Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: Jar of Hearts

Jar of Hearts Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Georgina Shaw, Angela Wong, and Kaiser Brody were best friends as teenagers in the ‘90s . Then Angela vanished without a trace. Years later Geo is a rising executive engaged to be married to a wealthy man, and Kaiser is a homicide detective. When Angela’s body is discovered the police find evidence proving that Geo’s old boyfriend, Calvin James, killed her. Worse yet, Geo knew that he’d done it yet didn't turn him in for it, and he’d gone on to murder several other women after that. Kaiser is the one who arrests Geo for being an accessory to Angela’s murder.

And you thought your high school reunion was awkward...

Geo testifies against Calvin and gets five years in prison for her part in the crime. Shortly after she begins serving her sentence, Calvin breaks out of jail, and Kaiser is sure that Geo is still holding things back. Five years later as Geo is about to be released, fugitive Calvin kills more people in such a way that is designed to draw Geo’s attention. Geo just wants to try to rebuild her life, but Kaiser is still sure she’s keeping secrets even as he finds it increasingly hard to deny the attraction he feels towards her.

When you summarize the plot it sounds like the set-up to TV movie you might see on Lifetime that would have a title like My Lover Killed My Best Friend. One of the great things about this book is that it doesn’t play out that way at all. Jennifer Hillier has written both Geo and Kaiser in such a way that they seem like real people. We know that despite moving on with her life that Geo was filled with shame and regret, and we also see from her time in prison that she’s both tough and intelligent. Kaiser has his own issues, and it’s clear that he never entirely got over his feelings for Geo even as he’s shocked and angry when he realizes why she distanced herself from him back then.

The clever thing here is the structure which manages to start the story at one point in time, flashback to their high school days repeatedly, and then still move forward five years as well. So we see Geo and Kaiser at various stages in their lives, all of which turns out to be important to the plot.The book also seems to lay out the whole sordid tale right up front, and then manages to somehow make us feel like we know Geo’s story completely even as there are nagging clues indicating, just as Kaiser suspects, that there’s more to this then she’s told everyone.

When the answers come at the end, it’s done in a way that provides shocking revelations and surprises, and the story doesn’t play out in the way I expected at all. Yet Hillier plays fair, and doesn’t pull any tricks to make this work. It’s all been built up via excellent character work to make it all pay in the end.

I picked this one up at Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas after seeing Hillier on a couple of panels where she talked a bit about this novel, and she seemed very sharp and funny. The book lived up to what I hoped for and then some.

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Review: Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you ever thought that writers like James Ellroy exaggerate the corruption of old Hollywood, try reading this.

The murder of influential film director William Desmond Taylor has so many viable suspects and motives that it could be the plot for a sequel to Knives Out. For starters, despite being a well-respected figure in the movie industry Taylor was a man who had secrets like a wife and daughter that he had abandoned years before coming to Hollywood and changing his name. He may have also been gay or bisexual, and there were rumors that he had frequented opium dens.

Taylor had already been burned by one man who found out who he really was. His former butler had learned about his former life before stealing from Taylor and vanishing. He was a prime suspect in the murder, but the press latched on to theories that said that Taylor had been killed by a woman as a result of some kind of romantic entanglement. Mary Miles Minter was a young starlet infatuated with Taylor which made her domineering mother furious even as Taylor didn’t return her affections. Another actress, Mabel Norman, was trying to put her life and career back together with Taylor’s help after breaking a drug addiction, and there was wild speculation that Mabel or one of her former dealers angry at Taylor’s efforts to keep her clean might have done it. Another small-time actress named Margaret ‘Gibby’ Gibson wasn’t implicated at the time, but her deathbed confession to killing Taylor decades later would lead many to believe that it was a blackmail attempt by Gibson and some friends of hers that led to murder.

This book leans into the idea that the crime might have been solved back in 1922 if it wasn’t the studio using its influence to steer the police and the press in certain directions. Powerful executive Adolph Zukor already had his hands full holding off reformers and government regulations in the face of scandal, and his minions took all of Taylor’s papers from his house before the police could read them. Later, the papers they gave to investigators may have been cherry picked to lead the police towards Minter and Norman since letting one or two actresses get pummeled in the press and by ‘moralists’ across the country was preferable to having all of Hollywood’s dirty laundry come out at that critical time.

Overall, this is an interesting look at an unsolved mystery. and Mann seems to do a credible job of sticking to the known facts. The backdrop of Zukor trying to hold onto power as he battled reformers is interesting in itself. I particularly found the story of Will Hays fascinating. It’s weird how things evolved so that he’d eventually have to found the infamous Hays Code which would stifle movies for decades even as he was not a moralizing reformer himself, and he was deeply uncomfortable with the idea that he should be a censor or in charge of doing things like banning Arbuckle from making movies.

Unfortunately, Mann falls into the true-crime trap of falling in love with a theory and presenting it as the only possible solution when that’s not the case. Here, he spends a lot of time following Margaret Gibson and her blackmail accomplices to establish how he thinks they were involved later and how their activities indicate a pattern that might have been used on Taylor. And that’s certainly possible, but there’s no new evidence to prove that. Yet, Mann presents this as the obvious solution while blowing by the parts that don’t fit or point to other people. His ideas about how a conspiracy within the studio to steer the cops wrong and throwing their own people like Minter and Norman under the bus while protecting someone like Gibson seems especially shaky.

So if you’re interested it’s good for understanding the basic facts and context of what happened, but wary of the places where Mann speculates without considering alternatives.

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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Review: The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man

The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man by Tom King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They say that good fences make good neighbors, but what if your neighbor was an android with the ability to manipulate the density of his body so that he could simply phase through the fence?

Vision decides he wants a family so he creates some more synthezoids to function as his wife and two children and moves to the suburbs of DC to lead a more ‘normal’ life. However, some of the neighbors are worried about what a family of robots will do the property values, and it turns out that his family have personalities and problems that don’t fit into Vision’s narrow idea of the American nuclear family.

I’d heard about this title for a while, and I wish I’d gotten to it sooner. There’s a dark, almost Megan Abbott-esque kind of surban noir going on here, and it’s kinda crazy that we’re getting this kind of story centered on Vision.

It reminds me a bit of Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye because that was another comic about an Avenger trying to have a normal life, but Clint Barton is just a regular guy who couldn’t ever keep his superhero stuff from leaking into his attempts at an everyday routine. Here, we see that it’s Vision’s family that may be the main problem even as he tries to make the people around them conform to his idea of normalcy. It’s intriguing stuff.

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Review: The Mighty Thor, Volume 1: Thunder in Her Veins

The Mighty Thor, Volume 1: Thunder in Her Veins The Mighty Thor, Volume 1: Thunder in Her Veins by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As Thor, Dr. Jane Foster is the Goddess of Thunder. However, when she puts the hammer down and returns to her mortal form she’s dying of cancer, and becoming Thor prevents her chemo from working. Being a hero is literally killing her, and yet Jane refuses to stop because the 10 realms need a Thor, especially now that the Dark Elves have teamed up with the evil Roxxon Corporation to wage ware on the light elves, Loki has returned, and Odin is being a real dick.

Great stuff here with Jason Aaron rolling out an epic story with an all-too human character at the heart of it all. Jane as Thor is now one of my all time favorite Marvel heroes, and the plot is cooking with gas on several levels. The art fits the story perfectly with great action, and the perfectly drawn settings take us from fantastic realms like Asgard to the hospital where Jane gets her chemo treatments to moons of Saturn. It all works.

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Review: The Vital Abyss

The Vital Abyss The Vital Abyss by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sociopaths doing scientific research? Why not? We already put them in charge of the government.

Another one of the The Expanse short stories tie-ins gives us the scoop on another piece of the story that wasn’t explored in the main novels. This time out we learn about the research team that unleashed the protomolecule from one of the people involved. His backstory as one of the regular folks desperately trying to escape the level of Basic assistance on Earth gives us some more detail on another aspect of society. His account of willingly being turned into a member of a team of sociopaths so that they’ll be willing to break many an egg to make the perfect omelette his chilling, and the story of what happened to them after the events of the earlier books also leads into some of the later story threads.

