Saturday, June 25, 2016

Plane Talk

Before the Fall Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The main reason I wanted to read this is because I’m such a huge fan of the TV show Fargo. Noah Hawley is the main producer and writer responsible for transforming the great Coen brothers’ movie into something that has risen to the top of my viewing list even during this Golden Age of Television which has filled so many DVRs. If you haven’t seen it yet then watch it right now. Go on. We’ll wait. It’s only two seasons of ten episodes each so it won’t take you that long. Then you’ll be ready to properly appreciate Hawley’s talents. All done? Good. Let’s talk about the book then.

A private plane carrying eleven people crashes in the ocean shortly after takeoff from Martha’s Vineyard. A middle-aged painter named Scott Burroughs survives the impact and saves both himself and a small boy by making a miraculous swim to shore. Scott is at first hailed as a hero, but he wants only to be left alone. Since the plane was also carrying a media tycoon who ran a cable news network and a wealthy financial advisor who was about to be indicted for shady dealings there are a lot of questions about why it crashed. An opinionated bully of a political commentator from the news network uses his show to spin wild conspiracy theories as well as inciting a witch hunt against Scott for having the unmitigated gall to survive while rich and important people died.

There’s two parallel stories going on here. The first is a Bridge of San Luis Rey kind of thing where we follow the lives of the people on the plane as well as others impacted by the crash. The second involves Scott trying to cope with the crash and its aftermath. There’s also a mystery lurking in the background of what ultimately did happen on board the jet.

A lot of the history and reflections of the characters have to do with wealth. As a person who wasn’t rich and was essentially just hitching a ride because of a chance encounter there’s an interesting dynamic in that Scott was in this bubble of privilege for only moments before being thrown out of it violently. His lack of money and yet being with people who had it in that moment where their bank accounts couldn’t save them is seen as suspicious. The lingering presence of wealth hangs over the backgrounds and actions of the other characters, too. Everyone has to come to terms in some way with how money - serious money – is what makes the world go round. Here’s a bit I particularly liked:

“But money, like gravity, is a force that clumps, drawing in more and more of itself, eventually creating the black hole that we know as wealth. This is not simply the fault of humans. Ask any dollar bill and it will tell you it prefers the company of hundreds to the company of ones. Better to be a sawbuck in a billionaire’s account than a dirty single in the torn pocket of an addict.”

I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending which seemed rushed and as if it was kind of what Hawley wished could happen in this situation rather than what actually would. Still, this was a very well written story with many profound bits of wisdom about life, death, art, money, media, and air travel gone wrong. It’s the same kind of story telling skill he’s shown himself to be a master of on Fargo.

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

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Plus Expenses

Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 3 Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 3 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The thing about being a Marvel fan is that I’ve been reading their comics off-and-on since I was a kid in the ‘70s, usually see their movies in the theaters a couple of times each, and watch all their TV shows. (Not just the Netflix ones either. I’m talking both Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter.) Yet there can still be a moment while I’m reading one of their books that I'll scratch my head and wonder who the hell Mattie Franklin is and when exactly was there a third Spider-Woman? *sigh* Well, that’s what Wikipedia is for.

Everyone’s favorite ex-superhero turned private detective crosses paths with superhero hatin’ newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson. At first he tries to hire Jessica to find out Spider-Man’s secret identity and after that doesn’t work out like he wants JJJ is mightily pissed at JJ. That complicates matter when Jessica later discovers that Jameson’s adopted daughter, Mattie, is a minor superhero and in terrible trouble. On the personal front Jessica is still dating Scott Lang (a/k/a Ant-Man), but her secrets and his hesitation about her particular brand of crazy may trainwreck the relationship before it really has a chance to get started.

Alias continues to stand out as being a part of the Marvel universe, but also apart from it. Jessica keeps getting sucked into superhero business despite her best efforts to stay away from cases involving people in tights, and her position on the fringes gives us a new angle to look at all of stories that usually fall through the cracks. It’s also one of the most mature comics I’ve seen from Marvel with sex, profanity, and adult themes with subjects like drug abuse and rape dealt with directly and far more frankly than you’d ever see in of most of their titles.

I particularly liked the first issue in which the entire story of JJJ hiring Jessica and what happens afterwards is told in a unique way. A couple of larger panels are on each page and instead of dialogue balloons or captions the dialogue is in a type face font placed at the edges. This gives you a vibe that you’re looking at photos and a transcripts of conversations so it’s like you’re reading a case file. It’s one of the most clever and offbeat playing with the typical comic book format that I’ve seen.

