Monday, May 27, 2019

Review: The Devil's Code

The Devil's Code The Devil's Code by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kidd returns home from a fishing trip and immediately gets bad news. One of his hacking buddies was recently killed in Dallas while supposedly breaking into a software company that does a lot of cybersecurity work for the U.S. government. At the same time feds start a massive crackdown looking for a group of hackers going by the name of Firewall, and Kidd’s name is on the list along with several other friends of his even though they aren’t part of any organized group.

Fearing that they’re being set up to take the fall for some kind of shenanigans, Kidd recruits professional burglar LuEllen to help figure out how his dead friend is connected to Firewall through their usual methods of hacking and breaking into places to get information. As the pressure increases Kidd finds himself living like a fugitive as he tries to find a way to get the government to lay off the hackers.

This is another solid story featuring Kidd and LuEllen from Sandford, and they continue to be the kind of criminals that you really hope get away with it. There’s the usual clever scams and schemes, and Sandford makes what is essentially a conspiracy thriller plot still seem grounded and realistic. Most of all, it’s just fun to read.

This was published in 2000, and while Sandford usually does a great job of writing the tech stuff so that it doesn’t seem dated, but there’s a few aspects that haven’t aged well. There’s a plot point about how the NSA is concerned that increasingly sophisticated computer encryption is preventing them from tapping into communications so this was obviously written before the Patriot Act gave them the green light to spy on everybody. But that’s a minor complaint.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: Delta-V

Delta-V Delta-V by Daniel Suarez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s gold in them thar asteroids!

In the near future commercial space exploration is growing, but not fast enough to suit billionaire Nathan Joyce who believes that humanity’s only chance of long-term survival is to immediately start mining asteroids. This will not only provide critical resources and advance the technologies to let people start living in space, but it also could create an entirely new and sustainable economy. Joyce is recruiting an multinational group of risk-takers like cave diver James Tighe who have the skills necessary to be the first asteroid miners. The mission will be unprecedented and dangerous, but not all the threats come from being in space.

I love Daniel Suarez’s books because he’s great at looking at where we’re at both technologically and as a society and then coming up with very plausible stories about what comes next. Here, he’s selling the idea that humanity’s future hinges not on colonizing the moon or Mars, but instead on coming up with ways of living in space using the resources we could get from the hunks of rock floating around out there. He’s very persuasive on this point, and his conclusions make a lot of sense. (I kept finding myself thinking that this could be the prequel to The Expanse series which finds humanity spread out through the solar system.)

It helps that this isn’t a tale filled with wide-eyed optimism, and there’s a lot of cynical pragmatism in how the plot unfolds. Suarez creates a world in which it’s greed as much as anything that would make this happen, and that getting this going would take the resources of the mega-rich. That certainly fits the direction we seem to be heading with guys like Elon Musk and Richard Branson putting big money into space. But when you get people driven by profit margins and massive egos involved you can’t really trust them to do the right thing for the greater good or even their own employees either. Throw in a bunch of murky laws related to this and competing national interests, and it’s probably inevitable that mining asteroids will be just as cutthroat and messy as business on Earth.

If you’re into space stuff, especially near future hard sci-fi, then there’s a lot to like here. Suarez is better at coming up with cool ideas and tech then he is writing about people, but he does an adequate job of creating a cast of characters and putting them in interesting and sometimes hazardous situations. While a lot is wrapped up here the book also ends on what seems to be a pure sequel set-up so I don’t think we got the whole story, but I’ll be happy to check out the next one, too. 3.5 stars.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review: Brothers Keepers

Brothers Keepers Brothers Keepers by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A small order of monks have lived on New York’s Park Avenue for almost two centuries. They managed to keep their monastery as the city grew thanks to a ninety-nine year lease, but they’re surprised to learn that the lease is almost up and that their entire block is about to be sold to build a new office building.

As part of the attempts to save their building Brother Benedict is forced to leave his beloved quiet monastery several times to deal with the family that held the lease and the business people who are buying it. When Brother Benedict meets and falls for a woman involved in the deal he finds himself questioning whether he belongs with her or with his fellow monks. He’ll also learn that all’s fair in love, war, and New York real estate.

This continues the trend I’m on of reading a Hard Case Crime novel only to find it distinctly lacking in hard case crime. Several of the recent ones have been character based stories with a few crime elements in them, and despite this being a long out-of-print novel by a legendary mystery writer it’s more of a low key comedy than anything.

That’s not to say that it’s bad. I’m a big fan of almost everything Donald Westlake did, and the man could shift gears from gritty crime stories to goofy capers and make them both entertaining. Like most of his lighter stuff it’s entertaining and provides plenty of chuckles although the ending is a little abrupt and bittersweet. It’s fun enough although I’m still scratching my head at why HCC printed it other than to put the Westlake name on the cover.