As usual, it’s not critical to the overall Expanse story, but as bonus material it’s pretty interesting. It’s also worth noting that they used this story as part of the TV series.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: Gods of Risk

Gods of Risk Gods of Risk by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

David Draper is a hard working chemistry student who has started a sideline cooking up narcotics for a shady dealer. Since this is happening in the future on Mars I guess we can finally declare defeat in the War on Drugs, right?

It’s weird that I only realized while reading this that while Mars has been a big part of The Expanse series with a couple of major characters being born on the red planet, that we actually haven’t spent much time there in the books. The most interesting aspect of David’s story is how it gives us a taste of a society in which the long term goal is terraforming the planet, and everyone has a very defined role to play. David isn’t a bad guy, and we realize that what he’s doing is one of the only ways he can rebel within a rigid structure where he has precious few moments of free time. With his Aunt Bobbi back on Mars and living in his house after leaving the Marines, he is growing increasingly frustrated at the life that’s been laid out for him.

This gives us a big of background on what Bobbi dealt with after the second book, and while the David story isn’t anything fantastic it’s an interesting deeper look at a part of The Expanse story that we don’t see much of elsewhere.

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Thursday, December 5, 2019

Review: The Butcher of Anderson Station

The Butcher of Anderson Station The Butcher of Anderson Station by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In space no one can hear you commit a war crime.

While I’ve read all of The Expanse books and love the TV series I hadn’t gotten around to checking out all the tie-in short stories, and this first one fills in the backstory of Fred Johnson. Since Fred is a former military officer from Earth who left all that behind to become one of the key leaders of the Belters he’s been something of an enigma so it was nice to get this story that explains why Fred turned his back on Earth and exactly what happened to earn him the nickname ‘The Butcher of Anderson Station.’

Since I’d already seen this dramatized on the TV show it didn’t give me quite the emotional punch that it could have. Plus, much like the other tie-in The Churn I could argue that it was short enough to be worked into the actual novels at some point instead of being extra material. If you’re a fan of the series it’s definitely worth a look although you’re not missing critical information if you don’t check it out.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review: Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition by Buddy Levy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

As the warrior-poet Vanilla Ice once said, “Ice ice, baby.”

In 1881 Lt. Adolphus Greely led 24 men to Lady Franklin Bay in the Arctic where they planned to stay for 2 years while recording scientific data, exploring the area, and maybe becoming the first to reach the North Pole. Greely was a Civil War veteran who had meticulously prepared for the expedition, and he had worked up a detailed plan for resupply that had multiple contingencies in case things went wrong.

Unfortunately, the military managed to completely botch any resupply and recovery efforts, and Greely and his men had to make a desperate journey to get South on their own as some of their family and friends work to mount a rescue attempt. It’s kinda like if you thought someone promised to pick you up, but they forgot. Only instead of just getting a ride with Uber, you freeze or starve to death.

I’m fascinated people trying to do things in extreme conditions, and this certainly fits that bill. It’s an intriguing tale of survival, and one of the things I found most interesting was how it’s a slow-motion disaster where nobody in particular did anything you can point to as the cause of it. Greely comes across as a competent and conscientious man who did all he could to prepare for a tough mission, but by sticking strictly to the original plan he may have made a critical mistake by going South instead of trying to tough it out for one more winter in their base. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, played a role as Secretary of War because his lack of enthusiasm for Arctic expeditions prevented the resupply efforts from having a lack of urgency until things became critical. Overall, bureaucracy and inexperience of some of those involved are the reasons why it ended in disaster.

There’s a lot of great descriptive writing of the environment and conditions that really drive home the perils of trying to travel in the Arctic, and there’s enough background on all the major people to give you a sense of who they were without getting bogged down in multiple biographies. There’s a real sense of what life was like for Greely and his men both before and after things went badly.

Frankly, the only reason I’m giving this 3 stars instead of 4 isn’t really the author’s fault. Once things go badly, and the expedition essentially finds itself trapped then it turns into a extended tale of starvation and frostbite. That’s just not a lot of fun to read about, and while Levy juxtaposes it with the rescue efforts so that it doesn't come across as a slog, it does start to feel like an extended horror movie in the last third of the book.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Review: What We Reckon

What We Reckon What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel starts out in a seedy motel room as two shady people with a hollowed-out Bible full of stolen cocaine buy fake IDs.

We’ve all been there, right?

The couple we know as Jack and Summer are desperate to leave their old lives behind, and they quickly make their way to a small East Texas college town where they plan to sell the coke and get their act together. Sort of. What we soon see is that Jack and Summer’s partnership is based around a combination of grifting and drug dealing. Summer plays the typical hippie college girl whose spacey persona hides a knack for inserting herself in social circles and identifying the weak spots that can be exploited. Jack acts as Summer’s friendly dealer who is always looking to sell or score bigger quantities.

They’ve got a good racket going, but it becomes apparent why the two of them are constantly on the move. While they’re smart and sly enough to con some local college kids and dealers for a while, they’re a little too fond of their own products. They’ve also got a dysfunctional, non-romantic relationship in which they frequently end up trying to sabotage each other only to realize time again that the other person is the only one who knows the ‘real’ version. When fueled by drugs and paranoia they create explosive situations that do immense damage to those around them.

This is a helluva crime novel that sets up a scenario that depends almost entirely on making you understand these two self-destructive agents of chaos. Jack and Summer are unforgettable characters, and the writing deftly made me shift from feeling sorry for them to being absolutely sure that they were pure evil. After a variety of twist and turns that I didn’t see coming it ends the only way it could. There’s also a great sense of verisimilitude to the various Texas settings and situations like small time drug dealing in a college town.

I got this novel by chance when I picked it as one of the freebies available when I attended Bouchercon in Dallas. I chose this one just based on the description without knowing anything else about it or the author, and I was pleasantly surprised when I later saw Eryk Pruitt hosting a very fun Noir At The Bar event. Then the next day he moderated an excellent panel on modern noir so I made a point of seeking him out later and getting this one signed. Now I’m very glad I got a chance to meet him because he’s a writer I want to read more of.

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Friday, November 22, 2019

Review: Secret Wars: Thors

Secret Wars: Thors Secret Wars: Thors by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You can never have too many Thors.

Jason Aaron had a pretty cool idea here for one piece of the whole Secret Wars storyline. Following the whole Marvel multiverse going KERBLOOEY, Doctor Doom has cobbled together a planet made up of various fragments from all these realities, and of course he reshaped it so that that he rules it all. To keep order of this mess he’s got a bunch of Thors who act like a police department and enforce the law.

Having a bunch of Thors behaving like police officers is fun, and Aaron added a dash of David Simon so that you can see elements of Homicide and The Wire to give it that cop vibe. Ultimate Thor and Beta Ray Bill are detectives trying to solve a bizarre string of serial murders, and the case is the kind of high profile furball that can cost a cop his hammer. Along with them we also see various other Thors including other Marvel characters who are now worthy like Storm and Groot.

It’s a really interesting way to do one of these multiverse things with variations of the same character interacting with each other. Unfortunately, it was just done in service of the larger Secret Wars story so it’s too short at 4 issues and doesn’t feel like the full potential was explored. Still, it was one of the more creative angles I’ve read to one of these things so it was well worth a read.

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Monday, November 18, 2019

Review: The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At various points Harry Houdini lied about where he was born, when he was born, how he met his wife, and he routinely got fictional accounts of his escapes in newspapers. Hell, Harry Houdini wasn’t even his real name. So how do you write a biography about a man whose entire life was built around tricking people and sensationalizing himself?

What the writer has done here is to focus less on the details of Houdini’s life. Sure, we get the basic facts and educated guesses when necessary, and there’s a lot about various Houdini legends while comparing them to reality. However, that’s not the main point of this book. Instead of trying to figure out who Houdini was and how he accomplished what he did, the book is more interested in examining how Houdini continues to fascinate and inspire people to this day. Considering that this was a man who whose very name became synonymous with amazing escapes of any kind, that’s an interesting topic.

