Friday, September 20, 2019

The Computer that Did Everything Twice

“I see everything twice!” the soldier who saw everything twice shouted in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He was in the throes of delirium and died soon afterward.

I’m not seeing everything twice. But thanks to my computer, I’m having to do a lot of things twice and that has, at times, given me feelings ranging from “going mildly crazy” to “presentiment of doom.”

I’m happy to report that the shenanigans Google Mail got up to about a year ago, which I wrote about here, are no longer troubling me. So, I don’t have to type my gmail password twice to login once; I don’t have to watch the progress bar ooze across the screen twice before arriving at my inbox. That’s one mercy.

However, I’ve picked up on a number of other issues demanding repetition of tasks that I would just as soon not have to repeat. They may be unique to my own personal computer (I mean to say, the PC I use at work). Or they may be signs that Microsoft, Adobe and their ilk are having a bad day this year. I’d give them a pat on the head for reassurance, but that would require me to reach up their … never mind.

First, there’s the background image settings on my Windows desktop. Earlier this year, I shot a nice, scenic photo and asked the computer nicely to make it my background image, set to fill the screen. Every time my computer restarts, however, it shows me a tantalizing glimpse of my desired background photo, then switches as if by default to a detail image from the same photo, set on tile. Every. Time. Would it be unreasonable to expect Windows to save my preference and not make me do this every time I restart the machine? I’d like to say no. But this is Microsoft we’re talking about.

When I stick my camera’s memory card in the card reader slot on the computer, I have to be careful what I do in what order. Say I’m dragging photos off the card into a folder on the harddrive. I have to have that folder ready before I insert the card, open the relevant folder on it and attempt to click and drag, or else the computer will likely freeze and I’ll have to restart and go through the whole process again.

When it comes time to remove the card, I try to be scrupulous about opening a context menu and asking the computer to eject it, so I can safely remove it from the slot. But I find that every time – again, every time – I get an error message saying something went wrong, and I have to click “Try Again” at least once before it will eject properly. Occasionally, if I’ve already Photoshopped a copy of some of the pictures that I pulled over to my computer, the cycle of “Something’s wrong, want to try again?” will continue until I close Photoshop. It’s as if there’s a file still open on the card, even though there isn’t.

While I’m mentioning Photoshop, let me also kvetch about the process of printing a JPEG. You go to the print dialog box and find, naturally, that the image is bigger than the printable area of the page. That’s no surprise. What’s weird is that it’s trying to squeeze the landscape-oriented image onto a portrait-oriented page, even though the portrait/landscape selector is, by default, set on landscape. So, I have to click portrait, wait a moment for the program to process the action (which has no effect whatsoever), then click landscape to get what it should have been showing me in the first place – and then check the “scale to fit media” box, etc. Not only is this frankly stupid to start with, but the next time I try to print a JPEG (sometimes I’m doing several in a row), I have to go through all these steps again.

Lately, I’ve become hip to a site called Scribd that allows me to upload a document – say, a PDF of a multi-page legal decision or a press release – then copy the embed code so that I can paste it into an embed on my newspaper’s web platform and include the original copy in the online version of my story. Ideally, the embed should display across the full width of the body text in the online story. But what actually happens is, on the first go around, what displays is a shrunken-down version that only goes across about a third of the column. Strangely, my computer seems to be the only one this happens to, and when I go back to Scribd, look up the existing upload and recopy the embed code, then paste the updated embed into the story, it works fine. It’s one of those things that just doesn’t work on the first try. Ever. But it works correctly when you go back into the upload and do it over. Always.

Weird, huh? Maybe this could be an early sign that my computer is fixing to go the way of the soldier who saw everything twice. I hope not. But who knows? I say, who knows?

Inadequacy Dreams

I spent a couple of days sick this past week. I took an afternoon off one day, and a couple of hours out of the next afternoon, to get a little extra sleep during the day. I think it did me good. But it also did a number on my head, to judge by the weird dreams I had, both during those naps and toward the end of both nights’ sleep.

I’ve referred to some of my past, recurring types of dreams as frustration dreams, job stress dreams, embarrassment dreams and so on. There were the entertaining dreams, inspired by whatever I’ve been reading or watching onscreen. There were the “get up and pee, stupid” dreams, in which I find myself searching in vain for bladder relief. But these last few dreams are in a class by themselves. Let’s call them inadequacy dreams.

They’re the sort of plot-heavy scenarios in which everything I do falls short of the expectation. They’re full of characters who are continually turning to look at me with pity, exasperation or (my least favorite of all) a smug little smile. Triumph. Schadenfreude. You name it, eyefuls of it were hurled my way, often because of mistakes I could only have avoided if someone had given me better information before I acted.

Literally everything I did, large or small, was inadequate. In some episodes, it might be merely reaching for the wrong taco on a platterful of them and taking a bite out of it before anyone told me that, on the side of the wrappers facing away from me, they had specific people’s names written on them. At other times, it was due to my capacity for getting lost in a weirdly laid out four-story building in which, for some reason, I was supposed to run a line of garden hose up from the ground floor to the roof – possibly (but don’t quote me on this) to fight off a dragon attack. Nobody was there to guide me through floorplans that were different on each level, and no stairwell went straight up all four levels, and one stairwell ended in thin air, and by the time I got there the show was over because some other guy with a line of hose had come up the other end of the building and did the job himself. Is it not enough that I must endure a dream about being lost in a labyrinthine building, but I must then go on to dream about people staring at me incredulously, clearly amazed at my uselessness, and (in one guy’s case) even lying about where he saw me and when?

Another vignette I remember from those dreams is one where I come home to find my front door wide open. Someone has been inside and looked around, but nothing has been taken. The house is a mess, but only its usual mess. I feel judged, ashamed, exposed, caught in the act of being an abject slob who couldn’t decorate an interior if his eternal soul depended on it. Upon waking, it actually takes me a few moments to sort out the dream from real life – the last indignity.

Maybe inadequacy is on my mind. Disappointment with my life. Unease about the future. But really – can’t a guy get some rest from these things, at least in sleep? What ever happened to those dreams where I was Jack Aubrey on the quarterdeck of the H.M.S. Surprise? Fighting off dragon attacks might be good – if only I got there on time to see the dragon! But sneering looks, eye-rolls and a little blond girl giving me that “you’re in for it now” smirk? Not my thing!

These dreams seem designed to crush the spirit out of me. I don’t know why my subconscious chose those sick-day naptimes and morning lie-ins to afflict me this way. Maybe it was a combination of the drugs I was on. Or maybe I was having a premonition of a book I started reading after the illness broke, which is totally about the kind of hopeless bloke I kept dreaming I was. Or am. It can be funny when it’s somebody else, someone fictional. But boy, does that kind of storyline take the fun out of being sick.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Reliquary

Reliquary
by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of 18 Agent Pendergast novels, of which the first was The Relic and which I read way back in the mid '90s when it was brand new, and there wasn't a huge franchise trailing after it. I also saw the movie version of The Relic that came out around that time, and which (as I recall) took serious liberties with the book. Since I'm all about moving forward, I'm not going to go back and re-read Book 1 so that I can add it to my canon of book reviews, which dates back to about the turn of the century. I'll just say that as far as I remember, with a little help from Book 2, The Relic was a grisly, creepy novel about a creature prowling the bowels of the New York Museum of Natural History, slavering over a certain species of lily that was used as packing material for a plundered relic of an extinct Amazonian tribe. Cut off from its drug of choice, the subhuman addict goes after the next best thing: a gland tucked inside the human brain. The outcome is a paroxysm of hideous violence. Dozens of victims, brains sucked out of a hole in the back of their heads. Icky in the extreme, and terrifying to boot. The city is made safe thanks only to a handful of scientists working at the museum, a dumpy city cop, a debonair FBI agent and a crusading journalist. But as the monster's corpse disappears into the back of a government van, mysteries remain unresolved, and now in Book 2, they break out again.

What museum curator Margo Green, Police Lt. Vincent D'Agosta, journalist Bill Smithback and Agent Pendergast know, as the sequel kicks off, is only that some unholy horror with a combination of human and reptile DNA, known as the mbwun, wreaked havoc before they as a group were able to kill it. What they only find out by degrees is that the mbwun lily is making more mbwuns (if that's the plural form), spreading an addiction into the literal underbelly of the city and, with the addiction to the plant, certain physical and mental transformations. People who live in the underground recesses of Manhattan are disappearing, but the authorities only take notice when a beautiful socialite turns up headless and skeletonized, in the embrace of a headless mutant skeleton, in one of the city's nasty rivers of mud. This sets two segments of the city's population on a collision course, with white privilege on the march from one direction and the Mole People, who dwell on a level of civic development aptly known as Route 666, from the other.

