Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: Work Done for Hire

Work Done for Hire Work Done for Hire by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The only good thing about having a major snowstorm knock out power to your house for three days is that you can really catch up on your reading. Thankfully once the Kindle ran out of juice I still had a stack of stuff from the library as well as some recent purchases from a used book store to keep from thinking about how my toes were growing numb.

It’s the near future and America is still so tangled up in various conflicts overseas that the draft was re-instituted. Jack Daley was one of the reluctant citizens called to duty. Jack turned out to be a pretty good shot and was trained as a sniper and during his deployment he killed several people before being wounded and sent home. Despite some dark times thanks to his PTSD Jack has started building a career as a writer as well as enjoying his relationship with his girlfriend Kit.

Jack receives a chance to make some serious money by writing up a novelette based on the idea for a horror movie about an obese serial killer who might be an alien. The assignment comes from a famous film director who has the basic story concept but is looking to get it written up as a book to see if it would make a good film. With a potential fat payday on the line Jack throws himself into the work and is making good progress. That’s when he receives a mysterious package with a rifle inside it as well as a demand: If Jack follows instructions and uses the gun to kill a ‘bad man’ he’ll make a small fortune. If he refuses then Kit will be killed.

Since he doesn’t want to murder anyone Jack and Kit try to alert the authorities as well as make themselves impossible to find. However, they can’t get anyone to take them seriously, and the bad guys have an uncanny ability to keep tracking them down.

I’ve been a big fan of Joe Haldeman for some time, but his novel is hard to get a handle on. Even though the concept seems easy enough as a sci-fi thriller it takes a long time to get going. The first part is mainly about Jack’s life as he works on the book and goes on some bicycle trips as part of his research for it. We even get a chapter in which he meets Kit’s parents for the first time that really serves no purpose. There’s also the book-within-the-book with Jack’s chapter’s about a really gruesome serial killer doing his business. The rifle and the threat don’t even arrive until about halfway through a book that isn’t that long.

Even when we get to the aspect you’d think would be the conspiracy thriller it seems disjointed and low key with Jack and Kit kinda sorta trying to lay low, but there’s not really a sense of danger in any of it even when they get found. The ultimate resolution doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

So this book is a mess, but it’s an oddly fun mess. I really liked the character of Jack who is a funny guy just trying to live his life. Despite being a decent sniper in the army he’s not really a bad-ass, and as he points out several times he’s not a super assassin. He wasn’t even the best shot in his platoon, and he really doesn’t want to ever hurt anyone again.

Despite the plot not making a lick of sense and the book seeming kind of aimless overall, I had a pretty good time reading it just because I liked Haldelman’s story about this guy writing a serial killer story. Maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I had anything else to do, but it was fun enough when you’re huddled a blanket with no TV or heat.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 1

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 1 Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 1 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What's up, danger?

I’ve been meaning to read this title for years, but it took the utterly amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie to finally motivate me to get to it. And I’ve really been missing out.

The idea of a new Spider-Man could have been yet another cheap gimmick yet the old Marvel Ultimate universe allowed them to take some chances like killing off Peter Parker for realsies, and then introducing MIles Morales as the new kid under the mask. It turns out that actual consequences make for good drama in stories. Who knew?

Bendis did a great job of crafting a new character as well as coming up with a plot that mirrors the the classic Spider-Man origin story yet still has a fresh and original feel to it. Miles has many of the same qualities that Peter has, but he’s not just a clone of him. (Which is good because Spidey doesn’t have a great history with clones.)

I was also surprised to discover that the new Marvel movie version of Peter Parker pretty much lifted the idea of Miles’ best friend who knows his secret. Only steal from the best, even when stealing from yourself.

