Friday, September 28, 2007

Book Review: Rules of Prey by John Sanford

I find it amazing that John Sanford manages to take a half-dozen interesting character quirks and combines them all to create a hero you couldn't care less about.

Maybe it's because I grew up with detectives like Columbo and Nero Wolfe, but I tend to like my heroes to have the occasional flaw. Lucas Davenport is a tough and experienced cop who doesn't play by the rules. He also has rugged good looks and an animal magnatism that allows him to bed almost every woman he meets (except stupid girls and the nun with the skin problem, so I guess that proves he has standards). But he also has a sensitive side, as he enjoys reading poetry on the sly. And he's a genius, a popular game designer, which means he's also wealthy. Wow, this guy is good at everything. How boring. He's the kind of character I would expect a sexually frustrated high-school student to create.

Now let's add a serial killer into the mix, but make him a socially inept loser who is inferior to our man Davenport in every way imagineable (oh, he's clever, but not as clever as Lucas), and you have two main characters that you really don't care to read about.

Sanford has a habit of making even supporting characters appear shabby, incompetent and unappealing around Davenport (including TWO pairs of Fat Cop and Skinny Cop duos), and has him so on top of everybody else that he has to advise the Chief of Police how to handle the Media and information control (don't the police have people to handle that?).

Finally, Sanford proves repeatedly that he knows little about police procedure or the historical crimes he references (newsflash: David Berkowitz was not the lone killer in the Son of Sam case, and he wasn't caught because a cop looked in his apartment window and saw copies of the letters. He lived on the second floor, you see...). I can only assume by the success of the Prey series the books have improved. Actually, I can only hope.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book Cover of the Day: Cuban Passage

Book Review: Inhuman Beings by Jerry Jay Carroll

Detective novels are nothing new, and neither are invaders from beyond stories, but you don't get many crossbreeds of the two outside of the hardcore futuristic sci-fi realm. In this regard, Inhuman Beings is an enjoyable treat.

Carroll's novel is tightly written, short and sweet the way detective novels should be. He doesn't skimp on the characters or back story, just the excessive pages of prose some authors veer off in to explain it.

It may seem unusual to complain about getting more than you asked for, but that is my major problem with the novel. The book description promises a lone detective suddenly involved in a subversive alien invasion, and Carroll delivers the goods right away, keeping a steady pace and developing the dangers at a quick and steady pace. However, the third part of the book changes gears with the involvement of government officials that eventually buy into the main character's claims of an alien attack, and a story of a lone man against insurmountable odds becomes a low-budget retelling of Independence Day or Invaders from Mars. It isn't exactly a bad change, but it was the former story I read the book for, not the latter.

Also, as good as the book is on keeping the reader interested in the main character, this is mainly due to the pace and tension his lone crusader status affords him. As soon as he becomes part of an underground force battling the aliens, the tone and feeling of the book is lost, along with a great deal of the tension.

In short, I enjoyed the book that I first picked up to read, but it wasn't the same book I eventually put down.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Review: 100 Bullets Volume 1 - First Shot, Last Call

100 Bullets is an ambitious crime drama comic series, of which this graphic novel reprints the first five issues.

These first two story lines, "100 Bullets" and "Shot, Water Back", set up the premise the series is built upon. Individuals from all walks of live are approached by a mysterious man bearing an unusual gift; a suitcase containing a gun, one hundred untraceable bullets, and evidence pointing them to someone who has wronged them in the past.

But the offer of unpunished retribution is far from simple than it sounds, as the people suddenly faced with this blank check for revenge suddenly find themselves dealing with the concepts of Justice, Innocence, Morality, Loyalty, and Retribution.

Azzarello not only brings these philosophical dilemmas into the light, but also enhances them with mystery surrounding 'Agent Graves' and his offer. A chance at vengeance is a tempting offer, but what are the ulterior motives of the man with the briefcase? Does the chance to settle a score outweigh the risk of being used as a weapon for someone else's battle? What is truly at stake here, and who is really pulling the strings?

