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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