Sunday, May 22, 2016

Slow Cooking With Spenser

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

Spenser tries to track down a serial arsonist. I sure hope he doesn’t get burned by the experience….

OK, I apologize for that one.

Three firefighters were killed in a blaze of undetermined origin, and a year later there are still no answers. That doesn’t sit well with a friend of Spenser’s who is a fireman that thinks the fire was arson and believes the authorities haven’t done enough to find whoever was responsible. Spenser starts nosing around and as usual manages to piss off some very dangerous people in the process.

I’ve noted in other reviews what a fantastic job that Ace Atkins has done in taking over the Spenser character following the death of Robert B. Parker, and this is another great continuation of that work. Once again Spenser is still the same guy that RBP created back in the ‘70s, and yet there’s an amazing freshness and energy for the forty-fourth book in a series.

What’s really interesting about this one is that Atkins is now introducing the very real possibility of change to the Spenserverse. RBP didn’t monkey with the successful formula he’d created after the first 20 or so books. He locked Spenser and the other characters into a kind of limbo where age became meaningless, and yet their past timeline didn’t change. RBP was so committed to keeping things the same that even when he’d occasionally acknowledge the passage of time by letting Spenser’s dog Pearl die of old age he still avoided any impact by just having him get another dog that looked exactly like her and naming her Pearl also.

Part of the appeal of a series is the familiarity so it’s understandable why RBP played it like that, but a lack of change also removes the possibility of growth to the characters as well as real consequences to their actions. Atkins started his time with the series with everyone in their same roles, but he’s been subtly laying the groundwork for change to occur. Now he’s starting to deliver on that with characters like Quirk and Vinnie getting new jobs that actually shift their dynamics a bit as well as adding a new female cop as a frenemy to Spenser. There’s also a couple of other real and permanent adjustments to Spenser’s world including one event that’s probably the biggest shake-up in thirty books.

All of these things have helped things feel less permanent in the series, and that helps add a sense of stakes to the proceedings. For example, when Spenser fights a large thug in one scene the outcome is very much in doubt, and making Spenser a little more fallible adds drama to the story. Overall, there’s a sense that Atkins has been quietly shaping Spenser to be a better fit for the 21st century rather than keeping him in an increasingly unrealistic stasis. As one character tells Spenser, “Those days are long over. Get with the fucking times or they’re gonna get with you.”

It’s the way that Atkins artfully balances the updating of the series while still knowing and respecting the core of what made it great that makes his version of Spenser such a treat to read.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Quiet Apocalypse

Good Morning, Midnight Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

T S Eliot wrote that the world would end with a whimper instead of a bang, but if you’re were in space or at the frozen wasteland at the top of the planet you might not even hear that much when it finally happens.

Augustine is an elderly astronomer who refuses to leave his Arctic research station after an unspecified world emergency causes the evacuation of everyone else there. He soon loses contact with the outside world, but a mysterious young girl becomes his only companion. Meanwhile, Sully is a female astronaut on the spaceship Aether that is returning from a mission to explore the moons of Jupiter, but they’ve lost all contact with Earth even though their equipment is functioning perfectly. The unsettling silence from home and what it means begins to deeply affect the crew.

Augustine and Sully, with one surrounded by ice and the other floating through a merciless vacuum, may be in vastly different circumstances, but they have a lot in common, too. They’re both people who deliberately avoided family entanglements and steady domestic lives to pursue their scientific dreams. In his younger days Augustine was always ready to move on to the next observatory once his chronic womanizing had worn out his welcome somewhere. Sully left her daughter in the care of her ex-husband to pursue her quest of going into space. Their isolation and fear make both of them reflect on their lives as they wonder if their choices had any meaning at all one way or another considering the now silent Earth.

This one belongs to be shelved along with other literary apocalypses like The Road or Station Eleven although this is definitely it’s own thing. (However, the cover certainly appears to be designed to evoke Station Eleven.) It’s extremely well written, and at about 250 pages it doesn’t have a wasted word. It’s by far the quietest end of the world story I’ve read, and that’s fitting with its settings as well as the lack of noise from Earth being the thing that lets you know something has gone terribly wrong.

It’s also got some nicely straightforward and pragmatic descriptions about the logistics of life in a mostly abandoned scientific station and a state of the art spaceship rocketing towards home. There’s enough to make both these places feel vivid, but whereas some books of this type become all about how you survive end-of-the-world scenarios this one keeps it focus on the inner lives of its two main characters which ends up being more compelling than how Augustine gets a snowmobile started or Sully helps fix a problem on her ship.