In the pinch point is a police department with crappy leadership, but some outstanding individuals doing their best to control the damage. The book does a good job of making the reader angry about a lot of bad decisions that don't fall very wide of the line between fiction and non. But it doesn't content itself with that. Instead, it brings up horrors from the depths – like, 30-odd stories down, in an abandoned rail line for the wealthy elite known today as the Devil's Attic – where a cult practicing a ritual involving polished skulls prepares it's next victim.

It doesn't stop at creeping horrors, either, building up a frenzy of excitement about a plot to drown the Wrinklers, as this deadly cult becomes known, followed by an even more urgent race to stop the reservoir dump from flushing the mbwun lily out into the ocean where, activated by the salt in the water, the gene-rewriting reovirus it carries will transform the world into a monster apocalypse. Suspense, fast-paced action, violence, gore, and a razor-thin margin between life and death make this book, degree by thrilling degree, the type of thing your fingernails will leave dents in.

Next in line after this, in the Pendergast canon, is The Cabinet of Curiosities. A 19th book in the series, Crooked River, is expected in February 2020. The writing team of Preston and Child are also responsible for the five-book Gideon's Crew series and the novels Mount Dragon, Riptide, Thunderhead, The Ice Limit, and Old Bones. Since I've already reviewed some of Lincoln Child's solo novels, I'd better mention that Douglas Preston also has a solo career, with such titles as Jennie, The Codex and four Wyman Ford novels under his belt. Cryptids and paranormal creepy-crawlies, investigated in the light of present-day science and law enforcement, seem to be their métier. I was going to say "forte," but sometimes it's the pianissimo parts that make the hair stand up on your neck. I look forward to more of those experiences, if for no better reason than my neck can stand to be aired out now and again.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Jennifer Morgue

The Jennifer Morgue
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the second novel of the Laundry Files, U.K. government secret agent Bob Howard – who identifies as an applied computational demonologist and is also his office's IT guy – goes on a field assignment in the steamy Caribbean that showcases all the ways he isn't James Bond. Ironically, it does this by entangling him in a geas that compels him to act a part in an Ian Fleming novel, or perhaps an Albert Broccoli movie. This is the fiendish villain's way of ensuring that nobody can stop him before he achieves world domination – unless that person performs 007's role without missing a step. Hampering Bob in doing that is his essential nerdiness, the fact that his department's budget only allows him to rent a Smart Fortwo (a world away from an Aston Martin), and a bit of jiggery pokery that has linked him psychically with a not-entirely-human agent named Ramona Random, whose sex appeal is barbed with death.

Let's not even talk about what Bob's girlfriend will do when she catches up to them, or the betrayal of the local station chief, or the fact that the island of St. Martin is crawling with zombies, black beret-wearing goons, and cosmetics saleswomen whose products give them young looking skin at the cost of their souls. What's really of concern is a sunken piece of alien weaponry whose location, far below the ocean's surface, means that it belongs to the Deep Ones and, under the terms of the Benthic Treaty, messing with it could be more than the human race's survival is worth. But mess with it is what tech magnate Ellis Billington means to do, and he has a record of pursuing his goals with a ruthlessness equal to that of any Bond villain – augmented by a knack for necromancy.

This book blends, and bends, the tropes of spy thrillers, high-tech science fiction and Lovecraftian horror in a sexy, self-referentially funny way. It takes wry pokes at the software industry, government bureaucracy, corporate culture and pyramid schemes that peddle beauty aids. It chills with scenes depicting demonic possession, thrills with stunts like hitting the ejector button on a subcompact car, and keeps the scenery interesting with undead shootouts, gadgets concealed as eveningwear and two characters pscyhically handcuffed together.

Also included in this book is a short story titled "Pimpf," which (I just learned; thank you, Internet) is German slang for a boy whose voice hasn't changed. I guess that explains why Stross chose that title for a goofy romp in which Bob gets an intern, then almost loses him when a first-person-shooter computer game inhales his mind. Supported by his techie pals Pinky and Brains (keep up, now), Bob plunges into the cyberworld to rescue him, only to face the vilest enemy mankind may ever know: Human Resources. Stross adds an afterword in which he muses entertainingly about the Bond franchise. I recommend it all around, especially if you (like me) plan to move on quickly to Book 3 of the Laundry Files, The Fuller Memorandum.

The series continues with several other short stories and, most recently, a ninth novel titled The Labyrinth Index. Stross is also the author of three Singularity Sky novels, six Merchant Princes books and about 15 other books.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Shadows Still Remain

Shadows Still Remain
by Peter de Jonge
Recommended Ages: 14+

When a beautiful NYU student is first reported missing, then found murdered over Thanksgiving weekend, New York Police Detective Darlene O'Hara recognizes it as the case that could make her career. But she's just a lowly detective in the Seventh Precinct, not yet a Detective First Grade with the homicide squad, who take over the case while she's still working on it. So while the homicide guys follow one theory – their suspect a boyfriend whose resemblance to Darleen's college student son tugs at her heartstrings – she chases down leads they don't consider important enough to waste time on. After a certain point in her investigation, she starts to get in trouble with the brass just for following her own leads when it's no longer her case. She increasingly has to hide out, adopt disguises and skive off from work to follow a trail of clues that involve sexual exploitation, academic fraud and at least one more death.

O'Hara, aided and abetted by her detective partner Krekorian, runs an outlaw investigation that, if she's right, could show up those homicide guys. But she's digging into things people don't want her to find out. Even when it seems she's solved the case, she continues to turn over stones concealing even nastier buried things until you wonder when the breathtaking twists are going to end. Ultimately, O'Hara heeds the voice of a police friend in an internal dialogue (in her mind only), telling her that if she doesn't stop somewhere, the chain of cause-and-effect could lead all the way back to the trees from which the first hairless apes descended.

As I mentioned, this is a mystery that packs a lot of twists into relatively few pages. The large-print edition I read (because that was what the library had on offer) wasn't all that thick, and I guess the regular-size paperback would be quite a bit smaller. In spite of that, the mystery provides an ample field of activity for the main act, which is the character of Darlene. A high school dropout with a smart mind and an even smarter attitude, she drinks too much, thinks about her kid a lot, lusts after a nerdy medical examiner, picks and chooses the rules she'll follow, holds her immediate supervisor in contempt and identifies passionately with the victims of the crimes she detects – even when their identity comes into question. She has a warm, funny, down-to-earth voice and feels like good company, though her judgment isn't always the best. I've already read her second adventure, Buried on Avenue B, but I'm looking forward to more.

Peter de Jonge is also a member of James Patterson's coterie of co-authors, with about five books to their shared credit including Miracle on the 17th Green and The Beach House.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Over the Edge

Over the Edge
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third mystery-thriller headlined by him, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware is awakened in the wee hours by a phone call from a former patient in crisis. Nothing that young Jamey Cadmus says makes immediate sense. He seems to be in the throes of psychosis. But by the time Alex gets to the inpatient clinic where Jamey is being treated, the kid has escaped and turns up, not long afterward, at the scene of a grisly crime with the murder weapon in his bloody hands. Suddenly a troubled kid Alex treated five years ago is the prime suspect in a serial killer case.

While Alex wonders how he could have failed Jamey so badly, he also wrestles with several strange contradictions in the boy's case. In the first place, there's something really odd about the way Jamey's symptoms respond to antipsychotic drugs. For another, there's the fact that somebody as crazy as Jamey seems to be couldn't possibly plan and carry out such a highly organized series of crimes. They may sound alike, but psychosis and psychopathy are very different disorders, and those afflicted by them aren't going to kill people in the same way. But while Alex suspects that Jamey may not be guilty at all, his (Alex's) best friend, LAPD homicide detective Milo Sturgis, thinks the kid is good for the crime, and a couple of his more obnoxious colleagues believe it even harder. On the other side is Jamey's family lawyer, who wants Alex to testify that Jamey is not guilty by reason of insanity – a defense Alex doesn't really believe in.

So, from the very start, it's a case fraught with problems. Alex becomes isolated by his differences with the lawyer on the one hand and Milo and Co. on the other. As he probes deeper – at risk of being caught interfering with the case by one side or the other – he detects a connection between Jamey's disturbed ravings and a real estate deal in a remote desert valley. Something about the kid's family history is coming back to bite him, and it may bite Alex, too.

