Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review: Last Flight of the Harbinger

Last Flight of the Harbinger Last Flight of the Harbinger by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anybody know how to hotwire an Imperial Star Destroyer?

Rebellion sympathizers on a planet are being starved out by the Empire. Luke and Leia hatch a plan to hijack a Star Destroyer so they can use the massive ship to run the blockade and bring relief supplies to them. Stealing the ship turns out to be the easy part as they try to run the damaged vessel with a minimal crew, and an elite squad of Stormtroopers led by Sgt. Kreel have a plan to take the ship back and capture some valuable prizes in the process. Along with that we get another tale from the journal of Ben Kenobi about how he once faced the Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan and lived to tell about it.

Kind of a mixed bag here. The idea of the good guys space jacking a Star Destroyer is a cool one, and that story has a lot of great stuff although I question going to all the trouble of stealing an Imperial ship and not doing anything other than using it for anything other than a battering ram. It’s also fun to see a young Leia, Han, and Luke doing regular-degular missions for the Rebels. My favorite part of the collection was the side story about Kreel’s squad of Stormtroopers taking out a city occupied by Rebels forces because we get to see somebody in the Empire besides Darth Vader be good at their jobs for a change.

The problems once again come when because these are prequels and so we know how things ultimately turn out as well as that certain things can’t happen. The worst of this is the Kenobi story because once again he’s trying to do stuff on Tatooine without giving away that he’s a Jedi because we KNOW that he just hid out there on the down low while Luke was growing up. That’s extremely limiting. The other thing I didn’t care for was all the bickering between Han and Leia because we all know that it’s because they’re in love, but they can’t acknowledge it because it doesn’t happen until Empire Strikes Back so we’re stuck in this zone which even one character acknowledges is extremely irritating.

There’s good stuff here, but just the nature of when this story takes place kind of handcuffs the whole thing.

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Review: Killer Choice

Killer Choice Killer Choice by Tom Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Gary and Beth Foster are a nice couple who truly love each other, and their idea of a good time is playing Scrabble or watching Netflix. They don’t have a lot of money, but they’re happy just being together. Now that Beth has finally gotten pregnant after years of trying they feel like things couldn’t get any better. Which is exactly the point when life tends to kick nice people in the junk.

After Beth collapses while out shopping she’s quickly diagnosed with a particularly nasty brain tumor that will barely allow her to give birth before dying, but there’s a new procedure in Europe that might extend her life for years. Unfortunately, it will cost them $200,000 to try it, and they don’t have anywhere near that kind of cash. As hope begins to fade Gary receives a phone call with an offer for him to earn all the money they need. The catch is that he’ll have to murder someone to get it.

This debut novel from Tom Hunt is the kind of high concept hook that has put many a book on the best seller list and sold a lot of tickets to movies, and there’s a reason for that – it works. Or at least it works when there’s some talent behind the idea, and there’s definitely talent here. Hunt’s got a way of laying it all out in the straight forward fashion that many a crime writer has, and he’s also got the knack of making that style compelling.

There’s two things that really stood out for me. First, is that there’s a good amount of time spent on the efforts that are done by Beth and Gary with the help of their friends and family to come up with the money. They put pleas on the internet, hold events like hot dog dinners, and tell their story to the media all as part of the desperate fundraising only to realize that after all that it's not even close to being enough. It’s a bleak portrait of how Americans often have to resort to glorified begging to get medical treatment.

The other part is the story of Otto, the man asking Gary to commit a murder for hire. Otto is a ex-con who runs a pawn shop as a front for his real business of dealing drugs, and he’s got a huge problem that has made him desperate enough to try and use an average guy as a killer. We get Otto’s story told in parallel, and his criminal underworld couldn’t be more different than Gary’s suburban life. The contrast between the two is well done and underlines the desperate measures that both men feel driven to even if they have nothing else in common. On the downside Gary’s bland niceness is too much at times, and his hand wringing about the morality of murder does get a little old after a while. It was never enough to completely take me out of the story though.

What seems like an airplane read on the surface takes turns that ultimately make me think of this of outright noir. It’s solid crime story, and I’ll certainly check out what Tom Hunt does next.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: Snow

Snow Snow by Mike Bond
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Some seemingly law-abiding citizens stumble across something valuable and decide to keep it even though they know it will be dangerous to do so. Oh, you have heard it? Yeah, it’s been around a while.

