Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review: Zodiac Station

Zodiac Station Zodiac Station by Tom Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’d think the biggest danger in the Arctic Circle would be freezing to death or being eaten by a polar bear, but as always it turns out that people are worse than anything Mother Nature can throw at us.

It starts out with a Coast Guard ship on patrol in the Arctic when a man on skis approach the ship over the ice. He says his name is Thomas Anderson, and he’s the only survivor of a disaster at a research outpost called Zodiac Station. Anderson tells a story of how he was a lowly lab tech whose once promising career had been derailed when he gets a sudden offer to come to Zodiac and work with his old mentor on a project. Unfortunately, right after he gets to the station they find his mentor dead after apparently falling into an ice crevasse, but the circumstances and several of the people at the station seem suspicious to Anderson. After the Coast Guard discovers other survivors at the station they hear other viewpoints that cast doubts on Anderson’s version, but when the tale involves possible conspiracies that might be related to climate change, oil companies, and Russian espionage it becomes impossible to know who to believe about what.

Overall, I was impressed with how well written this was. I thought it might be a pure airport bookstore type, but this is solid writing that builds up interesting characters and an increasingly puzzling scenario. The descriptive stuff about living and working at an Arctic research station was exceptionally well done, and it showed what a hard and dreary existence that would be spiced up with the dangers of living in such a harsh environment. So it’s a very solid thriller told in a unique way with an ending I never saw coming.

However, I very nearly didn’t read it.

This book popped up as a recommendation from Amazon after I read another cold weather tale of survival recently, and since I’m fascinated by the idea of scenarios involving polar research stations I thought I’d give it a try. (I blame The Thing for biting me with that particular bug in my teens.)

However, the quick skim of reviews I did before getting it nearly waved me off. A whole lot of people on Goodreads complained about an ambiguous ending that doesn’t resolve anything and some other problems. So I had doubts, but tried it anyhow since I already had it reserved at the library. I'm glad I did. Frankly, I thought the ultimate wrap up was very clever, and if I was a different kind of asshole I might say that those people who hated the ending missed the point.

In fact, I’m kind of shocked that not one of the reviews I read mentioned a key point, and I think it’s this factor that is going to shift your perspective a lot as to how you view the ending. 

Having said all that I understand if a reader knew all this and still was angry at the end because it does take a spectacular leap that might leave someone feeling blindsided. Or if you didn’t catch what I discussed in the spoilers it’s still understandable that you’d feel like you got bait-and-switched by this book. Those are legitimate views that I wouldn’t argue with if you felt like you had been burned.

However, I find a lot of what’s done in genre fiction cliched at this point, and to be completely surprised by something coming out of left field like that was a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed. So if the setup sounds like something you’d be interested in I’d just say that you should be ready for the story to go off in a wild direction at the end.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: The Fade Out

The Fade Out The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Because of its format some might say that this is fantastic crime comic. That’s true, but I’m going to take it a step further and say that it’s some of the best noir I’ve ever read which I’d rate right up there with the likes of James Cain or Jim Thompson.

Seriously, it’s that good.

It’s got the ultimate noir setting of post-war Los Angeles, and the plot involves a screenwriter with a drinking problem knowing about the cover up of the murder of an actress that the studio fixer has made look like a suicide. With that as a starting point we meet a variety of characters from despicable producers, publicists who put a glossy coat of paint over ugly truths, movie stars with secrets, blacklisted writers, commie hunting Feds, and even appearances from real people like Clark Gable and Dashiell Hammett.

There’s been no shortage of wannabe James Ellroys who try to do the old school Hollywood thing, and very often it feels just like bad actors putting on fedoras and trench coats so they can mouth clich├ęd tough-guy dialogue with a cigarette in the corner of their mouths. What really impressed me about this is that Ed Brubaker didn't fall into that trap but instead wrote an ACTUAL noir in which everyone is compromised, nobody is interested in the truth, and seeking justice is a fool’s errand.

