Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: The Long Walk

The Long Walk The Long Walk by Richard Bachman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I kind of blame Stephen King for reality television.

That’s not fair because he certainly wasn't the first person to do stories about murderous games done as entertainment, and it’s not like he produced Survivor or Big Brother. However, two of the books he did under the Richard Bachman pen name before being outed are about death contests done to distract the masses in dystopian societies. So whenever I see an ad for those kinds of shows I can’t help but think that the people who make that trash read those books but saw them as great TV concepts rather than horrifying visions of the future.

The scenario here is that 100 teenage boys volunteer to be part of an annual event called The Long Walk. The rules are simple. You start walking and keep up a speed of 4 miles per hour. If you fall below that pace you get a few warnings. If you don’t get back up to speed immediately, you get shot. Easier than checkers, right? Here’s the real rub: You absolutely cannot stop. All 100 boys walk until 99 of them are killed. Last one still teetering around on whatever is left of their feet then wins the ultimate prize.

On the surface you could say that this concept that could seem silly or absurd. Why would anyone volunteer for this? Answering that question turns out to be one of the best parts of the book as King moves the walkers through stages while things get progressively worse for them on the road. What King tapped into here is that realization that deep down we all think we’re special, that things will always work out for us, and this is especially true when we’re teens with no real ideas about consequences and our own mortality.

While the story focuses on one character it really becomes about all of the walkers, and we get to know them through their conversations and how they deal with the death that is literally nipping at their heels. Eventually the grim reality of their situation sets in, and we also view how the boys react to realizing the true horror they signed up for. We also learn a bit about the world they live in, and it’s an interesting minor aspect established in a few stray bits that this is essentially some kind of alternate history where World War II played out somewhat differently.

I’d read this several times back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but hadn’t picked it up in the 21st century so it felt like there’s a dated element to the way that Long Walk functions. The boys essentially just show up in whatever clothes they have and they start walking with little fanfare. It almost seems like a contest at a county fair instead of something that captures the nation’s attention. There’s some explanation given about how they don’t want crowds or TV cameras around as distractions at the start until the walkers get settled into the routine.

However, that doesn’t seem to fit with the idea that the event is being orchestrated as a distraction and weird kind of motivational tool. If the story were told now there would be a lot more about the media coverage, and the whole thing would probably have a corporate sponsor. Plus, the walkers would have matching shoes and uniforms designed to look cool and keep them walking longer. They’d also probably have a more sophisticated method than soldiers with rifles and stopwatches dispatching the lollygaggers, too. This doesn’t hurt the story at all, though. Instead it gives the whole thing a kind of dated charm like watching a movie from the ‘70s where everyone is smoking and people have to wait by the phone.

One more note about Stephen King: The man really needs to have a spoiler warning branded on his forehead. I had to stop following him on Twitter after he spoiled major events on both Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. My friend Trudi had part of The Killer Inside Me ruined for her by King's introduction in which he described several key twists. I was listening to an audible version of this that had an intro from him talking about why he did the whole Richard Bachman thing. In it, he casually gives away the end of The Running Man novel. Fortunately for me I'd already read that one, but Uncle Stevie clearly just doesn't get the concept and why it pisses people off.

Overall, The Long Walk held up to my memories of it as one of the better King books as well as having a chilling idea at the heart of it. Sure, some might say that the idea of contest that dehumanizes people for entertainment to make things easier for a fascist ruler is far-fetched. On the other hand, this TV show will be premiering a few days after a certain orange pile of human shaped garbage takes power.

It’s a Richard Bachman world, people. Get ready to walk. Or maybe run.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: Star Wars, Vol 3: Rebel Jail

Star Wars, Vol 3: Rebel Jail Star Wars, Vol 3: Rebel Jail by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I was in the middle of reading this one news broke that Carrie Fisher had suffered a heart attack so that added a certain bittersweet flavor to a story that focuses heavily on Princess Leia. It also provided further evidence for the case against 2016 when we finally haul it into court for its crimes against humanity.

Leia’s part involves her delivering an important Imperial prisoner to a secret Rebel prison and being caught there when a mysterious man attacks the jail. Meanwhile, Han and Luke are off on a supply run which gets complicated, there’s a single issue story about what Obi-Wan was up to on Tatooine while waiting for Luke to grow up, and the first annual has an off-shoot story about a Rebel spy on Coruscant. (If you’re reading these as single issues from the Marvel Unlimited app you should check that one out first.)

Overall, this is still a fun and solid set of Star Wars stories in which Jason Aaron and the other creators try to fill the gap between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and do a pretty good job of it. Since we know how things shake out they can generate much tension regarding the main characters, but there’s a lot of interesting turns here. My favorite part was in learning that Han Solo was literally a nerf herder for a brief time.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My life has become a single on-going revelation that I haven’t been cynical enough.”

This is the kind of cheery thought one is apt to have when facing a narcissistic megalomaniac who has gained power by convincing some people that all their problems can be blamed on other groups while setting humanity on a self-destructive path it may not be able to recover from.

Geez, I thought I read science-fiction to escape reality.

The Expanse series took an epic dark turn in the last one, and this book is mainly about dealing with the fall-out from that as well as trying to resolve the new threat that arose. The short term stakes involve a fight to control the outposts outside of Earth and Mars, but the longer view will determine nothing less than the fate of humanity itself.

Like the other books this has a self-contained story that features all kinds of political intrigue and strategy as well as a healthy dose of interesting characters riding around in spaceships being all Pew-Pew!. Which is what The Expanse does really well as a general rule. The new wrinkle here is that because this is the aftermath of catastrophic events that there’s a tone of shock and even a certain wistfulness in this one. Things will never be what they once where and everyone knows it. This makes the conflict here literally a fight for the future, and all the characters are under enormous amounts of pressure because of it.

There was one element I wasn’t entirely happy about near the conclusion, but on the other hand there’s still story to be told so I’m trying to set aside any feelings of mild disappointment I have about the ending here because it’s likely that there is more pay-off coming.

As always after finishing one of these I’m left wanting more and am already counting the days until the next book releases. It helps that we’ve got the second season of the TV show coming to fill the gap between books.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Review: Keller's Fedora

Keller's Fedora Keller's Fedora by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always thought that a man had to have a certain amount of class to pull off wearing a fedora, and Keller fits that profile even if he is a hired killer.

In this short novella Keller gets an interesting proposition. A potential client wants a hit man to take care of his wife’s lover, but he doesn’t know who it is. So the job involves doing some investigating before getting to the murder, and Keller finds himself so intrigued that he buys a new hat because he’s in a detective frame of mind. Things seem to go according to plan at first, but as usual it’s only the killing itself that goes smoothly for Keller.

I was a little hesitant about this because Block had taken Keller through a journey in the novels that seemed to end with his happy retirement, but that’s kind of turned into a semi-retirement which I worried might undercut the entire Keller story a bit. However, Block’s landed at an interesting place with Keller and how he feels about his work so that him dipping a toe back into murder-for-hire doesn’t seem that out of place or a contradiction of what came before.

A lot of the previous books were built off short stories in which Keller goes on gigs that take weird turns while his doubts about what kind of person he was bubbled up in interesting ways. (Any TV producers looking for a crime series to adapt for a show could do a lot worse than Keller.) So getting another installment in this form seems like a natural fit, and I've always loved Keller's tendency to drift off on musings and questions sparked by everyday things he encounters. So it was a genuine delight to be back in Keller’s head that was sporting a spiffy new lid.

In addition to being a fine piece of writing it also functions as great advertising for the hat industry because I wanted to rush out and buy a fedora while reading it.

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Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: The Tommyknockers

The Tommyknockers The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I mean, The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I've thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, "There's really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides, and I ought to go back." The book is about 700 pages long, and I'm thinking, "There's probably a good 350-page novel in there."

- Stephen King in a Rolling Stone interview.

You got that right, Uncle Stevie.

Bobbi Anderson is a writer living outside a small Maine town who trips over a hunk of metal sticking out of the ground while walking in the woods with her dog. She finds herself strangely compelled to dig it up, and she soon realizes that she’s stumbled across a flying saucer that has been buried for thousands of years.

