Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Review: Shoot the Moonlight Out

Shoot the Moonlight Out Shoot the Moonlight Out by William Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won a free advance copy of this from the publisher in a Twitter contest.

Another year, another excellent novel from William Boyle.

It’s 1996 in Brooklyn, and a couple of teenage boys are just doing the kind of idiotic things that teenage boys do when they inadvertently cause a tragic accident. Cut to the summer of 2001, and that cloud hangs over one of the boys, Bobby, as well as Jack Cornacchia. Jack used to be a small time hit-man/enforcer, but he doesn’t do much of anything anymore until he takes a writing class being held run by Lilly who just graduated college and wants to start a writing career. However, she's uncertain of what to do next, and she's being stalked by an ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Bobby has started working for a guy who runs a Ponzi scheme masquerading as an investment firm when he meets Francesca, a neighborhood girl who just graduated high school and dreams of making movies. When crazy Charlie French runs across a bag of stolen money and drugs, he leaves it with Max for safe keeping while he tries to cut off any connections between him and the loot.

As people start connecting, things start happening, and while some of these relationships result in some heartwarming bonding, others turn bloody.

This is some of the best literary crime fiction you’ll find out there. Boyle has a knack for bringing these Brooklyn streets to life, and then he populates them with complex characters who are all orbiting each other even if they don’t realize it. Everybody has a rich inner life, and whether it’s quiet but deadly Jack mourning a loss or Charlie visiting a local prostitute to satisfy his own particular kink, it all feels real and authentic.

Small events and chance encounters can cause a string of unintended consequences, some good and some terrible. But as Boyle shows once again, if you have a bunch of people with their own baggage and ambitions, and they interact, the results can make you care about them all.

I read a lot of great books in 2021, and this is one of the best of the bunch.

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Friday, December 3, 2021

Review: Grifter's Game

Grifter's Game Grifter's Game by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a couple of classic crime novel scenarios I’m also ready to read. One is the standard noir plot in which a guy falls for a married woman, and they decide to kill her husband. The other is when somebody stumbles across something valuable like money or drugs that belongs to bad people. Leave it to a legend like Lawrence Block to combine those two.

Joe Martin is a grifter who skips out on one giant hotel bill and goes to Atlantic City to run up another one. Along the one he steals some luggage at the train station and is shocked to find a huge amount of heroin in one of the bags. While he’s trying to figure out what to do with the drugs, he meets and instantly falls for Mona, a gorgeous woman who is unhappily married to a rich man. Before you can say “Double Indemnity”, Joe begins to plan a murder.

This is billed as the first novel that Lawrence Block published under his own name, and it’s one he can be proud of. While it has some familiar noir tropes in the set-up, the book takes some twists that do not go where you’d expect them too. There’s great character work done so that you feel some sympathy for Joe even as he immediately shows himself to be a criminal who will take advantage of anyone.

Block started out with a great one here, and just kept getting better over the years.

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Friday, November 12, 2021

Review: The Killing Hills

The Killing Hills The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

“There’s murder in them thar hills!”

Mick Hardin is a combat veteran and investigator with the Army CID who has returned home on leave to find that his wife is pregnant and the baby may or may not be his. As he tries to cope with that he’s retreated to the cabin in the Kentucky hills where he was raised by his grandfather to do some serious drinking. His sister is the local sheriff and when a girl is found murdered in the woods, she asks Mick to help her find the killer. Looking into the crime means dealing with the dead woman’s angry relatives, other suspicious hill folk, political intrigue, an FBI agent, and some thugs sent to keep Mick from interfering with the local heroin distribution.

There’s two immediate and easy comparisons that spring to mind when discussing this one. The first is the excellent TV series Justified, and the second are the great Quinn novels by Ace Atkins. If you’re a fan of either or both of those then I think it’s safe to say that you’ll probably like this book.

However, while there are similarities in story and setting to those other works, Chris Offutt has carved out his own unique niche here. There’s a real sense of the place and people that comes up in various gritty details. For example, at one point Mick knows he’ll have to go up some steep muddy roads in an old pick-up so he haggles with a local mechanic to get an old scrap engine to use for weight in the back of his truck. (That brought back a memory from my own youth of how my dad had a couple of old tire inner tubes filled with sand to put the back of his truck for weight in the winner.)

Offutt also establishes a complex web of the kind of personal relationships you find in small towns where everybody has some kind of history or blood connection to everybody else. Generational grudges are held and judgements are made depending on your lineage. It’s also the kind of place where time seems to stand still in some ways, and the progress that does come just seems designed to screw over the locals.

It’s a solid crime story with a great rural vibe to it.

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Review: Falling

Falling Falling by T.J. Newman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This seems to exemplify the very concept of an ‘airport novel’, but there’s a couple of problems with that. First, who’d want to read this while they were actually on a plane? Second, it’s just not very good.

Captain Bill Hoffman is an airline pilot, a husband, a father, and all around good guy who is flying a plane full of people from LA to New York. Unfortunately, a terrorist has taken his family hostage, and now Bill faces a horrible choice. He either uses a poison gas canister to kill the passengers and then crash the plane, or his family will be killed.

That’s a pretty intriguing set-up, and the author, a former flight attendant, has a lot of detailed knowledge to keep the premise going for a while. Unfortunately, the whole thing collapses under the weight of bad plotting and paper thin characters.

There’s a couple of things that I just couldn’t get past. Like if Bill is supposed to crash the plane, why does he also have to gas the passengers? How many times do you have to kill these people? The reason is to introduce a subplot about the flight crew trying to find a way to save them while Bill plays cat & mouse with the terrorist from the locked cockpit. While that provides some of the more interesting details about planes and procedures, it also doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Another thing is that in a post 9/11 world, it pushes the suspension of disbelief far past the breaking point to think that the US government wouldn’t immediately shoot down an airliner with a compromised captain once the situation becomes known. There’s also a real humdinger of a fundamental flaw that will make you ask why the terrorists bother with the whole kidnapping scheme anyway, and the book’s only answer is some goobledy-gook of wanting Bill, as an average American, to have to make a choice.