It’s the silence and the questions about what may have happened that lurk in the background here and give the book a haunting quality, but those questions end up being relatively unimportant. It’s the story of these two people and their deeper connections that really matters.

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

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

There's Another Davenport In Iowa

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

The more things change the more they stay the same. For example, Lucas Davenport may not be a cop anymore, but that doesn’t mean that he’s done chasing killers.

Lucas got fed up with certain elements of his old gig as a state investigator in Minnesota so he quit, but he’s still the first call that the governor makes when he needs a bloodhound. The gov is now running for president, and he got a bad vibe off some people he met on the primary campaign trail in Iowa. He fears that some whackos plan to do more than just vote for him and are going to assassinate the leading candidate of his party, Michaela Bowden. Davenport is soon tracing a network of political crackpots whose first instinct is to accuse him of being part of a federal conspiracy when he tries to talk to any of them.

This follows the standard formula of the Prey novels in giving us the parallel stories of Lucas and the people he’s trying to find. This time the villains are a middle aged woman and her son whose hard economic circumstances as rural farm folks have convinced them that Bowden is part of a system that has been deliberately keeping them down. When they learn that Davenport is trying to find them they desperately try to divert and stall him until they can pull off their plan, and their methods include murder.

Once again Sandford delivers a tremendously satisfying thriller. One of the great things about his books is that they depend on the bad guys being clever, but there are no Insane McGeniuses pulling off Bond villain levels of schemes. Instead they’re just people whose view of the world is about 10 degrees off center combined with certain paranoid and ruthless tendencies that make them dangerous but not unstoppable killing machines. Likewise, Davenport is as smart, capable, determined, and sometimes ruthless as you'd want the hero of this kind of book to be, but he isn’t some bulletproof action hero or a Sherlock Holmes type of detective either.

Sandford also still has a reporter’s instincts for having the pulse of current events as well as a knack for tapping into them for stories. Here, with a female presidential candidate campaigning in a time where an overworked sense of outrage and conspiracy theories have helped create an environment of seething political hatred that is immune to facts, logic, or common decency, we get a story that seems all too plausible. However, Davenport blessedly remains pretty much apolitical with little interest in who gets elected or getting drawn into debates.

You also have to give Sandford credit for being willing to shake up a winning formula this deep into a series. Shifting Davenport from a big shot Minnesota cop who can make things happen by picking up a phone to a guy without a badge wandering around Iowa makes for him going through an interesting adjustment. At times not being subject to the usual rules is an advantage he can use, but Lucas finds himself frequently frustrated with his lack of authority in these circumstances. It’s a nice bridge to what seems to be a new era in the series, and as a long time Sandford fan I’m excited to see what comes next for Davenport.

One side note: I’ve gotten several comments on my Sandford reviews asking if you can just read one book or if you need to complete the series for it to make sense. (My standard response is that most of the books are self-contained stories that can be read alone, but you will know how some events in previous Davenport books turned out from casual references. There are also a couple that do act as direct sequels to earlier ones.) This would be an excellent place for anyone who hasn’t read them to jump in because it’s the start of a new phase for the series with Davenport interacting with mostly new characters so it’s pretty light on the previous elements, but still has all the hallmarks of what makes them all such great crime thrillers.

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind Camillus Fly’s Photography Studio Near Fremont Street

Epitaph Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”To understand the gunfight in Tombstone, stop — now — and watch a clock for thirty seconds. Listen to it tick while you try to imagine one half of a single minute so terrible it will pursue you all your life and far beyond the grave."

One of the things I find fascinating about the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral'* is how the same set of facts can be presented to show one side or the other as the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys’. Were the Earps and Doc Holliday heroes who fearlessly faced down some dastardly cattle rustlers and thieves, or were they corrupt opportunists who essentially murdered some innocent ranchers as part of their efforts to take over the town of Tombstone?

As with most things the reality probably lies somewhere in the middle, and what Mary Doria Russell has done so brilliantly with this historical fiction is to show us a version that feels a lot more true than many of the non-fiction accounts that ascribe some kind of agenda to the actions of those involved. Her depiction here shows all the participants as not mythical incorruptible Western lawmen nor mustache twirling villains. Instead, she tells a story in which they are just flawed people who found themselves at a nasty intersection of local politics, business, and crime that led to series of events that eventually found a group of men trading bullets in a vacant lot that was unfortunately just the beginning of even more violence that would cost them dearly.

The previous Russell book Doc focused on John Henry Holliday and his friendship with the Earps through their days in Dodge City. This one puts Wyatt in the forefront, but like Doc we get the viewpoints of many characters. For example, a lot of the story comes to us via Josie Marcus, the woman who left Sheriff John Behan for his political rival Wyatt which was another key factor in escalating the tensions in Tombstone.

