Review: Cold City

Cold City (Repairman Jack: The Early Years, #1)Cold City by F. Paul Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had heard good things about Repairman Jack, so I grabbed book one and dove in. Well apparently it’s not that easy. This is book one of the Repairman Jack: The Early Years trilogy, not to be confused with the Young Repairman Jack trilogy, which along with the Repairman Jack (currently a quinquadecology) are all spin-offs of The Adversary Cycle.

Entering the series with Cold City [Repairman Jack: The Early Years 01] you will find a young man looking to lose himself in New York City, shedding his name and all contact with his past. At the start of the book he is working as a landscaper on a mixed-race (I’ll get to it) crew when he gets bullied by one of the other men and seemingly has a psychotic break, nearly beating the man to death. Apparently this is not his first murderous episode having previously (and ritually) killed a kid who thoughtlessly killed Jack’s mother. Our titular psychopath then looks up a family friend and gets involved in the lucrative field of trafficking stolen goods and worse.

From my vantage point he is aimlessly drifting from scene to scene. He stumbles into various characters but with the compartmentalization of illegal enterprises and cabals he never learns anyone’s last names, history or true motivations. Most of the character development is based on the most base stereotypes of various racial/ethnic backgrounds. It is shorthanded and lazy writing. Realizing far too late that this is a prequel I imagine all of these are important figures and settings in the primary spin-off series. It is probably a highlight reel for anyone already familiar with the series, but on its own is frustratingly directionless, then ends with numerous unresolved story lines and cliffhangers. As a stand-alone story is falls short of recommending.

Side note about the Goodread blurb:

…one of the most popular characters in contemporary dark fantasy: a self-styled “fix-it” man who is no stranger to the macabre or the supernatural…

At no point in this book is there any hint of anything supernatural. It is shelved as Horror, Urban Fantasy, and Mystery and it is literally none of these things. It is barely a Thriller and definitely a Crime book, but only because Jack is committing the majority of the crimes. If you are curious about Repairman Jack my guess is to start with The Tomb [Adversary Cycle 02], and perhaps loop back to Cold City when you feel nostalgic.

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Review: The Case of the Stalking Shadow

Weird Detectives: Recent InvestigationsThe Case of the Stalking Shadow by Joe R. Lansdale

My Rating 3 of 5 stars

Writers of paranormal fiction have a tendency to distance the narrator from the story going all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Joe R. Lansdale’s short story our narrator recounts a tale he heard long ago from Detective Dana Roberts telling of her very first case spanning twenty years of her life and already a distant memory at its telling – a memory, of a story, of a memory, of a memory. It’s a convenient device to introduce a pre-packaged story without establishing context but lessens the drama. We know she will be fine, and most likely her cousin will be fine, because she is sharing this anecdote at a club in front of strangers.

The mystery itself recalls native folklore, and the dangers that lay in the ancient forests of the American deep south. Dana Roberts, as a young girl, spent her summers on her aunt’s homestead. She and her cousins would play games in the house and on the grounds, but she encountered something unnerving in those woods as a child which plagued her into adulthood. She and her closest cousin, the only one who shares her dread, return to investigate the woods to confront or dispel shadowy figure which haunts them still.

This story works best in the woods. Both through the encounter as a child and again as an adult, Lansdale is able to let the dread creep in. The quite anticipation and breathless flights feel authentic and familiar. The action works pretty well too, but there is a gimmick to the confrontation which simultaneously is too convenient but also not exploited to its fullest once introduced. I don’t think the layers and frames to the story are necessary. One concept underlined several times in the primary frame is that Detective Dana Roberts does not believe in magic or superstition, instead looking for scientific explanations. I think this could have been explored further or reinforced in the investigation. It is an intruiging inclusion to have the detective not only a skeptic, but a scientific meta-physician, only to leave that avenue unexplored.

The Case of the Stalking Shadow is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All The Old Knives is a masterfully plotted psychological spy thriller. Henry, a CIA operative, and Celia, and ex-CIA analyst, are reunited six years after a disastrous terrorist operation which was never fully resolved. Henry seeks out Celia to find clarity in the events which lead to 120 civilian casualties, her resignation from the CIA, and the end to their romantic relationship. Over the course of a single dinner the novel alternates perspective to tell their individual accounts of the events, both then and now.

This was my introduction to Olen Steinhauer’s writing which combines complex four-dimensional characters with riveting intrigue. I was impressed with the composition of the operatives in the Vienna field office. Each character had a clear role, personality, and flaw. The interior dynamics of the team was rendered deftly to provide for each to contribute, reveal their allegiances and weaknesses. The humanity and vulnerability of the agents sets this apart from so many other books in this genre. Both cinematic and intimate All The Old Knives earns a solid recommendation.