Although some effort is made to give the terrorists some real world justifications as to why they’re so angry, the rest of the cast is pretty much standard issue good-people-who-stand-together-in-the-face-of-adversity, and I’m sorry but as somebody living in America in 2021, I know that’s just complete bullshit.

I was intrigued at the start, but the book lost me quickly, and after that I mainly read it just to heckle the stupidity.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: Razorblade Tears

Razorblade Tears Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At this point, I feel like meeting S.A. Cosby at the 2019 Bouchercon was the crime fiction fan equivalent of seeing the Beatles at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. This guy is just that good, and it seems like the whole world is realizing it right about now.

Ike Randolph is a black man who runs a successful landscaping company. Buddy Lee is a white guy who can’t pay the rent on his crappy trailer. Despite being completely different on the surface, the two men do have some things in common. They’re both ex-cons with a history of violence, their sons were married to each other, and neither man could really deal with their kid being gay. When the couple are violently murdered, neither Ike nor Buddy knows how to process their grief nor deal with their failure to accept who their sons were. When you are men like Ike and Buddy there’s only one obvious way to deal with their feelings – Team up and go on a bloody revenge rampage.

This seems like a straightforward plot about violent men seeking justice for their loved ones, and as someone who thinks John Wick is great cinema, I’m always up for that kind of story. However, there is a lot more than that going on here with issues like race and homophobia in the forefront. Ike and Buddy aren’t just dealing with external threats like a biker gang, they’re also deeply wounded internally as they try to cope with how they each treated their son for being gay. Ike is even more of a powder keg than Buddy, and as a black man there’s an irony in how he has both been treated badly just for being who he is while he couldn’t help but treat his own son terribly at times. Now he’s filled with regret and shame, yet he still has a hard time accepting that his boy was gay.

While the book is also filled with violent characters doing violent things, this isn’t a fist-pumping Hell-Yeah! kind of fun where you are encouraged to cheer on the punishment being doled out. There’s a real sense here that no matter how seemingly righteous the reason, there’s always a price to pay for inflicting harm on others. Also, no matter how careful you are there are always unintended consequences for this kind of behavior that can boomerang on you viciously, and that’s exactly what happens to Ike and Buddy.

Cosby reminds me of writers like Joe Lansdale and Johnny Shaw in the way that he can do a rural crime story and mix violence, humor, heart, and some deeper themes in the story. While the comparison to writers like those is easy, Cosby has his own unique point of view and the talent to make it clear, and that’s why he’s a great fresh voice in crime fiction.

My previous reviews of S.A. Cosby:
My Darkest Prayer
Blacktop Wasteland

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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review: Dream Girl

Dream Girl Dream Girl by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an aging man, there’s few things that can scare me more than the idea of falling down the stairs. So this one was keeping me up nights in a cold sweat.

Gerry Anderson is a writer whose biggest success, a novel called Dream Girl, is the source of endless speculation about if the lead character was inspired by a real person despite Gerry’s absolute insistence that it wasn’t based on anybody. Gerry has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore to care for his ailing mother, but she dies soon after he buys a swanky new apartment. After receiving a mysterious piece of mail, Gerry takes a tumble down the stairs and breaks his hip.

Bedridden in his fancy apartment, Gerry has to rely on his assistant and a gruff night nurse for his care. That’s when he starts receiving phone calls from a woman claiming to be the actual inspiration for Dream Girl. An unnerved Gerry continues to insist that isn’t possible since the character was entirely fictional, but he finds it hard to prove his claims of being contacted.

As he tries to sort out his confused state of mind, Gerry begins reflecting on his life, and while he would be the first to tell you that he’s always been a man who did his best to stay out of trouble, it becomes apparent that he’s left a string of women who might have grudges in his wake. Is it a disgruntled former lover tormenting him? Is it all just something he invented in a haze of pain killers and sleeping meds? Or is the dementia that his mother suffered from hitting him at an earlier age?

I’ve only started reading Laura Lippmann in the last few years, but I’ve absolutely loved her writing. This is another example of why because it was an exceptionally tricky thing to pull off. On one level, it’s a story about a man trapped in a bed for most of the book, and it all hinges on putting the reader into his perspective. That means not just relying on the flashbacks scenes that eventually tell us who Gerry is, but also providing a steady stream of consciousness as his mind wanders. Not only does Lippmann makes this interesting, she makes all of it necessary.

The character work done on Gerry is excellent because when we’re introduced to him, he seems like a pretty decent guy. A writer who came from a humble background, and the kind of guy who would leave his beloved New York lifestyle to care for his aging mother. Gradually, we start to understand that even when Gerry seems like he’s doing something for somebody else that there’s usually a selfish motive behind it even if he’s lying to himself about it.

The mystery of who is claiming to be the actual Dream Girl starts to take a back seat to the holes in the history that Gerry has invented for himself, and in the end he’ll have to confront who he actually is and what he’s done. While I was able to guess a few things, there were still revelations made that made my jaw drop.

There’s a few other works of fiction that seem similar, as if Lippman drew inspiration from a few sources, but it all comes together in a first rate work that feels original and unique.

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Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t believe I drank 8 whiskey sours while reading this book!

It’s 1969 and former TV star Rick Dalton’s career is on a downhill slide while his next door neighbors, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, are the new cool kids of Hollywood. Meanwhile, Rick’s stuntman/driver Cliff Booth has a run in with some freaky hippies who keep talking about their leader, Charlie.

This one is a real oddity. You’ve got the writer/director of a successful movie releasing a novel based on it, but the book doesn’t exactly follow the film. In fact, the climax of the movie is casually revealed about one-third of the way through the book as something that eventually happens without going into details or mentioning it again.

I’ve often thought that Quentin Tarantino’s films are kind of Rorschach tests in that people can and will read into them what they want. While he certainly deserves criticism for several things, and I often find his personality tiresome, his movies fascinate me. Particularly this one which I thought was one of his best and had really interesting themes about a time when Hollywood was both changing and remaining the same. I also thought it had a lot of interesting things to say about movie violence vs. violence in reality. Since I had a lot of theories about what QT was actually saying about it, I enjoyed finding more details in the book that seemed to confirm that. Especially about Cliff Booth.