The first two story lines in 100 Bullets take us from crooked cops and greedy gang bangers in the urban jungles, to internet crimes and corporate power brokers. The stories and situations are modern, yet there is an undeniable Noir tone throughout, an unrelenting mood that never lets you forget that, despite the occasional moments of brightness and levity, there are no happy endings when violence and vengeance become a part of the background.

Book Cover of the Day: Continent of Lies

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Book Review: 27 Plays by Christopher Durang

Not being an avid reader or attender of stage plays, I had never heard of Christopher Durang until five or six years ago, when I stumbled upon a cable-produced adaptation of his play "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You." Irreverent humor lampooning religious belief systems is a favorite genre of mine, along with gun-wielding nuns, so I wasted no time in picking up this collection of short plays.

While Durang is basically a humorist, many of his plays involve the lampooning of other plays. This can be a detriment to a reader who, like me, is unable to pick out the subtle stabs at the set design and dialog patterns of other well known playwrites. But it is a minor stumbling block, and not a mjor obstacle to enjoy Durang's offbeat sense of humor.

If you aren't hip to the stage scene, but still enjoy humor with an edge, do what I did. Pick up this collection for "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You", then peruse the rest with an open mind.

Book Review: 253 by Geoff Ryman

There are 253 passengers on a seven car Tube train that is about to crash. Every person, along with their thoughts and actions on their brief train ride (and including footnotes explaining their direct and/or indirect relationships with other people on the train), is described in exactly 253 words each.

While on the surface this may sound like nothing more than a mildly interesting experiment in constrained writing, the book manages to reach a deeper meaning than you would expect. Whether you read the book from beginning to or flip around to random parts at your leisure, the overall effect is the same; allowing you to freeze a moment in time and examine the lives and deaths of 253 people with more in common than they will ever truly realize. Contrasting and comparing their personalities and motivations affords the reader an almost God-like chance to examine the fantastic and mundane worlds of a train full of strangers as an intrinsic whole.

But don't let that scare you away. If you rather enjoy as a distraction rather than a perceptions-enhancing experience, it easily works on that level as well. No matter how you attack 253, it remains a truly unique book in both structure and subject matter, and equally enjoyable whether read in short bursts or cover to cover.

Book Review: Tears of Rage by John Walsh

Don’t ask me why, but John Walsh has always rubbed me the wrong way. That’s the main reason I read his book Tears of Rage; if I’m going to have an opinion on somebody, I’d rather it be an informed one. Ultimately, that’s the only difference this book has had on my opinion: it has informed it.

John Walsh isn’t a bad guy, and it is undeniable that both his political movements and his television shows have helped people and changed awareness and legal procedures for the better. But despite all he has done, it’s still hard for me to actually like him.

The first fifty pages or so of the book deal with his personal background and history, spanning from his childhood through the early years of Adam’s life, and it is this completely self-indulgent section that really displays Walsh’s personality. By his own account, he is street-smart, a tough and skilled fighter, a great athlete as well as extremely bright, has never known fear or a lack of confidence, has saved lives without even thinking twice about it, and has never failed in any endeavor that he has pursued. Basically, he’s perfect. But what really bleeds through is that he suffers from an overinflated ego that informs his self-centered world view.

This self-centered (bordering on selfish) attitude is apparent in stories related by him in such away that you must assume that he doesn’t see it himself. When Adam is born, for example, he is told by the hospital where his sick father is recuperating that he can not bring the child into the cancer ward, at the risk of infecting the floor full of patients with little or no immunity left. Knowing only that he wants his father to his grandson before he dies (which he would have anyway, as later they all go to Disneyworld together), he sneaks the newborn into the hospital via a fire escape, regardless of the risk he puts the others in the cancer ward.

Also, it is impossible that anything done by him or his wife could be wrong or ill-informed. When mentioning Adam’s natural birth without the aid of Lamaze, he makes a point of saying “I don’t even think there were those classes back then.” Being 1974, the Lamaze Method was already part of a strong movement towards natal health, especially on the east coast where they were at the time. Later, for their second child, he states that she started Lamaze classes then, but only in her eight month, when the fifth or sixth is when you usually begin. Nothing out of the ordinary there, right?

