Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review: The Revelators

The Revelators The Revelators by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

A completely immoral man has taken charge of the government, and the wave of corruption and racism he unleashed is completely undermining the rule of law. Welcome to America. Oops. I meant – Welcome to Tibbehah County, Mississippi.

I can’t imagine how I mixed that up…

As Sheriff Quinn Colson is recovering after being shot, the new shithead governor is cutting deals with criminals and the filthy rich while blaming everything wrong with the world on immigrants and liberals. So Quinn is sidelined while the new local crime boss, Fannie Hathcock, expands her operation with the assistance of the crooked temporary sheriff appointed by the gov. If that’s not enough to worry about, Quinn also has a pregnant wife about to deliver a baby, the old friend he sent to prison for selling automatic weapons just got released, and he’s getting a touch too fond of the painkillers he’s been taking…

Ace Atkins has been working up to this point for several books, and while current events were certainly a big influence on it, he never loses the story threads and themes he’s developed over the course of the series. As always, while Quinn is the focus there’s a lot of time spent with other people so that Tibbehah County is a complete world in which every character has their own story. Whether it’s Quinn’s nephew struggling to help a young immigrant girl whose mother has been arrested and is about to be deported, or Fannie Hathcock ruthlessly running her small empire, it all feels like this is a bunch of real people whose lives get tangled up in various ways as they pursue their own agendas.

The structure of the series has been to tell a fairly self-contained story in each one while leaving some threads dangling to pick up in the next book, but this has more of a wrap-up feel to it with Atkins delivering some definite conclusions to several of the plots that have been on the boil for a while now. The payoffs are well done overall, and as usual, nothing in Tibbehah County goes exactly according to plan.

The only problem is one I’ve seen in other books based on the political events of the last few years. Essentially, I think crime writers tend to do stories about justice being done in some fashion, and they just couldn’t imagine how bad things would actually get when they were working on these books a year or two ago. (Life comes at you fast these days.) So in this current hellscape when it often feels like the entire justice system has broken down, and there’s no scandal that can’t be spun on Fox News, a book like this can end up feeling kind of naïve and simplistic.

As I’ve noted in other reviews with similar problems, I don’t blame the authors for this because think about what I’m really saying here. – The problem with a book in which a criminal governor takes over a state and fills it with corrupt officials is that it isn't cynical enough because reality has proven to be so much worse.

That’s pretty fucked up.

So again, I don’t really count it as a strike against the books or Atkins’ plotting. It’s just that it’s really tough for creators to come up with stories that could have imagined the depths we’d sink to so fast with little hope of the good guys winning.

Setting that aside, it’s always a pleasure to check in with Quinn and what’s going on in Tibbehah, and it was nice to get some satisfying conclusions to several of the on-going stories with the prospect of a doozy of a new one now hanging out there.

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Review: Nut Jobs: Cracking California's Strangest $10 Million Dollar Heist

Nut Jobs: Cracking California's Strangest $10 Million Dollar Heist Nut Jobs: Cracking California's Strangest $10 Million Dollar Heist by Marc Fennell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I thought I was getting an offbeat crime story about the clever theft of millions of dollar worth of nuts that were stolen from various California farmers via an elaborate scheme in which the legitimate shipping process was used to swipe truckloads of almonds. What I got instead was 4 hours of irritation.

I’ve noted before that the Audible Originals that I’ve listened to aren’t really audio books, they’re podcasts. Apparently the folks at Audible got my memo because Marc Fennell flatly refers to it as “a podcast for Audible Originals” in his introduction. However, while the structure and style are trying to rip off that Serial style it's still delivered in one big chunk so I’m not sure why that intro was repeated multiple times as if these were episodes delivered week to week. Yeah, it has different chapters, but you could do some kind of break indicating that instead of having Fennell reintroduce himself and the show with the full musical theme several times.

Fennell also comes across as incredibly stupid and/or naïve for repeatedly bringing up how amazed he is that anybody would steal nuts. Then when he learns that some kind of organized crime was involved he’s even more shocked. Which then leads to maybe the most idiotic question I’ve ever heard posed: “Does it surprise you that people would want to steal millions of dollars worth of nuts?”