If you’re into the movie, it’s worth a look, but you’re also not really missing out on anything if you just want to stick to the film version. If you don’t like QT or the film, it’s not gonna change your mind. Overall, it’s kind of like a literary version of deleted scenes. They can be interesting, but were most likely cut for a reason.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: The Heathens

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

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

In these troubled and complicated times, it’s nice to be able to read a book set in a small town in Mississippi where the people still have old time family values and the problems of the modern world never intrude on them.

And if you actually believe that I can tell you don’t really know anything about American small towns at all.

As usual, there’s trouble in Tibbehah County, and Sheriff Quinn Colson has to deal with it. The most pressing problem is that a barfly named Gina Byrd has vanished, and when evidence of foul play turns up, her troubled teenage daughter TJ is the prime suspect. TJ is the kind of tough-as-nails poor kid who has no use or respect for the law so despite her claims that she’s innocent, TJ goes on the run with her boyfriend, her best friend, and her younger brother. When they encounter a rich girl with her own problems and a very active Instagram account, TJ’s crime spree goes viral while she continues to claim that her mother’s boyfriend is the real guilty party.

Quinn has another complication because his former deputy turned US Marshal, Lilly Virgil, was a friend to the missing woman who automatically believes the worst about TJ and goes on a personally motivated hunt for the girl and her half-assed gang despite Quinn’s belief that their might be some truth to TJ’s story. Meanwhile, an old enemy of Quinn’s has returned and is quietly rebuilding a crime empire as he tries to use the media firestorm around TJ to his own advantage. Adding to the mess are the utterly disgusting and psychotic father & son house painters who also moonlight as thugs for hire. 

Ace Atkins had spent several books bringing several plots to a head which culminated nicely in the last book so this seems like a turning point in the series. There’s still a lot of the same characters, and previous events still have on-going consequences, but this feels like a new phase in the adventures of Quinn Colson is beginning. It’s a helluva good start, too.

Atkins continues to nail the whole vibe of a small town from its low key charms and the complex relationships among people who know each other all too well. He also shows clear vision when exploring the flaws like stomach turning hypocrisy or stubborn nostalgia for times that weren’t really all that great.

There’s another potentially interesting factor in play here because Atkins sometimes likes to slyly play off other fiction. For example, in one of his Spenser books he recreated a scene from True Grit, and he also used a darker version of The Dukes of Hazard as a kind of template for a Quinn Colson novel. Here, I get the distinct impression that the inspiration may have been an ‘80s movie called The Legend of Billie Jean although it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen that one so take this observation with a grain of salt.

Overall, it’s Atkins doing his usual thing of telling a rural crime story with social commentary mixed in, and there's damn few writers who can do it as well as he does. 

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Friday, June 25, 2021

Review: Out on the Cutting Edge

Out on the Cutting Edge Out on the Cutting Edge by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And so begins the second phase of Matt Scudder.

Block had written about Matt trying to get sober in the mid-‘80s with 8 Million Ways to Die, and then he had done a flashback novel when Matt was still boozing during the ‘70s in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes so there’s been a pretty substantial gap in Matt’s timeline when this story starts up in 1989. (Thanks to winning an ARC of the upcoming A Drop of the Hard Stuff, I can report that Scudder fans will get some more info about what Matt was up to.)

Matt is over three years sober and has become a regular fixture at AA meetings. He still works as an unlicensed private detective and has been trying to track down a missing girl. With no leads in that case and without a steady girlfriend or the circle of bar buddies he used to hang with, Matt is a little bored and lonely. A former small time crook named Eddie approaches Matt after an AA meeting and asks if he would hear his fifth step, a confession of the things that he feels badly about it. Matt agrees, but then doesn’t hear from Eddie. When he goes looking for him, Matt finds Eddie dead under odd circumstances. Was it an accident or murder?

Matt meets a couple of new friends in this one. The first is a woman that he starts dating and likes very much, but he’s quietly conflicted about her drinking. The second is a man who will become a very important figure in the Scudder series: Mick Ballou. (Oddly, he’s called Mickey in this first one. I always remember him as being referred to as Mick.)

Ballou is a bigger than life Irish gangster who likes to wear his father’s old butcher apron to an early mass in the meat district of New York, and it’s probably best that you not ask him about any fresh stains you see on it. Mick also may or may not have once carried an enemy’s head around in a bowling bag while he was bar hopping. Oddly, the hard drinking criminal and the alcoholic ex-cop feel a kinship, and this one hints at the long friendship that eventually develops between the two.

Matt’s life without drinking and the introduction of Ballou mark this as a change to the series, but it’s still the same incredibly well-written account of a low-key but complicated detective.

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: The Turnout

The Turnout The Turnout by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

The thing about Megan Abbott that continues to amaze me even after reading a bunch of her books is how she can get me interested in things I would have said wouldn’t hold my attention at all like cheerleading and gymnastics. Now she’s set a story around a ballet school and once again, I was riveted.

Dara and Marie Durant weren’t raised like most kids. Home schooled by their mother who was a ballet instructor the girls were pretty much raised to dance, and once their parents died in a car crash they took over their mother’s school. Dara married her mother’s best student Charlie who had been living with them for years, and the three of them live together in their childhood home. However, when Marie moves out of the house, and then a new person enters the school in the form of a manly-man contractor named Derek it seems like changes are going to happen whether Dara wants them to or not.

Ms. Abbott does characters with complex relationships extremely well, and she might have done some of her best work yet with the Durant sisters. The most intriguing them to me was how they’ve been in statis. It goes beyond just living in their old house and running the school their mother started because they haven’t changed or upgraded anything since, and Dara in particular seems determined to preserve that status quo as if every aspect was worthy of being in a museum. When Marie starts to rebel against this situation, Dara takes it as Marie trying to abandon both her and their mother’s legacy.

