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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