The first part of the book that details the events leading up to the infamous gunfight is a stew of conflicting agendas enhanced by post-Civil War grudges and shady political moves that combine until even the most frantic stirring couldn’t keep that particular pot from boiling over. A lot of this reminded me of HBO’s Deadwood in the way that various schemes play out. There’s also distinct parallels to American society today like the town’s two competing newspapers choosing sides and trying to spin events like a cable news network.

Another interesting aspect is how much time is spent on what happened after the gunfight, and unlike a version such as the film Tombstone which glamorized the ‘vendetta ride of Wyatt Earp’ this version of the story dwells on the immense price that everyone involved paid in one way or another. The book pretty much destroys the romanticized myth of the Old West in which disputes can be permanently settled by showdowns at high noon, and instead presents the much messier reality in which violence kicks off revenge cycles when there’s no strong authority around to put a stop to the whole mess.

Although the Earps and Doc Holliday are definitely the heroes of this story Russell deglamorizes them as legends. Instead she skillfully and compassionately shows how their complicated lives and a variety of good and bad decisions led them to that pivotal thirty seconds, and how those moments haunted and defined their reputations forever afterwards.

* - It’s common knowledge that the shooting didn’t actually happen at the OK Corral, but as Russell writes, “… took too long to set the type for 'Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind Camillus Fly’s Photography Studio Near Fremont Street.'”

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Betting Against the House

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.”
- Warren Buffett

Some of the most valuable financial lessons I ever learned came from comic books back in the ‘90s when a bubble fueled by idiotic speculation on crappy books marketed as ‘collector’s editions’ eventually burst. It left me with several copies of all the variant covers for Jim Lee’s X-Men #1, and the realization that something is only as valuable as what someone will actually pay you for it. It was also eye opening to discover that a large company like Marvel would cut its own throat in the long term by compromising quality which alienated its most loyal readers for a short term gain and resulted in the company filing for bankruptcy in ’96. (Don’t worry. They landed on their feet.)

A decade later I didn’t pay much attention to the real estate market because I wasn’t a home owner at the time, but occasionally I’d see or read some news about the fantastic housing market that was booming. People were seeing the value of their homes skyrocket, house prices were soaring, they were still selling, and a whole lot of people were getting very rich as analysts promised that the gravy train would roll on forever.

“Well, that’s not gonna end well,” I’d think remembering all those bagged copies of The Death of Superman and Image comics sitting in my parents basement. Sadly, it didn’t occur to me to try and capitalize on those idle thoughts, but I’d like to think that if I had met any of the guys featured in this book about that time I’d have drawn on that experience and handed them my every dime I had to bet on the whole thing falling apart.

Michael Lewis has written a succinct and fascinating explanation as to why and how a handful of people recognized the coming financial crisis years before it hit and found ways to profit enourmously from it. Some were smart and cynical Wall Street insiders who knew that a whole lot of people in their industry didn’t even realize the risk that their institutions had taken on when they were buying up blocks of subprime mortgages. An eccentric former medical doctor turned hedge fund manager was sure mortgages being handed out to anyone who asked would became a wave of defaults when the low teaser interest rates expired after a couple of years. A couple of outsiders who had made a small fortune by playing stock market longshots saw the upside in laying out a relatively low amount of cash that would pay off big if things went south.

You might wonder at why no one sounded an alarm if they saw the collapse coming, and the short answer is that they couldn’t get anyone to listen to them when they tried. It was so inconceivable to the banks and Wall Street that the real estate market might collapse that these people pretty much had to invent ways to bet on it happening. Even the ones who could see the writing on the wall would find themselves frequently shocked at the levels of greed and stupidity they’d encounter as well as the utter lack of government oversight that might have prevented it.

There’s a lot of fascinating human elements behind all of these stories, and Mike Burry, the doctor turned financial guru, is a particularly interesting person to read about. Obviously there’s many complex financial pieces that have to be explained and much of it was so complicated that even the people involved didn’t understand all of it. So there's a few parts where I found myself scratching my head. However, just as he made the story of finding new ways to measure the performance and value of baseball players in Moneyball interesting Lewis also manages to make his explanations of things like credit default swaps readable.

It’s slightly depressing to read since it’s a reminder of the whole meltdown in 2008, but it’s nice to hear that at least a few deserving people got something out of the whole mess.

I’d also highly recommend the film adaptation of this which mined the story for black humor and found very clever ways to explain the financial pieces.

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