Bobbi’s friend Jim Gardner is a poet with a love of booze and a deep hatred of nuclear power. After going on an epic bender Gardner visits Bobbi and finds that she has worked herself ragged and lost several teeth while digging up the ship. She’s also started making all sorts of home improvements like fixing her aging water heater up with what appears to be a fusion reactor. Bobbi convinces Gardner that they need to excavate the ship themselves, and he agrees to help. But the ship’s influence grows as it is unearthed to the point where the nearby townsfolk also start spitting teeth and coming up with clever ideas of their own.

The King quote I led with really sums up this book. There’s an intriguing idea at the heart of it and some nice character stuff particularly when it comes to Gardner. However, its coke-fueled writing is so evident that you expect to see leftover powder and dried blood spots from King’s nose on every page. There’s just too many tangents that go in useless directions, and it really gets out of control when he starts telling all the stories happening in the nearby town of Haven.

Detailing the takeover of the population of a small town via snapshots of the locals is something King does well in other books like Salem’s Lot, but he could never draw the line here between relevant character details and useless information. In fact, it almost seems at times like he was starting different novels. One has beloved civic leader and police constable coming to suspect that there is something very wrong happening and doing her best to hold out from it. Another has a reporter starting to unravel the mystery of what happens in Haven, but since all he is doing is uncovering what we already know his whole thread is pretty much useless anyhow so learning all about his relationship with his passive aggressive mother is especially pointless.

King also has problems in dealing with things logically from a plot standpoint. He prefers vague supernatural threats that he can routinely increase or reduce the powers of as needed, but when he has to put physical rules to them things fly apart. Here he can’t even nail down exactly how the Tommyknockers are transforming the people. It’s definitely a gas that seems to come off the skin of the ship as it’s exposed. That’s a good concept (Although why aliens would coat the outside of their ship with something that would spread on contact with Earth air is a valid question.) but the ship also exudes something akin to electromagnetism that effects electronics and radio waves.

You could make the argument that there’s no reason it can’t be pumping out both gas and some weird alien radiation. Which is true, but it gets messy when it comes exactly which thing is doing what, and King practically broke his back trying to draw parallels to the TK ship and nuclear reactors so you can see what he's trying to do. However, Gardner is immune to the Tommyknocker transformation because he has a metal plate in his head so that seems to indicate that it isn’t caused by the gas, but it is repeatedly shown that others can avoid its effects by not breathing the air. It just isn't consistent at all. There is also a whopper of a continuity error right at the heart of this that shows that King wasn’t thinking through the details. (view spoiler)

He also didn’t think through the implications of including the usual Easter eggs to his other works. The town of Derry exists here along with a direct reference to IT as well as other books, and that seems harmless enough at first. However, the end of this one would literally be the biggest story in human history. So that means the Stephen King universe should include it and the aftermath, but it doesn’t. Yeah, yeah, I know. The Dark Tower has many levels, blah, blah, blah. You can believe that if you want, but it increasingly feels to me that the references aren't so much clever winks to reader as they are lazy tricks that undermine the story King is trying to tell at the moment.

Plus, Stephen King just plain sucks at writing about aliens. He proved it again in Dreamcatcher, and if you read that whole interview I linked to you’ll see that he also doesn’t like that one much either and blames the Oxycontin he was on following being struck by a car. So that’s two bad books about evil aliens he wrote under the influence. I’m sensing a trend here.

Aside from the drugs though there’s an element of King’s personal outlook that makes him trying to do an alien invasion story problematic. Like a lot of Baby Boomers he has a general distrust of the guvment, and Uncle Stevie’s distaste is so strong that he just can’t imagine them doing the right thing. He also has some anti-tech tendencies and doesn’t think much of science. (The Stand is a prime example of this.) So the aliens are evil, but he also doesn’t think you could trust anyone in authority or with scientific expertise to do anything about them. That’s when King’s anti-establishment nature is at war with his own plot. It's like his alien stories are trying to be both E.T. and The Thing at the same time, and it just doesn't work like that.

For example, we get a long conversation when Bobbi (Who is part-Tommyknocker at this point.) is trying to convince Gardner that they can’t call ‘the Dallas police’, and that’s a big point that wins him over because he’s an anti-nuke protestor who doesn’t trust the powers that be with an alien ship. So that means that an alien influenced western writer and a drunken poet who shot his own wife are supposed to be the ones we trust to deal with the discovery of aliens? And yeah, I get that this is a con job to get Gardner to help dig up the ship, but that thread of thinking that the Feds would somehow be even worse than murderous aliens runs through this and Dreamcatcher in defiance of internal plot logic.

I mean, do we really believe that some idiot would be so distrustful of government agencies and science as well as have such a strong belief in crazy conspiracy theories that he would shun the system and instead choose to side with a hideous monster in human form who is telling him nothing but lies? Oh….. Never mind.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: Sinner Man

Sinner Man Sinner Man by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Between this and Resume Speed I’ve read two Lawrence Block stories in the last week that were about men leaving town and taking on new identities. But even if Mr. Block had a dozen more books coming out soon about guys hopping busses and trains for further misadventures under fake names I’d still cheerfully read them.

Don Barshter is your run-of-the-mill insurance salesman in a small city in Connecticut, but he’s bored with his life and drinking too much. One night he tries to end an argument with his wife with a brisk slap, but the silly woman falls wrong and ends up dead. Don’s first instinct is to call the cops to turn himself in because it’s 1960 and accidently killing your wife during a fight isn’t that big of a deal, but then he decides to seize the chance to reinvent himself instead.

After stashing the body in a closet and emptying his bank accounts Don is off to exotic Buffalo under the name Nat Crowley, but what should a wife murdering insurance agent pick as a new career? Organized crime seems like a lucrative field with growth opportunities that won’t bother with a lot of background checks so he starts hanging out in bars and rubbing elbows with gangsters while beating up the occasional Canadian tourist to establish his credentials as a rough customer. Soon enough Nat is in with the local mob, but can he ever truly escape his past by engaging in even worse acts?

This is billed as Block’s first crime novel, and in an afterword he explains that while it’s actually the first one of the genre he wrote it wasn’t the first one he published. In fact, he tells a fascinating story about how it got lost in the shuffle of the various books he was churning out for the paperback publishers of the day under various pen names, and while he got paid for it he’d never gotten a copy and had only vague memories of the story. It was a chance conversation with some fans on Facebook that led to him finally learning the title and name it was released under.

It’s a testament to how much material Lawrence Block has written in his life that he has entire books that he thought were lost, but this isn’t just a gimmick trading off the idea that it’s a young Block’s first mystery novel. It’s an incredibly solid and fascinating piece of work that starts out as a plot driven story about how a guy could leave one life and start another on the run. Then it turns into a serious noir that has a lot to say about how you may be able to change your name, but you’re still gonna be stuck with what you’ve done and who you are.

Block also drew on his days as a soft core porn writer to incorporate some steamy sex scenes in the best tradition of the pulp paperbacks, but even those turn into something deeper and darker with Nat’s relationship to the gangster savvy Anne Bishop getting increasingly complicated as he works his way up the mob hierarchy.

Overall, it’s just a fantastic piece of pulp fiction that shows that even when he was starting out that Block was already a great writer. This is one of my new favorites from Hard Case Crime.

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Review: Resume Speed

Resume Speed Resume Speed by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

At the start of this we meet a man called Bill who is an awful hurry to catch a bus out of town, but as soon as he’s over the state line he immediately gets a job as a cook at a diner and starts establishing a new life there.

You may think that sounds a bit fishy, but honestly who among us hasn’t hopped a bus out of town and changed their identity?

This new novella from esteemed mystery writer Lawrence Block is a bit of an odd duck. It’s mainly about Bill as he develops a routine in this new town and quickly becomes a valued employee at the diner and a reliable tenant at his rooming house while he starts a relationship with the local librarian. His only vice is the single shot of whiskey he has every night before bed. Yet, we know that Bill is hiding from something.

That description sounds more mysterious than it actually is because nothing that we learn about Bill is all that surprising considering how we’re introduced to him, and most readers will probably be able to have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end.

