Monday, December 31, 2018

Review: Star Wars, Vol. 6: Out Among the Stars

Star Wars, Vol. 6: Out Among the Stars Star Wars, Vol. 6: Out Among the Stars by Jason Aaron
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a set of pretty good Star Wars stories that was completely ruined for me by the art. It’s not even all the art, it’s just one particular aspect of it. So more’s the pity.

Apparently Salvador Larocca used photorealistic style on the major character’s faces so he did some kind of tracing off actual pictures of the actors and then these were colored in tones to make them look more like photographs, not drawings. The results at times look like a child scissored out the faces of the actors from magazine photos and then glued them into Star Wars comics.

What’s even weirder is that I could at least understand why it’s done for people like Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams. But at one point the same thing is used for a random Imperial officer who is in a few panels so then I’ve got some strange dude’s face stuck into my Star Wars comic. Why was this necessary?

It looks sooooo awful that it immediately took me out of all the stories it was used in which was too bad because there was some interesting plots here, especially the one about R2-D2 going on a one-droid rescue mission to save C-3PO after he’s been captured. That’s the only reason I didn’t give this one star.

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Review: 2018 on Goodreads

2018 on Goodreads 2018 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My overall number of books read was down again this year. (Thanks, Netflix!) However, what I lacked in quantity I made up for in quality because it was a fantastic year for crime fiction. Here's the best of those in the order I read them.

Old Black Magic by Ace Atkins

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

The Upper Hand by Johnny Shaw

The Sinners by Ace Atkins

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

Some Die Nameless by Wallace Stroby

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos

Holy Ghost by John Sandford

Fatal Blow by James Thane

November Road by Lou Berney

In addition to great crime fiction I also read one of the best and most bittersweet true crime books imaginable. Michelle McNamara died before finishing this and without knowing who the Golden State Killer was. However, she predicted exactly how he'd be identified and arrested just months after the book was published. That should help anyone who reads this sleep better at night.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

The trend of fantastic crime fiction continued into my comic book reading, and it's no surprise that it was Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips delivering another top notch installment in their Criminal series as well as wrapping up the Kill or be Killed story.

Criminal Vol. 7: Wrong Time, Wrong Place

Kill or be Killed Vol. 3

Kill or be Killed Vol. 4

With all the great crime novels I didn't read much sci-fi this year, but this one was a winner. And now that I think about it also had some mystery elements to it. Bonus points for the best cover of the year, too.

Gunpowder Moon by David Pedreira

Hopefully, I'll read some more books that were as good as these in 2019.

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Review: Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel

Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Luke Skywalker is still trying to find a way to become a Jedi, and rogue archaeologist Doctor Aprhra has a crystal containing the essence of an ancient Jedi Master. Aphra has a plan to see a mysterious queen who receives visitors only once a year and will grant a favor to unique life forms. Since Luke is crazy strong with the Force, Aphra believes he’ll catch the queen’s eye, and she will help them unlock the crystal. Despite Aprhra’s previous employment with Darth Vader and their less than friendly previous encounter Luke is so desperate to gain knowledge about the Jedi that he agrees to go along with her.

Because what could possibly go wrong with teaming up with someone who has a history of double crossing every one she deals with at a place called The Screaming Citadel?

This is another entertaining story that blends the nostalgia of the original Star Wars trilogy with the best of this new Marvel line with Doctor Aphra and her companions. There’s a lots of good action, funny banter, and a pretty creepy storyline about what the queen is actually up to. It's nothing next-level great, but it's a solid Star Wars story.

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Review: Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Vol. 1: Aphra

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Vol. 1: Aphra Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Vol. 1: Aphra by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

Shady space archaeologist Doctor Aphra has finally managed to quit working for Darth Vader without ending up dead. Now along with her two murderous droids and the fierce Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan she’s just trying to find precious artifacts to sell so she can pay off debts she owes. However, her business plan gets delayed when her archaeologist credentials are revoked thanks to a person from her past. To get back in business Aphra will have to outwit Imperial forces and track down the mythical resting place of an ancient sect related to the Jedi.

Aphra is the best new creation in these Star Wars comics, and this title focusing on her was a lot of fun. My major gripe about this line of Marvel comics has been that by setting it between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and concentrating on the major players from the movies that it's impossible to do real drama or tell us a story of importance since we already know how it all ends. By doing this we get to follow exciting new characters in the familiar universe without knowing what comes next.

It’s also liberating to get a story about a genuine scoundrel who has no allegiance to the Rebellion or the Empire. Aphra is solely out for herself doing her own thing which provides the opportunity to introduce other characters and concepts we haven’t seen before. Plus, she’s just an entertaining character as an anti-hero surviving by her wits and stubbornness. And her droids really want to torture and murder people which I continue to find hilarious.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Review: From Russia with Love

From Russia with Love From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If this is love then I’d hate to see the Russian idea of hate.

The Soviets have suffered several espionage losses so they decide to run an elaborate operation in which they’ll kill British agent James Bond in such a way that will embarrass all of English intelligence. The two big pieces of cheese in this mousetrap are a code machine used by the Russians and a beautiful code clerk named Tatiana Romanova who doesn’t realize what kind of pawn she actually is. Will Bond take the bait? Well, he is James Bond, and did I mention that that Tatiana is a beautiful woman? Yeah, take a guess how this goes.

I’m a big fan of Bond on film and generally like those a lot more than the Fleming novels I’ve tried. With this one being the basis for one of the best Bond movies I didn’t find anything to change my mind about that. Bond is usually a bastard in both forms, but there’s something even worse and apt to make me roll my eyes in the way that he’s even more of a privileged sexist bigot on the page then any time on screen.

Plus, the structure of this novel is just weird. It’s only 191 pages, but Bond doesn’t show up until halfway through it. Instead we spend a lot of time getting all the details about how the Soviets came up with this plan. Even when Bond finally appears we get a long segment about how he’s been bored at the office and what his domestic life is like when he's not killing people or having sex. Another problem is that since we’ve been told in detail exactly what trap awaits Bond there’s not a lot of mystery for the reader even when 007 is trying to figure it out.

Although to be fair, the movie also lays out the plan, but there it’s done much more quickly so that Bond gets involved much sooner. In fact, the basic plot beats from the book are used in the film, but the film did a better job of pacing and adding action to the mix. Since I do like the movie a lot I guess that means the basic plot works as long as it moves briskly.

Still, it is one of the classic Bond stories, and there is some charm to this including some spy vs. spy games in Turkey. It also has a top notch thug in the form of Red Grant, a psychopath from the United Kingdom who defected to Russia and became their chief executioner. If there was more of him in here I think I would have liked it more.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: Understudy for Death

Understudy for Death Understudy for Death by Charles Willeford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A small Florida community is stunned when a housewife in a seemingly happy marriage murders her two children and then kills herself. Reporter Richard Hudson writes up the story and thinks his work is done, but his managing editor wants an in-depth piece on the rising suicide rates using the dead lady as a local angle.

With that as the starting point and considering that this is a Hard Case Crime reprint of a Charles Willeford novel you might be expecting the book to be about this intrepid reporter uncovering something related to these deaths. I certainly was. Surprise!