This series continues to present a fascinating and unusual side of crime-solving – a side that involves serious psychological research, that delves into history, anthropology, class warfare, sexual identity, the socialization of extremely gifted children and the finer points of treating a serious mental illness – including, perhaps, creating one on purpose. It is, no pun intended, a disturbing look at the child psych issues, and other things, that can lead to terrible things happening to complex people. And, of course, it's a straight-up sexy thriller featuring a sleuth who, by now, should get more credit than he does for how well he does what he does.

As for reading about him doing more of it, please see the next book in this series, Silent Partner, as well as the whole series of titles that follow it. The 34th and latest is The Wedding Guest, and another titled The Museum of Desire is expected in February 2020.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Running Blind

Running Blind
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

Alternately titled "The Visitor," this is the fourth in about 24 Jack Reacher thrillers, featuring a guy who doesn't resemble Tom Cruise in the slightest. In this book, the FBI fingers him as Suspect No. 1 in a series of murders targeting women whose complaints of rape and sexual harassment he investigated back when he was an army MP. They recognize soon enough that he's not their guy, but they use some low-down, dirty threats to force him to help them investigate the crimes, all while ignoring every suggestion he makes. Nobody in the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (cf. Criminal Minds, The Silence of the Lambs, Unsub etc.) cares to hear Reacher's opinion that their psychological profile of the killer is complete bunk.

It takes all the resources of a, well, really resourceful guy to sneak around under the noses of the FBI, doing his own investigation that ultimately leads to – well, to be honest, I had this one figured out before Reacher did. But just to keep me unsure of myself, the author dragged a neon red herring across the track – a piece of deception so complete that I was tempted to go back and re-read parts of the novel to make sure it wasn't a cheat.

Jack Reacher is a fun character to follow. Not exactly a lovable type, he's a stone-cold killer who fixes problems that no one else seems able to fix – brutally, effectively, and permanently. In this book, he reveals a certain kind of vulnerability. For one thing, if you want to hurt Reacher, go after women he cares about – and on some level, at least, he cares about the victims of the crimes in this story. Then there's his wanderlust, an aspect of his character that feels pinched these days, what with a steady girlfriend waiting for him in New York City and a house of his own, inherited from a former C.O. who was all but a father to him. He feels the call of the road, and this adds tension to his romance with the lovely Jodie.

His compulsion to right wrongs also makes trouble for him, which is how the FBI gets its leverage over him. But watching him right those wrongs, to say nothing of how he gets out from under the Feds' thumb, adds zest to what would otherwise be just another crime procedural. It's also kind of refreshing, in a vaguely transgressive way, to experience a serial killer case from the point of view of a crime fighter who thinks behavioral profiling is a load of bull. Reacher doesn't have time for all that head-shrinking stuff. His more direct, hands-on approach to getting the bad guy is a refreshing break from head games, even in a case that clearly has some kind of psychological component.

Next on deck in my survey of the Jack Reacher novels will be Echo Burning. The latest book in the series, Blue Moon, is due to come out in October 2019.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Sacred and Profane

Sacred and Profane
by Faye Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of now 25 mysteries featuring police detective Peter Decker and his pious wife Rina Lazarus – well, she'll eventually be his wife (spoiler!) but they're not quite there in this installment. At this point, she's still a widow with two small sons from her marriage to a perfectly lovely Jewish divinity student who, sadly, got brain cancer. And he – well, he's exploring the possibility of converting to Orthodox Judaism, which would enable her to marry him. But things are complicated. Like, for example, the case he catches when one of Rina's boys stumbles on the skeletons of two young women during a camping trip.

Peter doesn't usually do homicide work – juvenile and sex crimes is more his beat – but the genres, as it were, overlap. At least one of the victims was a high school girl who disappeared out of an all but perfect teenage life. The girl strongly reminds Peter of his daughter Cindy, which just adds to the strain that eventually leads him to have a fight with Rina that left me, for one, cringing. At the same time, however, I have to admire a writer who is willing to show her hero in such an unattractive light. What remains to be seen (though the book gently hints at it, toward the end) is how Peter and Rina can possibly mend their relationship after this.

As for the case, well, it just has to do with some creepy old perverts who like to knock kids around (and worse), a chilling reconstruction of one sociopath's path to murder, a raid on a private viewing of a snuff film that takes a doubly gruesome turn, a novel approach to using dental records to identify remains, and some heartbreaking glimpses into the emotional wreckage wrought by child abuse, sexual exploitation and murder. Decker plunges into the moral cesspool of "Hollyweird" to wrest information out of prostitutes, pimps and pornographers. He risks career suicide to go after someone rich and powerful implicated in all this filth. He holds the hand of a dying girl and an emotionally ruined young man. And he draws a bead on a bad guy who's holding a gun to a hostage's head.

All that in the same book in which a secular man wrestles with faith – not only in God or in the power of prayer, but also in his love for a woman whose heart is already his. Amazing, right? While the mystery side of the book is unflinching in its look into the darkest byways of American society – producing plenty of sorrow and mayhem galore – the personal side delves into basic questions of heart and soul, with equal unwillingness to look away from the unpretty parts. This makes the characters seem to stand up out of the page in multi-layered relief, moving and breathing and feeling remarkably real.

Book 3, for those who want to join me in (gradually) working through the whole series, is titled Milk and Honey. Among Faye Kellerman's non-Decker/Lazarus titles are the novels The Quality of Mercy, Moon Music and Straight into Darkness.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
by Francisco X. Stork
Recommended Ages: 13+

Pancho doesn't plan to live much longer. He comes to St. Anthony's, a home for boys in Las Cruces, N.M., with only one plan: to find out who murdered his mentally vulnerable sister and kill him. After that, he doesn't care what happens. Unluckily for him, from Pancho's point of view, his arrival strikes a chord with a boy named D.Q. who faces another likely death sentence – brain cancer. Aided by a priest whom everyone calls the Panda, D.Q. prevails on Pancho to accompany him to Albuquerque for an experimental course of treatment, followed by a period of recovery at the home of D.Q.'s estranged mother, while D.Q. works on something he calls "The Death Warrior Manifesto." Meantime, a girl named Marisol – an intern at a guesthouse for child cancer patients and their families – fascinates both of them in ways that upset all their plans.

Through Pancho's point of view, this book affords a rewarding opportunity to experience a character's growth as D.Q., Marisol and others do their part to transform his heart. Their feelings come through with moving clarity, from a St. Tony's boy glimpsed sobbing in the rear-view mirror as D.Q.'s ride to Albuquerque departs to the little girl at Casa de Esperanza who becomes passionately attached to Pancho – and she isn't the only one. What he does (and doesn't do) when he finds the man responsible for his sister's death; how he assimilates his share in that responsibility; the extent of his self-destructive feelings and what comes of them; and how he finally proves to be the friend D.Q. needs, all make a difference to the reader's peace of mind – and so, therefore, does this book.

This review is based on hearing the audiobook read by Ryan Gesell. Again, like Marcelo in the Real World, it isn't a very big book; in fact, if there's one thing disappointing about it, it's how quickly it wraps up. I suppose it would qualify as a young adult novel, though I don't recall it being filed in that section at the library. It's an all-ages thing featuring young adults, sketching their journey in a few brief encounters and making economical use of thought-provoking material. For more like it, check out the Massachusetts based author's other titles, such as Disappeared, The Way of the Jaguar and Irises.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 13+

Originally serialized in a science fiction magazine, this mash-up of sci-fi, horror and spy thriller is the first book in a series called "The Laundry Files." It's worth noting that the author dedicated it to Neal Stephenson, Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft, and that it comes with a foreword (by another author) and an afterword by Stross explaining the book's place in literary history. However, with allowances for some references perhaps being over one's head, the novel (together with the accompanying Hugo Award winning novella The Concrete Jungle) speaks for itself. It's a novel novel, exploring the comic, cosmic and creepy possibilities of a world slightly off from ours, in which certain mathematical operations and computer subroutines are loaded with magical potential to open our universe to invasion by horrid things that live beyond the outer darkness.

Call them what you will – demons, aliens, Elder Gods, whatever – you don't want them possessing you or your friends, or sucking all the energy out of the world, or turning live cows into concrete ones. Various countries have their own lines of defense (or defence) against this kind of thing. In the U.K.'s case, it's a covert holdout of the World War II-era SOE that employs agents like Bob Howard – a dorky version of James Bond, who spends 40 percent of his time fixing his co-workers' computers, 50 percent attending mind-numbing meetings and punitively boring training seminars, and the other 10 percent looking existential horrors in the eye.

