Monday, January 31, 2022

Review: Secret Identity

Secret Identity Secret Identity by Alex Segura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

It’s hard to believe these days when multiple blockbuster movies and popular TV shows are based on superheroes, but there have been several times over the years when it looked like the comic book industry was swirling the drain.

1975 was such a time, but that hasn’t stopped Carmen Valdez from pursuing her dream of being a comic book writer in New York. Unfortunately, the closest she’s come so far is working as a secretary for the publisher of struggling Triumph Comics, and her boss has made it clear that he’d rather buy work from washed up male writers then give a young woman a chance. When a friendly colleague named Harvey asks her to help him come up with a new hero to meet a deadline, Carmen works with him to quickly develop a female superhero they call the Lethal Lynx. Harvey promises that if the publisher likes the new character he’ll give Carmen her share of the credit.

However, Carmen is shocked to learn that Harvey misled her and submitted several scripts she primarily wrote under his own name. Before Carmen can confront Harvey about this, the young man is murdered, and Carmen can only watch helplessly as the character she’s created becomes popular and is handed off to hacks. There’s a suspicious police detective who thinks Carmen knows more than she’s saying and another personal problem when a former friend she has a complicated history with shows up in New York. Eventually, Carmen thinks the key to figuring out who murdered Harvey and proving that she co-created the Lynx lies in Harvey’s shady history in the industry.

I started reading comic books as a kid in the ‘70s, and I’m a fan of the mystery crime genre so no surprise that this book hooked me immediately. This feels like an authentic look at the comic book scene of the ‘70s, and the vibe that this is a grungy subset of publishing that isn’t respected, even by most of the people working in it. Alex Segura has worked in comics so the details feel right, and the references all come across as part of the detailed background rather than cheap wink-and-nudge references to make fanboys giggle.

There’s also a cool feature with actual comic book pages featuring Carmen’s Lynx stories scattered throughout the book, and artist Sandy Jarrell does a great job of making these panels have a cool ‘70s style. If they actually wrote and published a Lethal Lynx comic book, I’d be very interested in reading it.

The thing that really makes the whole book work is Carmen as a character. She’s the daughter of Cuban immigrants, a woman trying to break into an all male industry, and she’s got another big secret that makes her feel like an outsider. All of these factors drew Carmen to comic book superheroes in the first place, but she’s also just a fan as well as a writer with a natural instinct for what makes a compelling character. This is as much a story about a young woman struggling to make her dreams come true as it is a murder mystery, and I very much cared about what happens with Carmen. Since it's well known how various comic book creators were cheated out of credit and money over the years, I was sometimes more worried that Carmen might never get her rightful recognition than I was that she wouldn’t find the killer.

It’s a quality mystery novel as well as a love letter to comic books, but even if you don’t care about superheroes, I think a lot of people would find the story of a young woman trying to become who she’s meant to be in ‘70s New York enjoyable as well.

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Review: Leviathan Falls

Leviathan Falls Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do you write a review of the last one of a nine book series without spoiling the entire thing in the process?

Very carefully.

So here we are at the end of all things, and I’m not just talking about the finale of this story. While people continue to battle among the stars, a far more dangerous enemy has been awakened and seemingly won’t rest until humanity has been wiped out. There might be a way to fight back, but it would essentially mean destroying the human race to save it. At the heart of it all are the surviving characters that fans of this series have come to know and love, but what’s left of the crew members of the Rocinante are not what they used to be. Age, violence, regrets, and grief have all taken a toll, and even the ship itself is long past it’s prime. Despite it all, nobody is ready to give up and die just yet.

This series hooked me with the first book, and it’s been a franchise that never let me down. New books appeared regularly, and each one pushed what started as a space opera mixed with a conspiracy story into a sprawling epic that got deeper and richer as it progressed. It always had the beep-boops and cool pew-pew space war stuff mixed with politics and espionage that any nerd could appreciate, and the plots were also clever, tense, and intriguing.

While that stuff always worked, what really made this shine was that it was about people. Not perfect people, that’s for sure. Our heroes had their fair share of flaws, and there’s a cynical streak to this story that feels more true every day. Almost nobody can set aside their own agendas and old grudges to take the long view and realize that there were bigger things at stake. At one point in this latest one, there’s a declaration that “Optimism is for assholes.” And considering the last couple of years, I don’t think I’ve ever nodded more at a line in a book.

Still, while The Expanse never felt like a shiny Star Trek style future, it also didn’t feel entirely hopeless. There were times when good people came through in big ways, and even a few points when total jerks had moments of clarity. No, it wouldn’t last, but it felt like enough hope that humanity might just stumble through whatever catastrophes it creates for itself. Through it all, we had a core group of characters, and as happens in the best of fiction, they all came alive for me.

I also appreciate that the authors who make up the James SA Corey name have been very clear about this being it. There will not be any spin-offs, prequels, or anything else done by them with this franchise other than the books and handful of short stories they wrote. It’s rare to read a story these days that feels completed, and that’s what this is.

They didn’t just finish the story, they finished it well.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Review: Five Decembers

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

Heads up! This one goes on sale today. Don't miss it.

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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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Review: Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby

Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

This is a real good news/bad news situation. The good news is that this is probably the best Spenser book that Ace Atkins has written yet. The bad news is that it’s the last one he’s doing. *sigh* Let’s focus on the good news for the moment.

Carolina Garcia-Ramirez won a stunning upset in a Congressional race, but while her outspoken support of progressive policies has made her a new hero for the left, the right wingers hate her guts and aren’t shy about saying so. When some of the threats seem to be more serious than the typical social media bile, Spenser is hired to provide protection and do some sleuthing to see if someone in CGR’s inner circle might be a mole. It doesn’t take long before Spenser finds clues indicating that a white supremacy group is plotting against CGR. As usual, Spenser turns to Hawk for help, but this time Hawk has a favor to ask in return. He wants Spenser to track down a woman he hasn’t heard from in years.

So obviously this one was inspired by a real person and the reactions to her, and that’s a little tricky because Spenser has always been extremely apolitical. That hasn’t changed with Atkins writing it so that while Spenser admires CGR for several reasons, that’s on a human level, not a political one. Spenser also won’t abide racism so making the bad guys a bunch of white power assholes means that this is still a straightforward good guy vs. bad guys story with a few ripped-from-the-headlines elements instead of the book feeling like a political manifesto even as Atkins uses the opportunity to highlight how the worst of the worst have felt free to really be themselves these days.

All of that made for a compelling plot, but where this one really crackles is with the very Spenser-ness of it all. The dialogue and banter is quick, clever, and frequently funny. The action is sharp, especially in a climatic scene. Some Spenser history comes up. Some delicious sounding food is consumed, and some booze gets drank. There’s still dates with Susan, work-outs with Hawk, and a dog named Pearl.

The Hawk sub-plot of him asking Spenser to find a woman was an interesting wrinkle in all this. Atkins had cracked the door open a little on Hawk. Not so much that it gave away too much about a character, who is cool precisely because of the mystery about him, but just enough that it made him feel fresh and even a little more dangerous. What comes out of that is another piece to a great book.

Maybe it’s because I knew that this was the last Spenser that Atkins is doing, but it all seemed extra sharp to me this time. I hated to finish this one because it meant that something I’ve very much enjoyed for ten years now is coming to an end. As swan songs go, this is a great one, and hopefully whoever takes over Spenser next can do half as well.

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