This isn’t the first time that HCC has published a book that subverts expectations. Donald Westlake’s Memory isn’t really a crime novel at all. Neither is this. Instead it’s more of a character study of Richard and his own domestic situation. What we learn is that he’s pretty much an enormous jerkface. He’s not much a husband or father who deliberately stays on the night shift so he can avoid domestic responsibility. He’s also content to drift along as an unambitious reporter who has developed a variety of shortcuts to avoid actually doing his job. Richard rationalizes this as being necessary for him to work on his true calling of being a playwright, but it’s quickly apparent that just the dodge he’s using to feel better about being perfectly content to just coast along with minimum effort.

What evolves through Richard’s skewed perspective is a pretty interesting snapshot of life in the early ‘60s. It’s no shock that it’s filled with casual sexism and women are treated as second class citizens. Yet as Richard considers why a woman who had everything that American society said she needs to make her happy would kill herself, he finds himself increasingly thinking about his own life and marriage.

Some readers might complain that this is bait-and-switch since it’s not technically a crime novel, but I found it well-written and somewhat compelling. There’s nothing fantastic or groundbreaking to it, but it’s like a time capsule that gives you a sense of the time and place as well as a glimpse of white male entitlement at its peak.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review: Forever and a Day

Forever and a Day Forever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s the early ‘50s and British intelligence is worried about unusual activity in Marseille’s underworld so they send one of their elite agents to check it out, but 007 is murdered. His replacement? A young man named Bond. James Bond.

Anthony Horowitz already wrote one retro Bond novel based on some unused Ian Fleming material with Trigger Mortis. Here, he takes us even further back to give us the story of Bond’s first mission after earning his license to kill. Bond finds himself trying to unravel a dastardly scheme as he encounters colorful characters like a morbidly obese Corsican mob leader, a wealthy American businessman, and beautiful ex-British agent who has become a major player by running her own freelance espionage business. Along the way Bond does a little gambling while wearing a tuxedo, drinks some martinis, has a bunch of sex, and kills some people. So Bond got a pretty good idea of what his job would be like early on.

Bond fans will find a lot to like here, especially those whose favorite film version is Sean Connery because that’s the vibe Horowitz is going for. As in Trigger Mortis he cleverly skirts the problem of Bond coming across as a dated jerk by leaning into it and actually having Bond be a dated jerk in many ways. The thing that makes it tolerable is that he’s usually called out for it so it still lets Bond be the classic bastard he usually is without feeling like his behavior is being excused.

So you’ve got all the classic elements in an action filled story that provides an old school origin story. It’s a good dose of Bond to fill the time until the next movie finally gets made.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Review: November Road

November Road November Road by Lou Berney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If someone offered me the choice between taking a long road trip with a couple of kids or being murdered by the mob, I’d have to really think it over.

It’s November 1963, and Frank Guidry is living well in New Orleans thanks to his top position with Carlos Marcello’s mob outfit. However, one of Frank’s recent chores was leaving a car in a parking garage in Dallas very near the spot where President Kennedy would be assassinated just days later. It doesn’t take a genius to make the connection especially when several other people on Carlos’ payroll start turning up dead. Frank just became a loose end, and he flees west with lethal hit man Paul Barone hot on his trail.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Roy has been trying to raise her two daughters in a small Oklahoma town which isn’t easy thanks to her drunken loser of a husband. When Charlotte has enough she takes the girls and starts heading to California, but she’s consumed by guilt and uncertain if she's done the right thing. After Frank meets Charlotte at a motel he realizes that traveling with a lady and two kids would make him a lot less conspicuous so he engineers circumstances so that they all go together. Frank is surprised when what started as a con to help him get away begins to turn into a real relationship with Charlotte and the kids. But that pesky hit man is still right behind them…

I read Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone earlier this year and enjoyed it quite a bit. Then I heard a tremendous amount of good buzz about this one before it released, and I’m pleased to report that it lives up to the hype.

In the wrong hands this concept could be just some cheesy tale about a ‘bad man’ who sees the error of his ways after becoming part of a family, but the strong character work done with Frank, Charlotte, and deadly Paul Barone is where this really shines. You thoroughly understand all of them, and despite the historical backdrop it all feels grounded and realistic with Frank and Charlotte struggling to deal with how their lives have been forever changed while Barone has to deal with a variety of setbacks as he just tries to complete his mission.

I particularly liked how Berney used the JFK assassination as the jumping off point, not the center of the story. It’s obviously the thing driving the plot, but what’s presented comes across as a believable scheme by one pissed off mobster instead of some vast shadowy tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. So we’re not dragged into some Oliver Stone style fever dream.

The work done on the settings and time is top notch, too. We get an authentic sense of the places like New Orleans, Las Vegas, crappy motels, and roadside tourist traps. It all builds the mood of what it must have been like back then. There’s nice touches of how the mob operated at the time, too.

It’s a damn fine piece of crime fiction, and I’ll be tracking down more of Berney’s work.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review: Fatal Blow

Fatal Blow Fatal Blow by James L. Thane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s another brutally hot summer day in Phoenix, and homicide detective Sean Richardson has to spend it fishing a headless and armless torso out of a canal. The only good news is that it still has the feet including a toe ring, and this clue leads Sean and his partner to suspect that a missing housewife, Becky Miller, is probably the victim and her cheating husband looks awfully guilty.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to note that James Thane is a longtime friend of mine here on Goodreads so I’m not even gonna try to pretend that this is an objective review. Please take my word that if it stank I’d just quietly ignore it, but fortunately it’s pretty good so I can talk about it.

There’s two parallel stories at work in this. One is the first person narration from Richardson which mixes a straight-up realistic police procedural with some on-going developments in his personal life which has been built up over the last couple of books. The other third-person story focuses on Becky in the weeks leading up to the discovery of the body in the canal. Regular readers of crime fiction can probably guess where the story is going yet there’s a couple of good twists and turns in there, and the ending was a nice surprise.

Overall, it’s a solid piece of crime fiction that has a good page turning vibe to it, and while it’s obviously a little gory with the whole chopped up body in the canal thing it doesn’t wallow in that like some books would. It’s also got an interesting shifting tone to it. The police stuff is a straight line narrative that you might see on something like Law & Order, but the Becky plot dealing with the crime has a much messier and emotional feel to it. It’s an unusual way to play it, but I particularly enjoyed Becky’s story which had a lot of clever crime elements. There’s also some nice detail work done that makes the reader really feel the desert heat as the characters roam around the city.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Review: The Banker’s Wife

The Banker’s Wife The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is money the root of all evil or does it make the world go round?

The answer to that is yes.

Annabel is American living in Geneva with husband Matthew whose job with a secretive Swiss bank keeps him away from her too much, but the trade off is the wealthy lifestyle they’re living. Marina is journalist engaged to Grant who comes from a very rich family, and his father is about to become a candidate for the presidency of the United States. It might seem like both these ladies won the trophy husband lottery, but Annabel is bored and lonely while Marina feels like she’s have to have to give up the job she loves to really be part of Grant’s family. Yeah, I know. Rich people problems.

However, things take a turn for both women. Annabel’s husband is killed in a small plane crash with home of his wealthy clients, and she starts questioning exactly what he was doing at the bank. While on a vacation trip to Paris, Marina does a favor for her old friend and editor by picking up a USB drive with encrypted data, but this errand leads to her ending up with information on money laundering done for international criminal types. Both Annabel and Marina quickly find out that these are not the kind of people who like you asking questions about their business.