It’s a great take on Spider-Man, and I can’t wait to read more about Miles and his adventures.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: A Time to Scatter Stones: A Matthew Scudder Novella

A Time to Scatter Stones: A Matthew Scudder Novella A Time to Scatter Stones: A Matthew Scudder Novella by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

I’ve read several interviews with Lawrence Block where he’s talked about how there were multiple times in his career when he thought he would never do another story about private detective Matt Scudder, but then something would happen that would make Block bring him back. So I guess fans shouldn’t be surprised that Block had one more story to tell years after we thought Scudder was done.

Matt is retired and living happily with his wife Elaine. Even though Elaine left prostitution many years ago she joins a support group of women who have quit the life, and she’s become a kind of sponsor to a young lady who has a problem with a client that flatly refuses to accept that she’s no longer in business and begins aggressively stalking her. The problem is that he used a fake name so she has no clue who he is. Matt agrees to help, but even if he can find the guy the law isn’t very good about protecting women from obsessive men so stopping him is another problem.

Like many crime/mystery readers I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block and consider him one of the legends of the genre, and Matt Scudder is the bar by which I judge all other detective fiction with very few being close to the same level. So I was beyond excited to get the news about this new novelette being published. However, I was just a touch disappointed in this.

It’s still Block writing Scudder and much of what I love about the series is here. There’s some solid detective work to be done, and then Matt has to come up with a creative solution to a problem when he knows that there’s no way that the system will help this young lady. The core story and how it’s solved is Block doing what he does best without missing a beat.

Part of the appeal is Matt roaming around New York and getting into fun conversations with various folks that often have nothing at all to do with the case he’s working on. That’s here once again although with a bum knee now Matt doesn’t walk quite as much as he used to, many of his old haunts are gone now, and most of the people he knew in those stories are retired or dead.

That’s been a factor creeping into the last Scudder stories much like how life itself creeps up on all of us, and Matt’s aging in real time as New York has changed around him over the years is one of the points I enjoy about the series. However, a chunk of this book is reminding us of the people Matt used to know, and it’s kind of a bummer at this point. I was especially sad when conversation between Matt and Elaine reveals that they’ve fallen out of touch with TJ, the street kid who became a kind of surrogate son for them at one point in the series. And yeah, that’s life, but I always liked to think it was going to be TJ helping them out in their old age so it kind of hurts that he’s just drifted away from them apparently.

I also wasn’t thrilled with the ending to this after the central problem has been resolved. Back in 2011 Block released a new Scudder novel A Drop of the Hard Stuff as well as short story collection The Night & the Music that felt like the perfect goodbye. The story written just for that collection One Last Night at Grogan’s was especially fitting as Matt's swan song. Frankly, I found the conclusion here odd and off-putting, and it kinda spoiled that classy ending for me.

Still, it’s a new Matt Scudder story when I never thought I’d get another, and I am grateful to Lawrence Block for having him work one more case for us. I think in future rereads I’ll shift this around to still read One Last Night at Grogan’s as the last word from Matt.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

Review: The Sentry

The Sentry The Sentry by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you can’t stop to put air in your tires without having to prevent some thugs from beating up somebody then you just might be the hero of an action/crime novel.

Professional bad-ass Joe Pike keeps a sandwich shop owner from getting pummeled by some local gangsters running a protection racket, and as a bonus he meets the owner’s good looking niece, Dru, who seems interested in him. Unfortunately, the punks seem intent on getting revenge, and when Joe can’t locate Dru or her uncle following some gruesome vandalism at the restaurant he fears the worst. Joe enlists the help of his detective partner Elvis Cole to help him find the missing people. What looks to be a simple case of payback by a street gang soon turns out to be a tangled mess involving murder, the FBI, and a psychotic hitman whose deadly skills are more than a match for Pike’s.

This series started out with Elvis as the main character who was your pretty typical smart-ass private detective with Joe as the trusty violent friend who always wore sunglasses and rarely spoke. Elvis got better when Robert Crais toned down his smart mouth and gave him some feelings, and by switching Pike to the lead character in some of the later novels we learned that he’s actually more a tragic and damaged figure than the typical ‘80s macho action type he seemed at the start. That shift continues to pay off in this book, and one of the selling points for me is the odd couple friendship the two men share with the outgoing and friendly Cole completely understanding the closed off Pike to the point where almost no conversation is necessary between the two.