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It Got Weird

End of Watch End of Watch by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I look at it as the glass being half-full then this is the best of the books King has done with the Bill Hodges character. On the other hand it’s still pretty much a shoulder shrug of a three star read which tells you how little I thought of this trilogy so I’m pretty sure that cup is half-empty after all.

Uncle Stevie tried his hand at doing a straight up crime thriller with Mr. Mercedes, but I found it to be a painful slog of poor plotting, uneven pacing, and a main character who came across as a reckless and irresponsible jackass. Finders Keepers had a pretty decent concept, but again it’s biggest flaw revolved around Hodges himself because he was almost completely irrelevant to the story which again highlighted that King struggles with mystery novels.

Now here in the third book King has thrown in the towel on trying to write a straight-up action thriller/ detective novel and gone back to his roots with a villain who has psychic and telekinetic abilities. By introducing spooky powers King doesn’t have to rely on trying to put together a logical chain of events that depend on characters reasonably deducing things or behaving rationally. Instead, he can have them following hunches and feelings, and the supernatural element keeps him from having to twist the plot into pretzels to make it all work. Like a lot of King novels most of the characters also seem to have an uncanny knack for guessing at what's happening elsewhere which seems more acceptable with all the bizarre stuff going on.

As a Stephen King horror story by itself End of Watch would probably rank somewhere in the middle of his works. The problem is that it builds on the far weaker Mr. Mercedes as a foundation. Finders Keepers can be skipped, but it’s telling that you can bypass one-third of the story and still follow the major narrative. So what you end up is a trilogy that started as a very flawed crime thriller, had a second book with zero impact on the main story, and then goes paranormal in the third act with only some minor hints dropped in the previous book that it’s coming.

The only reason to like these three books being stringed together is if King managed to make you love the main character, Bill Hodges, and his two assistants/friends. I didn’t. I mean, I really didn’t. When he wasn’t hiding critical evidence and inspiring a maniac to seek new levels of carnage Hodges came across as this bland, grandfatherly figure. Mostly he exists to ask tech questions of his younger colleagues who seem to look up to him for some reason. I never really buy him as a tough ex-cop, and he sure as hell isn’t a brilliant detective which is shown yet again here when the major breakthrough in this one comes from Hodges asking a very basic question that he failed to do in an earlier interview. 

King tries desperately to make the reader care about Hodges and his two friends/assistants, but I’m left thinking that it would have been better for Uncle Stevie to just do this basic story as one book which could have been easily accomplished. Finders Keepers also could have been a better stand-alone book without trying to cram it into this narrative.

One other note of complaint: I doubt that King accepts product placement fees for his books, but I was really starting to wonder if MacDonald’s hadn’t paid him off when the first several pages feature an adult EMT completely losing his shit over the prospect of going through the drive-thru. This guy, who a few pages later will be portrayed as a clear headed hero in a crisis, has this gem of a line when he sees the yellow arcs of a MacDonald’s sign: ”The Golden Tits of America!”

Classy. I guess I wouldn't turn down CPR from the guy if I had a heart attack, but I can only hope he's not too busy making boob jokes and doesn't have a hunk of half-chewed Egg McMuffin in his mouth if he gives me mouth-to-mouth.

Overall, I found all three books underwhelming. It really should have been one or two good Stephen King novels vs. two-thirds of a very flawed crime trilogy that Uncle Stevie tried to salvage by going weird in the last one.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What's Your Poison?

The Poison Artist The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Caleb Maddox is a toxicologist who just wants to drown his sorrows after an ugly breakup with his girlfriend. At a bar he meets the beautiful and bewitching Emmeline who has a taste for absinthe but then vanishes into the night. Caleb is instantly obsessed and determined to find her, but he finds himself getting drawn into the investigation of several murders when he tries to track her down.

Nothing good happens when you start chasing the green fairy, people.

This is very well written thriller that creates an intensely brooding and spooky atmosphere. Caleb navigates the cold and foggy streets of San Francisco in a kind of trance fueled by booze, heartache over his girlfriend, and his strange infatuation with Emmeline. He seems to be operating in a dreamlike state at times, but that tone contrasts nicely with the more straight line narrative of what’s going on with the murders.

The killings aren’t the only mystery to be solved here. What was the cause of the fight between Caleb and his girlfriend? What’s up the hints of an ugly tragedy in Caleb’s past? Who exactly is Emmeline, and why is Caleb instantly so determined to find her?