What I found incredibly enjoyable is just the way that Block is able to write people doing even everyday things. Whether it’s private detective Matt Scudder wandering the streets of New York or hit man Keller traveling the country to murder people there’s always this steady stream of observations and actions that don’t seem like anything special while reading yet they make for compelling stories. It’s a quiet way of getting to really know a character, and Block is the master of building these small moments into something larger.

Another aspect that fascinated me was that it seems like it should be set in the past. Surely, in our modern age someone couldn’t just jump on a bus and reinvent himself in a town down the line could he? That’s what I was thinking and the first part of the book felt very old school to me like it had been written in the ‘60, but then there are mentions of computers and Google so it’s definitely the 21st century. It could have seemed anachronistic, but I found that it gave the whole thing an interesting timeless tone instead.

Overall, I was completely engrossed with Bill as he goes about his everyday life while hiding from his past, and I’m more impressed than ever with Block for the way he makes this quiet character-based story work.

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Bait

Bait Bait by J. Kent Messum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book for review from the author.

Can you imagine waking up on an island with a bunch of good-for-nothing junkies who almost immediately start going into withdrawal and puking all over the place? And your only way out is by swimming through waters infested with hungry sharks?

Still, it sounds more appealing than being on a season of Survivor.

So these smack-hounds wake up on a beach in the Florida Keys with no idea how they got there. There’s a small amount of food and water left there with a note that they can get more by swimming to the next island, and the bigger prize is a whole bunch of heroin if they can make it through the sharks. Will they try to swim for it or not?

Uh, I did mention that they are junkies and there’s heroin on that next island, right?

There are some stories idea that just sound so amazingly outrageous that you immediately want to check them out. Sharks vs. Junkies is one of those. Messum walks a fine line here of setting up an idea that could have been a movie on SyFy channel, adding enough depth of character and tragedy so that it doesn’t seem like a total cartoon, and then still delivering enough scenes of sharks devouring junkies that it satisfies the itch you got when you heard the idea. (You sick bastards!)

I’m not sure if this could have been sustained in a longer novel, but at 288 pages it hits the sweet spot of being tight enough to work without feeling rushed. Intercutting flashbacks of each character gives us a snapshot of their lives as addicts, and Messum makes them sympathetic by highlighting wasted potential but he doesn’t glamorize or excuse them.

I was a little less sold on the parts that shift to the men behind the whole Turn-Junkies-Into-Fish-Food scheme. There’s decent motivation provided, but I think the book may have worked a tad better if we knew nothing about them or why they were doing it until the very end where the final chapter provided an excellent opportunity for a bit of exposition to explain motives. Keeping them more mysterious might have tightened up the book even further and added more intrigue.

Still, it’s an intriguing and well written story that delivers on the concept it’s selling. It also reinforced my belief that nothing good happens in the ocean.

Finally, I owe J. Kent Messum some thanks. He had approached me about reviewing his newer book, and I turned him down because I’m just a dick like that. Then Dan told me about this book with sharks chewing on heroin addicts, and I’m only human so I wanted in on that action. I didn’t realize that this was by a writer I’d previously refused to review, but once we got that got sorted JKM was very gracious and cool enough to send me this along with his new one Husk which I’ll read and review soon.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange: The Oath

Doctor Strange: The Oath Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If your name is something like Stephen Strange then you’d almost have to be a superhero, wouldn’t you? Either that or Bond villain.

Dr. Strange is very upset to learn that his friend and servant Wong has terminal brain cancer and vows to use every mystical means at his disposal to save him. The cure he finds turns out to have much larger implications that threaten Strange both magically and physically.

This is one of those Marvel characters that I mainly know from his appearances in other books rather than reading his main titles. The whole trippy-psychedelic-mysticism thing has never really been my cup o’ tea, but like a good comic book nerd I saw theDr. Strange movie and enjoyed it so much I decided to read up on the Sorcerer Supreme.

I couldn’t have picked a better story to try. Brian K. Vaughan is one of my favorite comic writers, and this is a great read that mixes Strange’s history with a grounding in the modern Marvel universe that puts magic side-by-side with science. The artwork really sells this too in the way that it portrays a ‘realistic’ New York where something like the Cloak of Levitation does seem unworldly. I also particularly liked the use of the Night Nurse as a supporting character.

My only real complaint is that by starting with this particular story any other Dr. Strange comics now have a very high bar to clear so I’m worried that reading more about the Master of the Mystic Arts might pale in comparison.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: White Jazz

White Jazz White Jazz by James Ellroy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This conclusion to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is just as wholesome and uplifting as the previous three books with his usual cast of characters such as corrupt cops, gangsters, hustlers, blackmailers, shakedown artists, bag men, thieves, junkies, drug dealers, dog killers, whores, johns, pimps, peepers, perverts, panty sniffers, and politicians. Oh, and most of them are murders, racist, and/or incestuous as a bonus, and that includes the hero of the novel.

It's 1958 and LAPD Lieutenant Dave Klein is a busy guy. In addition to his police duties he’s also a lawyer, a slumlord, and he does the occasional contract murder for hire. Klein gets assigned to investigate a weird break-in and vandalism at the home of a police sanctioned drug dealer, but with an ambitious US Attorney sniffing around the LAPD trying to build a corruption case it seems a bad time to be drawing attention to that particular rotten apple. Klein also takes a side gig from Howard Hughes investigating an actress who left him to star in a B-horror movie about communist space vampires, and he’d love to start chasing down a gang who pulled off a daring robbery of a fortune in furs to get a piece of their action. However, Klein soon finds himself in the middle of a living nightmare which pull his loyalties in multiple directions, and as the crimes pile up it’ll take a miracle to keep him from ending up in jail or the morgue.

The last two novels of the L.A. Quartet each used a trio of bad men doing bad things as their main characters, and Ellroy very consciously breaks the format here by making Dave Klein the solo lead and a first person narrator. This seems kind of like a call back to the structure of Black Dahlia and gives the conclusion a more intimate and personal feel, but it also seems like it doesn’t quite fit. As usual when things really start going off the rails Ellroy has his lead running around like a maniac both committing and investigating crimes while constantly making and betraying alliances that further his own agenda for the moment. When you have three characters doing this they can share the load and have them in various levels of trouble. By having only Klein to put in the soup it really stretches credibility too far to think that he wouldn’t have been arrested or killed about halfway through the book, and it certainly doesn’t seem like anyone would deal with him after the third or fourth time he’s double-crossed them.

Ellroy also advanced the clipped sentence fragment/stream of consciousness style he’d been building to new levels, and in fact, he probably pushed it too far in this one. L.A. Confidential has a flow to it that works whereas White Jazz too often veers into near gibberish. It’s a problem that shows up in other Ellroy novels, too. When he’s got this style on a leash he can really take it for a walk, but when it gets away from him it runs wild and devolves into near self-parody.

Probably my biggest disappointment with this is that it just doesn’t seem to deliver on the promise of the ending that L.A. Confidential pointed towards. That built to where it felt like the final book had to be an all-out war between two of the characters left standing. By bringing in a new character with the LAC angles only coming into play late in the game it doesn’t have the epic climax to the entire story I was hoping for.

It’s still a solid Ellroy novel, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the potential of what came before.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Professional thief Bernie Rhodenbarr is trying to go legit by buying a book store, but that’s a tough way to make the rent even back in the days before Amazon. So when Bernie gets an offer to swipe a rare volume of Kipling verses for a hefty payday he’s more than willing to start picking locks again.

However, what should be a simple exchange of the book for the cash goes sideways, and Bernie finds himself on the run from the cops after being framed for murder. He’ll need all of his criminal skills and some help from his best friend Carolyn to get out of this one.

As I’ve stated on other reviews I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block, but this series wasn’t my favorite thing he’s done although I quite enjoyed The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. I think it’s because while Bernie is a thief the books generally revolve around him playing amateur sleuth rather than actually being about his profession. Still, there’s a charming low-key quality to these, and I always enjoy Block’s casual dialogue where characters often ramble and make amusing observations about life’s quirks.

I liked this the most of the early ones I’ve read because it introduced Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer who is the person that Bernie can count on most and vice versa. Their friendship is one of the things I’ve most enjoyed about the series.

