Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Review: Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Amnesia in SPAAAACCCEEEEE!!!

A man wakes up from an extended induced coma on-board a spaceship alongside two corpses, and he no idea of who he is or how he got there. As he explores the ship, he slowly begins to get his memory back and realizes that he’s Ryland Grace, the sole survivor of a desperate mission to reach another solar system and hopefully find the answers to save Earth from a cosmic catastrophe. With only a sketchy idea of how the ship works Ryland must rely on basic science and improvisation to try and accomplish his mission, but he’ll find more than a few surprises waiting for him when he reaches his destination.

Since The Martian was such a sensation I think Andy Weir is doomed to be one of those authors whose later work is always compared to his debut, and there’s no doubt of some similarities here. The most obvious one is that they both feature smart and funny main characters being alone and having to science the shit out of what they have on hand to get the job done. In fact, it’d be easy to see this as just flipping The Martian’s plot because in it you had pretty much the entire world banding together to save one isolated man, and Project Hail Mary is about one isolated man trying to save the entire world.

However, while it seems at first that both books are working off the same template, Weir only relies on that hook for a while before seriously changing things up and getting very creative. In fact, I suspect that some fans of The Martian are going to dislike this because of how it seems to start out in that near-future type of hard sci-fi that the mainstream is quicker to accept, but then it takes a hard turn into weirder concepts.

I don’t want to say too much because I feel like this is one that benefits from going in knowing as little as possible. Rest assured that even when things get strange that Weir still relies on a funny narrator working off a foundation of real science so that it stays grounded and relatable.

It also has a couple of really good twists, and actually ends up being a far more moving book than I thought it would be. It’s not as good as The Martian because part of the appeal was Weir’s ability to make science entertaining, but now that's part of his brand so it doesn't feel as new and inventive as it did before. It's still a supremely entertaining book that blends a realistic approach with sci-fi and comes up with something that again feels fresh.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

Review: Hidden Prey

Hidden Prey Hidden Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a top agent for Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas Davenport has mastered the art of introducing himself to local law enforcement so that they won’t resent him as an outsider coming in to tell them how to do their job:

The cop who’d followed Lucas in said, “Hey, when I’m talking to you…”

Lucas pointed his finger at him and snarled, “Shut the fuck up. Who’s running this clown factory?”


As a plain-clothes cop, Lucas is also well aware of the danger of running across other police officers during a pursuit and the proper way to identify himself:

Both the cops were screaming at him and Lucas shouted, “BCA, you dumb motherfuckers,” and finally one of the cops waved a hand at his partner and said, “Put the gun in the street.”

“Fuck you,” Lucas yelled back. “My hands are over my head, I’m not touching the gun again because you dumb motherfuckers’ll shoot me sure as shit.”


Lucas can also demonstrate his gift of diplomacy and calm persuasion when dealing with a reluctant witness who is in danger but still refuses to reveal anything about the criminal enterprise he’s involved in:

The sat in silence for a moment, and then Lucas said, “Well, fuck ya. We told ya.”

As these quotes show, Lucas is a little grumpy in this one. Despite everything going well on the personal front, he’s chafing a bit at the blatant political nature of his new state job as the governor’s guy who ‘fixes shit’, and he’s also starting to worry that being surrounded by violent death for over twenty years has started to take a toll.

But when a Russian is killed at a dock on Lake Superior, the international pressure demands some kind of solution so Lucas finds himself teamed up with a pretty woman sent from Moscow to observe the investigation. Nadya claims to be a Russian cop, but Lucas is pretty sure she’s actually an intelligence agent and her agenda may be different from his. The FBI is also sniffing around, but they’re far more worried about terrorists than revisiting the Cold War. Lucas cares little about the ‘spy shit’, but he does get irked when more bodies start dropping all over Minnesota.

The spy angle and Davenport’s dissatisfaction with the job are a departure from the usual Prey books, but a grumpy Lucas is also a funny Lucas. Sandford has been making noises about ending the series for some time, but this as the first clear idea in the books that Lucas might be thinking about quitting law enforcement for good. Since there’s been about 10 more books since then, he apparently got over it although Sandford still talks about wrapping up Lucas’ story at some point.

This one also features another interesting twist on the villain with a Soviet era spy who is still a true believer in Communism and has raised his grandson to follow in his murderous footsteps. It’s another good step away from the typical serial killer we usually get in thrillers.

Next: Lucas goes to the nut house in Broken Prey.