Here’s the odd thing for me. I don't really care about magic, and I'm not even that interested in Houdini although he certainly led a memorable life. So why did I read this? Because I am a big fan of Joe Posnanski.

Posnanski is a sportswriter who was an award winning columnist in Kansas City for many years, and if I had a nickel for every story I read that he wrote about a horrible Royals teams during that time I’d be richer than Bill Gates. I met him once, and he signed a copy of his wonderful book about Buck O’Neil, The Soul of Baseball. I’ve listened to the podcast he does with TV producer Michael Schur and I have even ordered the dish named after him, Posnanski Chicken Spiedini, at a restaurant called Governor Stumpy’s on more a few occasions. (Not only is it really good, but you get a huge portion that gives you great take home leftovers for another meal.)

The fascinating thing about Posnanski to me is that he isn’t your typical 21st century hot-take sports guy. By modern standards his sports writing could almost be called gentle, and he always seems to be looking for the bright side without seeming naive. He is almost effortlessly funny, too. The thing that really always stood out was that Joe had a knack for finding awe inspiring moments in places that might be overlooked. I always had the feeling that part of the reason he was a sports fan is that it’s a thing where somebody doing something unbelievable is always just a play away.

However, Joe left Kansas City years ago, and while he’s had several high profile sports writing jobs since, I’ve missed getting a dose of that that kind of optimism a few times a week when I cracked open a open a copy of the Star. Truth be told, I’ve drifted away from watching sports at all in recent years so I don’t seek out Joe’s writing like I used to. I did get a nice reminder of it when a story he wrote about taking his daughter to see Hamilton went viral that made Lin-Manuel Miranda cry.

So even though I’ve got little interest in magicians, I picked this up just to read some Joe Posnanski. And he delivers by giving us a story about wonder. Houdini might have been a bully, a liar, a jerk, and a shameless self-promoter, but as repeatedly gets pointed out, he was the ultimate showman with a relentless drive. The legend of Houdini has inspired countless other magicians and escape artists, and those are the stories that Posnanski is really telling us here. He wants to figure out why a flawed man whose main talent was putting himself in rigged situations to escape from has managed to flourish in the public imagination for decades after his death.

To try and answer that Joe talks to everybody from David Copperfield to a reclusive former actor who wrote an incredibly detailed book about Houdini that is nearly impossible to find. Along the way we hear about magic acts, tricks of the escape artist trade, debates about Houdini’s actual skill, and a variety of other topics that all are oriented around trying to puzzle out the appeal of the man. In the end I did learn a lot about Houdini, and it also gave me a lot to think about in terms of what creates legendary fame and how one person's image can inspire countless people long after they're gone.

If you’re thinking about reading it, and you’re not sure if it’s your cup of tea, here’s a link to the column Posnanski wrote about taking his daughter to see Hamilton . If you enjoy that, there’s a good chance you’ll like this book.

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Review: Marvels

Marvels Marvels by Kurt Busiek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Treasure of the Rubbermaids 17: Marvel At Marvel’s Marvelous ‘Marvels’!

The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years. Thanks to my father dumping them back on me, I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depths.

I would hate to be a New Yorker in the Marvel universe because it seems like the city is constantly being threatened by super villains, invaded by aliens, flooded by pissed off Atlanteans, or beset by some other form of comic book mayhem. I’ll bet it’s impossible to get property insurance at all.

Comic book readers get a ring side seat and full explanations for everything that’s happening, but what would your average man on the street think about all this insanity? That’s what Marvels explores beautifully.

Phil Sheldon is a young newspaper photographer during the Great Depression who witnesses the public unveiling of the original Human Torch followed shortly after by the appearance of Namor the Sub-Mariner. Like most people, Sheldon is initially shocked and disturbed by these new super beings he thinks of as Marvels who routinely turn New York into a battleground. With the coming of WWII and the introduction of Captain America, Phil embraces the costumed heroes who fight the Nazis.

Years later in the early ‘60s, an explosion of superheroes creates an odd mix of emotions in Phil and the general public. The Fantastic Four and The Avengers are celebrities who get put on magazine covers while some don’t know whether Spider-Man is a good guy or a criminal, and the mutant X-Men are feared and persecuted. Phil’s work as a photojournalist puts him in the middle of almost every big event Marvel did during the Silver Age, and he frequently finds himself conflicted about how he feels about them.

This does a great job of exploring that idea of how the public responds to larger than life characters and events that make them feel scared and insignificant, and one of the things I’ve always liked about Marvel’s comics is how they've always portrayed the public's attitudes towards the superheroes as being full of contradictions. People cheer the heroes like Iron Man and Captain America, but some blame them for the fights that cause so much destruction. The mutants are the target of hatred and bigotry while stores sell clothing lines based on the many costumes of Wasp. New Yorkers will cheer on the Fantastic Four as they battle Galactus to save the entire world, but just days later their landlord will try to evict them from the Baxter Building for the danger they attract.

Phil’s a great character to use in the midst of this because he’s a decent, ordinary guy who is still fully capable of giving into his worst instincts at times. He makes a career out of documenting the craziness that comes with the superheroes and thinks deeply about what the heroes mean to all of them. At times he almost worships them but can easily swing to resentment and jealously. Phil’s attitude towards them mirror how the superheroes have always been portrayed with a mixture of admiration and fear in the Marvel comics.

The stunning artwork has a retro realism to it that really makes you feel like you’re looking at people wearing tights in the 1960s, yet still conveys all the wonder of seeing someone otherworldly like the Silver Surfer.

By showing us how one regular person reacted to some of Marvel’s greatest hits, this moving tribute to the past gives a fresh perspective on how fans relate to the characters in these wild and amazing stories.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes

Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spenser goes Hollywood, and I’m not talking about that upcoming Netflix movie.

A young woman originally from Boston has gone missing after moving to Los Angeles, and her mother has hired Spenser to find her so he heads west. Tracking down the young lady puts Spenser at odds with a powerful Hollywood producer, a self-help group that seems more like a cult, and a dangerous Aremenian gang.

Fortunately, despite being far from home Spenser has plenty of friends around to help out like his former protege Z. Sixkill who has started his own private detective business. There’s also Spenser’s thug buddies Chollo and Bobby Horse that work for the local crime boss who Spenser is on good terms with thanks to their previous encounters. LAPD Captain Sameulson is still around although he’s less thrilled to see Spenser back in town causing trouble again.

Ace Atkins has become one of the those writers that I file under R for Reliable at this point. For several years now he’s been producing both Spenser and Quinn Colson books like clockwork, and every time I start one of his I know that I’m in for a good time. For both these series he’s also been walking the tricky tightrope that balance familiarity with mixing things up so that neither start to seem formulaic or stale.

This is a prime example of that with Atkins again drawing on the long history of Spenser as written by the late Robert B. Parker so that it still seems like the same character, but then using that as a jumping off point to move in new directions. This isn’t the first time Spenser has gone out to LA so he’s dealing with a bunch of familiar characters and situations, but this never feels like we’re just going over the same old ground. Atkins also has a knack for putting a slightly different spin on some of these old supporting characters so that they seem to have more going on than just being props in Spenser’s world. For example, I loved how Samuelson, who has plenty of reasons to dread seeing the detective come to town, gets thoroughly pissed off when he once again finds himself knee-deep in a Spenser related mess.

There’s also a nice ripped-from-the-headlines vibe to this story although it doesn’t go in the direction that I initially thought it would. I also appreciate how Atkins has managed to update Spenser by using more tech and things like social media while still keeping his old school nature. There’s also a fun tip of the cap to another crime series when Spenser briefly crosses paths with another fictional detective. Long time fans also know that LA is the spot of one of Spenser’s biggest regrets, and there’s a nicely done acknowledgement of that, too. Another sly Easter egg appeared to be a reference to the upcoming movie.

Through it all we’ve got all the staples of a good Spenser story. Funny banter, good action, descriptions of food guaranteed to make you hungry, and a twisty mystery that Spenser unravels by being a pain in the ass to anyone he comes across who is standing in the way.