Overall, it’s a solid mystery with a good sense of humor, and Block always makes a character just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of daily life in New York City a treat to read.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Duma Key

Duma Key Duma Key by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And this is why adults shouldn’t play with dolls…

Edgar Freemantle used to be the quintessential American success story. He was a self-made millionaire who built a thriving construction business, and he had a long and happy marriage which produced two daughters. However, Edgar’s good luck ran out one day when he had a brutal run in with a crane at a job site that cost him an arm, screwed up a leg, and cracked his skull. The brain trauma left his eggs slightly scrambled and made him prone to fly into furious rages that his wife couldn't endure so the accident also ends his marriage.

While trying to recover from his injuries and the divorce Edgar decides to relocate to Florida and indulge in his long dormant hobby of drawing and painting pictures. Edgar rents a house at isolated Duma Key on the Gulf Coast where the gorgeous views and long walks on the beach inspire him to amazing artistic achievements and a rapid recovery of his health. In fact, Edgar’s progress in both areas could be termed as too good to be true if not downright spooky.

I read this for the first time shortly after it was originally released in 2008, and at that time I was intrigued by the story of a damaged man turning to art to heal his body and mind which is a subject that King has intimate knowledge of after being run down by a car. (King wrote movingly about it in the non-fiction On Writing.) However, I found the supernatural stuff lacking, and I’d kinda wished that King had written just a straight up character piece about a guy discovering a latent talent following a tragedy.

Since then I’ve seen what happens when King tries his hand at non-horror genre piece (Mr. Mercedes) so I no longer think that would have been a good idea. Overall, I found myself more intrigued this time by the supernatural aspects and less enamored of the story about Edgar’s recovery and development as a painter. This is probably because I’ve find myself more sensitive to the tics of his that I dislike which this has several of.

First is that there’s a general lack of focus. King has always been willing to throw the kitchen sink at a reader, but he really seemed particularly unwilling or unable to pick a path and stick to it here. There’s elements you see from other stories like Dead Zone with a brain injury leading to weird abilities and there’s the ghost story in an isolated locale like The Shining as well as bits and pieces from other King works. All of this leads to the typical case of King bloat where it seems like a couple of hundred pages could have easily been shaved from the finished product.

The character of Wireman is a prime example of something else I’ve grown irritated with in King’s work where he creates a wise and quirky character and then fills their mouths with overblown dialogue. Here, Wireman frequently refers to himself in the third person, sprinkles his conversations with Spanish jargon, and he’s full of meaningless sayings that are treated as profound by Edgar. Seriously, if someone ever told me, “Do the day, muchacho! And let the day do you!” then I’m going to flip them off and walk away. Which is a shame because there was much about Wireman in this best friend role other than the way he constantly expressed himself that I really liked.

Another King trope that has increasingly irked me in recent years in his habit of creating situations where the characters are fighting the clock but then waste huge amounts of time talking instead of acting. In this one there’s a point near the end where hell is gonna be unleashed at sunset which is coming fast, and yet Edgar feels that’s the ideal time to sit the other characters down and tell them a long rambling story about what he’s discovered. And then of course they find themselves screwed at sunset. How about for once you let them get the job done and save story time for afterwards, Uncle Stevie?

However, despite these gripes I did enjoy this book. King hits the melancholy tone of Edgar, a middle-aged man with a broken home and broken body, perfectly. Doing one of his stories on a bright Florida beach rather than the spooky Maine woods was a nice change of pace, and it fits the way that there’s an underlying tension. There’s also an extremely wicked irony at play here in that most of the stuff happening seems like a good thing rather than evil. Edgar is healing and he’s creating amazing art, and he even uses his newfound abilities to do some good. You can see how he’s willing to push aside any warning signs because so much of what is happening to him is legitimately changing his life for the better without any of the usual dark down side you’d immediately see in most horror books.

It’s not quite as good as I found it in 2008, but it’s still one of the better later era King novels.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: The Girl from Venice

The Girl from Venice The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

A book with the word Girl in the title? I’ve never seen that before….*cough*

In the last days of World War II in Europe an Italian fisherman named Cenzo hauls in what he thinks is the body of a dead young woman. Only she’s just playing possum, and Cenzo quickly finds out that Giulia is Jewish and on the run from Nazis who just killed her family.

Cenzo hides Giulia, but it turns out that she has a secret that someone is desperate to cover up by killing her. Things get more complicated when his estranged brother who has been doing propaganda films for Mussolini’s government shows up, and Cenzo finds himself drawn into the circle of once powerful people who are now looking for the exits as the Allies approach.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Martin Cruz Smith, particularly his series about Russian detective, Arkady Renko. Like Renko and many of his other characters, Cenzo is a smart guy who generally wants nothing to do with the schemes of the corrupt people above him in society, and yet he’s also incapable of just letting an obvious injustice happen. It’s another Smith staple that many around Cenzo see him as a pawn to use for their own purposes, but he’s got a knack for turning the tables on them while he pursues his own agenda. Smith is also great at setting stories in historically interesting places and periods, and he makes the most out of this one.

This isn’t an action thriller, and it’s also not a straight up whodunit historical fiction. It kind of falls into the category of character drama with some of those elements. Overall it’s Smith doing his usual thing, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

3.58 stars.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m late to the party on this one, and judging by all the 4 and 5 star reviews I can only assume that the mob will be after me with pitchforks and torches for 3 starring it. Come at me, Goodreads!

Jason Dessen is just an average guy with a wife and son he loves, and a job teaching physics at a small college. One night he goes out to meet a friend for drinks, but he ends up being kidnapped by a mysterious man who somehow rips him out of his life and drops him in the middle of a nightmare.

This is one of those books that’s nearly impossible to review without spoilers because so much of what happens comes after major revelations are made. Even if you see the first big twist coming then you’ll probably still be surprised by what comes next.

Here’s the 100% spoiler free review: This is an entertaining sci-fi thriller that reminds me of recent books like Influx (Slightly better than this.) and The Fold (Slightly worse.) It’s got a pretty good hook, and the story is begging to be turned into a movie although the trailer will probably give away the entire plot once they film it. It flirts with big crazy science ideas, but in the end is more interested in being a human drama about family and choices we make. It didn’t hit a mind blowing level for me on the science side, and it did a better than average job for this type of book of getting me invested in the character side. Overall, it still fell a little short of its ambitions.

In short, I liked it but didn’t love it. No regrets about reading it, and I’ll see the inevitable movie version if it’s got a decent score on Rotten Tomatoes.

So its sci-fi elements aren’t as deep or well presented as other books I’ve read dealing with a similar concept, and its major theme rubbed the wrong way a bit. Still, it was an entertaining read with some big ideas that I enjoyed.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Escape Clause

Escape Clause Escape Clause by John Sandford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

I’ve heard of having a tiger by the tail, but this is ridiculous.

Two rare tigers have been stolen from a Minnesota zoo, and everyone fears that they have been taken to have their organs and bones harvested for ‘medicines’ that will fetch a fortune on the black market. Quirky cop Virgil Flowers is on the case, but can he find the tigers before they’re killed and turned into expensive placebos for assholes?

As usual in a John Sandford novel we get the parallel story of what the bad guys are up to as Virgil hunts them, and things escalate with murder becoming part of the effort to cover their tracks. Virgil is also contending with a serious distraction caused by the sister of his girlfriend getting on the bad side of some thugs when she tries to expose the abuse of illegal immigrant workers at a factory.

As I’ve noted in my other reviews of Sandford books I consider him the best at the beach/airport reads that are always on the best sellers lists. This isn’t ground breaking thriller/crime fiction, but it is exceptionally well done thriller/crime fiction. We get villains that aren’t just the standard Insane McGenius serial killers. (Although Sandford did a few of those back when they weren’t quite such a cliché.) The plotting is tight, the action is great, there’s a real sense of tension and momentum built up, and he’s developed a collection of likable characters who populate both this series and the Prey books. Virgil continues to be an interesting hero who sports vintage rock band t-shirts and frequently forgets to get his gun out of his truck. Overall, Sandford's books are incredibly entertaining without feeling like they’re making you dumber by reading them.