In fact, if this story were about 20% more quirky and 15% less dark, it sounds like the set up to a Wes Anderson movie with an eccentric family stuck in the past and having issues dealing with the future. However, since it’s a Mighty Megan Abbott production things take a turn with secrets being revealed, and the question becomes if Dara and Marie can ever get back to their old routine. And even if they could, should they?

All around great family drama with some crime elements that also drops in a lot of detail about a ballet school from the best way to break in a pair of ballet shoes to how awful the students can be to someone who gets a lead role in the school’s annual production of The Nutcracker.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Later

Later Later by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young boy sees dead people. No, not THAT young boy, and Bruce Willis is not involved.

Jamie Conklin seems like an ordinary kid being raised by his single mother in New York during the late ‘00s, but Jamie has the gift/curse of being able to see and communicate with people who died recently. While it causes him to sometimes see the grisly aftermath of somebody’s demise, it also allows him to do things like help a grieving neighbor whose wife just died learn where she had left her wedding ring. Jamie’s mother has wisely told him not to talk about his ability, but when she desperately needs to talk to a dead man, Jamie is pressed into service. Unfortunately, Jamie’s mom also tells her girlfriend, a cop who doesn’t do things by the book, and when she gets into trouble on the job she wants Jamie’s help and won’t take no for an answer.

Like the other times that Uncle Stevie has done a book for Hard Case Crime, this has a supernatural element and isn’t the kind of straight up hard boiled story they usually do. I also didn’t care much for King’s other recent books where he’s tried to blend thrillers with horror which left me fully prepared to dislike this one. So I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it.

For one thing, it is not The Sixth Sense rip-off that a quick plot summary makes it sound like, and King blends the supernatural with a crime story more naturally than he has in other things. It helps that it’s short, especially by Uncle Stevie standards, at less than 300 pages. Things move along at a brisk pace, and that makes it a solid page turner. He just had a cool idea for a story and banged it out with no padding to it at all.

I was also pleased that King did such a nice job at writing it from Jamie’s point of view. It seems like he’s really struggled to write younger lead characters these days, and his protagonists who are supposed to be in their 30s or 40s often come across as elderly people. Writing kids is something King used to do really well, and it was nice to see that he still has that touch.

This is one of those times that I really wish Goodreads let us do half stars because this would be the perfect example of a 3.5 for. Pretty good, a lot of fun, and well worth a look, but not quite great enough for a full 4. Overall, it was a nice reminder of the old Uncle Stevie magic even if it’s not going to make anyone forget about The Shining.

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Monday, May 10, 2021

Review: Phantom Prey

Phantom Prey Phantom Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lucas Davenport goes goth.

Alyssa Austin is a wealthy widow that returns home to find a bloodstain on her wall and that her adult daughter Francis has vanished. With no body and no leads, the police can’t do much with the case. After a friend of Francis is murdered by a mysterious goth woman known only as Fairy, Alyssa turns to her friend Weather for help.

Weather just so happens to be married to Lucas Davenport, one of the top cops with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as well as being the governor’s chief rat catcher. Weather pushes Lucas to look into it both as a favor to her friend and to get him out of his annual post-winter funk. Lucas starts reluctantly at his wife’s nagging, but soon finds himself intrigued by the mystery of Francis’s disappearance.

As Lucas starts talking to people in the Minneapolis goth community, he's also running an extended stake-out on the pregnant girlfriend of a dangerous Lithuanian gangster who skipped town in case he comes back for her. Lucas also has to deal with a mountain of political bullshit due to the upcoming Republican National Convention.

I’ve sung John Sandford’s praises in plenty of reviews here on Goodreads, and I don’t have much to add to them. He’s several notches above the typical thriller hacks who own the best seller lists because he creates intriguing stories with characters you can relate to and he routinely builds momentum and suspense to the point where a reader may find themselves on their feet instead of in their chair because the tension won‘t allow them to sit still.

One thing that caught my eye here was the way Sandford portrays Davenport’s attitude about his job. It's a thriller cliché to have the hero horrified and burned out by the crimes they investigate, yet they continue to do it because only they have the knowledge and skill to stop the killer, etc. etc. Lucas isn’t like that. He enjoys his work both for the mental aspect of figuring things out and the adrenaline rush of throwing on a bulletproof vest and crashing through a door. While he’s flirted with a clinical depression at times, a genuine mystery to solve can snap him out of it like in this book where his wife is tired of him moping around after a long dull winter and basically kicks him in the ass to get him revved up again. He’s not cold or immune to the suffering of others, but he can ration out his empathy so that he’s not consumed by it.

I also realized I’m probably not giving Sandford enough credit in the writing department. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning print journalist and sometimes his plain prose hides genuine cleverness. Like this:

“Lucas slurped the coffee, which tasted sort of brown, like a cross between real coffee and the paper sack it came in.”

This is another highly entertaining entry in the Prey series. It’s not quite up to the recent level that Sandford has hit with the crazily good Buried Prey or the Virgil Flowers story in Bad Blood, but it’s a great example of how Sandford thrillers stand out from the pack.

Next: Lucas vs. the Republicans in Wicked Prey.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Review: Heaven's a Lie

Heaven's a Lie Heaven's a Lie by Wallace Stroby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Crime fiction fans know this rule well: If you come across a bag of money, don’t take it.

Fortunately, Joette Harper is apparently unfamiliar with stories like No Country For Old Men and A Simple Plan. Otherwise she would have known better, and we wouldn’t have this great book to read.

Joette has been riding an epic streak of bad luck. Her husband died, she lost her job at a bank when it got bought out, and her mother is fading fast in a nursing home. With a mountain of medical bills to pay she’s lost her house, and the only job she can find near her mother is as a desk clerk at a crappy motel. While working one night she witnesses and a car accident and while futilely trying to save the driver’s life, she finds a bag with almost $300,000 in the flaming wreckage. Acting on impulse, Joette takes the bag and hides it from the police, but she doesn’t realize that it’s drug money stolen from a very dangerous man named Travis Clay who wants it back.