While the set-up sounds like a straight ahead action thriller there’s also a lot of solid twists and turns to the plot that constantly subvert expectations and make some detective work necessary. So we get Pike in full hunter mode as he keeps pushing to find the missing people. That keeps the story momentum going while Cole does some of the leg work that uncovers that Pike’s potential new snuggle bunny isn’t quite who she said she was. Which also adds some emotion to the Pike part of the equation while Cole has to worry about how his friend is dealing with all of it. So it’s a nice blend of tension with enough character stuff to make it feel like it has some emotional stakes to it.

The only thing I found lacking was the sadistic killer. He’s genuinely scary at times as well as a former mercenary like Pike so that gives us a worthy foe. However, he’s just a little too crazy town banana pants to be believable. It’s hard to accept that a guy who actually hears voices in his head and believes that zombies are real can be operating at such a high level and also capable of staying ahead of the law for years.

Still, that’s a minor complaint, and overall I really enjoyed this one as another solid piece of work from Crais.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: So Many Doors

So Many Doors So Many Doors by Oakley Hall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Did you ever hear the one about the farmer’s daughter and the bulldozer driver?

He ends up on Death Row for her murder! Ha! That’s a real knee-slapper, isn’t it?

Jack Ward is awaiting execution for the murder of his lover, Vassillia Baird a/k/a V. Even with an eager lawyer showing up to try and save his life Jack refuses to help and wants his death sentence carried out as soon as possible. The book then proceeds to tell us the long and tangled history of Jack and V. that led them both to their horrible fates.

The story of their doomed romance is related to us from the perspective of a series of people like V.’s father who hires the handsome Jack to remove some stumps from his farm, and then completely freaks out when he catches the two having sexy times together. Then Jack’s friend Ben details the early days of their relationship, and his own crush on V. complicates his feelings about how Jack treats her. We follow this pattern with several other people they cross paths with over the years to see how they become a self-destructive pair that manage to do tremendous damage to each other and almost everyone around them over time.

That structure is the really intriguing part of this with Oakley Hall spending as much time on the characters telling us the tale as he does on Jack and V. By building up the supporting players and then having them watch the evolution of Jack and V.’s love affair it gives a reader the experience of starting from the perspective of an outsider looking into their relationship. Yet over time since we know history that others don’t we begin to understand how they both end up where they do and why they keep coming together even though they often make each other desperately unhappy.

Another element I liked is that this story is mainly set among a nomadic group of heavy equipment operators as they roam from job to job through the Great Depression, during World War II, and then beyond. Following a bunch of blue collar guys driving bulldozers and graders doesn’t sound that interesting, but the routine details of their work and lives reminded me of Steinbeck while the settings of run down farms, cheap rooming houses, noisy bars, and various job sites came fully alive while reading.

This is yet another Hard Case Crime novel that isn’t exactly a hard case crime novel. Yeah, there’s a murder and a guy on Death Row, but it’s really a tragic love story filled with great writing and solid character work. So it feels a little bit like a bait-and-switch although I still liked it quite a bit.

I’d give it 3.5 stars if Goodreads let us, but….well, you know.

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Review: King Suckerman

King Suckerman King Suckerman by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the summer of ‘76 best buddies Marcus Clay and Demetri Karras are spending their free time playing pick-up basketball games while everyone in Washington DC is buzzing about the upcoming bicentennial celebration and a new blaxplotation flick called King Suckerman. As a Vietnam veteran and owner of a record shop Marcus is the more grown-up of the two while Demetri has no ambition beyond being a small time pot dealer. When Marcus accompanies Demetri to buy some weed the two end up in confrontation that makes them instant enemies of the dangerous Wilton Cooper and his gang of killers.