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Review: Extreme Prey

Extreme Prey Extreme Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more things change the more they stay the same. For example, Lucas Davenport may not be a cop anymore, but that doesn’t mean that he’s done chasing killers.

Lucas got fed up with certain elements of his old gig as a state investigator in Minnesota so he quit, but he’s still the first call that the governor makes when he needs a bloodhound. The gov is now running for president, and he got a bad vibe off some people he met on the primary campaign trail in Iowa. He fears that some whackos plan to do more than just vote for him and are going to assassinate the leading candidate of his party, Michaela Bowden. Davenport is soon tracing a network of political crackpots whose first instinct is to accuse him of being part of a federal conspiracy when he tries to talk to any of them.

This follows the standard formula of the Prey novels in giving us the parallel stories of Lucas and the people he’s hunting. This time the villains are a middle aged woman and her son whose hard economic circumstances as rural farm folks have convinced them that Bowden is part of a system that has been deliberately keeping them down. When they learn that Davenport is trying to find them they desperately try to divert and stall him until they can pull off their plan, and their methods include murder.

Once again Sandford delivers a tremendously satisfying thriller. One of the great things about his books is that they depend on the bad guys being clever, but there are no Insane McGeniuses pulling off Bond villain levels of schemes. Instead they’re just people whose view of the world is about 10 degrees off center combined with certain paranoid and ruthless tendencies that make them dangerous but not unstoppable killing machines. Likewise, Davenport is as smart, capable, determined, and sometimes ruthless as you'd want the lead of this kind of book to be, but he isn’t some bulletproof action hero or a Sherlock Holmes type of detective either.

Sandford also still has a reporter’s instincts for having the pulse of current events as well as a knack for tapping into them for stories. Here, with a female presidential candidate campaigning in a time where an overworked sense of outrage and conspiracy theories have helped create an environment of seething political hatred that is immune to facts, logic, or common decency, we get a story that seems all too plausible. However, Davenport blessedly remains pretty much apolitical with little interest in who gets elected or getting drawn into debates.

You also have to give Sandford credit for being willing to shake up a winning formula this deep into a series. Shifting Davenport from a big shot Minnesota cop who can make things happen by picking up a phone to a guy without a badge wandering around Iowa makes for him going through an interesting adjustment. At times not being subject to the usual rules is an advantage he can use, but Lucas finds himself frequently frustrated with his lack of authority in these circumstances. It’s a nice bridge to what seems to be a new era in the series, and as a long time Sandford fan I’m excited to see what comes next for Davenport.

One side note: I’ve gotten several comments on my Sandford reviews asking if you can just read one book or if you need to complete the series for it to make sense. (My standard response is that most of the books are self-contained stories that can be read alone, but you will know how some events in previous Davenport books turned out from casual references. There are also a couple that do act as direct sequels to earlier ones.) This would be an excellent place for anyone who hasn’t read them to jump in because it’s the start of a new phase for the series with Davenport interacting with mostly new characters so it’s pretty light on the previous elements, but still has all the hallmarks of what makes them such great crime thrillers.

Next: Lucas gets a new job in Golden Prey.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: Blood Sugar

Blood Sugar Blood Sugar by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want an idea of how gross this book is, the first person narrator has a case of untreated pink-eye, and that’s just the start. But hey, it’s in addition to being completely disgusting it’s also depressing as hell.

I’m selling the hell out of this one, aren’t I? The crazy thing is that it’s a very good book, one of the best I’ve read this year. But it’s not exactly a joy ride.

Robbie is a complete outcast that is hated by everyone in town. He lives in a decaying house that’s filled with junk, trash, bugs, and mice, and his only friends are three young kids. He decides to finally get revenge on the community by lacing Halloween candy with drugs and razor blades, and he wants the kids to help. However, Robbie isn’t exactly a criminal mastermind, and his minions aren’t much better.

Jody’s mother has mental health issues so he’s pretty much raising himself as well as the young mute foster kid, Midge, that his mom took in for the money. Unfortunately, Jody’s ideas of health and hygiene leave a lot to be desired. Jody’s schoolmate Dag comes from a seemingly solid middle class family, but while she may have nicer clothes and a better diet, she has her own issues.

The thing about this book is that it’s so far off from your usual narrative that it’s hard to even describe. On the surface it’s about a lowlife enlisting three at-risk children to help him poison kids on Halloween so Robbie should be the villain of a story told to us by Jody. However, as the plot unfolds and we learn more about the backgrounds of each character you realize that not everything is as it seems. Robbie may be a disgusting dirtbag who is out to kill some innocent trick-or-treaters, but gradually you learn that he’s got a tragic backstory of his own so that you can’t help but feel some sympathy towards him by the end.

There’s also some very clever things going on in regards to the narration and structure of the book. Most of the story come from Jody’s first person account, and since he’s a not-too-bright kid who is a poster boy for neglect his account is mainly made up slang and references to the Lord of the Rings movies he loves so it takes some translation to understand what Jody is even talking about. We also get some interludes that are letters that Robbie writes to various people, and it quickly becomes clear that he has his own problems. There’s also some letters from Dag, and while she’s obviously the smartest of the crew we learn what led her to befriend these people who are so clearly not part of the same social or economic class as her.

It’s great writing that establishes the different voices, and it also pays off as each revelation makes the story become clear. Eventually we understand everyone, even the mute Midge, and their tales are all heartbreaking in one way or another. The book left me feeling sickened, but it wasn’t the gross and filthy details that did it. It was the way these young people were all abandoned or let down so that they ended up in these circumstances while no one around them seemed to notice or care.

OK, so some of it was the gross and filthy details. Seriously, I was glad that  I've had a tetanus shot recently while reading, but it's totally worth it.

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Review: In Broad Daylight

In Broad Daylight In Broad Daylight by Harry N. MacLean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1981 Ken McElroy was shot dead in his pick-up truck while parked on a main street of Skidmore, Missouri. At least two people fired on him, and dozens of people were nearby and witnessed the shooting. Yet not one person checked on McElroy, and his body sat there for an hour until the authorities had finally been called. No one has ever been charged with the murder because nobody in the crowd would tell the police who did it.

Think about that the next time you hear how polite and nice people in the heartland of America are.

What In Broad Daylight does brilliantly is explain how some ordinary people were driven to murder, and why an entire community would refuse to tell the cops who did it. The simple answer is that Ken McElroy was an asshole.

This is a guy who for years had stolen livestock, grain, equipment, supplies, antiques, and anything else he could get his hands on from farmers all around northwest Missouri and other nearby states. Despite being arrested and charged multiple times for various crimes he kept getting away with it by keeping a very good criminal lawyer from Kansas City on retainer as well as intimidating any potential accusers or witnesses.

McElroy would do things like park for hours outside the homes of those he was angry with, and there were several incidents of him threatening people with guns. He also committed multiple acts of statutory rape, and when one underage girl’s parents made too much of a fuss about McElroy 'dating' their daughter, he burned their house down. He shot three men who all lived to testify against him in court, but McElroy escaped conviction on the first two incidents. It was only the shooting of the last man, elderly grocery store owner Bo Bowenkamp, which finally convinced a jury to say that McElroy was guilty of a crime. It was McElroy’s extended campaign of harassment of several locals before and after the shooting of Bowenkamp that made the town’s fear and frustration with the bully boil over.

I grew up in a small Kansas town just about an hour from Skidmore, and I was 11 when McElroy died so I remember a lot of talk about the incident. However, after reading this I realized that I hadn’t known many details, and that I had some fundamental misunderstandings about what happened there.

I didn't comprehend just what a total sonofabitch that Ken McElroy was. He got referred to as the town bully, but that doesn’t really tell you the scope of his criminality, how bad his intimidation tactics were, and how easy it was to get on his bad side.