What’s even more impressive is that all of this is dealt with an incredibly tight 274 pages. The book doesn’t feel a bit rushed, but there’s also not an ounce of fat on it. Plus, for all it’s moody atmosphere there’s incredibly fascinating hard science mixed in with Caleb’s toxicology skills coming into play at several points.

This would be a great book to be reading in a dimly lit bar on a rainy night. Just don’t get into the absinthe. That’s when things get weird.

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Who Tells Your Story?

Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like a lot of people I’ve been listening to the Hamilton musical album non-stop and read this because it was the source of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspiration to create the brilliant Broadway show. The idea that a dense biography of an American Founding Father who was probably best known to the general public as the guy on the the ten dollar bill and the subject of a pretty funny Got Milk? commercial would someday lead to the creation of an incredibly popular musical that blends show tunes with hip-hop is only a little less likely than the life of Alexander Hamilton himself.*

(And if you’re interested in reading a great account of the impact the show has on people I highly recommend this article that sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote about taking his daughter to see it.)

The circumstances of Hamilton’s birth on a Caribbean island as the illegitimate son of a divorced woman and a fortune seeking Scotsman were the first strike against him, and things only got worse when his father abandoned him and his mother died. As an orphan with no money and an embarrassing social status for the time young Alexander probably should have lived a short, hard life and been forgotten by history. However, he also had a brilliant mind, a talent for writing, and an enormous appetite for work that was fueled by relentless ambition. After a hurricane devastated his island Hamilton wrote an account of the tragedy so moving that a collection was taken up to send him to America to attend college.

Hamilton arrived in New York just as the American Revolution was about to start, and his talents landed him a pivotal position on George Washington’s staff as well leading troops in the field and playing a key role during the Battle of Yorktown that essentially won the war. Hamilton’s role in the writing of The Federalist with James Madison and John Jay along with his political maneuvering was critical in getting the Constitution ratified. HIs biggest contributions to the United States probably came from his bold actions as the first secretary of the treasury when he not only got the young nation on sound economic footing but also used money as a tool to link the fates of the frequently bickering states together as a way of achieving unity and promoting a strong federal government. As Washington’s most trusted advisor Hamilton was critical in shaping the future of the country he did so much to help create.

All of this should have meant that Hamilton would be remembered as one of the most important figures in American history but he also made powerful enemies including Thomas Jefferson. The struggle between those who believed power should reside in the federal government or with the states became a bitter fight in which Hamilton was the victim of relentless political attacks that slandered his reputation and made him a perpetual lightning rod of controversy. The conflict would lead to the creation of the two party political system as well as a constant tug of war between factions about how much authority the American government should have that continues today.

Hamilton frequently didn’t do himself any favors with his outspoken nature, and his insecurities about his illegitimacy caused him to be hypersensitive to insults. His basic cynicism and mistrust of people made him wary of popular trends and leaving the fate of America in the hands of the general public who he felt could be too easily swayed by a mob mentality and demagogues. (Geez, where could he have gotten that idea?) This left him vulnerable to attacks by his enemies who smeared him as an elitist at best or a schemer plotting to return America to English control or set up an American monarchy at worst. He badly hurt his own political party by feuding with President John Adams who became another enemy who would smear Hamilton long after his death. Hamilton also had the distinction of being one of the first American politicians to be caught up in a sex scandal, and his reaction to it by publishing a tell-all memoir called The Reynolds Pamphlet was a miscalculation that severely damaged his reputation.

Propaganda from his enemies and his own combative nature and thin skin hurt his standing during his life and limited his political prospects. When his long and complex relationship with Aaron Burr ultimately led to Hamilton’s death after their infamous duel his enemies would continue to slander his reputation while his widow Eliza would spend the rest of her life defending it and try to make sure his accomplishments weren’t forgotten.

What Chernow has done with this sympathetic portrait of a brilliant but flawed man is illustrate how America owes so much to Hamilton’s genius. By detailing Hamilton’s collaborations and battles with the other Founding Fathers it shows that they weren’t saints with some glorious vision of what America should be. They engaged in compromises and accepted contradictions in the interests of getting things done, and they were consumed by the fears of all the ways the country could fail. They were also just as capable of acting in short-sighted, mean spirited, and despicable ways as any politician today, Thomas Jefferson in particular comes across as a hypocritical sneaky jerkface that I would never vote for.

After reading this it’s easy to understand how Hamilton the remarkable person inspired Hamilton the remarkable musical.