Brubaker’s regular partner Sean Phillips does his usual brilliant job of making the art be a perfect marriage to what the story needs, and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser adds a richness to it that is way more interesting than just a black-and-white comic which is what lesser talents might have done for something like this. This collected edition of the entire run of the title also has some great extras including high quality reproductions of the amazing covers as well as some interesting behind-the-scenes features of how it was all put together from the researching stage to the writing and artwork.

I got this as a present last Christmas, and I’m ashamed that I let it set in a stack of unread stuff for almost a year before getting to it since it’s one of the best things I’ve read in 2017.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: Persepolis Rising

Persepolis Rising Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once you get seven books deep into a series it gets really tricky to review because you can’t talk about even the basic story set-up without spoiling stuff for anyone who hasn’t read it. Since I’m really trying to encourage any sci-fi fan to check out The Expanse I don’t want to just spoiler tag the whole thing either. So how to discuss in a way that won’t ruin it for the newbs yet still be an informative review?

Weep for me, people of Goodreads!

Here’s what I can safely say to everyone: The plan is for this to be a nine book series, and it’s obvious that it’ll end up being a three act structure with three books per act. So we’re starting the end run with this one, and that’s clear from the jump. A lot of time has passed since the last book, and our main characters can now claim senior discounts. In fact, some of them are even thinking about retirement. However, one of the lingering plots from an earlier book comes back in a big way and all of humanity might find itself under the boot of a dictator if something isn’t done. And all of this struggling among people scattered among the stars continue to take place as a potential alien threat simmers in the background.

Since this is essentially set-up for the final phase of the overall story there’s a lot left up in the air, but like the previous books it’s also an entertaining self-contained sci-fi tale by itself. At this point we’ve been living in this universe for a good long while so that we know all the ins-and-outs of it as well as what to expect from the story. What continues to be fresh and engaging is that the co-authors who make up the James SA Corey name come up with new spins on moving forward so that it hasn’t become stale and formulaic.

For example, this is a book in which a whole lot of people find themselves under the authority of an autocratic ruler with an army of true believers who believe anything he says. (Sounds familiar.) As you’d expect the story becomes about a resistance rising up among the conquered people, but what’s interesting is that there’s no immediate way to win. No Death Star to blow up, no magic computer virus, no chosen one to lead them to victory. Beating these guys will mean a long term strategy of resistance and a whole lot of blood will be shed in the process.

On the heels of that is that these bad guys don’t exactly act like villains. Yes, they’re smug jerkfaces whose utter self-confidence make them insufferable, but they’re also pretty sincere about going about it a way that isn’t a brutal occupation. These are smart folks who have studied history and know that the best way to stop an insurgency is to keep it from starting by keeping people from being disgruntled in the first place. Plus, they’re stated goal is to unite the squabbling factions of humanity into a single united force so they hope to get everyone on their side through the politics of persuasion.

That’s the really insidious thing about this one. A big theme in The Expanse as stated by one character in an earlier book is that a fair percentage of humans are always going to be assholes. What’s been shown over and over again is that people are always willing to fight among themselves about the old grudges rather than put them aside to band together even when it would be in their own best long-term interest. It’s been the biggest stumbling block that the heroes have struggled against over the course of the series. And here’s finally someone who has the power to actually make that happen, and he isn’t acting like an insane dictator. Hmmmm…maybe he isn’t that bad....

Another new aspect in this is that since we know the end is coming that no one is safe. It adds some tension and drama to the action because it really does seem like all our favorites are going to make it this time. (view spoiler)

It’s another great entry in the series, and my only real complaint is that I kind of got bummed while reading because I know how few there are left. I’ll also plug the excellent TV series based on the books that the SyFy Channel airs and is getting ready to start its third season which is well worth checking out.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Cinnamon Skin

Cinnamon Skin Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every time I read this book I end up humming Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl the entire time so it’s a relief to finish it and put a stop to that particular ear worm.