So why only three stars here? Frankly, this one hit a personal pet peeve of mine. I just do not enjoy reading about animals in jeopardy or being mistreated. So I was constantly stressing about the fate of the tigers much more than I do when its human characters in trouble. What? Don’t judge me.

That’s the only factor that kept me from calling it another 4 star thriller from Sandford that meets his usual standard of quality page-turning.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We’ve all heard of the Good-Cop/Bad-Cop routine, but when you read a James Ellroy novel it’s more like Bad-Cop/Worse-Cop/Crimes-Against-Humanity-Cop.

This third installment in the L.A. Quartet introduces us to another trio of police officers who wouldn't last ten minutes on the job if there were smart phones in the 1950s which could have recorded their many misdeeds. Ed Exley is a brilliant detective, but his physical cowardice is exceeded only by his ruthless ambition. Bud White is a thug who never met a suspect he couldn’t beat into talking, and he’s got a special hatred reserved for men who hurt women. Jack Vincennes has gone Hollywood with a side gig as the technical advisor for a TV cop show, and his reputation as a relentless narco officer is mainly due to him taking payoffs from a scandal rag to arrest movie stars to create juicy stories.

The three cops end up involved in a police brutality scandal dubbed Bloody Christmas which leads to drastic changes of fortune for each of them. Then a shocking mass murder in a coffee shop in an apparent robbery gone wrong draws all of them orbit of the investigation. Driven by their obsessions and haunted by secrets all of them will follow separate trails through a tangled web of pornography, drugs, prostitution, rape, and murder.

Ellroy had used similar elements of historical fiction that combines the seedy history of L.A. with his own epic crime stories in previous books, but I think this is where he perfected the idea and really soared with it. It’s the first time he fully deployed a unique style that is essentially a stream of consciousness that shifts among the three leads that uses clipped sentences to form a patter that makes everything feel more as if it’s being experienced instead of a narrative you’re reading.

The main appeal for me is the three main characters. These are not nice guys. They are utterly amoral and unrepentant racists who cause an enormous amount of damage in pursuit of their own agendas. What saves them, (And this is what usually redeems Ellroy’s characters.) is their ultimate realizations that they’re pawns being used by a system that is far more criminal and corrupt than anything they’ve done, and that they’re willing to destroy themselves and everything around them in bids for redemption.

This is a brutal, vicious crime novel filled with shocking acts of violence and offensive language. It’s also an extremely complex and dense book with multiple confusing sub-plots spinning off the main Nite Owl story. I’ve read it multiple times, and I’d still be hard pressed to explain everything that happens and why. Despite all of that it remains among my favorite novels because it is such a bold attempt to do something different that is mostly successful.

I also credit the movie as being one of the best adaptations of a book I’ve seen. There’s only about 40% of the plot from the page on the screen, but they did a masterful job of combining and condensing elements while preserving the essential feel of the book and smartly keeping the focus on its three flawed main characters.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review: TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time

TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

In this era of Peak TV I subscribe to a couple of streaming options that I could easily spend a month or so watching non-stop and still not get through the shows on my current watch lists. Meanwhile, my DVR is usually glowing red hot from all the recording it’s doing for the shows airing on the network and cable stations. So what I really didn’t need read right now is a book that makes me want to watch more TV. Still, I'm glad I read it.

Television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz started sharing a newspaper column 20 years ago just as a revolution was about to occur that would change the TV landscape. Although they both moved on to other jobs they remained friends and had on-going debates about TV topics which has led them to come up with a list of the all-time best 100 TV shows.

They cheerfully admit that this is a bit of a fool’s errand in that there’s something inherently flawed about comparing a show like All in the Family to The X-Files. However, they came up with a ranking system they both used to score shows on a variety of factors, and then used it to come up with their top 100 which they then explained in more detail in short essays about each one.

They used some basic rules to keep it all somewhat in line: Only American shows that have ended were considered although there are some notable exceptions like The Simpsons and South Park which after decades on the air had enough material to adequately judge. Some shows with uncertain futures, like Louie, were included in case their creators never produce more. No reality TV was considered, and variety, skit, and talk shows were also deemed too hard to compare to scripted dramas and comedies. Longevity was also a factor because a brilliant show that only produced a handful of episodes like Firefly obviously didn’t have the burden of sustaining that level of quality over the course of many seasons so there was handicapping done in the ranking system to account for that.

So after applying math and some logical rules to their exercise what did Sepinwall and Seitz come up with? A bunch of shows that’s pretty much what you’d expect if you pay attention to things like awards, reviews, and critic’s Best-Of lists. It turns out what is generally considered the best TV is still the best TV by their standards, and an unforgiving cynic might think this is merely a clickbait interwebs article taken to book form.

However, what makes this interesting to me as a TV fan isn’t the rankings they gave or what shows did and didn't make the top 100 cut although that’s the kind of thing it’s fun to argue about over a couple of beers. My favorite part was an online conversation they had in which they debated how to rank the 5 top shows that tied in their ranking system. Through the course of that discussion they question how much a show’s innovation mattered vs. just doing something familiar as well as it’s ever been done, whether they had an inherent bias towards thinking of dramas as ‘better’ than comedies, and how to judge a show filled with peaks and valleys against a show that was consistently great but didn’t provide as many next level moments.

It was a fascinating, often funny, conversation between two critics who know their subjects, have the skill and self-awareness to step back and ask themselves just what made these shows so great, and then follow those trains of thoughts to logical conclusions. Good criticism shouldn’t just be about giving a score or a thumbs up/thumbs down. It should make you think about what you like or hate, and why you like or hate it which not only teaches you something about the material but maybe something about yourself in the process. So while I found myself disagreeing with their ultimate conclusion it still gave me a lot of food for thought as well as a desire to go out and watch all of them again.

The rest of the essays do a similarly good job of explaining why those shows were considered among the best while pointing out the flaws. They’ve got a real knack for explaining the appeal of a series and describing what made it special. (If anyone ever asks me what’s so great about Deadwood I’ll probably just have them read their description of it.) There’s also some effort made towards explaining what they meant beyond just being TV shows. For example, the article about I Love Lucy doesn’t just pay homage to it as a groundbreaking comedy, but also outlines how Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were true innovators whose impact on television from a creative and business standpoint went far beyond even what they did on screen as Lucy and Ricky.

There’s also some bonus features like funny lists about things like the best and worst bosses on television. They also do lists of the best mini-series, TV movies, honorable mentions, and current shows that will probably make the Top 100 list after they complete their runs.

The essays are filled with spoilers to the shows in the interests of discussing them fully, but it should be easy to avoid by skipping over any ones you haven’t seen it yet. Fair warning that the bonus lists do contain some spoilers, particularly one about the best character deaths so maybe skip those if you’re worried about such things.

Taken all together this is a love letter to television written by two guys who appreciate how lucky they were to be in exactly the right place to help document a golden age.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Talk about a depressing idea for an alternate-history book. This one explores the concept of what would have happened if the United States had never abolished slavery, and it remains an institution in the present day. *sigh* Well, at least Hitler didn’t win the war this time…

Victor is a former slave who managed to escape to the north, but he was eventually caught by the government and forced to work undercover to help catch more poor souls who are trying to use the fabled Underground Airline to escape America. His latest case has brought him to Indianapolis where Victor finds inconsistencies about his latest target while he tries to avoid being drawn into the troubles of a white woman he meets at his hotel.

Just as he did in his Last Policeman trilogy Ben Winters has conceived of a society that is fascinating to read about, but you wouldn’t want to visit there. There’s a terrifying plausibility to the idea that a compromise struck to avoid the Civil War could have resulted in the continued existence of slavery into modern times, and that it would have been industrialized and modernized in the spirit of American capitalism. It’s the details that Winters conjures up that really sell it like the idea that while the north is free that racial equality is still at about a 1960s level rather than the 21st century, or that anti-slavery people try to buy goods certified as not being made by slave labor.

The book fails a bit in regards to its main character, and I’m not sure why. Victor is a pretty fascinating figure as a man forced to betray his own rather than go back into bondage, and while he’s conflicted about that he’s also damnably good at his job. However, by telling us the story only through the first person narrator it feels like it limits the scope of a story that should be wide and epic.