As an example, McElroy’s beef with Bo Bowenkamp began over a simple misunderstanding when McElroy’s four year old daughter tried to walk out of the store without paying for a few pieces of candy. This minor incident drove McElroy into an extended rage that had him harassing the Bowenkamps for months by parking outside their store and home. He’d frequently fire shotguns over their house in the middle of the night. People stopped shopping at the store out of fear that McElroy would see them and start coming after them, too. Eventually, McElroy shot and nearly killed Bowenkamp one night in back of the store.

McElroy even pulled this stuff on cops and got away with it. One state trooper had regular clashes with him, and he arrested McElroy for the Bowenkamp shooting. While on trial and out on bail for that crime he began parking outside that cop’s home and once pointed a shotgun at his wife. McElroy only stopped after the trooper used a friend of his to deliver a message that if McElroy didn’t quit that the trooper was going to catch him out on a gravel road one dark night and deliver some instant justice.

So if cops were that threatened, imagine how the citizens of Skidmore felt. I’d always been under the impression that the killing of McElroy was simple mob justice by organized vigilantes. However, the people of Skidmore had endured years of Ken McElroy’s reign of terror. Time and again someone would turn to the law for help only to be told that nothing could be done, or even if he got charged his lawyer would get him off while McElroy made the life of anyone involved a living hell.

The crowd there the day that McElroy was killed was even due to continued efforts to do things legally because they’d gathered as solidarity and security for four men who were going to testify about McElroy’s brandishing a rifle in the bar while threatening to kill Bowenkamp. This was part of an effort to get McElroy’s bail revoked while his appeal of the conviction was pending. However, were enraged when McElroy’s lawyer got yet another postponement, and this turned into an impromptu meeting about options and organizing themselves to watch and protect the four men until the court date. That’s when McElroy, who had heard about the gathering, decided to show his ass yet again by driving into town and having a beer.

That turned out to be the final straw that drove a couple of people to take advantage of the opportunity to finally be rid of the guy. Then the town closed ranks because they felt that the shooters had finally dealt with a problem that the legal system had failed to resolve time after time. This wasn’t frontier mob justice done in haste, it was a bunch of frightened and angry people pushed far past the breaking point.

I’ll give a lot of credit to Harry MacLean for the way he depicts this part of the world. As I stated before, I grew up in a small town like Skidmore in that area during the same time frame, and he absolutely nails life in farm country during the ‘80s. From describing the landscape to the weather to the depictions of the local people, this really took me back. In fact, my home town is even mentioned, and one of the cops who crossed paths with McElroy was a man I knew.

My one complaint is that MacLean goes a little easy on the people of Skidmore although I generally agree that this was a failure of the system, not a bad town. While MacLean does touch on the local Midwest farmer mentality of people-should-take-care-of-their-own-problems and how that was part of how McElroy managed to isolate his targets, he also kind of lets them off the hook for not looking out for each other more until McElroy was finally convicted of shooting Bowenkamp. That’s when people started to finally push back. Obviously, the main problem was McElroy and how he manipulated the legal system, but if the town had collectively stood up to him sooner it might not have come the bloody end it eventually did.

So who killed Ken McElroy? The book gives the most likely candidates, but as MacLean points out, knowing who actually pulled the trigger doesn’t really matter. The story here is in how Ken McElroy was allowed to behave the way he did for so long, and how he managed to push an entire town of people so far that almost every one of them felt like he had it coming.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot

Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot by Reed Farrel Coleman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jesse Stone takes a few days off from being police of chief in Paradise to attend a reunion of his old minor league baseball club that has been put together by Vic Prado, one of his former teammates who made it to the majors where he had a successful career. Vic is the guy who made the throw that got Jesse hurt and ended his own dreams of baseball glory. He also stole Jesse’s girlfriend at the time and later married her.

And you thought your high school reunion was awkward….

It turns out that after baseball Vic has gotten involved in a shady financial scheme with a dangerous Boston gangster for a partner, and now that the walls are closing in he was hoping to ask for Jesse’s help. However, Vic’s plan goes off the rails almost immediately which gets a young college girl killed and her wealthy boyfriend kidnapped back in Paradise. As Jesse tries to figure out what’s going on he’ll have to deal with the asshole father of the missing boy, a dangerous hit man, and a mysterious new love interest who has her own agenda regarding Vic. If that isn’t enough, seeing Vic opens up a lot of old emotional wounds that make it even harder than usual for Jesse to keep the cork in the Scotch bottle.

This is a fairly odd situation. Robert B. Parker started this series late in his career, and while he tried to make Jesse different his best known creation, Spenser, he was so locked into certain themes and his own sparse style that Jesse came across as just an internalized drunk who was unhealthily obsessed with his ex-wife. Which might work if you’re trying to make a flawed lead character, but RBP also couldn’t really let go of trying to make Jesse a Spenser-esque hero, either.

Then after RBP’s death his family had Michael Brandman carry on the Jesse Stone series, and since Brandman had been a producer/screenwriter on a pretty good set of TV movies based on the books that seemed like a solid choice. However, the three books Brandman did weren't good with Jesse coming across as a terrible cop who abused his authority for minor matters while ignoring bigger crimes.

I assume the fan response to Brandman was why Reed Farrel Coleman replaced him, and the results are promising in this first attempt. The biggest difference is in character work because RBP pretty much just worked off established templates in his later books so everybody seemed thin and one note. Here, Coleman spends time building up all the major players so that they all have inner lives and a distinct point of view. Coleman manages to build up some nobility and sympathy for a villain who seems irredeemable at the start, and even an entitled star athlete like Vic who is entirely motivated by self-interest has a world view a reader can understand.

In Coleman’s hands Jesse finally seems like a wholly realized person, and not like some shambling Frankenstein’s monster made up of random bits leftover from RBP's files and unproduced screenplays. He’s still an internalized guy who is struggling to cope with alcoholism, but he’s more self-aware of his flaws instead of seeming like a robot fueled by Scotch. While Jesse still has many of the tough-guy traits you’d expect in this kind of series, he also seems more like a decent guy doing his best rather than someone who thinks he’s above normal human interactions.

It’s not a home run of a book. The plot wanders somewhat, and I found the way that several of the bad guys suddenly develop consciences late in the book unbelievable. I also wasn’t wild that while wrapping up most of the story that it ends on a big cliffhanger.

Still, this was a Jesse Stone book that I mostly liked so maybe the third writer is the charm. 3.5 stars.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: One Small Sacrifice

One Small Sacrifice One Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw Hilary Davidson at Bouchercon in 2011 when she was promoting her first novel. She had some interesting things to say so I made a mental note to get a copy. 8 years later I finally got around to reading her 5th novel.

Hey, I’ve been busy!

Alex Traynor went to a war zone as a photojournalist and came back to New York with a whopping case of PTSD that had him self-medicating with the help of his friend and drug dealer, Cori. Unfortunately, Cori died after falling off the roof Alex’s apartment under suspicious circumstances. NYPD detective Sheryn Sterling is convinced that Alex killed Cori in the midst of a drug fueled freakout, but Alex’s girlfriend Emily provided an alibi. However, now Emily has gone missing while Alex relapsed and had a lost weekend. Sterling is determined to not let Alex get away with it again, but Alex has no memory of what happened to Emily. So where is she?

This is a nice take on a mystery because we’ve got a dogged detective pursuing the truth even as her prime suspect is doing the same, and for a good chunk of the story we’re not sure which one of them we should be rooting for. There’s some good twists, and the ultimate resolution manages the tricky task of not being obvious while not entirely coming out of left field either. I particularly liked one of the bigger revelations we get at the end.

It’s a little repetitive in spots as if Davidson doesn’t entirely trust the reader to remember the characters' histories, but it doesn’t get annoying. It’s also just a shade too long with an extra bit at the end that I didn’t really need, but again, it’s not too much to overlook.

I’d go 3.5 if I could, but I’ll round up to 4 since it took me way too long to finally check out Davidson’s work. Better late than never.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice

Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice by Michael Brandman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pop quiz. If you were the chief of police in a small town, which of these issues would be your top priority?

1) A movie production has started filming, and in addition to all the logistical headaches that creates, the lead actress is worried about her safety because she’s trying to divorce her drug addicted husband who has physically assaulted her in the past.