This is a solid thriller whose biggest strength is in the idea that there’s a vast ocean of blood money being hidden and utilized by some of the world’s most powerful people. If you’ve been paying attention to current events that’s a story with the ring of authenticity to it. I mean, a rich asshole with presidential aspirations and shady international business connections isn’t much of a stretch these days, and it gives the whole book an honest hook to it.

It’s well written by airport thriller standards, and the presentation of the lives that Annabel and Marina are leading is very well done. There’s some interesting thematic stuff in that Annabel truly loves her husband is now filled with regrets about the independent lifestyle she gave up even if she is living in the lap of luxury. It fits nicely with Marina’s story since she’s on the verge of essentially making that same choice.

Unfortunately, the weaker side comes with the thriller stuff. There’s a few scenes with characters being followed and some lightweight chase scenes, but this isn’t an action story. It’s more about paranoia and dread which is fitting for a book about the money and power lurking behind world events, but I could have used more of a sense of danger to it.

And frankly it seems like a book that real world has outpaced in terms of how much trouble we’re all in. The characters here have faith that a free press and government oversight can ultimately stop and punish people who break the law like this. It doesn’t take into account that the evil rich doing this stuff are now the ones in power, and that institutions we counted on to protect us have been corrupted or neutered.

So it’s a decent read with an interesting idea and above average characterization, but it comes across as too naive a story to really accomplish what it might have just a few years ago.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review: Kill or be Killed, Vol. 4

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

A young man who puts on a mask and kills criminals because he thinks he’s been cursed by a demon ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Who could have seen that coming?

After Dylan has a meltdown in his personal life he’s been locked up and doped enough to keep him foggy, and it also seems like someone has taken his place on the outside as a masked vigilante killer getting headlines for murder. However, Dylan is still haunted by the idea of the demon who drove his killing spree because whether it was real or not he’s got plenty of evidence that the world is steaming pile of garbage and that maybe somebody should do something. And just because he’s locked up doesn’t mean that there’s not bad guys around he could do something about it….

If this was a Marvel or DC creations we’d go through an endless continuation of Dylan including revelation after revelation about his past and he’d probably die at some point and come back. With a story by Brubaker and Phillips we get an actual ending, and that’s part of what makes their stuff so great. With a conclusion we have consequences and themes, not just an infinite and increasingly pointless character.

I also admire how this story threads a tricky needle. It certainly isn’t a ridiculous Death Wish style fantasy about how one determined man with a gun can clean up the streets, but it’s also not a simplistic morality tale about how murder is wrong either. Dylan’s world view gets increasingly complex as he goes from a guy who thinks he’s killing to avoid his own death at the hands of demon to someone who is increasingly disgusted by a world that seems to get progressively worse by the minute thanks to the corruption of the basic systems that are supposed to protect us.

It’s a comic with a near perfect ending.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Charlesgate Confidential

Charlesgate Confidential Charlesgate Confidential by Scott Von Doviak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for murder and mayhem in temporary lodgings then the Charlesgate should be mentioned along with the Overlook and Bates Motel.

The Charlesgate was once the swankiest hotel in Boston, but by 1946 it’s become a wretched hive of scum and villainy. After a poker night for gangsters gets robbed the guy running the game wants revenge. By 1986 the Charlesgate is student housing for a local college when one of the residents begins looking into the building’s history for a series of articles in the school paper, and he gets a very juicy story from a man recently released from prison. Cut to 2014 and the Charlesgate has been renovated into high priced condos, and a murder in one of these apartment seems to be linked to paintings worth millions that were stolen back in 1946 and never recovered.

This is a very solid debut novel from Scott Von Doviak who lived in the actual Charlesgate as a student in the ‘80s. He mixes in some of its real history with the spooky stories that surrounded it along with a famous Boston museum heist (Although he’s used creative license to move that from 1990 to 1946.) to create an intriguing puzzle box of a book. We shift through the three different time frames with the narratives eventually combining into one large story. It’s very well written and has a good page turning quality to it. There’s also some nice work done to establish the tone of each time period and the characters in it.

At just under 400 pages it’s a shade too long, and while I liked the ultimate resolution and theme the ending seems a little anti-climactic. The book also suffers from a common problem when the author is a Red Sox fan in that they think that the rest of us are just as interested in reliving their tales of woe over the years as they are. Yeah, yeah. You had it tough for a long time, but since Boston has won about 417 championships in various sports including baseball in the 21st century I don’t have a lot of patience or sympathy for it anymore. (However, I will be glad to talk to about the ups and downs of being a Kansas City Royals fan.)

Overall, it was still a good piece of crime fiction, and I’d like to see more from Von Doviak. I’d call it 3.5 stars if Goodreads gave us the option, but since they don’t I’m going with 3.

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: Kill or be Killed, Vol. 3

Kill or be Killed, Vol. 3 Kill or be Killed, Vol. 3 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Has a college student become a masked vigilante killer because he’s been cursed by a demon or because he’s mentally ill? Maybe a little Column A and a little Column B?

The third volume finds Dylan coping with revelations indicating that the whole demon thing might be all in his head which leads to him trying to put down the shotgun and try to get back to some kind of normal life. Which actually kinda works for a while, but it’s hard to just quit being a vigilante when you’ve got the Russian mob looking for you.

The team of Brubaker and Phillips is probably the best working in comics right now, and as always the writing and art combine to create a great story. I continue to admire how this takes the air out of the fantasy of a good-guy-with-a-gun cleaning up the streets. It’s all brutal and messy and ugly, and they manage to make Dylan sympathetic while still also seeming like a danger to himself and everyone around him. There’s a gritty realism to the way that it’s all handled that is very different then what you usually get in a story of this type.

I absolutely loved this, and I’m extremely glad I’ve got Vol. 4 on deck right now to keep reading.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: Holy Ghost

Holy Ghost Holy Ghost by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

This book asks the ultimate question: How long can a man live eating only frozen chicken pot pies?

Wheatfield, Minnesota, is a dying small town until several apparitions of the Virgin Mary in an old church are captured on video by multiple people and posted on social media. Now Wheatfield is booming thanks to an influx of visitors hoping to see the vision for themselves. However, when a sniper wounds two people outside the church at different times it puts the brakes on the new tourism trade. State investigator Virgil Flowers arrives and tries to figure out why someone would be randomly shooting folks who are just hoping to catch a glimpse of Mary. Virgil begins pulling on multiple threads involving various townsfolk, and things quickly escalate.

Can Virgil track down the sniper before he finds himself in the crosshairs? Or will he starve to death first since he can’t get a decent meal anywhere in town and has to subsist on chicken pot pies from the convenience store?

This is a pretty typical Virgil Flowers novel, and as a John Sandford fan that’s good enough for me. Once again we’ve got Virgil going to a small town to solve a mystery, and he relies on tapping into local gossip more than forensics or Sherlock Holmes style deduction to do it. There’s a lot of fun characters, and we get a welcome dose of Sandford regulars Shrake and Jenkins. Virgil also continues to see his personal life change and grow with a big event on the horizon.

The difference in this one is that it’s much more of a whodunit than most of Sandford’s other thrillers. Usually we get a lot from the villain’s perspective even if Sandford masks their identity in the writing, and the mystery usually comes from withholding a critical piece that turns out to be the way that Virgil or Lucas Davenport find the bad guy when they figure that out. This time we are completely in the dark as to who is doing the shooting and why until near the end except for one brief chapter in the middle which gives nothing away. When the answers come it’s the kind of logical and satisfying solution that I’d expect from the tight plotting that Sandford does.