There was a similar problem with The Last Policeman where my uncertainty about the motivations of the main character there threatened to trip up a top notch end-of-the-world scenario. However, I warmed up to Hank Palace in the second book, and it felt like Winters kept making the story more intimate and personal as it progressed. Here, it’s the reverse with Victor being drawn into larger events, but while I found the setting compelling I kept wishing we’d get a broader and bigger perspective than he could provide.

I’m being a tad unfair in that my main dissatisfaction comes from wishing the book was something that it wasn’t. Winters has written a very interesting alt-history with a pretty compelling lead character, but I’m left wondering about all the ideas that the book couldn’t get into just because it limited itself to his story.

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review: The Big Nowhere

The Big Nowhere The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can you dig this, hepcat?

It’s January 1, 1950 in Los Angeles. A witch hunt for commies in the movie industry is gearing up under the guise of patriotism, but its real agenda is to make the careers of the ruthless men running it and help the studios keep labor costs down. Corruption scandals have created a lot of bad blood between the city cops and the county sheriff’s department. Rival gangsters Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen are fighting for control of the town. Everybody is too busy with their own schemes to care about the brutal murder of a nobody jazz musician. Everybody, that is, except for LASD Deputy Danny Upshaw.

Danny is a brilliant young detective with a secret he can't even admit to himself. He recognizes the murder as the work of a true madman and is instantly obsessed with finding the killer, but his investigation is hampered by the jurisdictional feuds between his department and the city cops.

Meanwhile LAPD Lieutenant Mal Considine is recruited to work on gathering evidence against Communists for a grand jury, and the job is just the thing he needs to boost his promising career and help him with some family issues. The downside is that he has to work with Buzz Meeks that he’s got an old grudge against. Meeks is an ex-cop who is equally comfortable paying a bribe or cracking a skull with his trusty night stick. He works as a fixer for Howard Hughes, and his cozy relationships with the crooks and film industry folks make him the perfect bag man and troubleshooter for the Red hunting enterprise. Eventually the two investigations intersect, and all three men have to deal with the consequences of who they are and what they’ve done.

This isn’t my favorite James Ellroy book, but it is a pivotal one in my own reading history because it’s the first one of his I read after finding a paperback copy at a library sale back before the world moved so I credit it for turning me onto his work. It’s also a turning point for Ellroy because it’s the where he created the template he’d follow for most of his later books. We’ve got an unholy trinity of three men capable of committing monstrous crimes in service of dubious causes to further their own ambitions and obsessions. Eventually circumstances will make them seek to atone for their misdeeds, but their attempts at redemption can be as destructive and blood soaked as the things they already regret. That three character structure and basic story arcs are pretty much the backbone of Ellroy’s career since this one.

Ellroy has a tendency to go long and let his plots wander in a hundred directions before gathering up the threads at the end. That gives his books a sprawling and epic feel, but it can also be frustrating and confusing as a reader if you’re trying to keep track of who did what and why. While I love the way that Ellroy mixes fact and fiction so that you feel like you’re reading the secret history that never made the newspapers it seems like he’s also trying to mimic the messiness of real events. It gives it some authenticity, but it sometimes feel like it’s clashing with attempts to fashion in into a coherent crime novel.

For me it’s always the characters that keep me coming back to Ellroy, and that’s the case here. There’s a mix of courage and cowardice in all of them, and Buzz remains one of my favorites as the guy who knows all the angles but in typical Ellroy fashion can’t resist doing something incredibly stupid. Danny Upshaw is also intriguing because he’s probably the closest Ellroy has come to having one of his leads be pure and uncorrupted, but even Danny isn’t above beating up a witness for information or committing a crime if it advances his cause.

While this doesn’t hit the highs of his best work it’s still a bold creation by a writer that shows the first use of all the elements he’d pull together to hit his peak.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: IQ

IQ IQ by Joe Ide
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free ARC of this from NetGalley.

There’s no shortage of Sherlocks these days. Both CBS’s Elementary and the BBC's Sherlock are doing fun modern day twists on Holmes. When Robert Downey Jr. can tear himself away from his duties as Iron Man he’s been known to play Sherlock as a steampunkish action hero in the movies. Plus, there always new novels featuring the detective being published. Countless other stories inspired by the character are also always circulating like the medical mysteries that Hugh Laurie solved for years on House. So you wouldn’t think that we need yet another variation of Sherlock Holmes.

Thankfully, Joe Ide disagreed and came up with a fresh new take on the world’s most famous consulting detective that is a helluva of a good story and a welcome addition to Sherlockian style books.

Isaiah Quintabe (a/k/a IQ) is a brilliant young man living in a rough area of Los Angeles where he acts as a kind of public service oriented detective for the community. Unfortunately, his services usually only net him baked goods, and Isaiah has a serious need for some cash. That’s when his old roommate Dodson shows up with the offer to figure out who tried to kill a famous rapper for a big payday. Dodson is a hustler that Isaiah doesn’t really trust, but he reluctantly takes the case. His only lead is a security video of a monstrous attack dog who was let loose on the rapper in his own kitchen, but the trail will lead him to a professional killer who loves his work.

The Sherlock influences are pretty obvious from the start. Isaiah is self-contained young man who can make instinctive leaps of logic based on what he observes whose persona can seem cold and off-putting to others. His partner on the case is Dodson which rhymes with Watson if you didn’t notice. There’s an oversized dog that immediately brings to mind The Hound of the Baskervilles. If that’s all there was then this could have been just a Holmes homage without much else going for it.

However, Ide prevents that by coming up with ways to play off the Sherlock tropes. Instead of Dodson being a kiss ass who marvels at IQ’s brilliance their relationship is a contentious one with a troubled history that we get in a parallel plot that also functions as Isaiah’s origin story. I also liked that IQ’s detective skills don’t come from having obscure knowledge like being able to identify the tobacco of Belgian cigarette. Instead he depends on his ability to reason through LA traffic patterns or researching police alarm times as well as applying a common sense rationality to the way people behave to make his deductions, and it comes across as impressive as well as realistic. The backstory of IQ’s life as well and his history with Dodson makes him far more sympathetic as well as giving him legitimate reasons for what he does than Sherlock ever had.

Aside from the Sherlock connections this is also a fast paced mystery/thriller in its own right. We get the hit man character’s perspective, and he’s also built up as being both a very dangerous threat as well as believable. The way that we’re introduced to IQ and Dodson and then get their backstory delivered in installments dovetails nicely with the main story. It’s all got a logical progression and a clever solution that is very satisfying.

Maybe best of all is that IQ is an interesting character that I want to spend more time getting to know. Hopefully, Joe Ide will again follow the example of Arthur Conan Doyle and give us many more stories with this fascinating detective.

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Review: Everybody's Fool

Everybody's Fool Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Richard Russo wasn’t a great writer he might have made a pretty good physicist because he seems to know all about inertia. Or at least he’s an expert at having his characters struggle against its force whether they're trying to get moving or change direction.

This sequel to Nobody's Fool returns us to the blue collar town of Bath in upstate New York. A change in his circumstances from the previous book has made Donald Sullivan relatively prosperous with no need to work the kind of back breaking jobs he’d done for most of his life, but at 70 he’s just received some very bad news about his health. Sully’s old nemesis, Douglas Raymer, is now the police chief, but no one respects him including Raymer himself. His wife died just as she was about to leave him for another man, and Raymer is obsessed with learning the identity of this guy by using the only clue he has, a remote control for a garage door opener.

In addition to Sully and Raymer we catch up with several other Bath residents. Rub feels forsaken and heartbroken that he doesn’t get to spend all day working with his best friend Sully anymore. Carl Roebuck’s construction company is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and a disgusting unknown substance oozing of the basement in his latest project isn’t going to improve that situation. Ruth used to cheat on her husband with Sully, but even though their affair has cooled off she is growing conflicted about his regular presence in the diner she runs. She’s also worried that about her no-good former son-in-law hanging around now that he’s out of jail despite the restraining order against him. Raymer has to deal with his sassy officer Charice whose sharp tongue often makes him feel even dumber than usual, and her twin brother Jerome isn’t helping his state of mind either.