2) Officials at the local water company may have been rigging the meter readings to overcharge customers which would be a criminal conspiracy that affected the entire town.

3) One bratty rich girl keeps driving while texting despite repeated warnings.

If you answered #3, congratulations! You’d be just as bad a cop as Jesse Stone.

To be fair, the rich brat did cause a serious traffic accident, and her parents are major league assholes so it is a legit problem. However, while facing the other two issues Jesse chooses to delegate most everything related to the movie production to one of his officers while arranging for a guy he once pursued as a dangerous criminal to be the actress’ bodyguard. Plus, even when he suspects the water commissioner of shenanigans Jesse doesn’t call in some accountants or utilities experts to perform an audit and investigation, he just kind of casually happens to talk to the people at the water company involved in the fraud. Hell, he doesn’t even check his own water bill to see if anything looks off.

Instead, most of his focus and action is directed towards dealing with the young lady who is a chronic texter while driving. Again, I know this is a serious problem, but even when Jesse manages to get some legal action taken against her he also continues to involve himself with the idea of turning the girl around for the better. Noble, but as I’ve outlined here, he’s really got better things to do. So no surprise that everything goes to hell on him.

This seems to be all part of a weird situation with this series at this time. After Robert B. Parker’s death his family chose Michael Brandman to continue it, and since Brandman had been the writer/producer of a series of pretty good TV movies based on these books that made a lot of sense. Yet in these first two books he did Jesse really comes across as a cop who abuses his power over trivial matters while ignoring major situations.

It’s not surprising to me then that Brandman only did one more of these before the series was handed over to Reed Farrel Coleman. The writing is decent enough and mimics the style of Parker, but the plotting choices make Jesse out to be pretty awful at his job.

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Monday, October 7, 2019

Review: Thor, Volume 2: Who Holds the Hammer?

Thor, Volume 2: Who Holds the Hammer? Thor, Volume 2: Who Holds the Hammer? by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The identity of the new Thor is finally revealed, and it’s….*gasp* WHO?!?

Just kidding. This came out almost 5 years ago so that info has already fallen so far into the realm of common nerd knowledge even the reveal of the cast of the next Thor movie gave it away.

Since this a modern comic we can’t go more than 15 minutes without changing the title slightly and releasing a new #1, and with Secret Wars looming this version of Thor had a limited shelf life. Still, I very much enjoyed this particular run with a mysterious woman wielding the hammer as original Thor struggles to deal with his new unworthy status. It’s short but we get a pretty great battle between new Thor and the Destroyer that was sent by Odin just because he’s being an incredible asshat about a woman having the name and power of Thor. (Imagine that.) The annual included here has 3 lightweight but fun stories too.

Now I guess I’m onto the next title which is called Thors. We’ll see how long that lasts.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Review: The Unworthy Thor

The Unworthy Thor The Unworthy Thor by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Freedom and murder for all!”

Yeah, that’s what the hellhound says in this one, but I gotta admit that it’s a catchy slogan that I’d like on a t-shirt.

The god formerly known as Thor has had a rough time of it. First, he heard a revelation that instantly made him unworthy so that he lost his hammer, and then he got an arm chopped off although he got a pretty nifty replacement. (Hopefully, he won’t run into Rocket who would try to steal it.) He’s so bummed that another superhero now has Mjolnir as well as the power of Thor he even gives up his name and starts calling himself Odinson. Well, at least he’s got a big goat to ride around on…

I found this mini-series entertaining despite a pretty mopey ex-Thor. That’s mainly because it’s got some great guest stars like Beta Ray Bill, who is such a stand-up guy that he even offers Odinson his own hammer, and Thori, the murder loving hellhound. The Collector shows up in a good villain appearance along with some of Thanos’ minions, and everyone is trying to get yet another hammer, the one that the Thor from the Ultimate universe used to wield that somehow dropped into this version of Marvel reality.

It’s also interesting to read this and see how certain elements of it were used in the Thor: Ragnarok movie. Like Thor getting a hair cut!

It all makes for a fun comic read although I found the final revelation about what Odinson was told that made him instantly unworthy of Mjolnir pretty weak and kinda confusing. It’s not about anything that ex-Thor did. Instead, it’s more of a broad general statement that’s always been true. It didn’t change anything other than maybe the way that Odinson thought about himself. So that makes it almost sound like being worthy isn’t a judgement that Mjolnir makes about the character of the person trying to wield it, but more of a matter of self-confidence. Which doesn’t really fit the way I’ve always understand the mythos around the whole thing. On the hand, it’s a comic book so why not?

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Monday, September 30, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Damned If You Do

Robert B. Parker's Damned If You Do Robert B. Parker's Damned If You Do by Michael Brandman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hate to see anybody lose their job, but I understand why Michael Brandman was replaced as the writer of this series.

Small town police chief Jesse Stone has two big problems. First, after a young female prostitute is murdered in a seedy motel Jesse has to first identify her, and then try to find her killer which puts him in between a couple of rival pimps. Second, Jesse suspects that the local nursing home is both negligent and abusive in its care of its elderly residents, but the company that owns it has already survived one scandal thanks to an army of lawyers so getting it shut down won’t be easy.

As I’ve noted in the reviews of the other two Brandman books I’m baffled at how badly he whiffs on these because he was a producer and screenwriter of several TV movies starring Tom Selleck based on this character, and they’re actually pretty good. So having him take over after Robert B. Parker’s death seemed like a no-brainer.

He did some stuff I like such as having Jesse finally get over his awful ex-wife and address his drinking problem. Yet, he comes across as incredibly bad at his job. In these recent books Jesse seems to fixate on trivial aspects of what’s going on while ignoring major things, and he generally delegates most of the work to other people. There are also several examples of abuses of power by a police chief. So the character has become inconsistent, incompetent, and just a bad cop all around even as he’s still presented as our hero.

Part of the problem is that the world created here just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Any fictional story about a cop, particularly a series like this, is going to have stretch things past the point of reality, but this gets too far off the rails. For example, one of the suspects in the woman's murder wants to kill Jesse later in the book and word gets out. Several people act like Jesse is all on his own, and that he should drop the case. Even one of his own police officer's tells him to forget about the investigation. That’s completely unbelievable, that everyone acts like a police chief is so at risk from one minor criminal that he’d consider dropping a murder investigation. Cops just don’t operate like that, even small town ones.

Another crazy thing is that when Jesse starts going after the crooked rest home we hear a lot about how this company has enormous influence and power. Yet when Jesse starts using local fire and health inspections to get the place cited their response is to first try and bribe him, and then later several of the people in charge go after Jesse and other cops physically. That’s not how white collar criminals do things. Even if they had financial problems they’d just declare bankruptcy and find a way to walk off with a bunch of cash and come up with a new scheme.

There’s also some lazy inconsistencies. Jesse had a cat in the last book, and every time he goes home Brandman made a point to have him interact with the cat who is all over him. Here, we follow Jesse through his evening routine as he’s thinking about what’s going on a couple of times without a single mention of the cat. Yet, late in the book the cat just shows up again with no explanation as to why he wasn’t around earlier.

Another one is that per the earlier books in the series and the TV movies, Jesse doesn’t wear a police uniform. Brandman never describes what he’s wearing on the job here, but I assumed he was still wearing civilian clothes but it’s never made clear. In one scene, Jesse borrows a nightstick from one of his officers to beat the shit out of some people so you think that he is not walking around with all the gear that a uniformed police officer would be. However, in the very next chapter Brandman has Jesse pull a nightstick off his own service belt without ever explaining why Jesse would need to borrow one in the previous chapter, and the way it’s presented here is that he always has one on him.

It’s a parade of things like that which make Brandman’s run on this series such a mess. It’s ill-defined and sloppy in many ways while he focused on trying to do the Robert B. Parker style of dialogue. He doesn’t really pull that off either.

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Saturday, September 28, 2019

Review: Bloody Genius

Bloody Genius Bloody Genius by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

If a dead body was found in a library I’d assume that he must have had some serious overdue fees. Those librarians don’t play around.