In his novel-sized debut, for example, Bob travels to California for his first stab at being a field operative. It's supposed to be a simple matter of asking a British scientist why she can't seem to leave the U.S. Before he closes the case, however, he must stop a group of Iraqi occultists from sacrificing the attractive boffin to open a rift in spacetime and whistling up a threat to all humanity. In spite of being an average guy (apart from his weapons rating with Hands of Glory and basilisk guns), everything finally depends on Bob surviving a trip to a version of earth where the atmosphere is gone, the heat death of the universe is almost complete, and an atom bomb is about to go off.

In The Concrete Jungle, Bob follows up his first success with an investigation of a phenomenon concealed by so many code names and levels of classification that at one point he is forced to put a tongue-twisting geas on his police liaison. To try to put it as simply as possible, somebody has highjacked the nation's closed-circuit TV cameras with a software app developed for the day brain-eating creatures arrive from outer space. All the app does is turn whatever the camera is looking at into stone – or rather, it turns part of it into stone, and cooks the rest of it at a temperature akin to the surface of the sun. Following this kind of clue trail is dangerous when Big Brother is watching everything you do, but that's why Bob Howard makes – well, whatever number of bucks a civil service IT guy usually makes. And also, if he goes outside his budget or forgets to file a flex-time request, there will literally be hell to pay.

These stories work on a lot of levels. On their own terms, they are funny, sexy, scary and packed with intrigue. On the level of getting what makes the reader tick and messing with that, it exploits all the insecurities of today's middle-of-the-crowd urban office drudge. Like the one about being paid next to nothing while the world is expected of you. Like the one that tempts you, if you dare, to post on your cubicle wall the cartoon captioned, "The meetings will continue until productivity improves." Like the sense that at some higher echelon of society, the true nature of reality is known but that knowledge is being withheld from you – perhaps for your own good. Like the all too experience-based suspicion that whoever thinks they are doing us favors by pulling our puppet-strings from behind the scenes, doesn't actually know or even necessarily care what is best for us.

If they fumble it and things get out of control, who will save our bacon? Maybe it would be comforting to think that somebody like Bob Howard will be there, to pop his head out of an obscure cubicle and save the world. Maybe the opportunity to laugh, a bit anxiously, at that concept is just the medicine we need.

Other Laundry Files titles include the novels The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score, The Nightmare Stacks, The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index, plus such novellas or short stories as Pimpf, Overtime, Down on the Farm and Equoid. Stross, who lives in Scotland and has work experience as a pharmacist and a software designer, is also the three-time Hugo-winning author of the Singularity Sky trilogy, the Merchant Princes sextet, three Halting State books, two Freyaverse books, three Empire Games books (counting Invisible Sun, due for release in March 2020), Ghost Engine, Glasshouse, Missile Gap, Scratch Monkey, The Rapture of the Nerds (with Cory Doctorow), and more.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real World
by Francisco X. Stork
Recommended Ages: 13+

Marcelo Sandoval, age 17, has a condition that could be described as similar to a high-functioning form of autism. He wants to spend his senior year at a special school where disabled children feel safe, and where no one will judge him for his special interests – including the study of holy texts, the music that plays in his head and caring for the school's ponies. But Marcelo's father is a high-powered patent attorney who thinks his son is more likely to succeed in life if he spends the next year at a public high school. As a sort of bet between them, Arturo talks Marcelo into spending the summer working at his Boston law firm. If he succeeds in his assignment, he can go back to his beloved Patterson. If he doesn't, it's gen pop for Marcelo.

Ironically, Marcelo kind of proves that his father is right. But he goes about it in a way that could irreversibly change their relationship. Meantime, he explores friendship with a male law clerk who probably isn't worthy of the honor, and romance with an office girl who at first resents having to work with him. He learns a lot about office politics, legal ethics and how to look after himself. He also feels his conscience pierced by a photograph of a girl disfigured by a product made by one of the firm's clients. His journey to figure out what is the right thing to do tests his faith in everything from dear old dad to God himself.

Marcelo is a paradoxically powerful and vulnerable character whose voice elicits affection and protective feelings in the reader's heart. Although his current dilemmas seem to resolve themselves rather quickly – it's not a very long book, at all – the journey he takes is significant, and in a few encounters with each of a handful of important supporting characters, he makes huge strides as an self-contained individual. His unique way of looking at things may also make an all-too-familiar world, indoors and out, really interesting to look at in the mind's eye. Themes of family ties, sexual attraction, love, honor and faith also come into it, but it's the magnetism between the characters – both attracting and repelling – that give this book its unique energy.

This review is based on listening to the audiobook read by Lincoln Hoppe. Mexican-born author Francisco Stork, who apparently based a character in this book on himself (try to guess which), is also the author of Disappeared and its upcoming sequel Illegal, as well as The Way of the Jaguar, Behind the Eyes, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Irises and The Memory of Light.

Buried on Avenue B

Buried on Avenue B
by Peter de Jonge
Recommended Ages: 14+

Ever since I ran across it, I've been reading aloud the first paragraph of a major structural division in this book to anyone who will listen. It goes like this:
Instead of a shot from a starter's pistol, there's the bing made by a microwave when the soup is warm. O'Hara pushes from her seat in the second-to-last row and with two hundred compressed, vaguely nauseated travelers plods toward the exit. She presses through the malodorous air of coach and the still-warm party debris of business and does that little perp walk past the chipper smiles of the flight crew. When she steps into the rubber hose that connects the plane to the terminal, the crappy seal offers the first inkling of Florida heat.
Isn't that just delicious? I thought so the moment I clapped eyes on it, and I still think so. That's top quality writing, there. It's observant, sensuous, funny, and sizzling with personality. It also cleverly achieves the effect of a picture gradually coming into focus, leading you to understand what the scene is about without hitting you right in the face with it.

Good writing, rich characterization, crisp dialogue and a perplexing mystery are all strong points of a nevertheless imperfect novel – what novel isn't imperfect, though? It starts when a home health care aide tips O'Hara that her client, a career criminal with a touch of dementia, hints that he buried the body of his sometime partner in a public garden off Avenue B. O'Hara manipulates her captain into letting her dig up the body, expecting it to be an easy case to close for a division known throughout the department as Homicide Soft. But the bones that turn up are those of a 9-year-old boy, buried only a couple months ago. Finding out what happened to Johnny Doe becomes an unhealthy obsession for Darlene, leading her to explore the subculture of skateboard punks, high culture kiddie porn, and a network of Gypsy grifters reaching to the Gulf shore of Florida and back. Each twist along the way proves darker, grimmer and grislier.

If I have anything against this book, it is a sense of closure denied by the fact that each time O'Hara seems to be about to catch up to a person of interest in the case, somebody else gets them first. The true face of evil seems always just around the corner but never meets her eye to eye. One nursed on a steady diet of genre thrillers might notice a certain nutrient missing – that direct, violent confrontation between the protagonist and her quarry. But that doesn't make the last twist any less chilling or soften the case's effect on O'Hara's professional and personal wellbeing. The subplots, including O'Hara's enthusiasm for her college-age son's music career, the sex appeal of an elderly man who used to be a boxing champion, and an alliance with a lesbian cop from Sarasota, all flesh out the speaking image of a remarkable and memorable character who could, if she keeps working at it, become a great detective.

This is the second book of the O'Hara & Kerkorian series, featuring a pair of New York Police Department homicide detectives who, by the time this story takes place, are only former partners. Darlene O'Hara - a middle-aged, single mother who drinks too much - is really the central character. I haven't read their first adventure yet; its title is Shadows Still Remain, and it's currently De Jonge's only other novel on which he doesn't share author credit with James Patterson. Their joint titles include the inspirational golf trilogy Miracle on the 17th Green, Miracle at Augusta and Miracle at St. Andrews and the mystery-thrillers The Beach House and Beach Road.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Die Twice

Die Twice
by Andrew Grant
Recommended Ages: 14+

Fresh off his self-therapeutic break (following the events of Even) to avenge the death of a colleague for whom he had unprofessional feelings, British Navy intelligence agent David Trevellyan is reassigned to help the Chicago consulate catch the rogue operative who recently traded bullets with Trevellyan's new handler. Tony McIntyre has gotten mixed up with black market arms deals, and now he has brought a canister of something hideous to the Windy City, with the apparent intention of selling it to at least one side in a small African nation's next civil war. Every time Trevellyan thinks he has McIntyre where he wants them, however, somebody either hits him over the head, or blows something up nearby, or crashes a car into his handler's vehicle, etc.