Zach is a former NFL player turned television announcer, and Steve is his old friend and investment manager. They take an annual hunting trip to Montana every year where their buddy Curt acts as their guide while they camp in the woods. The guys are having trouble enjoying their vacation since Zach has run up huge gambling debts in Vegas and needs cash quickly while Wall Street shenanigans have wiped out the savings Steve was managing for him. This has also put Steve into a very deep hole that might ruin his family.

Zach comes across the crash of a small plane with hundreds of kilos of cocaine in it, and Steve immediately seizes on the idea of taking drugs and selling them to as a way of getting out of their mutual financial crisis. Because there’s no chance that an organization capable of filling a plane with millions of dollars of drugs will ever come looking for it, right?

Despite Zach’s reservations they haphazardly start a scheme that involves keeping the secret from Curt. Things escalate quickly. Mistake piles upon mistake. And just like that Zach and Steve are in deep trouble and soon realize that they can’t even trust each other anymore.

The trope of an ordinary person finding a bag of money or drugs which takes them straight down the path to hell is one I generally appreciate. However, this one seemed pretty clich├ęd. It starts out with a very similar set-up to Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan and then quickly morphs into an attempt at doing something like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. (And those are two way better books I’d recommend if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing.) From there we cycle through all the checkpoints you’d expect to cross. You’ve got your ruthless enforcer from the drug cartel, a dedicated cop, some innocent people getting screwed over, etc. etc.

There’s also the odd way that it veers into social commentary and existential angst. Many a good crime novel includes these elements, but the writing here just seems to swing wildly from following the plot to going off on tangents about the environment, the perils of capitalism, and the way everyday life can chip at the soul. Those are all subjects that can easily and naturally pop up in a book like this, but the way they’re presented here often seems clumsy and ill-timed.

The most original aspect are the characters of Zach and Steve. The set-up leans in the direction of treating the football hero Zach as the good guy led astray by the fast talking Steve, but we get a more interesting perspective as we learn more about them. Zach is actually more of a hypocrite and selfish guy then he first appears while Steve isn’t quite the Wall Street d-bag you’d assume from the beginning. The way they almost accidently create an escalating mess is a great depiction of how quickly things can fall apart for someone once they decide to cross the line.

Despite its shortcomings I’m still a sucker for these kind of crime stories, and there was some very good character work done as well as some nicely atmospheric stuff that takes us from the snowy woods to the streets of Las Vegas. It’s not bad, but I can think of several better ones.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole the World

Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole the World Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole the World by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Velvet comes to Washington D.C. as part of her effort to clear her name and expose the conspiracy that set her up. To do this she’ll need to blackmail Gerald Ford and kidnap Richard Nixon.

And I thought Jason Bourne was dangerous.

I gotta admit that I was a little let down by this one. Velvet is still an awesome character as a middle-aged lady spy kicking ass, and the artwork continues to be top notch as we see her get into a variety of situations that would make great action scenes in any blockbuster movie. Yet as we wrap things up the plot starts to collapse under the weight of it’s spy-vs-spy machinations with so many betrayals and twists that even John le Carre would need a flow chart to keep track of all of it. Frankly, I’m still kinda confused as to why the entire thing happened to begin with.

The ending also seems to indicate that there will be more Velvet at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet so it’s kind of unsatisfying. Although I guess there is a TV series in development so maybe that’ll motivate Ed Brubaker to return to this at some point.

Still, the three volumes that made up this story were some great comics that were well worth reading, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we see Velvet return in a slightly more coherent story someday.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review: Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men

Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everyone at the super-secret British spy agency ARC-7 thought Velvet Templeton was just the Director’s secretary until their best agent was murdered, and she was accused of turning traitor and killing him. It also turned out that she used to be a top notch field agent.

See, that’s why you should always be nice to the admin in your office….

Actually, we know that Velvet was framed, and to clear her name she’s going on the offensive against her old organization to try and flush out the real traitor. Through the course of the story we’ve also learned the tragic event that took Velvet out of the field and put her behind a desk for years. Fortunately for her sake and our entertainment value Velvet hasn’t lost a step as she uses sneaky spy tactics and a general ability to kick ass to find out the truth.

This could be just your standard betrayed-spy-on-the-run story, but there’s two factors that make it seem fresh. First, the ‘70s setting was a smart choice and not just for the retro style it brings into it. The 21st century has given us all James Bond gadgets with the average smart phone acting as a handheld computer, camera, and tracking device, but by setting this back in days of yore it allows for some fun with classic spy stuff that modern technology has made commonplace. It also makes the things they do use like Velvet’s stolen bulletproof stealth suit with glider wings seem more inventive.