The two main characters are the strongest part with Marcus being the hard worker who has a sense of responsibility that doesn’t allow him to let things slide. Demetri is the flip side of this as the slacker who despite being a decent guy deep down can always find an excuse to take the easy way out. Despite their differences Pelecanos creates a believable bond between the two, and he often uses similar types of people in his other novels. He also builds up a great cast of supporting players around them including the murderous Wilton Cooper.

The other great aspect is Pelecanos’ ability to evoke the setting of Washington DC of a certain time. By using a mix of local history and geography combined with vivid descriptions of cars, clothes, food, and especially music, Pelecanos makes you feel like you’re driving in an Dodge Charger with the 8-track cranked up on your way to catch a late showing of King Suckerman.

It’s also incredibly patient novel that isn’t filled with action. It’s very easy to get caught up with Marcus and Demetri as well as the other characters as they just go about their lives with nothing huge happening. You can even forget that this is a crime novel at heart which makes the violence that much more shocking and awful when it does come.

This is the first novel by George Pelecanos I ever bought, and I got my old 1998 paperback copy of it signed a few months back when I got to meet him at a book singing. That prompted this long overdue reread, and it gave me a new appreciation for what he does in these books.

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Review: The Feral Detective

The Feral Detective The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first saw the title The Feral Detective I imagined Humphrey Bogart as a werewolf. I guess if I want that book I’ll have to write it myself.

Phoebe Siegler is a lady from New York who quits her media job after the election of 2016. To distract herself from thinking about the living nightmare that America is about to become she heads west to California looking for the daughter of a friend of hers who dropped out of a school and hasn’t been in touch with her mother. The trail leads to the desert areas of Inland Empire and Phoebe enlists the aid of a local detective with a reputation for being able to find people. Phoebe expects to meet the kind of low rent PI you usually see in pop culture, but she gets something very different in Charlie Heist whose eccentric ways both intrigue and infuriate her. It appears that the missing girl has gone to live among some of the outcasts that populate the area, and she also learns that Charlie’s strange history includes links to some of those people.

I know that Jonathan Lethem is a Very Serious Author who does Lit-A-Chur known for ‘fusing genres’. Which I think essentially means he puts tropes in a blender and then gets nominated for lots of awards unlike those rubes who just write straight genre fiction. That shows here with a plot set-up that kind of sounds like it could be a big studio movie trailer, but then things get weird.

I enjoyed parts of this quite a bit. Especially Phoebe’s shell-shocked reactions to the election of an orange nightmare to the supposed highest office in the land. This is the first book I’ve read that had some serious reflection on that whole stunned WTF-just-happened? thing some of us went through in the immediate aftermath as well as the creeping dread of wondering just how bad it would get. (So bad. So very bad.)

The plot also fooled me in the same way that it sets up expectations much like how Phoebe thinks she’s starting her own personal mystery story by going to hire a detective. I’ve consumed plenty of stories about young women going missing, and I was expecting Charlie to lead us through seedy bars to a serial killer’s lair or a sex trafficking ring or something similar. Instead we go out to the desert and start meeting all those weird characters living an existence entirely off the grid. That’s interesting as is Charlie himself who comes across as a complete enigma that neither Phoebe nor the reader can get a handle on until late in the book.

However, this a man writing in first person about a very privileged white woman leaving her East Coast bubble and going on a kind of journey of self-discovery. Which sounds like a really bad blog that would get turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. That’s problematic at times although to be fair Letham writes Phoebe to be painfully self-aware of this. Yet she also can’t stop acting like a whining ninny despite often knowing better. That gets pretty annoying after a while although it seems designed to be that way so I feel silly complaining. It’s still annoying though.

I’m left scratching my head over the whole thing. It was interesting with some very good writing, but I kinda wish that Megan Abbott would have done this book instead of Jonathan Lethem.

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