My father and I both enjoyed reading early chapters of this book together, aloud, during a short road trip. By the end of that excerpt, however, I was already starting to detect something fishy. I didn't know if it was a flaw in Andrew Grant's pacing as a writer of dialogue, or whether I should be suspicious that Trevellyan was being had. I am happy to report that those suspicions were on target, and that it led (if possible) to an even tougher, tighter, brusquely violent conclusion than the previous book. In the middle, there were loads of gripping action, suitably complex spy-vs.-spy intrigue, some sky-scraping suspense and, of course, opportunities to appreciate the special skills of a guy whose entire upbringing (as he feels free to tell us, little by little, throughout the book) make him really well suited to this kind of work.

Trevellyan is pretty much Jack Reacher with a British accent, albeit a little chattier and more given to making witty quips. He isn't a big fan of traitors to the service, either. No surprise, then, that Lee Child of Jack Reacher fame is Andrew Grant's older brother, as I may have mentioned once before. What I might not have noted is that Grant's wife is also an author – Tasha Alexander, whose "Lady Emily" mysteries run to 16 books. Hmm. I may never get out of this "reading books by authors who are related to other authors" business. Anyway, for more about Trevellyan, you'll have to settle for the third and (since 2012) latest book, More Harm Than Good. But Grant is also the author of at least six other novels, including two other series and the standalone thriller Run.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – This is the first Quentin Tarantino flick I have seen in quite a long time, because I have come to think of Q.T. as being rather full of it. But I decided to watch it for pretty much the same reason I saw Kevin Costner's The Postman back in 1999 – I was too drunk to drive home and the movie was starting at a convenient time and place to allow me to dry out. Full disclosure, I'd had only one (large) margarita, but it hit me hard and I didn't trust myself not to get a DUI. All right? Can we move on? Yes? Good.

So, I was surprisingly OK with this flick, in spite of it being full of it in trademark Quentin Tarantino style. For example, I needn't have seen Inglourious Basterds to recognize one scene, flashing back to highlights of fictional film-and-TV star Rick Dalton's career, as a take-off of that movie. Dalton (played by Leonardo di Caprio, whose recent career I have avoided following as much as the director's) is depicted starring in an episode of Lancer (one scene of which was Luke Perry's last film role), fantasizing about himself playing Steve McQueen's role in The Great Escape and starting to cry every time he thought about the decline of his career until, at one point, his tears made the audience laugh. In the words of Brad Pitt'z character (Dalton's sometime stunt double, who has gradually taken on the role of a body servant), "Don't cry in front of the Mexicans." The plot, to the extent that there is one, hinges on the fact that this washed-up TV actor, recent star of a handful of Spaghetti Westerns and newlywed husband of an Italian starlet, happens to arrive home after several months abroad the night members of the Charles Manson family target Sharon Tate and her house guests at the Roman Polanski mansion next door. After gradually and atmospherically building for quite some time (according to my bladder, almost 3 hours), Tate & Co.'s inevitable, historical doom takes an incredible, hysterical swerve sideways – one door sidewise, to be exact – and for the rest of the movie, the audience's vocalizations register a unique mixture of shocked ejaculations, laughter and enthusiastic cheers.

So. Good cast. Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Emile Hirsch, and Al Pacino are in it. Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis and the lovely Margot Robbie are in it. Cute young things like Lena Dunham, Austin Butler and (above all) Dakota Fanning prove that they can be fricking terrifying when they put their minds to it. And there were Three Scenes that Made It For Me: (1) The one in which Brad Pitt's character drops in on the Spahn ranch and forces his way past all the Manson Family drones to make sure George Spahn is OK. The suspense kept my flesh crawling throughout the entire sequence – relieved only a little by the enjoyment of (1.5) that one male cult member's feet leaving the ground in slow motion as Pitt's fist connects with his face. (2) Everything that happens at Chez Dalton after Leonardo comes out of his house to yell profanities at the Manson groupies and their excessive engine noise. Mind you, some of what makes it work is the hallucinogenic quality imparted, in the segments governed by Brad's point of view, by an LSD-dipped cigarette. (3) Sharon Tate's visit to a movie theater to watch her own movie. Her character's innocence and beauty went to my heart. I'm so glad that, in this movie's parallel universe, she got to live. What a shame that in reality, she didn't.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Two Spider-Movies

Spider-Man: Far from Home – These Marvel Universe movies have been coming out so thick and fast that my reviews of them always seem to begin with a confession of how many of the previous installments I missed. So, to be as brief as possible, let me admit that I've only ever seen Tom Holland as Spider-Man before in the last two Avengers movies, in which (respectively) he died and came back from the dead. (That's nothing. I never saw any of Andrew Garfield's outings as Spidey, and I'm sure I missed at least one of the Tobey Maguire ones.) Anyway, it's a good thing that I saw those two Avengers flicks (to be sure, only those two) because this movie's taking-off point is the "blip" in which people whose existence was erased in Infinity War resumed existing several years later, at the end of Endgame. So when young Peter goes on a class trip to Europe, it's with a confused and confusing group including people, like him, who blipped and others who were five years younger before the blip and are now their age. Man, life in the Marvel Universe is tough.

Peter's trip to Europe is especially tough. I mean, do you think Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and SHIELD will let him just relax and enjoy himself? No. Their whole itinerary gets covertly hijacked so that Peter can try to maintain his cover while, at the same time, trying to stop a monster apocalypse from a parallel dimension. Luckily, there's a new superhero on the job – some guy from the other universe, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who (SPOILER ALERT!!!) is actually just some guy who wants to con Peter out of this thing that I've decided not to describe because this sentence is making me tired. Pant, pant. So, in this post-Iron Man and post-Capt. America age, Spider-Man has to step forward as a global hero. And he does a pretty good job. Also, he has some romantic moments with M.J., some comic moments with his chubby buddy, and a lot of opportunities to tear up some of the best scenery in the western world.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) One that, in my opinion, played even better in the trailer: a mouthy member of Peter's class trip group is yakking about how much he respects Spider-Man, then spots Peter standing nearby and cracks, "What are you looking at, ass face?" (2) The scene in which Peter inadvertently calls down an airstrike on one of the kids on his tour bus – a piece of slapstick comedy-action-suspense that makes the most of high-school-age insecurities that even superheroes aren't spared. (3) J.K. Simmons returns as yellow journalist J. Jonah Jameson in a bonus scene in which he unmasks the web-slinger in front of the entire world.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – In this animated flick, multiple Spider-Men (or women, or pigs) from different realities merge into young Miles Morales' version of New York City and have to work together to stop a female Doc Ock and a rampaging Kingpin from opening a black hole under Brooklyn. I waited weeks to be able to borrow this movie on DVD from my local public library. Then I watched it twice back to back. I fell in love with it. It is one of the best movies I have seen all year – and I saw it during the same week as Yesterday. What a week!

So, I'm not going to give you a synopsis on this one. Great cast, though, with vocal turns by Liev Schreiber, Lily Tomlin, Lake Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Nicolas Cage and Mahershala Ali. Gifted comedians Kathryn Hahn and John Mulaney both do good work here. Hailee Steinfeld, whom I loved in the Jeff Bridges version of True Grit, provides a romantic foil for Miles as Gwen "Spider-Woman" Stacy. And the character of Peter Parker gets a win-win, with Chris Pine playing a heroic 20-something version of him and Jake Johnson as a 30s slob Peter. At the center of the movie is a beautiful trio of performances by Shameik Moore, Bryan Tyree Henry and Luna Vélez as the ethnically mixed young hero who picks up the mantle of his world's Peter Parker in a moment of great danger, and his loving parents. The boy's voyage of self-discovery, combined with a terrifying and exhilarating adventure, is beautifully depicted in animated artwork of tremendous energy and originality. The story, the dialogue, the interplay between characters, thrilled me as well as making me laugh and cry.

OK? Enough about that. Let's get quickly to Three Scenes That Made It For Me, because I've been dying to get them off my chest since I saw this movie. (1) Miles first encounters Peter "B." Parker (Johnson) and mayhem ensues. In an extended sequence involving web-slinging mishaps and collisions with various vehicles, I never stopped laughing – although, at one point, I had to stop the playback so I could catch my breath. (2) After studying a Spider-Man comic, Miles sets off to emulate his web-swinging learning curve by climbing the stairs to the roof of a high-rise building. In mid-phrase of a musical buildup as he prepares to launch himself out into space, the music cuts out and we see (and hear) the boy running back down the stairs, sneakers squeaking. He then chooses a lower-rise building and, as a result, survives his hilarious fall. (Later, when the web is spinning the other way for him, the imagery of this scene is triumphantly reversed.) (3) The emotional scene in which Miles cradles his dying Uncle Aaron. The acting in that scene is incredible, considering that most of it was being done by animated characters.