Once he’s established the set-up, author Wallace Stroby then takes us through a story that is familiar, but he manages to subvert expectations at several points. It’s mainly the character work that sets this one apart, and with Joette in the lead we’ve got a smart woman who is the kind of person who would risk her own life to try and save a stranger from a burning car, but her circumstances have made her desperate enough to take the cash. This isn’t a greedy person, she’s just someone who really needs this money, and that makes you sympathize with her from the jump. She’s also smarter than a lot of the characters we get in these situations as she immediately stashes the cash in secure locations and does a good job of covering her tracks.

The antagonist Travis Clay could have been a cliché or an Anton Chigurh rip-off as a violent man seeking his money, but while he fits that profile in some ways, there’s again a sly nudging of things off the typical beats. Usually there’s a kind of pragmatic ruthlessness to characters like these, but Clay gets obsessed with the idea of recovering the money which leads him down increasingly bloody avenues that start to cut off his options even as he is pressuring Joette.

It all works and builds a nice tension so that even as the book builds tensions and seems headed towards an expectable outcome, you start to realize that things aren’t going to work for anybody like they planned.

Wallace Stroby is a writer I like a lot and who I think should be getting a lot more attention. His Chrissa Stone novels starting with Cold Shot to the Heart was one of the better series about a professional thief you’ll find this side of a Richard Stark novel, and his last book Some Die Nameless was a great thriller as well. This is just the latest example of why crime fiction fans should be reading him.

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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: Five Decembers

Five Decembers Five Decembers by James Kestrel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from the author.

It’s a Hard Case Crime novel set in Hawaii just weeks before the infamous Pearl Harbor attack occurs on December 7, 1941. I pretty much feel like that’s all I need to say to convince people to check it out.

But fine, if you want to know a little more, then keep reading…

Joe McGrady is a police detective in Honolulu who is called to a gruesome double murder. Things get complicated when one of the victims turns out to be a relative of a prominent Navy admiral and the other is a young Japanese woman. With tensions high, Joe’s boss just wants the case solved as quickly and quietly as possible, and McGrady ends up hot on the trail of the killer across the Pacific. However, the outbreak of World War II derails the investigation as well as Joe’s life.

This is one of those books that’s tricky to review because I don’t want to say much more about the plot because it takes some surprising twists that end up being the best part of the of the story. So I don’t want to spoil those, but then I can’t really dig into some of the particulars.

What I can say is that this is a novel built on making readers feel like they’re in a particular time and place, and James Kestrel does a superior job of that. From describing the streets and people of Honolulu in 1941 to several other locations, you get all of the atmosphere without it feeling like a bunch of regurgitated facts from a history class.

The plotting is also very well done as it mixes the realistic grind of detective work with some of the historical details of the setting. For example, one clue revolves around how there were no Packard dealerships in Hawaii at the time so that type of car was very rare on the islands, but trying to track down a particular one means spending hours reviewing car registration records. There’s a lot of great procedural bits about trying to track down a killer in the era before computer databases and modern forensics. Even the methods of communication play a part with cables being a key element to how things unfold.

Character work is another strong element with Joe McGrady being the kind of complex figure you want at the center of this kind of story. As an ex-soldier with no family to speak of, Joe is a loner who didn’t grow up in Hawaii so he’s seen as an outsider even by his fellow cops, and it’s evident from the start that he’s not entirely trusted by them. The feeling goes both ways as Joe deals with the agenda of his boss and others. His one real connection is his growing feelings towards the woman he’s been seeing, Molly.

The story also plays off the readers knowing that World War II is about to start to good effect. Kestrel drops a few well-placed ominous hints that foreshadow that the whole world is about to go sideways even as Joe is hoping to get the case wrapped up in time to spend a romantic Christmas with Molly. It makes the whole thing one of those books where you’re tensed up the entire time, and just wish that you could warn everyone in it what’s coming.

It’s a fantastic crime novel that takes the classic tale of a determined detective hunting a killer and turns it into the tragedy of one man who gets caught up in epic historical events.

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Monday, April 19, 2021

Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For over a year now a lot of us have been working from home, and now I feel like a real rube because what I should have done was get a Lincoln and have somebody drive me around all day while I did my job.

Mick Haller is a defense attorney who uses his car as an office as he shuttles between courts and jails seeing various clients. While not not completely crooked, Mick is certainly bent, and he has no problem using every trick he knows to keep his clients out of prison. When a wealthy young man is accused of brutally assualting a woman during an attempted rape, he hires Haller and insists that he’s innocent despite the evidence. At first, Mick sees this new client as nothing more than a big pay day, but as new things come to light Mick finds himself personally involved in ways he could never have dreamed of.

I’ve got a weird thing going with Michael Connelly. He’s an incredibly popular crime writer, and I’m a guy who loves crime fiction. His ideas and characters seem like they should be right in my wheelhouse, and this is another example of that. Yet, despite having several of my reading buddies cite Connelly as a favorite of theirs I remain mostly immune to his charms. Which is weird because I like plenty of other books that are similar in tone and concepts to what Connelly does. I guess it’s just like J.K. Simmons said in Whiplash, it’s not quite my tempo.

So while I enjoyed this one and found the character of Mick Haller intriguing, I just kind of wish that there was something MORE to the book, even if I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is I found lacking. I guess one point was that I was more into the angles that Haller played in the early part of the book than I was once the main plot got rolling. In fairness, the whole last act does hinge on Haller pulling off an unorthodox courtroom stunt so it’s not like Connelly just forgot that Haller was a lawyer. It’s more like he got more interested in the crime plot than the character, and so I wished Mick was a little bit less of a standard male lead in a thriller and more sleazy lawyer in the last act.

Still, I got no major complaints, and it’s got some aspects I really liked.

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Review: A Writer Prepares

A Writer Prepares A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this from the author for review.

First there was Batman Begins and now we have Block Begins.