The only really negative thing I can say about this is that it may have ruined pot pies for me. At least for a little while...

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Friday, September 28, 2018

Review: The Man Who Came Uptown

The Man Who Came Uptown The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George Pelecanos may be working more on television than books these days, but the man still knows how to write one damn fine crime novel.

Michael Hudson has been in jail awaiting trial for taking part in the robbery, but doing time has been made easier by prison librarian Anna who helped him discover a love of reading. Fortunately for Michael his case is dismissed thanks to private investigator Phil Ornazian who gets the man he robbed to drop the charges. All Michael wants to do is clean up his act and spend his time reading some good books, but the PI didn’t spring him out of the kindness of his heart. In fact, Ornazian has a side business stealing from pimps and other criminals, and now he wants Michael to start helping.

It’s been a fantastic year of crime fiction for me, and this one continues my winning streak. I’d be happy enough to get an average Pelecanos book, but I think this is one of his best, maybe my favorite, even if he’s not doing anything particularly new here.

There’s the usual stuff like all the detail of life in Washington D.C. mixed in with a bit of nostalgia about how things used to be even if the way things used to be wasn’t always great. The characters are also pure Pelecanos, who always likes to stress a strong work ethic and simple pleasures. Michael fits this template as a guy who has realized that he’s been going nowhere fast, and who now has goals and starts planning. He may be starting at square one as a dishwasher, but as long as he can kick back with a book in his spare time, he’s content.

This even applies to Ornazian who you might expect to be a sleazy jerk, but he’s written as not that bad of a guy. He’s got a family that he’s trying to provide for and only robs criminals. Anna is also interesting as a lady with a seemingly perfect marriage who finds herself more than a little intrigued by Michael when they bump into each other after he’s released.

At less than 300 pages it’s also quick and tight as a drum. It’s a great blend of character and setting with a bit of action from the rip-offs that Ornazian pulls with his partner. As a constant reader I also always love it when an author manages to get across what makes it so great, and Pelecanos really sells the idea that Michael has fallen in love with books.

I also got to meet Pelecanos at a signing for this, and he had a lot of interesting things to say including talking about the prison reading program that he’s involved with and was obviously one of the inspirations for this book.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review: Tripwire

Tripwire Tripwire by Lee Child
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“What kind of book is this?” he asked.

I thought about the answer to that a moment.

“What kind of book is this?” he asked again.

There are many ways to respond to that question. I should think about this for a second longer.

“What kind of book is this?” he asked a third time.

It’s the kind of book that has somebody repeating questions a whole bunch of times while other characters ponder things so if you’re already irritated you should probably avoid it.

Ex-military policeman Jack Reacher has been living in Key West where he’s earning a living digging swimming pools, and his idea of a good time is drinking a bunch of mineral water. (No, seriously.) Reacher has no interest in disrupting his quiet routine, but when a private investigator comes around looking for him it kicks off a chain of events which eventually lead Reacher into digging up the secrets of a murderous man in New York City with a dark history that leads back to the Vietnam War.

My experience with this series is weird. I hated the first book, but people I trust told me the series gets much better. Then I saw the Jack Reacher movie and enjoyed it quite a bit so I tried the second book, and it was OK but still didn’t blow my hair back. So here I am trying the third one, and it had about two dozen things that made me roll my eyes. Yet I didn’t absolutely hate it.

I get the appeal of these. The idea of the manliest man to ever walk the face of the earth randomly stumbling into adventures is fun if you like a certain style of action thriller. Child has made big improvements in these early books already like moving from first person to third means that I don’t have Reacher himself telling me how awesome he is on every page. Plus, he’s scaled back the idea that Reacher is a Sherlock Holmes level of detective genius who can make incredible leaps based on the slimmest of clues.

The core story here is pretty good, but as with the first couple of books there’s a constant parade of things that are just so ridiculous or outright stupid that they take me out of the story. One of the biggies is that the main villain in this is a complete cartoon sadist straight out of James Bond with a burned and scarred face as well as a hook used in place of an amputated hand, and it’s so far over the top that it’s hard to take him or the book seriously.

There’s also a very icky subplot where Reacher reconnects with the daughter of his old Army mentor who has recently died. Jodie was a teenage girl, and Reacher was in his mid- twenties when they were around each other back in the day. Yet it becomes very clear that they both had that the hots for each other, and they both still have these old feelings. Child spends a lot of time justifying and rationalizing this plot, and yeah, now they’re both adults and nothing physical happened when she was underage. But it’s just so unnecessary to play it this way.

Why couldn’t Jodie have been in college and Reacher only a few years older when they met and were attracted to each other? Then it’s not an issue at all and makes Reacher far less creepy. (The only thing I can think of is that Child had a Hollywood idea of what a couple in this kind of story looks like, and god forbid we have a lady over thirty hooking up with the hero even though he’s pushing forty himself.)

Another thing is that the book constantly contradicts itself and then goes out of its way to underline that it’s doing so in the most forehead slapping way possible. For example, at one point Reacher thought he knew how some thugs would come after him and Jodie. Yet they use a different tactic which takes him by surprise and almost works. Afterword, Reacher calmly notes that he hadn’t thought about them doing that which was almost a fatal mistake. Yet later in the book when it looks like an assumption that he made was wrong Reacher has a complete meltdown about it where he bemoans the loss of his once perfect record at following his hunches and wonders what he’s supposed to do in life now that his skills have so obviously failed him. So Reacher shrugs off making an error that almost gets them killed, and yet when a blue sky guess he made that has no immediate potential impact looks like it might be wrong he falls apart.

There’s lots more like that, but I’m going to spoiler tag these next few. I’m not giving up the ending, just some things that happen along the way. (view spoiler)

There’s another factor that made me cringe a few times while reading, but this wasn’t Child's fault. The book was published in 1999, and the main villain has an office in the World Trade Center which is where a lot of the action takes place. Plus, at one point Reacher pays cash an airline ticket to New York using a fake name. Those were big reminders that the world was a very different place back then, and while there’s no way Child could have known what was coming it does give the book an uncomfortable vibe at times.

There are other nitpicks to make, but these are the major ones that took what started out as a very solid action thriller/mystery and turned into a hot mess. Child has storytelling skills, and at their best these books are a hoot. But did no editor every look at this and suggest some changes that would tighten up the story and keep him from highlighting the things that don’t make sense? It would have helped a lot.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Review: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Sisters who kill together stay together.

Eli Sisters and his older brother Charley are a couple of killers working for the Commodore in 1850s Oregon. Their latest assignment is to journey to San Francisco during the latest gold rush and kill a chemist named Hermann Warm. Along the way they kill some people and Eli learns how to brush his teeth.

I’d been meaning to read this one for years, and the trailer for the movie finally got me off my ass. Unfortunately, I found myself a shade disappointed in it. Which is weird because one of all-time favorite books is Lonesome Dove, another well written and highly acclaimed western filled with sudden violent death as well as casual brutality amidst some humorous moments so this would seem to be right in my wheelhouse.

I think it’s a matter of degrees. There’s plenty of dark stuff in this genre that I love such as the aforementioned Lonesome Dove, Blood Meridian, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and the HBO series Deadwood. However, there’s other quality things of a similar nature like Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant that for me slide into areas that feel more like misery porn or torture based horror movies. That’s what this one seemed closer to.