See this movie. This is the film that animated features should be trying to top from now on. I mean, in style AND in substance. Not in the magnitude of the numbers at the end of their titles or the number of kicks a dead horse can endure while remaining dead. I don't know how else to say it except that this is a breathtakingly excellent movie and I want everyone to experience it.

Terminal Freeze

Terminal Freeze
by Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

Way north of the Arctic Circle, a team of scientists is studying the effects of global warming from a mothballed military base when they discover a gigantic predator trapped in the ice under a retreating glacier. A documentary filmmaker descends on the scene with a complete production crew, eager to exploit the discovery. But the dying remnants of a native tribe warns them that they are about to unleash an instrument of the gods' wrath. And that's exactly what seems to be happening when the mega-smilodon comes out of suspended animation and starts doing grisly things to the soldiers, the scientists and the film crew.

Is there a scientific explanation for what's going on? Maybe, maybe not. Would a paranormal explanation, in line with Native American beliefs, be more plausible? Maybe, maybe not. There's even a hint of an idea that what is stalking the Federal Wilderness Zone is from another world beyond the stars. Whatever is behind it, a lot of flesh-and-blood people are in front of it, and with the Northern Lights doing weird things and the grandmother of all blizzards pummeling the base, their options mainly narrow down to (1) beating a perilous escape across the Alaskan Ice Road and (2) turning around and fighting this unimaginable terror from Native Alaskan pre-history. Also, there's the option of trying to turn it into a TV spectacle, but let's not even go there. It's so stupid, it almost makes you cheer for the monster.

Everybody's survival is in serious jeopardy, and some of them make you care about them, darn it. It's a thriller swarming with diverse characters, a few of them with heroic characteristics, and some of them showing unexpected flashes of courage under pressure. There's a bit of romance in it, a heaping helping of "the polar ice is melting" alarmism, and some interesting hints that the author may harbor ill feelings toward certain show-biz types. But boy, is this story's monster a doozy! If I still had cats, I would be very polite to them for a while after reading this book. Also, the next time I come around a dark corner and find myself facing a pair of giant, yellow, slit-pupiled eyes, I'll think twice before I scream. If I have time.

This is the second of five paranormal thrillers featuring "enigmalogist" Dr. Jeremy Logan – and so, naturally, the fifth in the order I read them. As in Deep Storm before it, but unlike the three after it, Logan plays only a supporting role in this book. To see him as the point-of-view character, try The Third Gate, The Forgotten Room and Full Wolf Moon. With Douglas Preston, Child is also the co-author of 19 "Agent Pendergast" novels (including The Relic), five "Gideon Crew" books, and about five other novels. Lincoln Child's other solo works include Utopia (a.k.a. Lethal Velocity) and Death Match.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Into the Black Nowhere

Into the Black Nowhere
by Meg Gardiner
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Unsub, we met a Bay Area cop named Caitlin Hendrix who, partly as an accident of birth, became a key player in the hunt for a serial killer. Now she's a member-in-training of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (you know, like on TV's Criminal Minds), where she shows enough promise as a profiler to be assigned to a three-agent team chasing a psychopath in Texas. This guy has been abducting attractive young women from a town halfway between Austin and San Antonio, and soon after Caitlin's team arrives, a couple of the victims turn up dead.

As the killer's profile comes into clearer focus, Caitlin finds herself once again in a very personal relationship with a diabolical genius whose special gifts include manipulating people, eluding capture and leaving a trail of carnage behind him. Once Caitlin figures out what really makes this monster tick, he only gets scarier as the hunt turns into a high-speed chase across half of the U.S.A. to save, if possible, his next intended victim. And once again, Caitlin's special gift proves to be her willingness to jump off a cliff with the bad guy handcuffed to her. Well, that's me speaking figuratively. But as you'll see when you read this book, and you will – gaze into my eyes – I'm not exaggerating very much. Not at all, really.

This is, to date, the second book of the UNSUB trilogy of which book 3, The Dark Corners of the Night, is due for release in February 2020. Meg Gardiner has also written five Evan Delaney novels (China Lake, Mission Canyon, Jericho Point, Crosscut and Kill Chain) and four Jo Beckett novels (The Dirty Secrets Club, The Memory Collector, The Liar's Lullaby and The Nightmare Thief) and is the winner of an Edgar Award.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Blood Test

Blood Test
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of going-on-35 novels featuring a child psychologist who burned out of clinical practice in his early 30s and, for a refreshing change of pace, turned toward helping an LAPD homicide detective solve crimes. This time, Dr. Alex Delaware and his cop friend Milo Sturgis are brought together when a former colleague of Alex's fears that a little boy who has cancer will die needlessly after his parents yank him out of treatment – and then the parents turn up murdered.

Hoping to find little Woody before his lymphoma passes the point of no return, Alex finds himself on a dangerous trail of clues that leads past, if not straight toward, a religious cult in the southern California desert, an experimental botanist's greenhouse of horrors, a teenage seductress' menagerie of twisted conquests, and more. Fear and loathing ain't half of it. The deeper Alex digs, the more icky evidence he unearths that he is just the kind of sleuth this case needs. We're talking all the ingredients, bar none, of a psychopath mixed up as no one but parents can mix them. And to make sure your cuticles are bleeding and your eyes are dry from lack of blinking by the climax of the tale, Alex goes past the point no one should go beyond without his cop partner, without his cop partner. If he didn't have 33 more mysteries to solve, you'd know for sure he was going to die this time.

Alex Delaware sees a lot of gritty stuff, but he is a refreshingly un-gritty guy. He doesn't have the worries in life that make other sleuths a psychological mess. He's independently well-off. He has a girlfriend who is doing so well at her line of work that he's just a little insecure about becoming a kept man, but he doesn't take it all that badly. He doesn't give a damn that his cop buddy is gay, and there isn't even a little bit of ambiguous sexual tension between them. Alex Delaware is as clean as a whistle, which provides a sharp contrast with the human dreck he has to cut through, case after case. If it doesn't get to him, maybe it won't get to you. But when it nearly does, as it seriously tries to do in this book, well ... that's entertainment!

The next book in this series, for me to go after in canon order, is Over the Edge. Other Alex Delaware titles include, but are not limited to, Devil's Waltz, Doctor Death, The Murder Book, Heartbreak Hotel, most recently The Wedding Guest and, due for release in February 2020, The Museum of Desire.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Coffin Dancer

The Coffin Dancer
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book showcases all that is most strikingly original about the formula for the Lincoln Rhyme crime thriller. What kind of crime is best solved by a quadriplegic criminalist who analyzes crime scene evidence at superhuman speed in his home lab, aided by a crack team of canvassers, detectives, a master of disguise and a tough, beautiful crime scene tech like Amelia Sachs? Why, crimes that are still in progress or are about to be committed, of course! Solving diabolically clever murders under extreme time pressure is Rhyme's bread and butter, and the fact that he needs a home health aide to feed it to him is just a detail.

In this outing, Rhyme and Sachs are after a hit-man who has been hired to rub out three witnesses who are supposed to testify at a powerful arms dealer's grand jury. One of the three has already gone down in a plane crash, along with his innocent co-pilot. That leaves his grieving wife and their business partner to bear witness to what they saw – but protecting them won't be easy. For one thing, the widow insists on making their aviation company's next flight. Their business depends on it. Only a quick grasp of the evidence can enable law enforcement to anticipate the Coffin Dancer's next move (like that nickname?). But even though he's psychologically twisted, the killer has an eerie way of eluding detection and, at the same time, penetrating protection.

The fact that you have a good idea who the killer is from a relatively early part of the novel isn't important either. There are twists aplenty in this fast-paced, nerve-wracking, gore-splattered thriller. Conflicts between the good guys, not only among the law enforcement types but also between them and the people they are tasked to protect, charge it up to the next energy level. Sachs suffers a fit of jealousy. Rhyme has one of those moments when he can't warn anybody on time about something he knows is going to happen. And of course – it's happened before – certain agencies don't appreciate the value of what Rhyme and Sachs are doing until it's tragically too late. As a special bonus, there's an agonizingly prolonged scene of suspense in which a pilot knows she has to stay above so many thousand feet because there's a bomb on board triggered by air pressure. Someone in this book has a fingernail chewing problem. I'm not saying it's you, but after scenes like that it might be.