This self-centered egotism extends immediately to his son, whom he declares was the only perfect baby in the hospital. “All the other little babies, some were splotchy, others a little misshapen. Adam was the perfect little baby everyone was looking at.” Granted, every parent feels that his or her child is special, but by John Walsh’s factual depiction, it is quite possible the Adam, had he lived, would have been revealed as the Second Coming. Apparently, Adam did not share a single negative trait with the other dirty, filthy, and ill-mannered children that wander the planet. Everybody loved him and wished he were theirs, and all of their adult friends felt more comfortable talking to him than to other adults, because he was that well-mannered and mature and responsible and perfect. Blech. Some of his praise towards Adam also reveals a sort of class elitism, as he takes great pride that “Adam had sharp clothes. On the playground all of the other kids looked kind of scruffy compared to him.” It seemed important to Walsh that his son wore “not sneakers, but Top-Siders. And small Izod shirts instead of regular tee’s.” And let’s not forget about the Captain’s Hat, “…an expensive one with a black braid and a visor.” In the course of Reve Walsh’s description of the day that Adam disappeared, she makes mention of the hat at least three times, pointing out at each instance that it was “a nice one, not a cheap knock off version” like the other children wear. She even goes as far as to complain that this detail (among others) should have been used when the store attempted paging Adam.

The actual disappearance of Adam at Sears is, of course, the reason this book was written in the first place. It is also the main reason that I lose respect for John Walsh, as the one fact that he and Reve refuse to admit, to themselves or anybody else, is that they (or, more directly, she) are just as much at fault as anybody else. The simple fact is that Adam’s mother left him alone in the store for a period of time that, while she is unclear about (“I was gone a few minutes. Five. Maybe ten altogether.”), can logically be clocked at a good fifteen minutes by examining the list of things that she claims happened while he was from view. Also, during this time, she points out that she had made sure he was close enough so she “could have” peeked around the corner at any time to check on him, which of course means that she didn't. Then, when she suddenly couldn’t find the child she had left alone in the store, she became frustrated and angry when her situation wasn’t immediately made top priority.

This may seem a bit harsh on my behalf, but anybody who works in retail can tell you that negligent parents let their children run around stores unattended all of the time, then automatically assume that it is the store’s responsibility to play babysitter and round up their strays. This is the same attitude that Reve (understandably, yet at the same time predictably and unfairly) assumes almost immediately when her initial concerns are not met with the utmost urgency. Walsh is quick to say that this is because his wife looked young. “She had on shorts, she was a woman, and she looked nineteen years old.” The truth is that they were reluctant to scramble at her bequest was because she was acting like your typical negligent parent. Walsh goes out of his way to imply that the store and the police were slow and unwilling to help, yet neither he nor Rev can recall who finally contacted the police (which would mean that the store did, and means that they certainly didn’t), and neither do they know who informed the media during the first few hours of the search (which would mean that the police did, and again, that they didn’t). Does this make them bad parents? Not at all. But their refusal to admit that others did take immediate steps them that they did not take themselves in order to help makes them stubbornly reluctant to share in blame.

When they eventually dropped the lawsuit they brought against Sears, they claimed that they did so because the Sears lawyers were going to drag their names through the mud, and so they dropped the suit to protect their family as well as Adam’s Foundation. I personally think the truth hits a bit closer to home: Sears was no more responsible for Adam's disappearance than the mother who left him unattended for up to a quarter of an hour.

Another distasteful trait of Walsh’s is his tendency to use his dead son to win arguments. It is very evident throughout the book that Walsh has a short temper and a lack of emotional control, and in fact seems almost boastful of it. And while I like a “man of action who doesn’t play nice” as much as the next person, I tend not to trust people who describe themselves as such. Walsh rightfully argues against the bureaucracies and politics that repeatedly impede him, but his arguments always seem to be punctuated with phrases indicating that not he that demands justice be served, but rather his innocent, brutally murdered son. Being the savvy advertising executive that he never tires of describing himself as, Walsh seemed to learn early on that while you can argue with a hot-headed activist, you can’t argue with a dead child.