So I know it’s good, but it’s just not my cuppa tea.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Give Me Your Hand

Give Me Your Hand Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She blinded me with science!

Kit Owens is a bright high school girl didn’t think much about her future until she met Diane Fleming when Diane’s dreams of a career in chemistry rub off on her. The two young women become both study buddies and rivals that push each other to excel until Diane confides a dark secret that shatters their friendship. Years later Kit is working in a lab and hoping to score one of the few slots available in a prestigious project when Diane is hired by her boss. Kit struggles to deal with the return of Diane to her life, and the fallout from that has unintended consequences.

Mighty Megan Abbott takes on a lot in this one and delivers on almost all of. What’s most impressive to me is how well she establishes the tone for each aspect. Whether it’s detailing Kit’s life with limited prospects as an underachieving kid in a dead-end town or getting into the nuances of the cutthroat politics hidden under a thin veneer of civility in the lab you completely understand and buy into every bit of it. When Abbott has Kit realizing how close she is to either achieving a critical next step in her career resulting in a vastly improved lifestyle or is about to come up short after all her hard work to get there you know exactly what’s driving her.

At the heart of all it is this complex relationship between Kit and Diane, and that’s where the noir part comes into it. I especially liked the revelations at the end that explain so much of what occurred throughout the rest of the novel.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: Cut Me In

Cut Me In Cut Me In by Hunt Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Literary agent Josh Blake is having a bad day at the office. He’s hungover, one of his secretaries is late, and very pushy aspiring writer won’t take no for an answer. Oh, and he also finds his partner murdered in his office and their most valuable contract that’s about to be worth a fortune in movie rights is missing.

Sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays!

This is a hard boiled mystery novel that has everything you’d expect from this kind of thing written in the ‘50s. Ed McBain writes up a solid noir character in the jerkish Blake who is more concerned with the missing contract than the dead partner. There’s a suspicious cop, some surprisingly polite thugs, and several gorgeous dames thrown into the mix, and it works well enough as an entertaining story. Good, but not inspired would be my usual judgement on it.

Yet there’s a surprising little bit right at the end that puts a whole new light on everything, and lifts it up a notch. I won’t quite go 4 stars on it, but it’d be an easy 3.5 if Goodreads would let us do that.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 3

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 3 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 3 by Mike Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was in the middle of reading this volume when I the news broke that Chris Pine is not going to do the next movie so now I’m left wondering if these comics are the only new stories I’m going to get set in this version of Star Trek. It’s like 1969 all over again! Except I guess I still have Discovery. And this new show that they announced with Patrick Stewart coming back as Picard. OK so it’s not all gloom and doom as far as the future of the Federation goes.

This is another pretty solid volume. It relies less on retelling new versions of the TOS stories, and that makes it more interesting. There’s one decent arc that plays off the fall out of the first two movies that involves Section 31. Then there’s several other shorter side adventures that would all make pretty good episodes like the Enterprise itself being given a humanoid form after an encounter with advanced alien tech. My favorite involves a crossover to an alternate universe in which the entire crew has been gender swapped so that we get to see Captain James T. Kirk meet Captain Jane T. Kirk. (And no, they don’t have sex although I’m pretty sure they were both thinking about it.)

Getting away from just retelling the TOS adventures and building off the alternate timeline helps this a lot, and the writers are coming up with some fun new ideas that feel like Trek stories.

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Review: Some Die Nameless

Some Die Nameless Some Die Nameless by Wallace Stroby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if Rambo and Lois Lane teamed up to take down a bunch of corrupt mercenaries?

OK, that would probably suck. But Wallace Stroby came up with a more realistic story along those lines that’s actually good.

Ray Devlin is a retired soldier-of-fortune living quietly in Florida that gets a visit from an old war buddy. Unfortunately, their reuntion takes a dark turn when that guy tries to murder him, and Ray has to go looking for the reason why. Meanwhile, Tracy Quinn is an investigative reporter Philadelphia  trying to survive lay-offs and fend off the editors who want her to just write click bait articles instead of performing actual journalism. Tracy covers what seems to be a routine homicide, but then her path crosses Devlin as part of the story. When the two start sharing information they begin seeing a pattern with Devlin’s old employer at the center of it all, and digging into the secrets of a company that has trained killers on the payroll is a dangerous game.

I’m a big fan of Stroby’s series about a professional thief Chrissa Stone but hadn’t read any of his other books. After this one I’ll be making more of an effort to track them down because he’s got a knack of mixing thriller elements with a more grounded perspective with real tension to it.

That starts with the two main characters who are at the heart of the novel. Both are well drawn and have a true sense of verisimilitude to them. Devlin really feels like a middle-aged ex-soldier haunted by regrets. While you do get a bad ass vibe from him he’s no action movie killing machine either. Unlike many a bad portrayal of reporters in fiction, Tracy shines as a journalist who loves her job even as it seems to be dissolving around her. There’s a nice attention to detail with the stuff at the newspaper that rings true.

I also enjoyed how Stroby sets up a plot that seems like your standard conspiracy deal at first. However, once it’s rolling he does a pretty sly subversion of not having it go like you expect. There’s a lot of solid surprises and twists here, and it really doesn’t end up where it obviously seems to be going at first. Overall, this is an extremely well written thriller that’s a cut above your standard beach read.

I’ve also had a few brief interactions on social media with Wallace Stroby in the past for good reviews I gave to his Chrissa Stones books, and I was delighted to see that the main bad guy here is named Kemper. I checked with him to see if I was the inspiration for that, and he tried to burst my balloon with a logical story about a last minute character name change with the inspiration probably being seeing the story of serial Ed Kemper on Mindhunter. But I think we all know the truth. Who are you going to believe? Me or the guy who wrote the book?

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Friday, August 3, 2018

Review: The Long and Faraway Gone

The Long and Faraway Gone The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book may be the perfect example of a character driven crime story.

In 1986 two major crimes occur in Oklahoma City. A robbery of a movie theater turns into a massacre. A beautiful teenager goes missing while attending a fair. Both events are major news, but as with most things time passes and eventually they’re forgotten. But not by Wyatt and Julianna.
Wyatt was the sole survivor of the movie theater staff, and 25 years later he’s changed his name and moved to Las Vegas where he’s a private investigator doing background checks for casinos.

When a major client ask him to go to Oklahoma City for a case Wyatt is reluctant to revisit his old hometown, but soon finds himself caught up in the memories of that fateful summer. Julianna is still obsessed with learning what happened to her sister, and she desperately latches on to any slim clue that might offer her answers.

This book is a little bit tricky in that its style and tone at first read like a PI novel with Wyatt being a cheerful guy whose style comes across as smart ass even when he doesn’t mean to. His investigation into the harassment of a woman who inherited a bar at first seems like a major plot that you assume will somehow eventually intersect with his and Julianna’s story somehow.

What you eventually realize is that what’s really important here are the parallel stories of Wyatt and Julianna’s trying to deal with the aftermath of what they went through. They took completely different approaches. Wyatt fled his old hometown and has done everything he can not to think about it, but as he revisits his old haunts in OKC the old survivor’s guilt and questions begin to bubble up. Julianna has actively been looking for the truth for over two decades, and her behavior has become obsessive and self-destructive. Even though they’ve taken different paths in dealing with their pain what becomes clear over the course of the story is that the unanswered questions have haunted them all along.