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Friday, March 12, 2021

Review: Ocean Prey

Ocean Prey Ocean Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

Ocean Spray? What kind of a name is that for a book? What’s it about? The history of the drink? Or is it a biography of the guy who made the viral video of him skateboarding and drinking Ocean Spray while he lip synced that Fleetwood Mac song? I mean, that was cool and all, but how are you gonnna do a whole book about… What’s that? It’s not Ocean SPRAY, but instead it’s Ocean PREY? Well, that sounds like a John Sandford title. Oh. It is a John Sandford novel.

That makes a lot more sense.

A Coast Guard patrol runs across what appears to be drug runners doing a pick-up of previously submerged dope out of the ocean using a scuba diver off the coast of Miami. A shootout ensues that leaves several Coast Guard guys dead while the bad guys got away. Months later the FBI and local cops still have no clue as to who was behind it, and the prevailing theory is that there’s still a fortune in drugs waiting to be picked up once the heat dies down.

US Marshal Lucas Davenport gets asked to join the investigation by one of his political patrons in DC, and he quickly starts leaning on local dealers trying to get a lead on who might have been involved with the drug ring. As usual in a Davenport case, things start to get sticky, and when Lucas needs more help he turns to his old buddy, Virgil Flowers (a/k/a That fuckin’ Flowers.) to help him crack the case.

I’ve written so many Sandford reviews that I can’t think of a single new thing to say about why this one is another great crime thriller from one of my favorites in the genre. As usual, there’s solid plotting and tension mixed with just enough real world verisimilitude regarding police work and the political factors behind it to make it feel grounded and believable despite a plot that could easily turn into an action movie from the ‘80s. All the things I love about Sandford’s novels are on display here.

However, there are some very different things in this one. For one, ever since Sandford shifted Davenport from a Minnesota state cop to a US Marshal, he’s been sending Lucas on assignments across the country, and that has enabled him to do some different things with this series while still sticking to the parts that made it popular to begin with. Moving from typically land locked Midwestern settings to a Florida one that has a lot to do with boats and scuba diving makes it feel like Sandford is doing new things rather than just repeating himself.

That’s just the window dressing though, and the biggest difference from previous Prey novels comes in the structure itself. In the past, Lucas was the star of the these books, and then there was the spin-off series featuring Virgil Flowers as the lead. They existed in the same universe with some crossover between them, but generally one of the characters was the focus with the other being a supporting player. However, in this Lucas is the focus in the first third with Virgil taking over the next part, and the last act shifts between them both.

I assume that this is because Sandford has said that he’s only going to do the Prey series from now on, and it seems like he’s folding Virgil into Davenport’s story much like Robert Crais began splitting time between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. That gives this book a hybrid feel in that it doesn’t entirely seem like a Davenport novel, and yet it’s not exactly Virgil’s book either.

It’s a little odd. Not bad, just different. Sandford is in his late 70s now, and he’s written about 50 novels after a career as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. If he had decided to retire completely, he’d have more than earned the right to do so at this point. So if I can get some more of his novels because he’s cutting his work load and figuring out a way to combine his two most popular characters in one series, you won’t hear me complaining about it.

Aside from all that, if someone had never read another Sandford book and just picked this one up, I think they’d find it an entertaining crime novel with some great twists as well as an interesting premise with the angle of the bad guys trying to find a way to retrieve a fortune in drugs from the ocean.

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Review: The Queen's Gambit

The Queen's Gambit The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s too bad that this book has been so forgotten. If only somebody would do a really good TV adaptation of it then….What’s that? Oh. Never mind.

After her mother dies Beth Harmon is sent to an orphanage, and it’s just as much fun as that sounds. However, she manages to get by thanks to daily doses of tranquilizers they give to all the girls, and she discovers a natural talent for chess thanks to a gruff janitor who reluctantly teaches her the game. Beth is eventually adopted by a less than ideal couple, but she finally manages to make her way to chess tournaments where she’s an instant sensation despite her fondness for her little green pills and a growing taste for booze. As she grows into adulthood she tries to become a player capable of beating the Soviet grand master who is the world champion, but Beth’s personal demons always threaten to overwhelm her as she struggles to live up to her full potential.

The amazing thing about this story is that it sounds like it could be pure misery porn, but it really isn’t. Yes, the lead is an orphan who has a very hard life in many ways including coping with addictions. Yet author Walter Tevis manages to keep the story from feeling grim, even when the circumstances really are.