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Astonishingly Good

Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1: Gifted Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1: Gifted by Joss Whedon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grant Morrison did an ambitious run on New X-Men, but that story had to be walked back in the interests of continuing it in on-going mainstream superhero comics. Marvel made a wise choice when they tapped Joss Whedon, lord of the TV geeks back then, to help get the X-Men out of the black leather and back into spandex. (It’s reasonable to assume that his work here was a big reason that he’d later get the gig writing and directing the Avengers movies.)

Kitty Pryde returns to the school as Cyclops is forming a new team with the goal to promote the mutant cause by putting a flashy group out in public that would be more like the better known superheroes than a bunch of underground militant activists. Hence, the return of the tights. No sooner does the line-up get set than they get word that a scientists has created a so-called cure to the mutant gene that causes a variety of ethical debates as well as fear of what that could do in the wrong hands. This happens just as a new alien villain called Ord starts causing trouble. Oh, and a character comes back from the grave because nobody stays dead in comic books.

I admit that even though I’m a huge fan of Whedon that I had a few reservations about this when I first read it about ten years ago. I grumbled about the return to a more baseline version after Morrison’s mind-bending run seemed to offer new and bold directions, and I really disliked yet another instance of a dead X-Man pulling a Lazarus.

However, my inner comic fanboy doesn’t rage quite as hard against that particular machine these days. I’ve come to accept that continuity can provide a useful foundation, but that it too often becomes a crushing weight that overwhelms stories so I tend to think of each particular era as a self-contained bubble of a story. Once I accepted that I was a much happier comic book fan overall.

So in my head canon Morrison’s run is one version of the X-Men, Whedon’s is another, and Whedon’s run is pretty great. The look and tone of the X-Men movies had infiltrated the comics to some degree, but now a decade’s worth of superhero films has shown us that you can make them colorful and fun after all. (At least they can be if they’re not directed by Zach Snyder.) So putting a team back in bright costumes and having them fight a genocidal alien makes me think that Whedon was a bit ahead of the curve on this idea of letting comic books be comic books. At the same time the storyline of the mutant cure puts the social issues of bigotry and tolerance that the X-titles represent front and center, too.

There’s also great dramatic tension among this team with Wolverine pissed off at Cyclops for taking up with Emma Frost so soon after Jean Grey’s latest death. Kitty doesn’t trust Emma because she doesn’t buy the reformed villain act. Emma thinks everyone but her is a na├»ve idiot. Beast is conflicted about the idea of a cure and a chance to be fully human again which infuriates Wolverine who believes that no X-Man should reject their status as mutant. All of this is dealt with in both physical and verbal fights, and of course the Whedon dialogue laces all of this with plenty of humor.

Overall, this a really solid comic with a serious storyline that doesn’t forget the fun factor.

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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Lost In The Mystery

True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray by James Renner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free copy from the publisher for review.

A reporter who had been fired for his refusal to kill a story about a politician’s sex scandal goes into a strip club and during a lap dance he strikes up a conversation that helps reignite his passion for writing true crime stories. So he decides to look into the disappearance of a college student that sends him down a self-destructive path as he copes with some ugly family history as well as fears about his own nature.

This sounds like the setup for a pretty good fiction thriller with a flawed protagonist becoming obsessed with a mystery to avoid dealing with his own problems, but it’s one of those cases where the facts are probably stranger than any fiction a crime writer could dream up.

On February 9, 2004, nursing student Maura Murray vanished under puzzling circumstances after suddenly leaving the University of Massachusetts Amherst and driving over two hours north. She was last seen after a minor car accident on a rural road but refused help from a passing school bus driver who went to his nearby home and called the police. Even though only minutes passed from the time that Maura spoke to the bus driver until the police arrived there was no sign of her when the first officer arrived.

In 2009 James Renner had just settled a lawsuit related to his wrongful termination as a newspaper reporter when he decided to dig into the disappearance of Maura. He’d find the family surprisingly uncooperative because usually the loved ones of missing people are anxious for publicity to keep the case in the public mind. With limited information and a belief that journalism today requires total transparency Renner decided to take an open approach to his research of posting information and updates on a blog, and this attracted a group of internet armchair detectives anxious to help who would provide information and tips related to the case. It also took a dark turn when someone began posting creepy YouTube clips that seem to be hinting towards knowledge of what happened to Maura as well as eventually making Renner’s family the subject of unsettling videos as well.