Velvet herself is the second thing that makes this stand out. The idea of essentially taking Miss Moneypenny and making her a bad ass was a nice hook, and in a time when females in comics is a hot topic having a 40-something woman be the fully formed hero of a series like this seems way more revolutionary then it should be. (It also probably means we’ll never see a movie version of it because Hollywood believes that old ladies such as Marisa Tomei can only play characters like Aunt May.)

Ed Brubaker is one of the best writers in comics, and here he teams up with artist Steve Epting to create a humdinger filled with spy vs. spy action.

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Review: Velvet, Vol. 1: Before the Living End

Velvet, Vol. 1: Before the Living End Velvet, Vol. 1: Before the Living End by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Other reviewers have already pointed out that this story essentially asks what would happen if James Bond got killed, and it turned out that Miss Moneypenny was more of a bad-ass than he ever was? So in an effort to come up with a new way of describing this I’ll ask what if Sterling Archer got killed, and Cheryl/Carol was more of a bad-ass than he ever was?

In 1973 Velvet Templeton is the secretary to the director of super-secret spy agency ARC-7. After their best agent is ambushed and killed Velvet is implicated as the mole who set him up, but it turns out that she knows a lot more than just how to take shorthand. Velvet was actually a great field agent in the ‘50s before events forced her into accepting a desk job. To clear her name Velvet has to get back in the spy game to track down who actually betrayed their agent.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the lack of diversity in comics as well as the movies adapted from them, and it’s very refreshing to have the lead of this promising series be a forty-something female in an era where women were either the secretary to the good guys or the honey trap working for the bad guys. And Velvet is an intriguing character with all the skills of Marvel’s Black Widow with the looks of real life hard-boiled crime writer Christa Faust minus the tattoos.

Brubaker again delivers a version of yet another fantastic genre tale with a unique twist to it. Epting’s excellent art is realistic enough to be storyboards for a movie but still stylized to provide the atmosphere of a Bond movie from the Sean Connery era. Maybe its best trick is the way that the story blends the old school comic book style spy action with the darker John le Carre tone of exploring the toll that working in covert espionage takes on someone.

Overall it’s a terrific comic that I can’t wait to read more of.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: Criminal, Vol. 7: Wrong Time, Wrong Place

Criminal, Vol. 7: Wrong Time, Wrong Place Criminal, Vol. 7: Wrong Time, Wrong Place by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips churn out so many excellent comics that I managed to completely miss that they did this one which was absolutely ‘criminal’ of me.

(Yeah, I know. I apologize for that one.)

We’re back with the Lawless family in the ‘70s as Teeg spends some time in jail reading comics and killing inmates who are trying to cash in on the price that’s been laid on his head for some reason. Once released Teeg takes his young son Tracy on a road trip during which Teeg is hunting people while Tracy is on the prowl for a particular comic.

As always the crime story and art here are top notch, but the extra treat is that we get to read bits of the ‘70s style comic magazines along with Teeg and Tracy. Teeg’s story is about a Conan style barbarian with all the nudity and violence that era’s black & white mags could offer while Tracy is reading the adventures of Fang, the Kung-Fu Werewolf. And now I really want Brubaker and Phillips to actually do a whole run of that title because who wouldn't want to read a comic about a kung-fu werewolf?

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Review: The Punch Escrow

The Punch Escrow The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free copy from the author for review.

Anyone who has ever endured a long car ride or had to cool their heels at an airport because of a flight delay has wished that we had the technology to just teleport people from place to place like they did on Star Trek. After reading this they’d be more hesitant to step up on the transporter pad.

It’s the 22nd century and the world now relies on technology like teleportation. People and goods can be shifted anywhere on Earth in the blink of an eye. Joel Byram is a guy who spends most of his time playing video games and waiting for his more successful wife Sylvia to come home. Sylvia is an engineer for the company that controls the teleportation technology, but her long hours and company secrets are taking a toll on their marriage.

Joel is the victim of an accident while teleporting to meet Sylvia, and the result is that there are now two Joels in the world. This threatens to expose a horrible secret at the heart of the teleportation industry, and both Joels find themselves on the run from a corporation more powerful than any government as they try to save themselves and Sylvia.

This one is a bit of a mixed bag. It had a lot of things I liked very much from well thought out world building that creates a society based on future tech that seems logical and real. There’s also a bit of real science and physics mixed in so that it doesn’t seem like hand waving nonsense, and the writing has a nice style to it that walks the line between making it too deep to be fun but not treating the reader like an idiot either.