I think this is because he’s more interested in how Beth reacts and copes with her problems rather than just dwelling on the ugliness of them. Even when she hits rock bottom and goes on an extended bender, we don’t wallow in the seedy picture of a young lady doing her best to drink herself into oblivion. Instead, by being in her head we see how she slides into this pattern because she doesn’t know how to deal with her issues rather than being some kind of narcissistic exercise in self-destruction.

Another thing Beth has to resolve is that the very nature of chess and studying it often means she spends a lot of time alone and in her own head which as a socially awkward person is how she often likes it, but she also has abandonment issues and also doesn’t really want to be alone. Since she’s her own worst enemy this is often a recipe for disaster. Plus, there’s been some chess masters who had mental health problems so for a woman who has her own issues, she’s uneasy about how going deep into the game might not be the best thing for her.

At the heart of the entire story is what it means to be a genius at anything. Beth has a natural talent that allows her to achieve a lot without much training, but because it’s all been easy for her she has to learn how to apply herself if she wants to become the world champion. When it’s been easy to be the best, it’s often hard to dig in and take the next step because talent will only get you so far in any field. When things get tougher, failure is always a possibility, and if there’s one thing Beth is frightened of, it’s failure.

Tevis also manages to make chess interesting in this. Like a lot of people, I know how to play, but I have no particular talent for it. His accounts of Beth’s games and study of it provide a glimpse into what it must be like to be a player at that level, and I actually found myself looking up some famous chess games and finding them fascinating.

It’s an extremely well written and sympathetic portrait of a woman struggling with her past and her talent. I’d already seen the Netflix show based on it, and it’s pretty faithful so there were no real surprises. Yet, I still found myself getting anxious about Beth and how she was doing both in her chess matches and in her life all over again.


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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Review: Safe Houses

Safe Houses Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Safe Houses?!? More like DANGER HOUSES!!

*ahem*

It’s 1979 in West Berlin and Helen Abell is an aspiring CIA agent. However, thanks to sexism she has been relegated to managing the agency’s safe houses in the city rather than doing any field work. Determined to prove herself, Helen is going the extra mile by checking out one of the houses after hours when she accidently overhears two incidents. One is just strange, but the other is criminal. Helen soon finds both her career and her life at risk, and she finds herself using her spy training against her own people to save herself and expose the truth. The repercussions of what happens in Germany in 1979 are felt in a small town in Maryland 35 years later with a brutal double murder, and a confused young woman seeking answers with the help of an investigator who has his own secrets.

This was a freebie I picked up Bouchercon back in the Before Times, and it’d been sitting in the To-Read pile ever since. I’m glad that I finally picked it up because the story that mixes some Cold War era espionage stuff along with the vibe of a modern crime thriller with some conspiracy theory vibes was familiar enough to be comforting, but different enough to keep me guessing.
I particularly liked what the author did with Helen by making her feel fully fleshed out as bright and ambitious, but also extremely pragmatic and often frustrated with her situation. She makes for a great lead in the 1979 portion of the book.

It’s a satisfying mix of the spy and crime genres, and the investigation portion has plenty of good twists and turns as well although I can’t say much because of spoilers. Overall, it's a solid page turner that kept me engaged the entire time.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Review: The Future Is Yours

The Future Is Yours The Future Is Yours by Dan Frey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Imagine if you could see what was in the news a year from now? Considering how the last year is gone, I’d guess it would be more than any sane person could bear.

Adhi Chaudry and Ben Boyce became friends in college even though they couldn’t be more different. Adhi is an introvert and a brilliant computer engineer. Ben is a charismatic salesman type who dreams of making it big. When Adhi develops a theory that would use quantum computing to enable a PC to show data from one year in the future, Ben immediately sees it is an opportunity to start a company that will make Apple and Amazon look like small potatoes. In fact, they even get confirmation that this is what they will do once Adhi gets the machine working and they look ahead a year to see that their corporation, The Future, has made them rich even before they start selling everyone their own machine. There are troubling aspects to the technology, but with the knowledge of what they will do in hand, Ben and Adhi press on even as problems pile up and begin to take a toll on their friendship.

There’s a lot I liked about this clever sci-fi book, and one of the best things was that it's epistolary novel told in texts, emails, and transcripts that bounce around from Ben’s testimony told in front of a congressional hearing just before The Future starts selling the machines to the public to flashbacks about how it all came about. It’s not just a clever gimmick either because there’s actually a reason why it’s told this way that becomes clear late in the book.