I received this book free from the publisher, Minotaur Books, which is an imprint of MacMillian and St. Martin’s Press through NetGalleyAll The Old Knives will be released for purchase on March 10th, 2015.

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Review: Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Altered Carbon is a mash-up of most of my favorite genres: sci-fi, anti-hero, ronin, hard-boiled detective and thriller rolled into one, so this should have been a home run. Instead it just landed a bit funny and took me a long time to sort out my feelings and expectations and get around to reviewing this book. A few of the things I didn’t love about this book (misogyny and uneven pacing) are certainly the fault of the author, but mostly it didn’t meet my expectations and the high bar set by others.

Prior to reading this book I had already read John Scalzi‘s
Old Man’s War (2005), The Ghost Brigades (2006) and Lock In (2014). With Altered Carbon releasing in 2006 it was generally contemporary with the first two, and well before the last, but I cannot help but compare the science fiction framework employed in each of these works. Scalzi approached his science fiction with a more curious mind; teased out more scenarios, ramifications and opportunities. You could tell that he labored on the scientific framework and wove the story to incorporate the most intriguing aspects. While Richard K. Morgan’s world building is deep and engaging the science fiction felt cursory and surface level; a cool overlay to a detective story. This feels like the second book in the series, like all the background, explanation and experimentation of the science fiction was lost in another volume and now we are just playing in the sand box.

The greatest disconnect for me was the concept of “real death” and its circumstances. We are informed in this story that each person has a biological computer the size of cigarette butt buried at the base of their skull which carries all of their thoughts, memories, personality and knowledge. If a person is killed then their “cortical stack” is removed and inserted into another body (“sleeve”) and they carry on. Seemingly everyone has at least enough insurance to get a new body and transfer, but although this is a digital process apparently only wealthy have digital copies on file somewhere, and the very wealthiest have regular backups. This makes no sense to me. Pure digital storage is the cheapest part of computing, and if a functional copy with all the bio-computing interface fits in a cigarette butt then I cannot fathom how most people seem not to have off-site storage. Isn’t that the number one rule of data management? Worst case scenario (apart from the religious group’s self imposed mortality) is that “real death” would be a reset to someone’s consciousness from months or years back. In fact I would guess most muscle-for-hire, prostitutes, and everyone else who seems to populate this book would work on a “burner” copy of their consciousness as a manner of contract so not to betray any illegal deeds and maintain deniability. This fundamental(albeit super nerdy) logical problem stole all the stakes out of the game for me.

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Review: King Solomon’s Mines

King Solomon's Mines
King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Adventure stories from the 1800s will generally be racist, sexist and unapologetically Euro-centric. You have to know that going in. In this regard King Solomon’s Mines is no exception, but it is a bit endearing as well. The story is written as a memoir from the point of view of Allan Quatermain, elephant hunter and adventurist. It was often a custom of fiction writers of the era to distance themselves from the telling through frame stories, written as recollections or second-hand accounts. This has been seen from Shelly‘s Frankenstein to Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes. Haggard’s humble narrator blunders and stumbles into the telling with apologies and reticence.

…apologies for my blunt way of writing. I can but say in excuse of it that I am more accustomed to handle a rifle than a pen, and cannot make any pretence to the grand literary flights and flourishes which I see in novels…

Even so, this is a thrilling book. Quatermain describes himself as a coward, and in truth doesn’t really distinguish himself in battle, but willfully engages in a harrowing journey through desert sands, treacherous mountains, tribal warfare, and labyrinthine caves. He does so to help find the brother of one of his fellow companions with the promise of considerable wealth if successful and compensation for his son if they die in route. It reads like an Indiana Jones movie, and no doubt was instrumental in establishing the genre. Despite all the effort to distance the reader from the immediacy of the action, over a century of elapsed time and cultural incongruities, it still is a worthwhile read.

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Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mistborn combines Sanderson’s masterful world building with a Dirty Dozen style adventure story. The world of Mistborn is bleak. The skies rain ash and the nights bring mists which hide inhuman wraiths. The only people at home in the mists and darkness are the rare and magical Mistborn and other magically imbued humans skilled in allomancy. Sanderson’s magical system has an elegant magical framework based on pure metals and their alloys. Allomancers are humans who can ingest certain metals and “burn” them to enhance various skills and attributes; such as push and pull metal, excite or suppress emotion, or detect and mask use of allomancy. Our protagonist, Vin, is a small time thief who joins a team of highly skilled Mistings (allomancers in command of a single metal) lead by the charismatic Mistborn, Kelsier, who is a folk hero of the non-magical Skaa for his defiance of the tyrannical Lord Ruler. They form a team to undermine the authority of the Lord Ruler, incite a rebellion, and steal his fortune of Atium (a rare and power metal).