Lawrence Block seems like a permanent fixture in crime fiction to me so it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when someone couldn’t wander into any bookstore or library and find several shelves filled with his works. However, everybody has to start somewhere, and in this memoir of the early days of his writing life Mr. Block tells us how he got his.

It wasn’t exactly a straight line even if he knew what he wanted to do from the time he was fifteen years old and got encouragement from an English teacher. A job at a shady literary agency provided invaluable experience and contacts to start his career churning out material under various pen names, most of it erotica, but even after he had his start Mr. Block bounced around between college and sometimes worked other jobs even as he was paying the bills with his writing.

This isn’t a traditional memoir. As Mr. Block explains, he began it in 1994 and wrote most of it one quick burst, but even though he had a publisher for it he set it aside and didn’t pick it up again until late in 2019 when he was going through old material to donate to a college. Rereading it sparked his interest, and he finished it up while leaving most of what he wrote back then intact.

A writer looking back at his career in his 50s, and then revisiting that in his 80s is unique and fascinating. One of the more interesting aspects is how Mr. Block’s attitude towards his early work-for-hire output has changed. Back in the ‘90s he refused to acknowledge or sign anything he’d written back then. These days, he cheerfully has these books reprinted either via e-books or via publishers like Hard Case Crimes. While never going so far as to say that he was ashamed of this early writing, he had various reasons for not wanting to take credit for it either back then. So explaining that shift is one of the things that benefits from letting the book sit for that long.

This is also most definitely NOT a biography. While certain aspects of his personal life come it’s always in relation to explaining something related to his writing. So there are some things mentioned like the death of his father and starting a family during his first marriage, but those aren’t the focus. It’s treated mainly as the backdrop to give a reader an understanding of what the situation was when Mr. Block made a choice regarding his writing.

There’s also a lot of fun stories and details about things like how the work-for-hire game was played, and how the Scott Meredith agency profited off of keeping wannabe writers on the hook for more reading fees. One trick that Mr. Block shares is how he sometimes used dialogue which often features a character wandering off the point as a a way to easily stretch out a page count for a book. This ultimately became part of his writing style.

Hard core fans should also be aware there isn’t anything about how he came up with his later creations like Matt Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, or Keller. Here, the culmination of the story is how he was originally inspired to start his Evan Tanner novels, and how they became the next stage where he left

What we end up with isn’t so much a full historical account of Mr. Block’s life or writing. Rather it’s him looking back at his youth from two different perspectives, and how the experiences then shaped him into the write he would become. What I loved about is the casual and sometimes wandering nature of it. It’s as if a reader sat down with Mr. Block over a cup of coffee and got to listen to him tell a bunch of stories about the old days. As a longtime fan of his, that’s a real treat.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Review: Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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


A man wakes up from an extended induced coma on-board a spaceship alongside two corpses, and he no idea of who he is or how he got there. As he explores the ship, he slowly begins to get his memory back and realizes that he’s Ryland Grace, the sole survivor of a desperate mission to reach another solar system and hopefully find the answers to save Earth from a cosmic catastrophe. With only a sketchy idea of how the ship works Ryland must rely on basic science and improvisation to try and accomplish his mission, but he’ll find more than a few surprises waiting for him when he reaches his destination.

Since The Martian was such a sensation I think Andy Weir is doomed to be one of those authors whose later work is always compared to his debut, and there’s no doubt of some similarities here. The most obvious one is that they both feature smart and funny main characters being alone and having to science the shit out of what they have on hand to get the job done. In fact, it’d be easy to see this as just flipping The Martian’s plot because in it you had pretty much the entire world banding together to save one isolated man, and Project Hail Mary is about one isolated man trying to save the entire world.

However, while it seems at first that both books are working off the same template, Weir only relies on that hook for a while before seriously changing things up and getting very creative. In fact, I suspect that some fans of The Martian are going to dislike this because of how it seems to start out in that near-future type of hard sci-fi that the mainstream is quicker to accept, but then it takes a hard turn into weirder concepts.

I don’t want to say too much because I feel like this is one that benefits from going in knowing as little as possible. Rest assured that even when things get strange that Weir still relies on a funny narrator working off a foundation of real science so that it stays grounded and relatable.

It also has a couple of really good twists, and actually ends up being a far more moving book than I thought it would be. It’s not as good as The Martian because part of the appeal was Weir’s ability to make science entertaining, but now that's part of his brand so it doesn't feel as new and inventive as it did before. It's still a supremely entertaining book that blends a realistic approach with sci-fi and comes up with something that again feels fresh.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

Review: Hidden Prey

Hidden Prey Hidden Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a top agent for Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas Davenport has mastered the art of introducing himself to local law enforcement so that they won’t resent him as an outsider coming in to tell them how to do their job:

The cop who’d followed Lucas in said, “Hey, when I’m talking to you…”

Lucas pointed his finger at him and snarled, “Shut the fuck up. Who’s running this clown factory?”

As a plain-clothes cop, Lucas is also well aware of the danger of running across other police officers during a pursuit and the proper way to identify himself:

Both the cops were screaming at him and Lucas shouted, “BCA, you dumb motherfuckers,” and finally one of the cops waved a hand at his partner and said, “Put the gun in the street.”

“Fuck you,” Lucas yelled back. “My hands are over my head, I’m not touching the gun again because you dumb motherfuckers’ll shoot me sure as shit.”

Lucas can also demonstrate his gift of diplomacy and calm persuasion when dealing with a reluctant witness who is in danger but still refuses to reveal anything about the criminal enterprise he’s involved in:

The sat in silence for a moment, and then Lucas said, “Well, fuck ya. We told ya.”

As these quotes show, Lucas is a little grumpy in this one. Despite everything going well on the personal front, he’s chafing a bit at the blatant political nature of his new state job as the governor’s guy who ‘fixes shit’, and he’s also starting to worry that being surrounded by violent death for over twenty years has started to take a toll.