The idea of the glimpsing ahead to the future via a quantum computer was also intriguing and very well done. It could have been a concept that came across as wonky or even magical, but Adhi’s theory along with the development process grounds it more than enough to seem feasible.

Once the set-up is established, author Dan Frey then does some very nice work in a way that shows he thought through the implications of this technology even if his main characters haven’t. Adhi and Ben do a few tests that convince them that the future cannot be changed by them knowing the future. Although Adhi is more cautious we see how Ben’s enthusiasm blows past any notions that this is a bad idea.

This is where Frey’s themes become clear, and it couldn’t be more timely than this moment when social media companies who made fortunes by allowing anyone to say pretty much whatever they want have now been forced to reckon with the consequences because it turns out there’s a lot of people who are shameless opportunists who will lie constantly, and there’s even more people ready to swallow everything they say.

That’s why Ben’s character really struck me because he talks a good game about how letting everyone share the information about the future makes for a fair and level playing field and that it would actually make the world better. Yet, the story also shows time and again how he uses that argument to beat down rational concerns and criticisms about the technology he’s trying to sell and how much responsibility he bears for it. Sound like any tech billionaires you know?

Frey uses this to turn what could be the book’s biggest plot hole into a strength. Because if Adhi and Ben can see the future, why wouldn’t they just keep it secret and play the stock market to get rich without taking the tech public and open the Pandora’s Box of letting everyone see the immediate future?

Part of the answer is that it isn’t enough to just be rich, they want to become famous as world changers like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. Or at least that’s Ben dream, and he can persuade Adhi that it’s his too. Which means they have to let the public know about it so the excuses about doing it for the good of the world start up. Plus, they know that they’ve already done it by looking ahead so why worry about it? They’ve set up a logic loop that demands that they do this even as the warning signs start flashing faster and faster.

On top of all this, it reads like any of those real stories about how some friends started a business, made it big, and then when disagreements come about it, everything falls apart. As you read their emails and texts you can see the cracks starting to form, and there’s a real sense of impending doom because readers can see what’s happening even if they can’t. This has impact because Frey built a real and believable bond between Adhi and Ben so that I was still rooting for these guys even as I was thinking that this was all a terrible idea.

Combine all this with a fantastic ending, and you’ve got one of the better sci-fi books that has extremely relevant themes.

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Friday, December 4, 2020

Review: Whoop! Whoop!

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! by Icy Thug Nutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of crime novels start with things like a gorgeous dame walking into a hard boiled private detective’s office or a world weary cop being called to a brutal crime scene. This one kicks off with a guy thinking his dick has exploded and then later throwing a tray of human feces into another man’s face at a MacDonald’s.

Hey, it’s called Whoop! Whoop!, and the lead character is a Juggalo. It isn’t like I was expecting it to be The Maltese Falcon going into it.

Magnetz is a guy living in Phoenix who can’t hold a job, and he’s pretty much a professional dumbass. The only things he’s got going for him is his adorable young daughter, and his love of the band Insane Clown Posse has given him a family among their dedicated fans, the Juggalos. After a lifetime of bad choices, Magnetz tops himself when he tries to pull a revenge prank and accidentally throws his own crap into another man’s face. Unfortunately, Magnetz got the wrong guy, and the person he shit spackled turns out to be a blood thirsty ex-cop named Murda Killa who just got out of prison, and now Magnetz has to flee for his life and try to find a way out of the mess he created as Murda Killa hunts him.

I’m not a fan of ICP, and I’d generally agree with the idea that a person who throws a bunch of feces on another person pretty much deserves whatever they get. So why read a book that asks me to sympathize with a Juggalo poop flinger? A little bird told me that the author Icy Thug Nutz is actually Johnny Shaw, and that’s a guy I actually trust to tell a story like this and make it funny instead of just gross. Although in fairness, it is pretty gross.

Still Shaw has the knack of writing stupid people doing stupid, disgusting things and making it entertaining. That’s exactly what he’s done here with this fast paced farce, and at a time when I needed some laughs it hit the spot. Even with all the gross insanity going on in this book, Shaw manages to give Magnetz some emotional depth so that you actually do feel bad for the big doofus even if the whole situation was his own fault.

It’s a little odd to read this after Shaw’s last book The Southland, which was a very serious and mature novel that dug into the world of undocumented Mexican workers being exploited in the US. It shows that he’s the kind of writer who can a lot of different things, and he does them all well.

Public Service Announcement: I got a free copy of this for review, and I'm told that it isn't for sale on Amazon. If anyone is interested it can be found on the publisher's website.


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