder Novella by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

I’ve read several interviews with Lawrence Block where he’s talked about how there were multiple times in his career when he thought he would never do another story about private detective Matt Scudder, but then something would happen that would make Block bring him back. So I guess fans shouldn’t be surprised that Block had one more story to tell years after we thought Scudder was done.

Matt is retired and living happily with his wife Elaine. Even though Elaine left prostitution many years ago she joins a support group of women who have quit the life, and she’s become a kind of sponsor to a young lady who has a problem with a client that flatly refuses to accept that she’s no longer in business and begins aggressively stalking her. The problem is that he used a fake name so she has no clue who he is. Matt agrees to help, but even if he can find the guy the law isn’t very good about protecting women from obsessive men so stopping him is another problem.

Like many crime/mystery readers I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block and consider him one of the legends of the genre, and Matt Scudder is the bar by which I judge all other detective fiction with very few being close to the same level. So I was beyond excited to get the news about this new novelette being published. However, I was just a touch disappointed in this.

It’s still Block writing Scudder and much of what I love about the series is here. There’s some solid detective work to be done, and then Matt has to come up with a creative solution to a problem when he knows that there’s no way that the system will help this young lady. The core story and how it’s solved is Block doing what he does best without missing a beat.

Part of the appeal is Matt roaming around New York and getting into fun conversations with various folks that often have nothing at all to do with the case he’s working on. That’s here once again although with a bum knee now Matt doesn’t walk quite as much as he used to, many of his old haunts are gone now, and most of the people he knew in those stories are retired or dead.

That’s been a factor creeping into the last Scudder stories much like how life itself creeps up on all of us, and Matt’s aging in real time as New York has changed around him over the years is one of the points I enjoy about the series. However, a chunk of this book is reminding us of the people Matt used to know, and it’s kind of a bummer at this point. I was especially sad when conversation between Matt and Elaine reveals that they’ve fallen out of touch with TJ, the street kid who became a kind of surrogate son for them at one point in the series. And yeah, that’s life, but I always liked to think it was going to be TJ helping them out in their old age so it kind of hurts that he’s just drifted away from them apparently.

I also wasn’t thrilled with the ending to this after the central problem has been resolved. Back in 2011 Block released a new Scudder novel A Drop of the Hard Stuff as well as short story collection The Night & the Music that felt like the perfect goodbye. The story written just for that collection One Last Night at Grogan’s was especially fitting as Matt's swan song. Frankly, I found the conclusion here odd and off-putting, and it kinda spoiled that classy ending for me.

Still, it’s a new Matt Scudder story when I never thought I’d get another, and I am grateful to Lawrence Block for having him work one more case for us. I think in future rereads I’ll shift this around to still read One Last Night at Grogan’s as the last word from Matt.

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