Travis McGee’s best buddy Meyer has loaned his houseboat to his niece and her new husband for their honeymoon while he’s away at a conference. Unfortunately, somebody blows up the boat as they’re going out on a fishing trip and all aboard are killed. (Providing more evidence for my theory that nothing good ever happens on a boat.) While a South American terrorist group claims responsibility for the bombing, but that makes no sense to Meyer who asks Travis to help him find whoever was responsible.

McGee starts poking around and comes across evidence that the new hubby wasn’t on the boat after all. Pulling on that thread puts them on the trail of a mystery man with a chilling pattern of seduction and murder for profit. The other wrinkle here is that Meyer is recovering from a very bad moment in a previous book so catching his niece’s killer is a way to regain his nerve.

As usual when I reread one of these John D. MacDonald novels I find a lot I liked with some very good insights of what society was becoming mixed with some incredibly dated sexist attitudes. Travis and Meyer make for a good partnership of detective/con men, and a lot of good stuff comes from them trying to backtrack someone just based on some casual anecdotes he told them over dinner one night. MacDonald also uses McGee to muse on where the world is headed and really hit the nail on the head regarding some predictions about the growing computer age of the early ‘80s.

Yet Travis still has to give a mostly platonic female friend a pat on the butt in appreciation of a job well done. In fairness, the books got better in terms of this from their start in the ‘60s, and a big subplot here is that Travis is having relationship troubles with his current lady that are dealt with in a surprisingly adult fashion that gives equal time to her point of view.

The overall improvement of McGee’s relationships with women, and the personal angle of Meyer’s involvement make this one a better than average book in the series.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 2

Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 2 Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 2 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

It’s hard out here for a masked vigilante killer.

The first volume set up the premise of a young man named Dylan saved from an attempted suicide from a demon who now demands that he kill at least one bad person a month or forfeit his own life. While reluctant at first Dylan is getting better, if not downright enthusiastic, about murdering jerkfaces. Unfortunately, this makes him a little cocky and sloppy, and he soon has both the NYPD and the Russian mob on his trail. And of course there’s still a distinct possibility that the cheese is slipping off Dylan’s mental cracker, and that there is no demon.

What I’m really enjoying about this is the way that it pops the fantasy balloon of gun toting vigilantes being the best way to clean up the streets. Dylan may have a certain knack for finding and killing assholes, but it’s always a messy and bloody business that ultimately solves nothing and creates more cycles of escalating violence. Maybe best of all is that Brubaker and Phillips have stripped out any notions that this is ‘cool’. There’s no smirking Charles Bronson blowing away punks nor a Punisher with a bad ass skull logo on his chest dispensing street justice. It’s just a scared and probably disturbed young man with a ski mask and a gun causing a lot of unintentional damage to everyone around him whether they deserve it or not.

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Review: Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1

Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1 Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It turns out that being a gun-toting vigilante who kills people indiscriminately isn’t as easy and fun as Charles Bronson made it look like in those Death Wish movies. Who knew?

Dylan is a grad student with a lonely crappy life and a history of depression so it’s not that big of surprise when he decides to end it all one night by jumping off the roof of his building. What is a surprise is that he lives, but then he starts seeing a shadowy demon who claims that it saved him and now he owes a debt of one life a month. Dylan has a hard time believing this at first, but then he grows deathly ill near the end of thirty days so he reluctantly decides that it’s better to kill some bad people than die himself.

Unfortunately, he quickly learns that being a vigilante killing bad people is tough gig. How do you get a gun that can’t be traced? Or how do you find a truly bad person who deserves to die? And killing people is way messier than it looks in the movies. Also, is that demon real or is Dylan just crazy?

I’m a big fan of Ed Brubaker and his partnership with Sean Phillips has produced some great stories. They have a real knack for taking genre stories and standing them on their heads, and the idea of having this depressed everyday kind of guy becoming a murderous vigilante is right in their wheelhouse. There’s no comic book glamor in this, and Dylan has to settle for a ski mask instead of a cool skull themed Punisher outfit while becoming a killer with a double life only complicates his personal problems.

Why it’s almost as if murder is wrong and engaging in it takes an immense toll even if you try to do it only to those who deserve it.

I’m looking forward into reading more of this title.

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