The book didn’t go where I expected at all, and if you’re looking for some kind of thriller where it all dovetails together nicely, you’d probably be disappointed. Instead what we get is a more realistic thing where the two stories intersect in the small random ways that would happen in a small city. Some mysteries are solved, some aren’t, and some new ones arise. The real question here isn’t whether Wyatt and Julianna will ever know exactly what happened and why, it’s if they can ever get over the guilt and grief to get on with their lives.

Also, as a lifelong resident of the Midwest it’s also nice to get a work of fiction that portrays characters from somewhere other than New York or Los Angeles as real people rather than just stereotypical jokes or rubes in flyover country.

Great read, and I’m happy to hear that Lou Berney has a new book coming out this fall. I’ll definitely be checking it out.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2 by Stephen Molnar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The new/old adventures of the starship Enterprise continue…

The focus in this volume is mainly on filling in the backstory of many of the supporting characters although there’s still some re-telling of classic TOS stories in the Abrams timeline along with it. Most of it’s OK, but nothing that’d breach anyone’s warp core. The one I enjoyed most was about Keenser, the little alien that is Scotty’s pal in engineering.

The odd thing here is that even though this is a thick volume with a dozen issues of the main comic that several of the stories are based on other spin-off projects that aren’t included, and there’s little explanation provided as to the background. So even though I’ve read both volumes so far I was clueless on some things about Kirk dealing with some crooked Starfleet guy who was in some Into Darkness side story they did. And I apparently missed them meeting the Gorn race for the first time. Which is just wrong. If I’m reading a rebooted Star Trek line of comics you gotta give me that Gorn intro!

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1 by Mike Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.

But which one? ‘Cause you’ve got the original Enterprise from TOS, then came the renovated one in the first couple of movies. But that one got blowed up real good so then we had the Enterprise-A. Of course there’s Next Generations which had the Enterprise-D and E versions. Oh, and we got to see the Enterprise-B and C, too. Then there’s the Enterprise from the prequel series of the same name. So exactly which Enterprise are we talking about here? Kirk’s original Enterprise? Cool! Wait, it’s the one from the rebooted Abrams timeline though….

This is why nerds eventually lose their minds.

So yeah, this is a comic that takes place after the events of the 2009 Star Trek reboot featuring a young Captain Kirk and his original crew, and a lot of the stories are retellings of TOS like Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Galileo Seven, and The Return of the Archons. The twist is that since we’re in an alt-timeline things play out differently than the original versions.

This is a tricky proposition. If you don’t change things enough then you’re just doing a boring pointless remake. If you change to much then you risk messing with something that fans might feel very strongly about. (Into Darkness ran into this when they tried to do another version of the Khan storyline.)

Overall, these are pretty fun that come up with interesting changes based on the way things have already been shifted because of the events of the first movie. For example, McCoy isn’t in the episode Where No Man Has Gone Before but here he’s already on the ship so his presence changes how it all goes even if much of it is still familiar. The Return of the Archons takes this even further because it seems like even the backstory of the events there are altered which would have taken place long before the timeline was changed. So that’s the writer essentially rebooting a piece of Trek history which is then used to set up a whole new plot thread going forward. Their version of The Trouble With the Tribbles also happens very differently, and there’s another story that’s entirely new and based off the events of the first movie so they aren’t just doing updates of old stuff.

The artwork is very good and really helps sell all this. They’ve got the look and feel of the new cast and Enterprise down exactly, and then they introduce other cool sci-fi action. A comic book adaptation is never going to be as satisfying as the move or TV show its based on, but this one does provide some fun supplemental action if you liked the Abrams version of the characters. (And if you don’t, I really don't want to hear about it.)

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All aboard the murder train!

A long time ago when I was in high school and dinosaurs still roamed the earth I read a whole bunch of Agatha Christie novels. The weird thing is that I was never that big of a fan of hers. I was getting into mystery novels, she’s one of the best known writer in the genre, and the local library had a whole bunch of her stuff. At some point I realized that I prefer my murders to be a bit less civilized, and I moved onto other styles of the genre without giving much thought to ole Agatha after that. However, I recently watched the latest film adaptation done by Kenneth Branagh and even though it’s just OK that gave me the urge to check this out again. And it reminded me that classics are very often classics for a reason.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on-board the Orient Express along with an assortment of travelers and their servants. An American named Ratchett is stabbed to death in his compartment just as the train is stopped by snow. Circumstances make it seem that whoever killed Ratchett is probably still among the people in the first class car that night. As Poirot sorts through the evidence and questions suspects he finds contradictions that make solving the murder a very complex task.

One of my reasons I stopped reading Christie was the impression that she didn’t play fair in her whodunits. (And since I’m going off very old memories I could certainly be wrong about that.) By that I mean that it seemed like the solution depended on some kind of in-story background information that a reader couldn’t possible know. There’s a touch of that here with a big piece of the plot involving a link to a famous fictional crime. (Although it’s obviously inspired by a famous real one.)

Yet, that’s set up as background info that’s pretty much given to us as soon as it’s revealed so it doesn’t feel like Christie was just cheating by springing the unknown on a reader as a way to hide the killer. In fact, since the murder took place in a confined space where people were coming and going that everything you need to know is given to us as Poirot builds a timeline and uses a diagram to place the location of people in the train car at various times. One of the great things about this book is the way that Christie uses the logistics of this to actually give you all the clues while also obscuring the solution in the details.

I’d also had the idea that her writing was very dry and boring. There’s actually a lot of touches of humor that I missed as a young idiot. Even though there’s a lot of dated things in terms of race, sex, and class it also felt like she was often making some sly commentary on attitudes of her time. For example, the guy working for the railroad is positive that an Italian passenger must have killed Ratchett since it was done with a knife, and while Poirot often seems to agree with him that circumstances make him a good suspect you also note that he begins outright mocking the guy for sticking with this theory as things evolve.

I also very much liked the ending which again goes against my idea that these were very proper books that believe in strict law and order when the resolution here is a lot more interesting and complex.

I may have to try some more of these books to see exactly what else I was wrong about.

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Review: The Stars My Destination

The Stars My Destination The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You ever have a novel that you know is considered a classic of its genre yet you know absolutely nothing about it other than the title? This is one of those for me. I knew nothing about it other than the vague notion that it was an important sci-fi novel, but when it popped up as a deal on Audible I took a chance on it and went in cold.

How’d it work out? Pretty well.

A couple of centuries from now humanity has developed the ability to teleport themselves using only their minds in a practice called jaunting. While it has revolutionized society in many ways it’s limited to just a few hundred miles at most so spacecraft are still needed to ferry people and goods around the solar system. Because people are always gonna be assholes there’s a war raging among the Inner Planets and Outer Satellites.

Gully Foyle is just a working class grunt with little education and even less ambition who had the bad luck to be on a ship that got blowed up real good as part of that war. For six months he survives by staying in a small storage lock and scavenging supplies in the wreckage using a damaged space suit. Deliverance seems at hand when he sees another ship named Vorga passing close by, but even though Gully sends out plenty of distress signals that couldn’t be missed the other ship simply passes him by. Enraged at being abandoned, Gully begins to show more gumption than he ever has as he first manages to save his own life and then embarks a campaign to find and kill the people who left him to die. When he finds himself caught in much larger schemes of powerful people his obsessive need for revenge puts him beyond any attempts to bribe or bully him.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here that gets into some really big trippy sci-fi concepts that seem way ahead of their time in many ways plus there’s a kind of Count of Monte Cristo style story embedded in it too. It’s easy to see why this is so highly regarded and is considered a forerunner to cyberpunk.