There’s a couple of things that set this apart from Nobody’s Fool. The first book took place over several months and took its time getting you into the small town rhythms of Sully’s life. Everything here occurs over an eventful 48 hours that begins with a funeral and includes a construction accident, deadly reptiles, a tree pruning mishap, lightning strikes, and a crime spree. Russo does a nice job of filling us in on the back stories of the previous novel while catching us up on what’s happened since, but as with Nobody’s Fool or Empire Falls the real charm lies not with the story but with the characters.

You’d think that with small town folks like these would be fairly dull, but Russo gives us the rich inner lives of each person he shifts the focus to so that each of them feels like the hero of their own epic story. Even a pretty simple and stupid guy like Rub, whose biggest dreams are of free cheeseburgers, becomes a minor tragedy as he reflects on how much he misses working with Sully every day and faces the realization that things will never be like that again. However, Russo is also constantly throwing in touches of comedy that keep things from becoming maudlin and morose.

Sully is as big a draw here as he was in the first novel. There he was an aging rogue who was determined to live his own way even if he acknowledged that his stubbornness was preventing him from ever getting ahead. Older now and facing his own mortality Sully has started to reflect a bit more on what his actions mean for the lives of others.

Raymer is the second major piece and maybe more of an accomplishment for Russo. Moving an existence character like Sully forward ten years has the advantage of starting with a known quantity. Raymer was a very minor figure in the first book who was portrayed as a complete idiot. Turning him from that into a sympathetic guy who constantly thinks of himself as a fool who is failing at everything was no easy task. He could have come across as self-pitying or tiresome, but I found myself engaged and rooting hard for Raymer to pull his act together.

As with other two Russo books I’ve read it did seem to go on a bit too long, and there were a few too many story twists and turns. Still, he’s got an incredible knack for writing about these small town people and immersing us in their lives to the point where I’m interested and entertained by pretty much anything they’re doing. It’s a great follow up to Nobody’s Fool with the same warmth and humor.

One thing did bum me out while reading this. Nobody’s Fool was adapted into a very good movie starring Paul Newman as Sully. Newman died in 2008 so obviously he couldn’t reprise the role, but that film also had Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was just starting out at the time, playing Raymer. Reading this now I was repeatedly struck by the thought this would have been a fantastic part for Hoffman to come back to. More’s the pity.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah, the post-war years. America’s golden age when things were so much better than they are today. When no injustice ever occurred, and no one was unfairly treated. Every pay check was a fortune, every meal a banquet, and the worst crime was the odd rapscallion stealing a pie off a window sill. Or maybe sometimes the bisected body of a woman who had been brutally tortured would be left in an empty lot which would put a wildly corrupt police force in a frenzied media spotlight as they fruitlessly tried to solve the murder.

It really was a simpler time…

This was the book where James Ellroy stepped his game up from promising mystery writer to a creator of epic historical fiction by mixing a famous unsolved murder with seedy LA history via flawed fictional characters. Our narrator is Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichart, a former boxer turned LAPD officer just after World War II. Bucky agrees to fight another cop named Lee Blanchard as part of a departmental publicity stunt. The boxing match makes them partners, but it’s Lee’s girlfriend Kay who unites all three of them into a family. It’s a dead woman that eventually starts to tear them all to pieces.

In reality Elizabeth Short was just another young woman who came to LA with stars in her eyes, but her unsolved murder became one of those crimes that stuck in the public consciousness. Ellroy has talked and written a great deal about how he poured a lot of his own unresolved feelings about his own mother’s unsolved murder into the Dahlia case, and if there’s one thing you’re sure of by the time you’re done reading it’s that he knows what it’s like to be obsessed and haunted by dead women.

Ellroy is also fascinated by the shady history of LA and its police department, and he uses that knowledge to craft a fantastically violent and corrupt world where the cops are often worse than the criminals they’re arresting. Almost everyone involved the investigation has their own agendas, and the methods used to get what they want are brutal. Nobody gets out clean when it comes to the Dahlia, least of all those who give the most while trying to learn who killed her.

This is a great crime story with a hard boiled edge that was one of the books that made me a huge fan of James Ellroy.

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Review: Revolver

Revolver Revolver by Duane Swierczynski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One crime. Three generations. And a whole lot of Bloody Marys.

In 1965 Philadelphia police officer Stan Walczak and his partner are shot to death in a bar. 30 years later Stan’s son Jim is a homicide detective who is torn between working the case of a high profile killing of a young woman vs. tracking down the man he believes killed his father who was recently released from prison on another charge. Cut to 2015 where Jim’s daughter Audrey is a forensic science student who wants to investigate the murder of her grandfather as a project for school and unwittingly begins asking questions that bring up a lot of dangerous secrets.

Duane Swierczynski is almost always a fun read, and this time out he’s adding a bit more depth. This is mainly a family drama with a crime story. The best parts of the book are where it explores the three main characters. In Stan’s story we find a man who sees himself as a working class guy who just wants to do his job, and then go home to drink some beers and read the paper. He doesn’t want to be a hero or rock the boat, but that’s the role being thrust on him by his new partner, George Wildey. He’s also got more than a few hang-ups that this new partner is black. Jim wants to be the good detective and reliable family man that he seems to be, but he’s haunted by the death of his father and often finds himself in a bar rather than going home after work. Audrey is the family black sheep whose academic career is about to go down in flames, but she seems more concerned with finding her next Bloody Mary than anything else.

Swierczynski also does a top notch job of making his three Philadelphia time periods seem vivid and alive. Whether it’s explaining the history and look of a particular neighborhood, racial tensions, the background music, or the food being eaten it all feels like you’re walking the streets with the characters.

The one thing I was a shade let down by was the overall mystery part. There’s some fairly complicated secrets underlying the whole story, and that’s the part of the book that feels both a bit too elaborate but also short changed at the same time. None of the main characters really do all that much to advance the plot, and almost everything they learn is just told to them at various points by other characters with only their general poking around providing the impetus to that. By the end I’ve got a lot of questions remaining that aren’t addressed.

It’s a solid and entertaining read with a lot of things I very much enjoyed although it could have used a bit more investigation and explanation for my tastes. Call it 3.439 stars.

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Monday, August 1, 2016

Do I Know You?

You Will Know Me You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 2016 Summer Olympics are getting ready to start this week, and after reading this I’ll be leery of any heartwarming features about athletes and their families because it seems like they won’t scratch the surface of the toll it probably took on all of them to get there.

Devon Knox is an extraordinary young gymnast with a real chance to become an Olympian, and her parents, Katie and Eric, have made this goal the focus of their entire lives. However, the shocking death of someone connected to their gym causes a disruption that unveils secrets, lies, jealousies, and manipulations that threaten to undo everything.

As with her other recent novels Megan Abbott once again uses a backdrop dominated by adolescent girls as the basis for the story, but this one has a more decidedly adult point of view with most of the story is told to us via Katie’s third party perceptions. As a mother who has sacrificed enormous amounts of time, effort, and money to support Devon no one could question her dedication, but Katie sometimes worries about what their relentless pursuit of this single dream has cost their family including the often overlooked younger brother Drew.

The book digs deeply into the whole sub-culture of gymnastics and creates the environment and characters so vividly that the reader is completely immersed in it. Whether it’s explaining how a minor misstep can hurt a score or describing the various injuries common to the girls it all feels incredibly authentic. Explaining that world to us is probably the easiest challenge Mighty Megan had in this one because once again it’s her incredible knack for putting us in the head of a conflicted character who has to face up to some ugly truths where the book really shines because that’s where it asks how much you can know someone else even if they’re the ones closest to you.

I especially like the theme about greatness requiring sacrifice and the questions that get explored that idea. Devon might be able to do something that very few can, but does that mean she should have had to give up a normal childhood and teenage experiences? Is she doing this because it’s her dream or because so many adults around her have their own reasons for wanting her to succeed? Should the Knoxes have dedicated so much of themselves towards a single goal of one child, or does a parent of a kid with an extraordinary talent have a responsibility to do anything to see it fulfilled?