However, it’s got several things that irked me and dragged it down to the three star level. First, it’s got an underachieving smart-ass protagonist who we’re supposed to root for just because he’s not outright evil, and I’m just tired of that trope. Add in the fact that he’s got an attractive wife who is way smarter than him so it’s just like a million sitcoms and Adam Sandler movies that is supposed to appeal to that male geek wish fulfillment that it’s possible to outkick your coverage and snag a hot wife with a great job just by being a charming slacker while not having to change in any way or show any ambition of your own.

This plays right into the second thing that I didn’t like because I’m not a fan of vast conspiracy stories that have a hapless hero who doesn’t actually have any skills or knowledge that move the plot forward. Yes, Joel is able to do a form of hacking on apps because his job is teaching AIs how to think creatively, but he accomplishes this by just being a smart ass to machines so again that’s not anything that makes me think he should be able to survive this.

Instead Joel is just bounced from situation to situation where people then tell him what’s going on. He has no real agency of his own, and he also does another thing I hate which is to just react repeatedly with extreme emotion and no rational thinking. Yeah, your wife is in danger, but just running around like a maniac with no ideas of what’s going on or how to get her back just reinforces that he’s a simple baby man who charges in blindly and should be killed about twenty times over yet somehow he muddles through.

There’s also some unnecessary ‘80s nostalgia laced through with Joel’s love of old pop songs. It didn’t add anything other than trying to tap into the Ready Player One trend. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the very end, and the main secret at the heart of the book is a concept I’ve seen other places so it doesn’t seem as shocking or original as it should.

Despite these reservations I still kinda liked this book. That’s because it does have some genuinely clever stuff in it, and the writing was good enough to make Joel a sympathetic hero even if he’s pretty much everything I hate in a lead character these days. All in all it’s a solid debut sci-fi novel, and I’ll be interested to see what else Tal Klein comes up with.

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Monday, January 1, 2018

Review: The Cocktail Waitress

The Cocktail Waitress The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If this book actually were a cocktail you’d probably find it was pretty smooth going down, but think that it’s not all that strong while drinking. Then you’d be surprised by the twist you found at the bottom of the glass, and when you tried to stand up you’d fall over and realize that you were completely shitfaced after all.

Joan Medford is burying her husband, but since he was an abusive drunk she isn’t exactly upset that he crashed and burned in a drunk driving accident. However, he’s left her stone broke, and his sister is using Joan’s inability to provide for her small son Tad as an excuse to have the kid stay with her as the first step towards claiming custody of him. Desperate for cash Joan takes a gig as a scantily clad cocktail waitress in a lounge where her looks draw the attention of plenty of male customers including the rich but sickly Earl K. White who starts dropping huge tips on her. Joan quickly sees an opportunity to help her get her son back if she can make White fall for her, but she’s torn between working towards that goal and her attraction to a handsome rogue named Tom Barclay. She’s also got a problem with a pesky policeman who thinks that she was somehow responsible for his husband’s death.

This is one of those Hard Case Crime offerings where they’ve dug up some unpublished treasure, and this time it’s from noir master James Cain. Cain wrote and rewrote multiple versions of the novel until his death, and it’s a helluva interesting and tricky read. You can see element of his best known books like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce, but what’s interesting here is how he’s almost subverting his previous work by heading down similar paths yet still making The Cocktail Waitress something different.

It’s a subtle thing, and a good portion of the book just seems to be this hard luck woman struggling to overcome her circumstances and people’s perceptions of her. The police and her husband’s family think she might be a killer. Many people assume that she’s willing to flirt and flash some cleavage for tips, and maybe even do more than that. When she gets into the relationship with White it seems like a classic gold digger scenario. And yet the first person narration that Joan gives us make it seem like she’s just a decent practical woman trying to do her best to improve her situation enough to make sure she gets her son back.

The great thing about the writing here is that by the end you’re still sympathizing with Joan until the point where you look back and realize that there’s a whole lot of fishy stuff in her story. Is she an unreliable narrator who has been feeding the reader a line the entire time? Are we just as big of suckers as the rubes that Joan works for tips? Or is it really just a string of bad luck that is making Joan look bad, and she is just trying to set the record straight as she claims?

Those are the kind of questions you’ll find yourself asking, and it’s the way that Cain made Joan come alive as a character so that you’re not entire sure that makes this a fresh approach to a classic noir story.

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