Gully Foyle is also an interesting bastard of a character. He starts out as this crude and violent man fully capable of crimes like murder and rape, and his journey eventually turns him into something much more than that. Yet because it’s his unswerving desire for simple revenge driving him he’s always got that primitive core just below the surface.

Despite being published over 60 years ago it doesn’t come across as that dated either. Alfred Bester did a lot of well thought out world building as to what this space faring society that has also mental powers like telepathy and the ability to teleport would be like. Some of the stuff he did here like a conflict between factions fighting for the resources of our solar system are still used today in sci-fi like The Expanse series, and the idea of powerful corporations being as much a force as government has been used countless times as well. The ending also seems like a leap forward to a kind of sci-fi that something like 2001 would do a decade later.

It’s a bold and ambitious story that seems ahead of its time in many ways, and I’m glad that I took the opportunity to fill in a gap in my sci-fi reading.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Review: Yoda's Secret War

Yoda's Secret War Yoda's Secret War by Jason Aaron
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Good this is not.

The idea of giving us a story about Yoda back in the day sounds OK, but there’s two problems with the execution of it here. First, the story seems more like one of those stinker episodes from the third season of the original Star Trek then Star Wars. Yoda goes to a planet destroyed by war with two primitive tribes still battling, and he uncovers a secret involving weird alien lifeforms. That really seems like something Jim Kirk should be doing, not Yoda.

The second problem is the inherent limit of doing prequel stories that this series keeps bumping its head against. Getting a solo Yoda adventure could be OK if it was a better story. But by using the framing device of Luke just after the events of A New Hope reading this in Obi-Wan’s journal means thinks have to get wonky because Luke doesn’t meet Yoda until Empire Strikes Back. So the text only describes Yoda as a ‘Jedi Master’ to explain how Luke could read a story about him but still not know his name.

And it’s just silly because why would Kenobi, who refers to Yoda as just ‘Master Yoda’ in the prequel movies, be so cryptic in this journal? It’s the things like this or having Luke fight Boba Fett but be blinded so he doesn’t recognize him later that highlight the limitations of trying to do a prequel that frequently relies on fan service rather than trying to actually do interesting things we haven’t seen before.

Which is why the second story here which is about Princess Leia being injured on a mission, and she has to be hidden by a woman who has suffered because of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion. Some good points get made about how Leia is responsible for a whole bunch of people dying, and she could be seen as a zealot who only cares about the cause, not the consequences.

The main Yoda story would be 1 star, but a solid character piece about Leia and great art work get it up to 2.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Should someone be put in prison for a practical joke?

Yes. All practical jokers belong in jail. Or hell.

Harry has been an unrepentant prankster his entire life, but now he has been locked up after one of his jokes went wrong which resulted in several injuries. Once inside he quickly bumbles onto the secret of several other inmates. There was an opportunity during construction of a prison expansion to build a tunnel which they use to regularly leave. This isn’t for escape because none of these guys have long enough sentences to want to live on the run, but rather they just use the tunnel to go out and do the things they can’t while in jail only to return each night. Harry gets cut in on the scheme, and he enjoys the quasi-freedom it allows him. However, there’s a big catch. The inmates have realized that they have the ultimate alibi of being in prison so they've got an ambitious plan to rob two banks at once, and they demand that Harry take part in it. This puts Harry in a real bind since he may be in jail, but he’s no crook.

The late Donald Westlake was capable of doing both drama and comedy well, and as a lighthearted story written for yucks it works surprisingly well. I was worried in the early going because I really dislike practical jokers, and I thought that he’d be asking a reader to find Harry’s pranks hilarious. Instead Westlake makes it clear that this behavior is beyond annoying, but that Harry has a sick compulsion even when he knows the warden is watching him like a hawk and that his fellow inmates will murder him if they find out he's the one responsible. The humor comes from just how incapable Harry is of stopping, and the casual way we learn about the reign of terror he’s inflicting on hardened criminals. There’s a lesson for Harry in this story so that kept the book from asking me to be on the side of a guy who thinks tying someone’s shoe laces together is funny.

There’s also a running gag about Harry’s last name sounding like a vulgar term which I’m not gonna try to replicate here because I don’t have the patience to figure out how to do an umlaut. As with the practical joke angle I worried that Westlake was going for the most obvious and juvenile thing when it actually turns out to have some deeper meaning explaining Harry’s behavior.

So what we end up with is an enjoyable caper that makes for an entertaining couple of hours of fun reading.

However, I do find myself wishing that Westlake might have used this idea in one of his serious crime books he wrote as Richard Stark. If the humorless thief Parker would have run across a practical joker who screwed up his plans to rob a bank, and then got his big meaty paws around that guy’s neck and squeezed until he turned purple…. Yeah, that’d make for a pretty satisfying book, too.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: The Sinners

The Sinners The Sinners by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

The Pritchards are just some good ole boys, never meaning no harm. Making their way the only way they know how. That’s just a little bit more than Sheriff Quinn Colson will allow.

Ah, damn it. I think I owe Waylon Jenning’s estate a royalty payment now.

This one starts out way back in the prehistoric days of the 1993 with Tibbehah County Sheriff Hamp Beckett finally nailing his nemesis, a hell-raising pot-farmer named Heath Pritchard, with enough weed to send him to prison for a long stretch.

Twenty five years later the nephews of both men have gone into their respective family businesses. Quinn Colson is the sheriff while Tyler and Cody Pritchard grow some of the best pot around, and they use the money to fund their love of dirt-track auto racing. The lady who runs the *ahem* gentlemen’s club, Fannie Hathcock, is also the local representative of the Dixie Mafia, and she suspects the Pritchard boys might be cutting into her profit margin with their higher quality weed.

This is a powder keg getting ready to blow, and the fuse is lit when Heath Pritchard gets out of jail and inserts himself into his nephews’ lives. While Tyler and Cody just want to make enough money to pay for cars and Jack Daniels their uncle thinks that he should be able to resume his place as the stud duck of Tibbehah County with no regard for the law or the criminals currently running the show.

As this is going on Quinn’s best friend, Boom Kimbrough, has taken a job as a long-haul trucker, but he discovers that his company is a critical part of the supply chain hauling all kinds of illegal stuff across the South. As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Quinn also has to get ready for his upcoming wedding.

I’ve enjoyed every book of this series, but this is my favorite of them so far. Ace Atkins has built up each character and the setting so that Tibbehah County is its own vivid world now. While each novel has its own self-contained story there’s also been a complex overall arc going on in the background. One of the more interesting aspects is the way that the nature of crime itself is evolving in rural Mississippi over the last ten years. When the series started the ruling redneck kingpin was a good ole boy county politician who engaged in more traditional forms of small town corruption. Now the game has changed with politicians more focused on trying to roll back the clock as cover for far more ambitious schemes then just milking the county’s expense budget. Money seems to be flowing everywhere except to people looking for good jobs, and this includes expansion by organized crime who want to move drugs by the truckload instead of just letting a couple of good ole boys sell a little weed.

I also really like what Atkins did with the Pritchards. He’s sprinkled references to other works in his books like a subtle homage to True Grit into one of his Spenser novels. Here, the Pritchards obviously seem to be inspired by The Dukes of Hazzard TV series.