Slightly off-topic bonus thought: Reading this story about quirky monks dealing with a 1975 New York City reminded me in a weird way of a Wes Anderson movie. I’m not saying that a Westlake book exactly seems like an Anderson screenplay. More that I think that the ‘70s setting, quirky characters, and style of dialogue would be a good fit for an Anderson adaptation. Once that idea was in my head I couldn’t stop thinking of Bill Murray playing the abbot. So if anybody out there knows Wes Anderson, do me a favor and get him a copy of this.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: A Touch of Death

A Touch of Death A Touch of Death by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lee Scarborough is a former football star who has been failing as a salesman. When he meets a woman by chance he gets embroiled in a scheme to recover $120,000 of stolen money.

Guess how that goes?

This is a tasty slice of pulp fiction that has a unique hook and provides plenty of twists and turns. The book doesn’t end anywhere near where you think it will based on the early chapters, and there’s plenty of paranoia fueling the plot by the end of it. I hadn’t read any of Charles Williams’ work before this, but now I’d like to check out more.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review: The Empress File

The Empress File The Empress File by John Camp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This involves a small group of people running an operation to take down a bunch of corrupt politicians who use extreme gerrymandering and dirty tricks to stay in power while they steal everything they can and screw over everyone they claim to represent in the process.

I kinda feel we should all be taking notes from this one.

Longstreet is small river city in Mississippi where the local officials are crooked as a dog’s back leg. After an innocent unarmed young black man is mistakenly killed by the police the whole thing is quickly swept under the rug. However, a group of left-wing activists have had enough and want to take over the town by any means necessary.

This brings artist/computer-expert/saboteur Kidd into it by his hacker buddy Bobby who was a friend of the murdered kid. The idea is Kidd will come up with a plan to dismantle the local political machine so the activists can take over the city council. Kidd is sympathetic to the cause, but his real motivation is that corruption means money being involved so there’s a good chance of a big payday. To help with that angle he contacts his friend/professional thief/sometime-lover LuEllen to help find a way to get the dirty officials out of office and steal all they can from them while doing so. However, they’ll have to be very careful because they’re kicking an awfully big hornet’s nest.

One of the primary reasons I really like it is that it’s just such a cool concept. A shady hacker tries to take down a ring of crooked politicians who control a small city? I could read about that all day long. As with the first book, The Fool's Run, the schemes that Kidd comes up with are devilishly clever and seem realistic. As he and LuEllen track down where the locals have stashed their loot so they can rob them, they’re also working on a scam to expose them as well cooking up a way for the activists to take over once the dust settles. Sandford has a knack for writing people planning and executing criminal acts, and these play out as essentially elaborate heist novels.

Another Sandford talent is creating characters that are fun to read about. Kidd and LuEllen are two great examples of this because they’re smart, funny, interesting, talented, and come across as real people instead of the kind of cartoon characters you get in lesser thrillers. They also don’t make excuses or rationalizations about who they are, and they have a clear-eyed pragmatism about being criminals despite sometimes having good intentions. Even though they try their best to avoid violence they’re also starting to question how many people still end up dead when they pull one of these jobs.

It’s also interesting that even though this book was published in 1991 and involves some computer tech that it doesn’t feel dated at all. In fact, even though Sandford has been writing these kinds of books for 30 years and frequently includes technology of the moment, they all age exceptionally well. That's probably because the main plots are rooted in ideas and themes that don’t change, and the tech is just window dressing. This book starts with a trigger happy cop killing an unarmed black kid, and then it rolls into massive political corruption. He obviously could have done that set-up today and just changed a few minor things like subbing wi-fi for dialing into a modem.

The only thing I disliked is that the main thug is the town’s animal control officer, and there’s a pretty nasty stuff in his treatment of dogs and cats to make it clear that he’s a sadistic bastard. Sandford doesn’t engage in misery or torture porn, but he does know how to write a scene that will make your skin crawl. Since I can’t stand to read about animals being abused I could have lived without that, but again, it’s relatively brief, and we don’t have to dwell on the details so it’s fairly easy to skim over and get the essence of that character.

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Friday, May 3, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #7

Avengers (1963-1996) #7 Avengers (1963-1996) #7 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Odin banishes the Enchantress and the Executioner from Asgard for their latest scheme, and they promptly team-up with Baron Zemo once on Earth. The results are more Avenger-on-Avenger violence once Enchantress puts Thor under a spell which means that once again the superheroes spend more time fighting each other than anyone else.

Random Observations:

• Captain America pays wrestlers to attack him as part of his daily workout. That seems like it’d get expensive.
• Iron Man gets suspended for a week for failing to answer an Avengers call. So essentially the others throw Tony Stark out of his own house for a while.
• Tony may have a bad heart, but since this is the ‘60s that doesn’t stop him from casually having a cigarette.

Previous Issue: Avengers #6

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