This is the second of 14 Lincoln Rhyme novels by the author of three Rune novels (starting with Manhattan Is My Beat), three John Pellam novels (under the pseudonym William Jefferies), four Kathryn Dance novels (most recently Solitude Creek), and other titles such as The Devil's Teardrop and The Bodies Left Behind. The next book in this series, which I plan to request from my regional public library system, is The Empty Chair.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Golem of Hollywood

The Golem of Hollywood
by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Jacob Lev is a sometime homicide detective who has burned out before his time, while also losing his faith in the religion of his rabbi father. His mother went insane before she died, and now he wonders if he is starting to lose his mind, too. Ever since he had what must have been a night to remember with a disturbingly beautiful woman – if only he could remember! – every time he approaches intimacy with another woman, she recoils as if he is hurting her. A strange, flying beetle seems to be stalking him. He has been seconded to a mysterious branch of the police department, against his will, to investigate a bizarre if not impossible murder. The victim himself seems to have been a monster with a trail of victims behind him – or rather, them, as Lev gradually comes to realize this particular serial killer is part of a traveling team. His, or their, MO is particularly disturbing. But who killed the killer? His partner, perhaps? Or could it be (don't pretend the title didn't give it away) something out of medieval Jewish folklore, something created to protect the denizens of the Jewish ghetto in Prague, now somehow free to move about the planet?

OK, you'll have seen that twist coming since you turned the title page. Those of us who have read, say, Bari Wood's The Tribe may go into this book expecting something like it – a creature made of clay, created to avenge a wrong suffered by an Orthodox Jewish community in Big City U.S.A. and now gone on the rampage – an ultra-violent novel of erotic horror with a slivovitz chaser. What those of us won't expect what this novel actually is: a penetrating exploration into the heart of a deeply confused and depressed young man; a disturbing, speculative spin on the biblical account of Cain and Abel; a heartbreaking tale of love and grief that spans millennia; scenes that will batter you emotionally, chill your insides with anxiety, and leave your mind reeling with shock; a final twist that might be just a bit too far over the top, if you think about it. And you'll think about it. Trust me.

Jacob Lev is a more flawed and vulnerable hero than one is used to seeing in books issued by the Kellermans – though I feel a little silly saying that, after reading a Decker/Lazarus novel which will soon prompt me to say something similar about Peter Decker. He's practically a danger to himself, in a way that somehow makes you feel protective of him. I suppose I should accept it as a sign that I've gone over the hill: I feel a bit fatherly toward him. I sympathize with his old man, up to a point. But do I really buy the trick the old man proves, in the end, to have played on him? Not really. Nevertheless, I'm interested in seeing where this business takes Jacob next – especially given good reason to expect it to be narrated in striking, lyric prose, full of vivid atmosphere and beautiful, terrible imagery.

This book is the first of (at present) two Jacob Lev novels by the father-son writing team that has also produced (so far) two Clay Edison novels and a third on its way. The sequel is titled The Golem of Paris.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Fabricated Folk Lyric

My moments of inspiration as a pop-song lyricist always seem to come when I'm at the wheel of my car. Back in 2009, I wrote the lyrics to a Tango in my head while driving from St. Louis to Arkansas. I can't remember whether a similar case applies to my 2011 masterpiece, "The Temporal Anomaly Blues," but I was definitely trippin' when I wrote that. And last night, driving home from my parents' house at the opposite end of a tall, narrow Minnesota county, I mentally composed two-thirds of this. Mainly, what I wanted to achieve was a heart-squeezing effect when the key phrase comes back at the end with a different shade of meaning than before. If somebody wants to set this to a fabricated folk tune, I wouldn't object.

In Clover

Now golden-head, won't you come down
And leave these fragrant grasses?
We'll drink the health of London town
In leaded crystal glasses.
– Nay, blue-eyed one, thanks all the same;
For when all's said and over,
You'll have the fortune and the fame,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Now golden-head, come down to me
And leave these fragrant grasses!
We'll drink the coffee of Paree
In china demitasses.
– Nay, blue-eyed one, don't take it wrong;
For when all's said and over,
You'll have the dances and the song,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Now golden-head, for sea I'm bound
To leave these fragrant grasses.
When next I drink on solid ground,
'Twill be with New York lasses.
– Go, blue-eyed one, but mind the wave
Till you're the ocean over;
For that would be a lonesome grave,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows

Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows
by Ryan Calejo
Recommended Ages: 10+

Charlie Hernández is this kid in Miami whose parents up and disappeared one day. Then weird stuff starts happening to him, stuff that nothing in his experience has prepared him for except – and this is a weird exception – that it increasingly reminds him of the Hispanic folklore his late grandma used to teach him. Charlie doesn't know where to turn when, for example, horns pop out of his head and, later, he breaks out in feathers. Other than a suspiciously friendly girl at his school, who may or may not be interested in him only as a subject for a school newspaper story, poor Charlie has to face an increasingly scary succession of Latin American and Spanish monsters all on his lonesome – until a secret society devoted to fighting the darkness is revealed to him.

A boy's quest across the magic of multiple countries, united only by a Spanish-speaking culture, would be thrilling enough. More than Charlie's life is at stake, though. His adventures work on a similar level to Rick Riordan's repackaging of Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Nordic myths and legends, complete with the present-day kid's street-wise attitude and goofy sense of humor. Another book this reminded me of is The Avion My Uncle Flew, with its clever way of getting the reader to read (maybe aloud) words and phrases in a (ha, ha) "foreign" language, in this case Spanish. I think it's a lot of fun, and I would recommend it not just as an edifying lesson in cross-cultural understanding but as a solid piece of entertainment. And that, amigos, is as American as apple empanadas.

This is Ryan Calejo's debut novel. A sequel, titled Charlie Hernandez & the Castle of Bones, is set for release Oct. 22, 2019.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Dragon Reborn

The Dragon Reborn
by Robert Jordan
Recommended Ages: 13+

This review of the third book in the "Wheel of Time" cycle is based on listening to the audiobook read by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer. I'd like to start by giving them a hand for delivering superb vocal performances, each of them doing characters of both sexes distinguished only by who the point-of-view character was in a given chapter and, in a few cases, by their pronunciation of the names of persons, places and magical objects.

Way back in The Eye of the World, a group of young friends left the town of Emond's Field in the semi-autonomous region of Two Rivers and discovered a much larger world, a world torn by conflict, aswirl in magic, threatened by cosmic evil and full of strange cultures, competing agendas and dangers worse than death. In spite of all the books being rather thick and this being the third one, they don't really get very far in their overarching adventure; it's pretty much just one leg of a larger journey. This may be the besetting flaw of this series, and one that I have heard some readers comment on, to the tune of "it just gets worse and worse." Still, I can't complain about the entertainment it provided during a couple of long road trips – definitely a situation in which a too-long-by-half, flagrantly unabridged novel is most welcome.

During this installment, our original Emond's Fielder friends and their close allies find themselves split into approximately four parties, only to meet again at the very end. Everything in the book seems to lead toward that reunion, but their relationships will never be the same. In Unit 1, as I'll call it for now, are three novices of an order of female magic who are on a mission to recover magical talismans stolen by a group within their order that has been secretly serving the Dark One. The Black Ajah, if you'll forgive my likely misspelling – going the audio route does make it hard to name names in a review – is practically taboo to speak of, and most Aes Sedai are conditioned to deny that it even exists; but the three young women have seen more evidence of it than anyone, and now they have to put everything on the line to keep the Black Ajah from accomplishing a dark ritual and making the return of Ba'alzamon even more imminent than it already is. Meantime, Unit 2 includes a sometime blacksmith's apprentice named Perrin, who is starting to identify, more closely than he likes, with wolves. Perrin and his companions are in pursuit of Unit 3, Rand al'Thor, who has now all but publicly revealed himself to be the Dragon Reborn, i.e. the reincarnation of a guy who centuries ago broke the world and was driven mad by the male principle of magic. Finally, there's Unit 4, light-fingered Mat, who barely recovers from being poisoned by a cursed blade, just in time to join a minstrel who was previously thought dead and now exhibits freakish amounts of luck in addition to his skill with a quarterstaff.

The three male friends, at least, are all ta'veren – people whose actions have a greater than average pull on the strings of fate whose weaving will shape their age. The girls, including a bonus initiate who happens to be a royal princess, also have incredible power, if only they'll allow someone to teach them how to control it. The trouble with these kids, and perhaps what makes them so appealing to today's reader, is that they're more exactly like people in the world we know than the heroes of most sword-and-sorcery adventures. They are so self-absorbed, stubborn, flawed in their motives, resistant to being guided or ruled over, that they get in their own way and create more trouble for themselves than the initial state requires – and that's bad enough. The world seems to be about to come apart. Ba'alzamon's disciples are breaking loose from the seals that have protected the world from them for so long, and once all the seals are gone, the Heart of the Dark himself will return. Even dreams aren't safe any more. And the Black Ajah are only one of many groups that would happily stick Rand's head on a pike. But in its gradual, scattershot way – dropping a thread here or there – this book does perceptibly move the storyline ahead toward the conclusion of its (gulp) 14-book arc, authored toward the end by Brandon Sanderson.

