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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