A professor who does high end medical research is found murdered in a college library so Minnesota state investigator Virgil Flower is assigned to help out when the local Minneapolis cops hit a dead end. As Virgil digs into the case his problem isn’t that there aren’t any clues, it’s that there are far too many. Sex, drugs, blackmail, lawsuits, ex-wives, an estranged daughter, and a bitter academic rivalry are all angles that come up. Sifting through the noise and finding the killer’s motive is the key to cracking the case, but the more Virgil digs into it, the less sense the entire thing makes.

This is a crackerjack of a whodunit. Sandford’s usual MO is to let the reader know the villain is from the jump, or at least give us their point of view. His books are generally a cat-and-mouse game between the cop and the bad guy so his stuff is often more thriller than traditional mystery although detective work always plays a major role. He has done a few where the reader is completely in the dark as to the killer and their motives, and this is one of his best pure head scratchers.

We’ve got an intriguing scenario with plenty of viable red herrings so that I was as stumped as Virgil for the entire time. When the killer’s identity is revealed it’s a very satisfying answer because Sandford plays fair, and the clues were all there the entire time.

There's also a good tense situation built up at the end that plays into Sandford’s strength of building momentum in action scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat. Virgil continues to be a strong lead character with his laid back persona making for a nice change of pace from your typical thriller heroes. There’s a little less humor in this one than the last couple of Flowers books, but still some good chuckles that make this a touch lighter than the Prey series.

Overall, it’s a very nice piece of crime writing with a solid mystery and a great ending.

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Monday, September 23, 2019

Review: Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder

Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of THOR.”

Or she.

The events of the latest crossover have left the mighty Thor unworthy in Mjolnir’s judgement so the hammer is just sitting on the surface of the moon. Then when frost giants rise out of the ocean’s depth and Thor tries to stop them he gets his arm chopped off by the dark elf Malekith.

Talk about a bad day

Fortunately, there’s a mysterious lady who can wield the hammer as the new Thor.

Thor is a character that I never really gave a damn about in the comic books. After reading this, I do. Not just because there’s a new Goddess of Thunder, but because the old Thor is going through a lot of crap in this one, and that’s a lot more interesting than just the big blonde dude who talks funny and has a stupid helmet like the Thor of my youth.

There’s just a lot of intriguing stuff going in with the mystery of the new Thor, the turmoil of old Thor, and Odin being a real overbearing jerkface ruler on Asgard. There’s also a lot of fun action with new Thor battling frost giants as well as then having to take on old Thor when he shows up thinking that the hammer is still is. Best of all is the new Thor, and I particularly like how her thoughts tell us that she is not an Asgardian even if her speech comes out just as flowery and bombastic as old Thor’s at times.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

Review: Breakneck

Breakneck Breakneck by Duane Swierczynski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s like the TV show 24. But with sex toys!

Joe Hayward is at a seedy motel to confront the man he believes is having an affair with his wife. Unfortunately, Joe walks into the middle of an elaborate covert operation to stop some kind of super weapon, and thanks to his interference the city of Philadelphia might be doomed in a matter of hours. Now Joe has to rush to save the city with the guy he fears his wife is sleeping with.

I had a lot of fun with this one. The ticking clock mixed with flashbacks telling how all these characters ended up in this situation works really well, and there’s a good sense of humor that capitalizes on the over-the-top nature of the entire plot. The art adds to the action and increasing sense of increasing desperation. It’s also nice to be able and sit down a read a quick and complete four-issue comic story.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

Review: The Dain Curse

The Dain Curse The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Continental Op is brought in after some diamonds go missing, but instead of solving a simple case of theft he ends up embroiled in the on-going troubles of a disturbed young woman who believes herself to be the victim of a family curse.

This certainly isn’t the best Hammett you can read, but it’s not bad. The plot is all over the place and doesn’t make much sense, but the main appeal is the attitude of the Op who still shines as the cynical private detective who has seen it all.

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Thursday, September 5, 2019

Review: What If? Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1

What If? Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 What If? Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 by Roy Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I read the 12 issues this contains on the Marvel Unlimited app, not the actual book.

What if way back in the ‘70s Marvel Comics started a title that explored alternate versions of if it’s stories? And then 4 decades later the company was now owned by Disney who was planning on bringing this idea back as an animated TV series on its new streaming service to capitalize on their string of blockbuster movies?

Nah…couldn’t happen.

So we’ve got a set of stories where the Watcher is used as an on-going framing device to show us ‘alternate worlds’ in which changes to the events of Marvel comics play out differently. I remember seeing this advertised a lot as a kid, but never really ran across too many of the actual issues. And frankly I found this a bit disappointing. It’s not terrible stuff, but it seems awfully limited at times.

That’s because most of these are set-ups that go back to the origins of the characters, and then they played those scenarios out in terms of some events in those early issues instead of taking a bigger view of how that would impact the whole Marvel universe. The most interesting ones for me were when Captain America doesn’t become a Popsicle at the end of World War II and when Jane Foster found the hammer of Thor instead of Don Blake. Those are the two that take a long view as to the implications instead of just looking at a few issues after the change is made.

The wackiest one is about what if the original Marvel bullpen had gained the powers of the Fantastic Four. So you’ve got real life Marvel employees Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Sol Brodsky, and Flo Steinberg becoming superheroes. It’s silly and stupid, but it was also Jack Kirby writing and drawing a book that sorta looks like the old FF for the first time in years so it’s worth a look as a curiosity.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Review: The Warehouse

The Warehouse The Warehouse by Rob Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

You load sixteen drones, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…

It’s the near future, and the giant company Cloud dominates the economy with its massive warehouses that are essentially cities where the employees live and work. However, the CEO of Cloud, Gibson Wells, has just announced that he’s dying of cancer so there’s change on the horizon as a couple of new employees meet during the hiring process. Paxton’s dream of running his own business was destroyed by Cloud, but now he needs a job so he finds himself on a security team. Zinnia acts like just another person looking for work, but in reality she’s been paid by a mysterious client to infiltrate Cloud and uncover some of its secrets.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for Zinnia to find holes in Cloud’s security, and even harder when she is worn out from long shifts spent running to fill orders. A relationship with Paxton might be her best way to complete her mission, but can she use him like that if she actually likes the guy?

On the surface this seems like your standard dystopian tale with some idealistic folks trying to take down an evil corporation, but this book is deeper and more subtle than that. For starters, the characters aren’t stereotypes. You might expect Paxton to be bitter and angry about his company being destroyed by Cloud and having to go to work for them, but he’s actually a guy who still believes that he can achieve his dreams by good ideas and hard work. Zinnia isn’t a radical trying to change the world either. She’s a mercenary doing a job for money, and while she has no love for Cloud she’s not looking to take it down either.

We also hear from Gibson Wells in the form of messages he’s releasing as he does a final farewell tour of the company he built, and that includes some of his history. At first his folksy tale of how he started Cloud with little more than an idea and some furniture scavenged from a closed school gives us the impression that this is the American dream taken to its fullest potential. Especially when Wells lays out that part of his goal for creating the Cloud facilities was to provide good jobs while helping to stave the increasing ravages of climate change by making the greenest facilities possible. It all sounds very reasonable, maybe even honorable. Yet as we learn more and more about how Cloud actually works Wells’ defense of his business tactics start to ring increasingly hollow.

For example, all the Cloud employees are on a rating system where their performance is constantly evaluated and a star value assigned which Wells explains came from his old grade school days when he always tried to get all the points possible on his assignments. That sounds good, but when average performance might get you fired then it’s a constant battle to be great, even perfect. Which then means that the standards shift to a point where people literally have to run themselves ragged to meet the minimum performance level.

Another thing the book does an excellent job at is showing just how falling into a routine might be the most dangerous and depressing aspect of all. There are several points where both Paxton and Zinnia get into the rut of just doing their job, returning to their small apartments, watching TV, falling asleep, and then doing it again. This, more than anything, might be the thing that lets Cloud flourish. If your employees have to expend so much physical and mental energy to get through an average workday that they just want to collapse into a stupor every night then they’re never going to have the time or gumption to try and shake things up in any way.