Sanderson reveals the social caste system, politics and mythology adroitly through a series of introductory scenes revealing our two primary characters’ personalities and their place in society. As each begins to infiltrate deeper into city politics and tiers of governance each class, institution or mantle is described without ever feeling like an exposition dump. The depth of the history, mythology and customs are staggering, yet the reader never feels the weight of the world building. I included this story in my “great storytellers” classification because of Sanderson’s ease in narration and the unique personality of each character of the team. Mistborn is intensely thrilling, full of reveals and surprises, and establishes a rich world I am eager to re-visit. This was a lot of fun to read and is highly recommended.

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Review: Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter

Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter
Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Darwyn Cooke’s work is excellent. A perfect mid-century modern setting, costuming, furniture, fonts and artistic style. The pacing is flawless. Whole sections are told without dialogue or exposition, but set the tone beautifully and convey emotion and tension. The character design is loose and adaptive, focusing detail to draw the eye to the subject within the panel. Often providing just the soft curve of an alluring silhouette in the background rather than indulging in meticulous rendering of each secondary character. The hand lettering conveys all the non-verbal queues of volume, intensity, subtext and pacing through subtle variations. I did have continual trouble with Cooke’s “y”s but this is a small issue. I read the hardcover version with dust jacket, embossed cover and spine, and heavy paper stock. These tactile qualities, in addition to the printing style and coloring also rooted the story in the 1960s.

I have never read Richard Stark’s novels, so I cannot speak to the faithfulness of Cooke’s adaptation. I have a bias against books, films and television which lack empathy. Stark’s Parker is a cruel man who kills without remorse or often provocation. In one instance he kills a bystander through indifference and negligence. He is somewhat motivated by revenge, but not in a heartfelt way, and somewhat motivated by material gain, but it feels like an after thought. There isn’t any joy in watching a man abuse, harm and kill dozens of people especially if he is not guided by a strong interior compass. I enjoy a good ronin story. A warrior without a master is only compelling if he becomes his own master, with a code and a mission.

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Review: A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
A Cold and Broken Hallelujah by Tyler Dilts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read many “crime” novels, and this was my introduction to Tyler Dilts writing. It is the third book in this series, but I never felt like there were pieces missing. First of all, great title. I love Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and several of the covers over the years, so the resonance of the title put me in the perfect mood for this mournful, yet hopeful story. I appreciated how Detective Danny Beckett identified with the victim and the personal loses he himself had suffered. His conflict with trying to put a name and history to a homeless victim and desire to care for everyone injured throughout the case – it could have come off hokey or sappy, but it felt honest. I appreciate that the case unravels slowly and the revelations are not made through car chases and stand-offs, but through contemplation and tenacity. Not every loose end gets resolved. The romantic plot line is complex and sweet. The entire story woven with sadness and strength. Solving this case does not make him whole again, but it makes a difference. In all ways the story stays true to itself and the note perfect title.

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Review: The Chimera Vector

The Chimera Vector
The Chimera Vector by Nathan M. Farrugia

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of The Chimera Vector, and was not previously aware of Nathan Farrugia’s work. It is a hybrid of military thriller and science fiction and could be viewed at the intersection of Lee Child or Tom Clancy with Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance novels.

The primary characters are highly trained special forces operatives. It becomes clear during the opening mission that they possess heightened or expanded senses. Some of the senses are naturally occurring and others have been specifically altered to improve their combat capabilities. What is also quickly apparent is that we have unreliable narrators. Their perceptions have been altered and reality is difficult to discern. Farrugia’s description of the overlaying realities are the best aspects of the book with subtle hints and inferences followed by crushing realizations to the the characters. The biological aspects are rooted in solid science, and the pseudo-science framework is believable and well established in the story.

Farrugia is also clearly knowledgeable and passionate about military tactics and equipment. One of his quirks is to refer to each weapon or vehicle by its proper name at each reference. It is undoubtedly correct and may provide useful reminders of the exact capabilities and limitations of a specific weapon, but it interrupts the flow of the fight sequences to focus the reader’s attention the specific name of the gun when the focus should be on who is about to get shot.

Overall the book could use some additional editing. There are pacing issues during a bus crash scene which result in some unconvincing physics; and, the final chapters may intend to read like someone coming in and out of consciousness, but are difficult to track with gaps in time and location with very little transition. But on the whole it is a kinetic and imaginative story which builds from real biological and military sciences to create characters and threats which are believable and engaging.

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