This is one of those books that I find myself of two minds about. As a non-fiction tale of a writer getting unhealthily obsessed with a missing woman as a way of coping with and/or avoiding his own issues it’s an extremely interesting page turner. It’s also got an intriguing mystery at the heart of it because the more Renner digs into Maura Murray’s life the more evident it becomes that this was a young woman with problems, and there’s a lot of things to question and speculate about including the odd behavior of her father and her history of petty crime.

However, I always find myself extremely wary when the public gets interested in unsolved cases. It’s really easy for cable news, schlock documentaries, and click-bait websites to exploit these. Even when a story is done well with a painstakingly researched and unbiased look at a case like the Serial podcast’s first season it makes me uneasy because it seems to inspire the interwebs to unleash the worst kind of speculative nonsense without regard to facts or the realization that most crime is depressingly mundane and that it’s almost never the result of a flashy serial killer or a conspiracy of some kind.

(I’m not immune to this either. I spent more time than I like to admit poring over the cell phone logs and tower maps posted on the Serial website coming up with my own theory. So I totally understand the allure of a true crime mystery. I just don’t trust the average interwebs user’s ability to solve one. That includes me.)

People are prone to indulging our inherent biases when we try to figure out what happened during some unexplained event, and we are remarkably stubborn about not letting facts get in the way of what we want to believe. We also like to turn anything unexplained into a larger story that follows our own internal sense of logic and will incorporate any random scrap of knowledge that seems to support a pet theory. All of these things tend to combine to turn any case that catches the public eye into a clusterfuck of any wild theories the human mind can concoct, and it seems like the result is often a murky swamp of rumors, half-truths, misunderstandings, and outright lies that make it nigh on impossible to separate fact from fiction. If you send a bunch of hounds into the woods baying after a fox it’s impossible to track the fox later because its paw prints will have been obliterated by the dogs.

I’m not saying that Renner exploited Maura’s disappearance or was irresponsible in his reporting here. He’s got a variety of reasons for becoming obsessed with the case, and as he points out he probably would have made more money by simply writing another novel. For the most part he does do what seems to be a reliable job of research, discounting crackpot notions, and sticking to the facts. However, he also isn’t above thinking that coincidences are the universe's way of telling you something, visiting a psychic, tossing in the idea that the universe as we know it is really just a computer simulation, and describing a couple of weird incidents that make his son sound like a character in a Stephen King novel.

At the end of the day Renner has got his own theory about what happened to Maura. His idea isn’t outlandish and there is evidence to support it, but I do question if he didn’t fall into the rabbit hole of looking for a reason Maura disappeared when the answer might be a lot more meaningless and random than what he believes. I suspect that if ever do learn of Maura’s fate that the answer will turn out to be surprisingly simple.

While this digging into an on-going mystery hit on some personal pet peeves of mine with the true crime genre, I still found Renner’s story and writing compelling overall. He also seems like a decent guy who was struggling with a lot, and the book made me hope that things got better for him after he wrote it Maura Murray’s story almost certainly doesn’t have a happy ending, but there’s still hope for James Renner.

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Out for Revenge

The First Rule The First Rule by Robert Crais
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A retired mercenary and his entire family are brutally murdered in what appears to be a home invasion robbery. This wasn’t just any ex-merc though. He was an old buddy of professional kicker of asses Joe Pike, and Joe promptly sets out on a revenge rampage. I do so love a good revenge rampage!

Robert Crais has done something off-beat in his modern PI series that usually stars Elvis Cole as the first person hero of the story with Joe Pike featuring as the bad ass buddy that might as well be put in a glass case with the words BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY stenciled on it. Crais has always done a good job of creating the sense of a real bond between Pike and Cole without explaining it, but by occasionally doing a book from Joe’s third person POV it adds a new wrinkle to the series that sheds light on Cole as well as the relationship between the two men.

An internalized no-nonsense character like Pike works best as a weapon to be deployed, and this is the kind of plot that utilizes him well with him instantly picking up a trail that leads to Serbian gangsters and going after them with the subtly of a brick through a windshield. Then we get Cole coming in at the edges of the story to do the detective work and back Joe up as needed. Not that he needs much of it.

My favorite part was when Pike starts to systematically hit the gang in the pocketbook by going after their sources of income, and that seems like what he’s best suited to do. When the story started adding twists and turns it started to feel more like an Elvis Cole book that could have used more of his point of view rather than just being the support staff. Frankly, I expected to see Joe Pike mowing through ruthless gangsters John Wick style in this and was a little disappointed I didn’t get more of that.

It’s still solid work by Crais, and an entertaining crime story overall. However, I would have preferred a bit more rampaging by Pike and a little less plot.

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