If this was Atkins winking at the reader and playing this as a jokey reference, it’d just be a gimmick. However, what’s he done with this idea is pretty clever. Bo and Luke Duke were just a couple of redneck Robin Hoods fighting corrupt local officials. However, the Pritchards aren’t running moonshine, they’re growing high end weed, and their enemy isn’t the comical Boss Hogg, it’s an entire murderous criminal syndicate. Similarly, their uncle isn’t a lovable old rascal with a talent for making shine who doles out good advice. Heath is a strutting criminal with poor impulse control who pisses off everyone he deals with by acting like it's still 1993, and that he's the biggest swinging dick around.

In short, the Dukes are the fantasy of the good-hearted Southern boys who like to raise a little hell, and there ain’t no pickle they can’t get out of by driving fast and jumping over the nearest creek. That won't help when facing an organized system that has far more resources and no hesitation about killing off anyone who might cost them a nickel.

Everyone in the book is getting squeezed by the powers that be in some fashion. Frannie has made a fortune for her bosses for years, but the second they think she’s got a problem in her operation they start questioning her capability and start making moves to muscle her out. Boom is just trying to mind his own business while making a honest living, but he finds himself caught up in the schemes of criminals and the demands of law enforcement. Quinn is under pressure from shitbird politicians more concerned about checking the immigration status of anyone who isn't white rather than dealing with the growth of organized crime in their backyard.

That’s the effective theme that Atkins is working with here. It’s the collision of the dream that all a country boy needs to survive is a can of Skoal and his trusty shotgun vs. the cold hard realities of the 21st century, and it makes for a helluva read.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier by Mark Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m new to the world of Twin Peaks, but as someone who holds advanced nerd degrees I’m familiar with a lot of franchises that have decades of continuity, intricate histories, and scores of characters who have gone through extreme story arcs. Yet, I think Twin Peaks is the only one that could release a short tie-in book that seems like it’s just filling in some story gaps until the very end when it drops a couple of revelations that made me reexamine what I assumed I knew about the story all over again.

Damn, and when I started watching the old show on Netflix last summer I thought it was about solving the mystery of who killed one girl...

OK, just to recap. The series ran for only two seasons back in the early ‘90s. A prequel movie was done after that, and then 25 years later the show returned with 18 episodes that seem not just about a surreal battle between epic forces of good and evil, but also what I thought to be a slyly brilliant meta-commentary on TV as well as the nostalgia driving the resurrection of old shows. The previous tie-in book, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, was released before its return and functioned as a set-up for it. The Final Dossier is about wrapping up some of the loose ends and acts as a kind of afterword to the series.

Following the style of Secret History the story is told in a series of FBI reports from Special Agent Tammy Preston to Deputy Director Gordon Cole that recaps and sorta explains what happened. (Or at least as much explanation as we’re likely to officially get.) It also fills in the gaps about what happened to many of the original characters as well as what occurred after the events of the last of the new episodes.

What’s interesting is that a Twin Peaks viewer sometimes knows more than Agent Preston so when she has a question we often know the answer. So it’s like even though the FBI has some pieces of the puzzle only someone who watched Twin Peaks, not any of its characters, is in a position to see the whole picture. Understanding that picture is a whole different story. Probably only David Lynch and Mark Frost could do that, and it sounds like they’ve said all they have to say on the subject.

I was slightly disappointed in this until the ending. Secret History did similar things but was also telling us a story we didn’t know at all as well as having its own central mystery to solve. This seemed only to exist as a way to tell us all the things the show didn’t have time to get into. There’s also a depressing similarity to many of the characters’ fates. What happened on the show 25 years ago seemed to have tainted almost everyone, and there’s damn few happy endings. The best that many of them managed was to maintain the status quo with their lives not getting any worse.

It also seems to go out of its way to correct a mistake in Secret History with a weird and unlikely story about how that book said that Norma’s mother had died before the show started even though there’s a whole sub-plot with her and her living mother in the original series. However, it’s odd that Frost goes to such links to correct that gaffe here when there are several other continuity errors and contradictions that aren’t addressed. (e.g. The story of how Big Ed and Nadine came to be married is nothing like how Big Ed describes it on the show.)

So it seemed like this was simply a bit of extra material to answer the questions of hard core fans, but that it hadn’t even been particularly well-researched or thought out. That’s when the last few chapters kicked me in the head with a very important bit of follow-up on the impact of one of the last big events in the return episodes, and then came a revelation that pretty much blew my mind and changed my perception about a whole facet of the entire series. (It’s possible that a more dedicated Twin Peaks fan may have twigged to this before I did, but it certainly doesn’t seem like information that the series gave us.)

I’m not entirely sure that I like the idea of dropping something that seems so crucial in a follow-up book rather than putting it in the series itself, but nothing is easy or straight-forward when it comes to Twin Peaks. The entire show is begging to be picked apart and analyzed with layer after layer of themes and meaning examined so it doesn’t seem like that much of a cheat that one nugget was held back and tossed out later.

This would have exactly zero appeal to anyone who hasn’t the show, and it’d be pretty confusing if you haven’t read Secret History either. But for those who have it does provide a lot of interesting extras to think about.

Fair warning: Any untagged spoilers about the show in the comments will be deleted.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Upper Hand

The Upper Hand The Upper Hand by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy for review from the author.

Having a group of thieves and con men as your extended family sounds kind of cool, but you’d better keep your hand on your wallet at the reunions.

The three Ucker kids have drifted apart since their father died and was shown to be a thief. Axel has a good job at a bank, but his hobby is drawing up elaborate plans for robberies that he never pulls. Gretchen makes her living by stealing valuable comic books from nerds. The youngest, Kurt, stayed in their old hometown to take care of their aging mother and keep playing death metal with his friends in a garage band.

After their mother dies the three siblings are shocked to learn that she left everything including her house to her favorite TV evangelist, Brother Floom. Another surprise comes when they meet their aunt, an imposing woman who calls herself “Mother”. (Yeah, that’s right. She’s Mother Ucker.)

Mother informs the three that most of the extended Ucker family are criminals, and she introduces all of them. Then she reveals that Brother Floom is really their grandfather who assumed another identity years ago. This is all part of Mother’s pitch to teach them the family business with the ultimate goal of ripping off Floom.

Johnny Shaw always delivers a great mix of crime and humor, and this story plays to his strengths with this comic caper that involves a variety of schemes, double crosses, elaborate robbery plans that never quite work, and a family with more than its share of dysfunction. It’s a romp with a plot that’s constantly moving and a varied cast of characters that has a genuine laugh on almost every page. It’s also got enough heart and brains to it to keep it from being more than just a collection of gags and goofy situations.

My one complaint is that there are so many moving parts to the plot that some things just don’t end up making any sense, and Shaw even acknowledges that in the wrap up with one character shrugging off inconsistencies by saying that they were ideas and improvisations that weren’t needed in the end. That’s a bit of a cheat, but it didn’t really bother me because stories built around elaborate cons and schemes are frequently designed to keep things from the audience, not necessarily to make sense within the story. See the scene in Oceans’s 11 when George Clooney is questioned about why one of their own crew wasn’t told about a key piece of the plan. Clooney’s response is to essentially wink at the camera and say, “What fun would that have been?”

It’s a similar thing here. If you like the story, it works. I liked this just fine, and it worked for me.

Full disclosure – I once contributed an unpaid review to Shaw’s Blood & Tacos e-zine.

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