But when a Russian is killed at a dock on Lake Superior, the international pressure demands some kind of solution so Lucas finds himself teamed up with a pretty woman sent from Moscow to observe the investigation. Nadya claims to be a Russian cop, but Lucas is pretty sure she’s actually an intelligence agent and her agenda may be different from his. The FBI is also sniffing around, but they’re far more worried about terrorists than revisiting the Cold War. Lucas cares little about the ‘spy shit’, but he does get irked when more bodies start dropping all over Minnesota.

The spy angle and Davenport’s dissatisfaction with the job are a departure from the usual Prey books, but a grumpy Lucas is also a funny Lucas. Sandford has been making noises about ending the series for some time, but this as the first clear idea in the books that Lucas might be thinking about quitting law enforcement for good. Since there’s been about 10 more books since then, he apparently got over it although Sandford still talks about wrapping up Lucas’ story at some point.

This one also features another interesting twist on the villain with a Soviet era spy who is still a true believer in Communism and has raised his grandson to follow in his murderous footsteps. It’s another good step away from the typical serial killer we usually get in thrillers.

Next: Lucas goes to the nut house in Broken Prey.

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Friday, March 12, 2021

Review: Ocean Prey

Ocean Prey Ocean Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

Ocean Spray? What kind of a name is that for a book? What’s it about? The history of the drink? Or is it a biography of the guy who made the viral video of him skateboarding and drinking Ocean Spray while he lip synced that Fleetwood Mac song? I mean, that was cool and all, but how are you gonnna do a whole book about… What’s that? It’s not Ocean SPRAY, but instead it’s Ocean PREY? Well, that sounds like a John Sandford title. Oh. It is a John Sandford novel.

That makes a lot more sense.

A Coast Guard patrol runs across what appears to be drug runners doing a pick-up of previously submerged dope out of the ocean using a scuba diver off the coast of Miami. A shootout ensues that leaves several Coast Guard guys dead while the bad guys got away. Months later the FBI and local cops still have no clue as to who was behind it, and the prevailing theory is that there’s still a fortune in drugs waiting to be picked up once the heat dies down.

US Marshal Lucas Davenport gets asked to join the investigation by one of his political patrons in DC, and he quickly starts leaning on local dealers trying to get a lead on who might have been involved with the drug ring. As usual in a Davenport case, things start to get sticky, and when Lucas needs more help he turns to his old buddy, Virgil Flowers (a/k/a That fuckin’ Flowers.) to help him crack the case.

I’ve written so many Sandford reviews that I can’t think of a single new thing to say about why this one is another great crime thriller from one of my favorites in the genre. As usual, there’s solid plotting and tension mixed with just enough real world verisimilitude regarding police work and the political factors behind it to make it feel grounded and believable despite a plot that could easily turn into an action movie from the ‘80s. All the things I love about Sandford’s novels are on display here.

However, there are some very different things in this one. For one, ever since Sandford shifted Davenport from a Minnesota state cop to a US Marshal, he’s been sending Lucas on assignments across the country, and that has enabled him to do some different things with this series while still sticking to the parts that made it popular to begin with. Moving from typically land locked Midwestern settings to a Florida one that has a lot to do with boats and scuba diving makes it feel like Sandford is doing new things rather than just repeating himself.

That’s just the window dressing though, and the biggest difference from previous Prey novels comes in the structure itself. In the past, Lucas was the star of the these books, and then there was the spin-off series featuring Virgil Flowers as the lead. They existed in the same universe with some crossover between them, but generally one of the characters was the focus with the other being a supporting player. However, in this Lucas is the focus in the first third with Virgil taking over the next part, and the last act shifts between them both.

I assume that this is because Sandford has said that he’s only going to do the Prey series from now on, and it seems like he’s folding Virgil into Davenport’s story much like Robert Crais began splitting time between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. That gives this book a hybrid feel in that it doesn’t entirely seem like a Davenport novel, and yet it’s not exactly Virgil’s book either.

It’s a little odd. Not bad, just different. Sandford is in his late 70s now, and he’s written about 50 novels after a career as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. If he had decided to retire completely, he’d have more than earned the right to do so at this point. So if I can get some more of his novels because he’s cutting his work load and figuring out a way to combine his two most popular characters in one series, you won’t hear me complaining about it.

Aside from all that, if someone had never read another Sandford book and just picked this one up, I think they’d find it an entertaining crime novel with some great twists as well as an interesting premise with the angle of the bad guys trying to find a way to retrieve a fortune in drugs from the ocean.

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Review: The Queen's Gambit

The Queen's Gambit The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s too bad that this book has been so forgotten. If only somebody would do a really good TV adaptation of it then….What’s that? Oh. Never mind.

After her mother dies Beth Harmon is sent to an orphanage, and it’s just as much fun as that sounds. However, she manages to get by thanks to daily doses of tranquilizers they give to all the girls, and she discovers a natural talent for chess thanks to a gruff janitor who reluctantly teaches her the game. Beth is eventually adopted by a less than ideal couple, but she finally manages to make her way to chess tournaments where she’s an instant sensation despite her fondness for her little green pills and a growing taste for booze. As she grows into adulthood she tries to become a player capable of beating the Soviet grand master who is the world champion, but Beth’s personal demons always threaten to overwhelm her as she struggles to live up to her full potential.

The amazing thing about this story is that it sounds like it could be pure misery porn, but it really isn’t. Yes, the lead is an orphan who has a very hard life in many ways including coping with addictions. Yet author Walter Tevis manages to keep the story from feeling grim, even when the circumstances really are.

I think this is because he’s more interested in how Beth reacts and copes with her problems rather than just dwelling on the ugliness of them. Even when she hits rock bottom and goes on an extended bender, we don’t wallow in the seedy picture of a young lady doing her best to drink herself into oblivion. Instead, by being in her head we see how she slides into this pattern because she doesn’t know how to deal with her issues rather than being some kind of narcissistic exercise in self-destruction.

Another thing Beth has to resolve is that the very nature of chess and studying it often means she spends a lot of time alone and in her own head which as a socially awkward person is how she often likes it, but she also has abandonment issues and also doesn’t really want to be alone. Since she’s her own worst enemy this is often a recipe for disaster. Plus, there’s been some chess masters who had mental health problems so for a woman who has her own issues, she’s uneasy about how going deep into the game might not be the best thing for her.