Again, I’m not painting Walsh as a demon; he has done much good. I am also not implying that he is completely bull-headed. He is the first to admit that he wouldn’t have gotten a fraction of the media coverage he did if Adam were a lower-class minority child, and I completely agree with his criticisms of the psychics and religious fanatics that attempted to use the situation for their own advantage, and when he defends his wife against claims by the media that she didn’t act the way a grieving mother should, as if there is a right and wrong way for individuals to handle emotions with which very few of us ever (thankfully) have to contend. While he at times seems to bend over backwards to both slam the cops and FBI for bungling his son’s murder investigation at the same time he praises both agencies for the good they do, it never appears phony or heavy handed. And, unlike Jon Benet’s parents, both John and Reve were quick to cooperate when the investigators turned their attention to them, knowing full well that it the quickest way was to eliminate themselves as suspects. I’m not out to get the guy. But when he talks about teaching his six year old son how to use a diving knife (yeah, that’s safe), and when he recalls the humorous story of when he left his six month pregnant wife alone in shark infested waters, I can’t help but feel a little contempt for him.

For the most part, Tears of Rage is a pretty good book, and tends to cover all of the bases. Just beware that it isn’t an objective view of the Adam Walsh case, but rather, one man’s crusade to tell his own story the way he sees it.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Book Cover of the Day: The Skook

Friday, September 21, 2007

Book Review: 58 Minutes by Walter H. Wager

I would not have picked this novel up if it weren't for the giant "Basis For The Movie DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER" plastered across the front cover. Not that I'm a huge fan of the movie, either, considering its the worst example of cookie-cutter-sequel garbage, far worse than the two films that followed it. However, I'm always interested in how novels differ from their big screen counterparts.

The first two chapters are pretty much what you expect. Flowering scene-setting description of the Big Apple in the winter, and a sharp and brutal introduction to the villains. The lead bad guy and all of his henchmen are what you expect, and are handled competently. They are cold and calculating, diverse and colorful, and most of all, deadly and ruthless.

Then we meet the hero, and it all falls apart.

The irony is bittersweet. In the Die Hard series, the selling point of the John McClain character is his lack of superhero credentials. He isn't the best there is at what he does, he's just the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, an ordinary man under extraordinary circumstances surviving by the skin of his teeth with a lot of luck and determination.

Now meet Captain Frank Malone. In just one six page chapter, we learn that Frank Malone is; a handsome blue-eyed blond,instantly intimidating, two-year best Ivy League Quarterback, an expert hand-to-hand combatant, NYPD pistol champion, cool under attack, admitted to both Harvard and Columbia law schools, a highly decorated hero, the youngest captain in the force, and recognized by all New York cops as a first-class commander, and powerful yet merciful role model.

Bored yet?

This kind of over-the-top jack-of-all-trades Super Cop, clones of which can be found littering Clancy-Lite terrorism thrillers like this by the dozens, are barely recognizable as human beings, let alone realistic characters that lend themselves to the reader's sympathies. When Doc Savage wannabes like Frank Malone swagger onto the scene, there's no doubt that the bad guys don't stand a chance. But where's the fun in that?

Thrillers usually work because we like to watch someone prevail against overwhelming odds, but stacking the chips in favor of a nearly perfect hero caricature leaves the reader betting on a sure thing, which assures a happy ending but destroys any real tension or suspense.

Book Cover of the Day: SunStop8

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Last Thing We Need Is Another 'Decider'

Do we really need another President that is more than willing to seek out alternate opinions and suggestions, unless those recommendations happen to conflict with his own stubborn views? Do we really need to hand over control of our country and military to another thick-headed jackass with no real sense of where his wants and needs end and the safety and security needs of the rest of the world's begins?

Do we really need President Giuliani?

Obviously, the answer is No.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007