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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