At the heart of the entire story is what it means to be a genius at anything. Beth has a natural talent that allows her to achieve a lot without much training, but because it’s all been easy for her she has to learn how to apply herself if she wants to become the world champion. When it’s been easy to be the best, it’s often hard to dig in and take the next step because talent will only get you so far in any field. When things get tougher, failure is always a possibility, and if there’s one thing Beth is frightened of, it’s failure.

Tevis also manages to make chess interesting in this. Like a lot of people, I know how to play, but I have no particular talent for it. His accounts of Beth’s games and study of it provide a glimpse into what it must be like to be a player at that level, and I actually found myself looking up some famous chess games and finding them fascinating.

It’s an extremely well written and sympathetic portrait of a woman struggling with her past and her talent. I’d already seen the Netflix show based on it, and it’s pretty faithful so there were no real surprises. Yet, I still found myself getting anxious about Beth and how she was doing both in her chess matches and in her life all over again.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Review: Safe Houses

Safe Houses Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Safe Houses?!? More like DANGER HOUSES!!


It’s 1979 in West Berlin and Helen Abell is an aspiring CIA agent. However, thanks to sexism she has been relegated to managing the agency’s safe houses in the city rather than doing any field work. Determined to prove herself, Helen is going the extra mile by checking out one of the houses after hours when she accidently overhears two incidents. One is just strange, but the other is criminal. Helen soon finds both her career and her life at risk, and she finds herself using her spy training against her own people to save herself and expose the truth. The repercussions of what happens in Germany in 1979 are felt in a small town in Maryland 35 years later with a brutal double murder, and a confused young woman seeking answers with the help of an investigator who has his own secrets.

This was a freebie I picked up Bouchercon back in the Before Times, and it’d been sitting in the To-Read pile ever since. I’m glad that I finally picked it up because the story that mixes some Cold War era espionage stuff along with the vibe of a modern crime thriller with some conspiracy theory vibes was familiar enough to be comforting, but different enough to keep me guessing.
I particularly liked what the author did with Helen by making her feel fully fleshed out as bright and ambitious, but also extremely pragmatic and often frustrated with her situation. She makes for a great lead in the 1979 portion of the book.

It’s a satisfying mix of the spy and crime genres, and the investigation portion has plenty of good twists and turns as well although I can’t say much because of spoilers. Overall, it's a solid page turner that kept me engaged the entire time.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Review: The Future Is Yours

The Future Is Yours The Future Is Yours by Dan Frey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Imagine if you could see what was in the news a year from now? Considering how the last year is gone, I’d guess it would be more than any sane person could bear.

Adhi Chaudry and Ben Boyce became friends in college even though they couldn’t be more different. Adhi is an introvert and a brilliant computer engineer. Ben is a charismatic salesman type who dreams of making it big. When Adhi develops a theory that would use quantum computing to enable a PC to show data from one year in the future, Ben immediately sees it is an opportunity to start a company that will make Apple and Amazon look like small potatoes. In fact, they even get confirmation that this is what they will do once Adhi gets the machine working and they look ahead a year to see that their corporation, The Future, has made them rich even before they start selling everyone their own machine. There are troubling aspects to the technology, but with the knowledge of what they will do in hand, Ben and Adhi press on even as problems pile up and begin to take a toll on their friendship.

There’s a lot I liked about this clever sci-fi book, and one of the best things was that it's epistolary novel told in texts, emails, and transcripts that bounce around from Ben’s testimony told in front of a congressional hearing just before The Future starts selling the machines to the public to flashbacks about how it all came about. It’s not just a clever gimmick either because there’s actually a reason why it’s told this way that becomes clear late in the book.

The idea of the glimpsing ahead to the future via a quantum computer was also intriguing and very well done. It could have been a concept that came across as wonky or even magical, but Adhi’s theory along with the development process grounds it more than enough to seem feasible.

Once the set-up is established, author Dan Frey then does some very nice work in a way that shows he thought through the implications of this technology even if his main characters haven’t. Adhi and Ben do a few tests that convince them that the future cannot be changed by them knowing the future. Although Adhi is more cautious we see how Ben’s enthusiasm blows past any notions that this is a bad idea.

This is where Frey’s themes become clear, and it couldn’t be more timely than this moment when social media companies who made fortunes by allowing anyone to say pretty much whatever they want have now been forced to reckon with the consequences because it turns out there’s a lot of people who are shameless opportunists who will lie constantly, and there’s even more people ready to swallow everything they say.

That’s why Ben’s character really struck me because he talks a good game about how letting everyone share the information about the future makes for a fair and level playing field and that it would actually make the world better. Yet, the story also shows time and again how he uses that argument to beat down rational concerns and criticisms about the technology he’s trying to sell and how much responsibility he bears for it. Sound like any tech billionaires you know?

Frey uses this to turn what could be the book’s biggest plot hole into a strength. Because if Adhi and Ben can see the future, why wouldn’t they just keep it secret and play the stock market to get rich without taking the tech public and open the Pandora’s Box of letting everyone see the immediate future?

Part of the answer is that it isn’t enough to just be rich, they want to become famous as world changers like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. Or at least that’s Ben dream, and he can persuade Adhi that it’s his too. Which means they have to let the public know about it so the excuses about doing it for the good of the world start up. Plus, they know that they’ve already done it by looking ahead so why worry about it? They’ve set up a logic loop that demands that they do this even as the warning signs start flashing faster and faster.

On top of all this, it reads like any of those real stories about how some friends started a business, made it big, and then when disagreements come about it, everything falls apart. As you read their emails and texts you can see the cracks starting to form, and there’s a real sense of impending doom because readers can see what’s happening even if they can’t. This has impact because Frey built a real and believable bond between Adhi and Ben so that I was still rooting for these guys even as I was thinking that this was all a terrible idea.

Combine all this with a fantastic ending, and you’ve got one of the better sci-fi books that has extremely relevant themes.

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