It shouldn’t surprise anybody to hear that people would want to steal millions of dollars worth of ANYTHING. Particularly when it’s an untraceable commodity that could then be quickly turned around and sold for full market value. News flash - Where there's an illegal buck to be made, then you can usually count on some kind of organized crime figures to try and get in on it.

I suspect that Fennell is playing up the Gee-Whiz!-This-Is-Crazy! factor for the podcast, and he uses being an Australian in America to put some extra mustard on it. It also doesn’t help that he  hits that same note repeatedly when doing things like freaking out about the guns that some security guards he interviews carry as he does a whole Wow!-America-Is-Crazy! angle. I live here, Fennell, so I’m well aware of it.

My biggest gripe is that this is a perfect example of false advertising. Out of the 4 hours of this, I think there’s probably less than 45 minutes actually talking about the nut heists in detail. Which is too bad because when that’s the focus it’s an interesting account of a complex criminal scheme. Unfortunately, what Fennell really wanted to do was to use that crime story as a Trojan horse to sneak in an audio essay about how our food is grown, transported, marketed, and sold to us.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody who knows anything about capitalism, but it turns out that the whole thing is dependent on big money interests using a variety of low paid workers while destroying the environment to provide overpriced items for a market they created. As a famous quote goes, "I am shocked, SHOCKED to find out there's gambling going on in here!"

And that’s an important story, but it’s not what I signed up for when I clicked on something that said it was going to be about stealing nuts. At this point in the hellish year of 2020 I really wasn’t in the mood to hear another yet example of how everything is fucked. I got Twitter for that.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“This is as good as it gets. Can’t expect everyone to be on the same page. We’re still humans after all. Some percentage of us are always going to be assholes.”
- Naomi Nagata - Nemesis Games

"Boy, that escalated quickly... I mean, that really got out of hand fast."
- Ron Burgundy - Anchorman: The Legend of Run Burgundy

After their latest misadventure the Rocinante is in need of extensive repairs that will keep the ship sidelined as the crew finds itself with a variety of personal matters that need their attention so they split up and head to different spots all over the solar system. Unfortunately, one of them gets caught up in an elaborate trap that will have a devastating and long-range impact.

The Expanse novels have been about big events potentially changing the future of humanity, but these things have been done against a backdrop that fundamentally hasn’t changed. The political and military organizations have remained mostly stable, and a large part of the story is about the reaction by those powers to what's going on. What happens here is particularly sneaky on the part of the authors who make up the James S.A. Corey name because this is the point where they’ve kicked over the table and upset the entire game.

That makes sense because by their 9 book timeline this is where we cross the halfway point so we’re firmly in the second act which is where things traditionally get dark for the heroes of any kind of story. What’s shocking here is the extent of the damage done, and it’s made even more disturbing that even those who have generally been portrayed as being the most powerful and savviest characters get caught flat-footed.

Once again, that makes sense in the greater context of The Expanse because one of its on-going themes is how short-sighted selfish people can always draw attention away from larger threats and find a way to fight over things even as humanity should be on the brink of a new age of limitless exploration and expansion. This is especially been built up as part of an increasingly good job of developing villains.

At the start of the series the third party subjective nature of shifting the point-of-view around a handful of characters sometimes made the threats seem vague or to come out of nowhere. Since the third book the authors have done a much better job of finding ways to put a face on the bad guys, and they’ve got a knack for creating a particular brand of smug self-absorbed jerkfaces who are masters of developing rationalizations for their actions.

Another selling point here is that at this point in the series we’re fully invested in our main characters. (Or at least I assume that anyone who is reading the 5th book of 500+ page novels cares at least a little bit about these guys.) By scattering the crew of the Roci around and making them the narrators who carry the story, it not only brings a lot of the epic scale down to a more relatable level, it also sets up a near guarantee in emotional investment. Even as they’re going through different trails and tribulations they all have one goal, to get back to their ship and each other. That's the hook that carries off this whole thing because it's what all the readers want, too.

I could nitpick a bit about how some of the coincidences seem a bit much or that the novella The Churn probably should have been boiled down to backstory for this one rather than selling it as a extra by itself. But overall I’m just having too much fun with this series to gripe much other than bitching about how now I gotta wait until the summer of 2016 for the next book. I just hope I don’t get Dark Towered on this thing….

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