So this is a well written book with a timely message that I thought it was excellent. It also depressed the hell out of me because I read it on device I got from the company that Cloud is obviously based on. Now I’m also posting a review on a website owned by that same corporation. Even though I don’t directly work for that company it’s changed my life in many ways, and I went along with it because it was cheap and convenient without wondering too much where it all ends. Oops.

Even worse is that after reading this now, at a time when billionaires make the rules and the bottom line is used to justify everything they do, I don’t see a way that it gets better without humanity going all the way down Fury Road and just starting over.

But hey, it’s still a good book so go ahead and read it. Just maybe try to find a copy in an independent bookstore.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baltimore 1966 – a/k/a “The good ole days.” (For some people.)

Madeline Schwartz has been a wife and mother for almost two decades when she suddenly decides to turn her back on the boring comforts of the upper middle class. It isn’t easy for a woman in her late ‘30s to start over, but she begins pulling together a new life, including a secret relationship with an African-American cop. When Maddie discovers the body of a murder victim she manages to eventually leverage that into an entry level job at one of the local newspapers. She wants to become a real reporter, and when the body of Cleo Sherwood is found in a lake Maddie begins to research Cleo’s life and death even though everyone tells her that nobody cares about the story of a black party girl who met a bad end.

What Laura Lippman has written here is a character driven crime novel that smoothly shifts through a variety of viewpoints. Not only do we get the ghostly voice of Cleo who expresses dismay at how Maddie’s investigation is only stirring up trouble, but there are many short first-person interludes from the different people that Maddie interacts with. Sometimes these encounters make a big impact on her, like a dinner party with an old high school friend, and sometimes it’s a person that Maddie barely registers, like a waitress who serves her lunch. All of these characters have their own stories going on, and some of them are important to Maddie’s and some have no direct bearing on her at all. When you put them all together you get vivid picture of a bygone era as well as the full story of what happened to Cleo.

Lippman trusts the reader to remember what they’ve read in these parts so that very often we don’t see key events, and you have to infer what’s happened based on what we know about these other characters. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but it all fits the tone and structure of the book so that the reader comes to feel like just one of these flies on the wall that knows far more about Maddie’s business than she realizes.

The center of all this is Maddie, and again Lippman delivers with a detailed story about a complex woman whose old secrets put her on a path that she is now desperately trying to change. Her courage and determination are admirable, and yet there’s also a sense of entitlement to Maddie. Yes, she’s a woman struggling against sexism, but she also blithely assumes she can do a job that she’s had no experience or training for. She’s also willing to do some shady things to get what she wants, and she has little regard what damage she might do other people. Sometimes she comes across as the sympathetic hero of the story, but there are points where she seems like the villain of it. I didn’t always like Maddie, but I was always interested in her.

This also acts as kind of low key tribute to the newspaper business even if watching the sausage get made isn’t always pretty, and Lippman, a former journalist herself, ends the book with a moving tribute to the five employees of the Capital Gazette who were killed during a mass shooting at their office.

Top notch writing, great character work, and a unique structure all make for one compelling book.

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Friday, August 9, 2019

Review: Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation

Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation by Paul Holes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t really a book. It’s a podcast.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing because I like podcasts. In fact, I’ve listened to several hours of them about the Golden State Killer already. The difference is that those I downloaded for free while I used one of my monthly credits for this Audible Original so I’m feeling a little cheated. Plus, I already had read or heard about 99% of the information in here already so calling it 'the untold story' isn't exactly true either.

In fairness, it’s pretty well done as far as giving an account of GSK, and the story of how cold case detective Paul Holes helped identify him by using genealogical DNA information which ultimately led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo is fascinating. I could have lived without the spooky musical cues which reminded me of a trashy tabloid TV show, but with multiple interviews of victims, cops, and others involved in the case it does make for a good summary of the whole complicated story. If you don’t know much about it, and you have a spare Audible credit then you could do a lot worse.

However, if you’ve really want to do deeper dive into this terrifying story then I’d highly recommend starting with the late Michelle McNamara’s brilliant book I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK. (One of the parts I very much liked was Paul Holes emotionally talking about McNamara as he tells the story of how she came to feel like his investigative partner before her untimely death.) The true crime podcast Casefile also did an in-depth multi-part account of the history of GSK before he was caught that is very informative about his crimes. The HLN podcast Unmasking A Killer came out shortly before GSK was arrested, and then it added several episodes about the arrest and what we learned about DeAngelo after that. A lot of the info I heard there first is repeated here.

So again, this isn’t bad, but if you’ve already spent time following this whole case you won’t find out anything you haven’t read or heard before.

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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Review: The Hanged Man's Song

The Hanged Man's Song The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Remember the good old days when media revelations about illegal or unethical behavior by politicians would cause a scandal that could remove them from office? Me neither at this point, but that’s when this book is set. Way back during the mid-00s when the internet was still growing, but social media hadn’t yet turned the world into a screaming hellscape devoid of decency and hope. (Sorry. It’s been a long couple of years.)

Anyhow…. Professional artist/hacker/saboteur Kidd has gone mostly legit with his paintings selling well, and he is even doing a favor for a politician that involves playing slot machines as part of a statistical investigation into potential casino skimming. His occasional snuggle bunny, the professional thief LuEllen, is helping out with this when they get word that Kidd’s infamous hacker buddy Bobby has gone offline in such a way that it’s raised an alarm, and Kidd is geographically close enough to help check on him.

What Kidd finds is Bobby murdered, and his laptop filled with hacked data is missing. Then someone claiming to be Bobby starts feeding bombshells to the media about government secrets as well as political corruption. With scandal after scandal setting cable news ablaze, Kidd and his friends are sweating what information about them might be in Bobby’s files and who has them. They have to perform a delicate balancing act of trying to get Bobby’s murder investigated without tipping off the feds to his true identity as a wanted hacker until they can get the laptop and make sure they won’t get burned in the process.

Like the other Kidd & LuEllen novels this one involves a lot of hacking, breaking & entering, a fair amount of detective work, and some fairly devious scheming. All four of the novels are at a comparable level of enjoyment and quality, and the only real knock I can put on this one is that it’s just a little too close to the previous book in which Kidd also got pulled into a bad situation when a hacker friend gets killed.

It’s interesting to note that while the series ran from the late-80s until 2003 and always had a lot about computer tech that they never feel horribly dated in the way that many of ‘90s net-crazy books did. The hacking is also portrayed with a sense of practical authenticity that feels believable, unlike the near magic that computer hacking is regularly shown to be like in most fiction anymore.

However, this last one feels the most dated in some ways. Like there’s a scene in which Kidd cobbles together a WiFi antenna from parts bought a Radio Shack, and then explains what WiFi is and how it’s becoming very popular. (Although he also wryly notes that it might be obsolete tomorrow.) That all seems very quaint now, but maybe the thing that seems really old fashioned is the idea that a political scandal revealed in the media might actually get that person removed from office at the very least. Since a lot of the plot hinges on that concept it seems hilariously out of touch these days.

Still, those are minor gripes, and as always Sandford is a master of plotting to build tension and momentum. Like a good heist movie there is a lot of planning and cleverness to the things that Kidd and Lu-Ellen need to pull off, and that’s probably the aspect I enjoy most. This also has one of my favorite sequences in the series when LuEllen gets into trouble, and Kidd quickly goes to extreme lengths in an effort to pull her out of the soup. The growing closeness of the relationship between two professional criminals who are so paranoid that Kidd doesn’t even know her real name is another interesting aspect of the series.

Like a lot of fans, I wish that Sandford had done more of these. Unfortunately, the FAQ on his official website states that he probably won’t simply because they don’t sell well enough compared to his other series although he doesn’t completely rule it out. And we do get to see more of Kidd & LuEllen now and then in the Prey novels, including a big subplot in Silken Prey that seems almost like a final curtain call for them. Still, with the way this one wraps up it seems like a shame we never got more because it opened the door to a lot of interesting possibilities.

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