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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