Next on deck is book 4, The Shadow Rising. I'll have to plan ahead and request the audiobook from my regional library system in time for my next big road trip. Till then, for now at least, I'm still interested in where the weaving leads from here.

Tripwire

Tripwire
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this third of 24 Jack Reacher novels, the ex-military modern-day knight errant faces a challenge to everything that defines him as a pop culture icon. First, he's the guy who never settles down anywhere, more than content to move on down the road every couple of days, carrying nothing but the clothes on his back (which, when they're filthy enough to stand up in, he'll throw away and put on a fresh outfit). Now, someone offers him a place to call his own, to settle down and be a homebody. Second, Mr. Love Them for a Few Days and Leave Them Without Looking Back gets a chance to start something lasting with the love of his life. And third, from the beginning of this book to the end – though he's the last person to realize it – the guy who has always been tougher and more dangerous than anyone who goes up against him is on a collision course with a bastard of epic proportions. The guy calls himself Hook Hobie, and he has an office in one of New York's Twin Towers (this was before you-know-what), and he has vast resources, a diabolically brilliant criminal mind, a complete lack of conscience and a set of short-term goals that include destroying Reacher and the woman he loves, even before they know he exists.

Reacher finds himself on the case after a private detective traces him to the Florida Keys and gets knifed to death for his trouble. Tracing the trace back to its source leads him to the funeral of his Army mentor and commanding officer, who died trying to give a pair of grieving Gold Star parents closure about a son who never came back from Vietnam. It also leads him to Jodie, the old soldier's daughter, who had a mutual attraction with Reacher 15 years ago and who now convinces him to finish what her father started. Unbeknownst to them, however, their line of inquiry has set off a trip wire of sorts, alerting Hobie that his edifice of lies and murder is about to tumble down. Hobie just hopes he can finish one last, deadly scheme before he has to run for it – and that means adding Reacher and Jodie to his list of victims.

For those joining the series late (among whom I count myself), this is a super-violent type of thriller that probably hews closer to the conventions of spy fiction than mystery. To be sure, Reacher is going to kill anyone who seriously threatens him without hesitation or remorse. However, he's also going to try to find stuff out – disturbing stuff dating back to the confusing and devastating era of the Vietnam war – stuff that will blow his mind as surely as he's going to bust some heads. Maybe what he finds out will give peace of mind to an elderly couple. Maybe it will put a spoke through the wheel of a crooked soldier of fortune. Maybe it will be on time to save Jodie and a few other relatively blameless people – including one Manhattan socialite who seriously qualifies as a hero in this book by herself. But until you find out whether he does, or what he does, you'll be in the grip of fear and excitement for page after page, inch after inch. And whatever happens, there's no way his itinerary (see the U.S.A., with or without a Chevrolet) will be unaltered at the end.

The next book in the sequence, which I'm already reading, is alternately titled either Running Blind or The Visitor. Lee Child, a British transplant to New York, most recently released the 23rd book in this series, Past Tense, and is scheduled to put out number 24, Blue Moon, in October 2019.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Cruel Limerick

Our tongue's spelling rules beget laughter,
But weeping will follow soon aughter.
Correctly to draught
Is a treacherous craught,
To which children are led as to slaughter.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Dogs, Cats, Aliens & Robots

The Secret Life of Pets 2 – This is a sequel to an animated film I never saw, and though I enjoyed it, I don't plan to go back and see the original. I'm all about moving forward, you know. An Illumination/Universal Pictures animated feature, it capitalizes on the voice talent of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, and Harrison Ford to depict an eccentric cast of cats, dogs, and a bunny having adventures in the big city as well as (in a fish-out-water side plot) down on the farm.

Hero dog Max (a Jack Russell terrier) struggles to accept that the little boy in his family, whom he is sworn to protect, is about to start school. Then he finds out about country life and has to accept an entirely new level of risk. Meanwhile, back in town, the other pets in the apartment building get involved in a caper to save an abused tiger from a cruel circus trainer and his pack of hench-wolves.

It's full of cuteness, comedy that mostly works, and some exciting action sequences, including a car-train chase assisted by the ultimate crazy cat lady. Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Rooster, the old sheepdog, forces Max to save a sheep from falling off a cliff. (2) Gidget, a perky Pomeranian, has to impersonate a cat to infiltrate crazy cat lady's apartment and rescue Max's favorite toy. (3) The climactic battle on the train in which Max heroes up against the evil Sergei and his pet monkey.

Men In Black International – The MiB mythology moves on without Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. With a globe-trotting mission based at the secret E.T.-policing agency's London office, it features Ray-Ban wearing Agents named mostly after letters of the alphabet, played by the reassuring Emma Thompson, the intimidating Liam Neeson, the always punchable Rafe Spall, the studly but also punchable Chris Hemsworth, the beautiful but weird Rebecca Ferguson (OK, she's a crook, not an Agent) and no-nonsense point-of-view player Tessa Thompson. It has terrifying twins who seem to have been ripped off from the Matrix trilogy, a tiny comic relief alien voiced by the guy from The Big Sick, and a bunch of stuff about opening a rip in space to let in bad things from beyond the stars. I'm not saying it wasn't a fun movie to watch, but I think the last time this franchise made an indelible mark on movie culture was Movie 1.

I've actually let this review go too long to remember a lot of the details, but the passage of time has boiled it down to the Three Things That Made It For Me: (1) The cute little baby alien whose first words, spoken to the girl who saved him from being scrobbled upon arrival on Earth, translate roughly (we find out much later) to "I'll kill whoever you want." (2) The realization that Agent H (as in Hemsworth) has been neuralized, conveniently explaining his recent erratic behavior. (3) The weird battle in the street with the twin aliens, seemingly defying the laws of spacetime.

Lost in Space, Season 1 – This review is about a DVD of the Netflix original series, not the 1960s TV show – although Bill Mumy (the original Will Robinson) makes a cameo appearance early in the series and gamely tries to get the cast and crew hip to the original-series catch phrase "Oh, the pain" in some special features. The main act, however, is a terrifically written, produced and acted arc of serialized sci-fi storytelling, featuring a boy, his robot, his interplanetary colonist parents and siblings (who have gotten separated from their space caravan and land on the wrong planet), a cunning and manipulative outlaw who calls herself(!) Dr. Smith, a hotshot pilot who ends up being one of the Robinson girls' main squeeze, and a pet chicken – apparently because none of the chimps who tried out for the role had the bird's charisma.

The family drama is solid. The alien environment, creatures, gizmos and space itself are very convincing. The storylines are fraught with tension and emotional power. The suspense achieves heretofore unrecorded levels as the Robinson family ekes out a narrower and narrow margin of survival at every turn. What doesn't happen to these poor folks? One of the girls gets trapped in ice. The other girl is stalked by blind, apex predators in their home cave – sort of like "A Quiet Place," only full of fossilized poop. The parents get sucked into a tar pit. The boyfriend is inside a space ship when it falls off a cliff. The dad and the boyfriend are in a rocket that explodes in takeoff. A weather balloon tries to drag the mom off a cliff. And poor Will, realizing that the robot who listens to nobody but him is a danger to others, has to order his best friend to walk off a cliff. Seriously, this world has too many cliffs. Something should be done.

Toby Stephens and Molly Parker headline an excellent cast as the Robinson parents. Parker Posey, playing the heavy, is surprisingly effective. If these three needed to carry the whole show on their talent, they could. But they don't have to. Cheers to the people who put this cast together and gave them the material to create excellent TV.

For now, however, all I can do is tell you about the Three Things That Made It For Me – in the case of this spectacular series, a difficult choice. (1) Mom to Dad (as his two-man rocket is preparing to lift off): I love you. Dad: I love you. Hotshot pilot: I love you, too. (2) Younger daughter tells her first boyfriend that she doesn't think they should see each other again – after he's betrayed her and her family multiple times. I couldn't help yelling, "Good girl!" (3) Hotshot pilot: No. Older daughter: *puppy dog eyes* HP: No. OD: *puppy dog eyes* HP: No, no, no, no, no. OD: *full blast puppy dog eyes* HP: Dammit! OK, so Will Robinson and his robot aren't in any of my top 3, but they're a pretty good piece of a very good show that I fully intend to watch in future seasons.