This might be the best book that Megan Abbott has done, and it’s because of the way that she weaves all that together in a story that is crime story, family drama, and reflections on the real cost of the pursuit of excellence in almost any endeavor.

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We Didn't Start the Fire

The Fireman The Fireman by Joe Hill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, that was a spoonful of nonsense.

It had a promising start with the outbreak of a disease known as Dragonscale which first manifests as dark marks on the skin. Getting a free tribal tattoo might not sound that bad, but the real problem is that eventually infected people burst into flames and burn to death. The damage caused by walking blowtorches and the fear of being infected have society teetering on the brink of collapse.

Harper is a young nurse who discovers that she has contracted Dragonscale and she’s pregnant. If that isn’t bad enough her jerk-face husband Jakob goes coocoo for Coco-Puffs and thinks they should just kill themselves. During a desperate moment Harper finds help in the form of a mysterious guy dressed as a fireman who leads her to a hidden community of infected people who have found a way to survive the disease. Unfortunately, discord within that group proves as dangerous as the vigilante Cremation Squads that have started murdering the infected.

It’s a strong premise, but unfortunately there’s a number of factors that drag it down. First and foremost is that it’s way too long. Hill can’t seem to commit to one main story, and he keeps adding on to it like a late-night TV commercial promising, “But that’s not all!” This causes a lot of drift with a long swath of the book not even touching on what’s going on in the outside world and forgetting what should be major characters for long periods of time. It’s also like one of those action movies that never seems to know when to end that goes on 20 minutes past the point where it should have wrapped things up.

I also wasn’t a fan of Harper, and since this whole story is built on the idea of a plucky heroine trying to survive a civilization ending plague then I needed to have at least have some respect for her. Unfortunately, she comes across as twit who never seems to wise up until something terrible happens. Which it does. Repeatedly. I lost count of the number of times where she is shocked by the bad intentions of someone and says things like, “You can’t!” It’s the apocalype, lady. They can, and they will. Her infatuation with Mary Poppins, and Hill’s constant use of it and its songs are also way overdone.

In fact, there’s just too much goddamn music in this book overall with constant quoting of lyrics and talking about various musicians. It's a crutch Hill leans on far too often. Plus, it’s all Jurassic Rock with a smattering of ‘80s pop in there with even an old VJ from MTV having a role to play. It’s 2016, Joe Hill. I don’t need your main character, who is supposedly in her early twenties, lecturing me on what the preference for the Rolling Stones or the Beatles says about a person.

Another piece that flies off this jalopy of a book once it gets up to speed is the nature of the disease itself. There’s a lot of effort spent to convince us that there is a rational scientific reason that people would turn into Zippos, and I can suspend disbelief enough to go with that concept. But when more and more is added to the point where we’re into ideas like people being able to generate and control fire without their clothes burning and even more weirdness then you don’t need Neal deGrasse Tyson to call bullshit on it. Just as he couldn’t seem to commit to one story or another Hill can’t seem to decide if he wanted a more grounded concept with some science behind it or if he wanted to jump full-on into the supernatural pool.

Hill also opted to run home to Daddy in this because the entire book is absolutely rotten with Easter eggs of Stephen King’s work. A few references can be fun, but when Hill essentially ‘borrows’ a character from The Stand including a cute little name trick to underline it then it’s crossed the line. (Harold Cross? For a character who is essentially Harold Lauder? That's weak.*) After a while it started to seem desperate, as if Hill knew things weren’t going well and hoped he might use fan familiarity of his father's books to invoke some of his magic. Hill also seems to have inherited his father’s trait of having a bunch of characters claim that they’re are critically short of time only to have them waste most of it with idle chit-chat and banter that is supposed to be funny and make you like the characters. It’s not, and it doesn’t.

So at this point Hill is 2 for 4 with me, and after this I’m going to need a really good reason to pick up his next one.

* And I didn't think about this until I read Edward Lorn's review where he pointed out that there's also a deaf character named Nick. Come on, Joe Hill. You're better than that.

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The Little Death

Die a Little Die a Little by Megan Abbott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Megan Abbott’s first novel is a nifty little noir set in post-war LA. School teacher Lora King is extremely close to her brother Bill who is a police detective. When Bill meets Alice Steele he falls head over heels for her, and the two are soon married. Alice shows a tireless energy and enthusiasm for life as a homemaker that would make Martha Stewart feel like a lazy slob, but Lora finds herself becoming suspicious of some her new sister-in-law after getting clues indicating that she had a shady past before meeting Bill.

It’s a great turn to have a cop in a mystery novel in an era dominated by men, but he’s mainly used as a supporting character that two woman revolve around. It’s also interesting how Lora finds herself becoming intrigued with what she learns about Alice’s seedy history and starts indulging in her own wild side. The writing shows the Mighty Megan knack for getting inside the head of a conflicted person as well as making both the suburbs and seedy nightclubs come alive with a variety of characters. This is a solid start to a great writer’s career, and I particularly liked the ending.

I’m calling 3.5 stars just because I think she did it even better in her later books.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Taxi Driver

Back Door to L.A. Back Door to L.A. by Jack Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advanced copy of this from the author. I also broke one of my own reviewing rules in doing so because if you’ve ever sent me a message or a friend request asking me to read your self-published book then you probably can’t actually see this right now on Goodreads because I’ve already blocked you. (Hey, I warned you. Try reading someone’s profile before you spam them next time.) However, I really liked Jack Clark’s Nobody's Angel so this wasn’t uncharted waters, and it turned out to be one of those times where I don’t regret making an exception.

Eddie Miles is a Chicago cab driver with an 18 year old daughter, Laura, he hasn’t seen in years after he gave up custody rightsduring the divorce with her mother, and they moved to California. When Laura shows up unexpectedly Eddie is so delighted  that he brushes off hints that she might be in some kind of trouble. Suddenly Laura vanishes in a very troubling way, and Eddie fears that her step-father, a shady ex-cop from LA, might have been involved. When the Chicago police don’t think there’s enough evidence to warrant an investigation Eddie starts hunting for Laura which means talking to his ex-wife and dealing with their unresolved issues.

This is technically a sequel to Nobody’s Angel although you don’t need to have read it to enjoy this one, and like that one it’s kind of hard to pin down the appeal of the books. This has elements of a mystery crime thriller with a missing daughter, but Eddie Miles doesn’t have the very particular set of skills of someone like Liam Neeson in Taken so this isn’t a revenge driven action novel. Eddie’s also not a good detective because he has to hire a private investigator to find information and give him advice so this isn’t really a traditional mystery either.

To be frank, Eddie is a loser. He’s a guy who lost his wife and kid to self-pity and booze, and then he was content to spend almost every waking moment behind the wheel of a cab. He lives in a dump even though he’s made a small fortune by working constantly, and he has no other interests or hobbies and seems to spend most of his time brooding about how the steady decline of the working class has transformed Chicago into a city of only the rich and desperately poor. Eddie is also so willfully oblivious to modern technology that he doesn’t have a computer and tries to do things like rent a car or book a flight over the phone rather than on-line.

But losers make for great noir characters, and that’s what Eddie is. He’s a guy built for earlier times when he could have gone to work with a lunch pail and thermos, and while he’s not stupid, just kind of simple and blunt, he’s cursed with enough self-awareness to realize that he’s bumping his head against his own limitations. That’s what makes him quietly tragic, and it makes the story of him trying to save the one thing in his life he created pretty compelling.

Clark, a cab driver himself, also fills both books about the job, and the interactions with passengers provide the opportunity to develop Eddie’s world view which, of course, is seen through a windshield. One minor thing had me scratching my head because although the book is filled with details about being a cab driver in Chicago there is never once a mention of how Uber or other ride-sharing services which seems odd considering how much of Eddie’s thoughts are about comparing the way things used to be against the world today.*

* Update - I heard from the author about this point, and he explained that he'd actually written this book a few years back before Uber became a thing which explains why it's never addressed.

This is a solid shot of noir told in a tight 250 pages that I liked so much that I’ve got an urge to track down more of Jack Clark’s work as well as re-read Nobody’s Angel.

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