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Ciudad
Ciudad
by Ande Parks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.05
58 used & new from $4.84

4.0 out of 5 stars Escape From Paraguay, July 13, 2015
This review is from: Ciudad (Hardcover)
The real Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este forms the backdrop for this hyper-violent action thriller graphic novel. Hats off to the creators for picking such a fertile setting for, what is essentially a very well-worn story of a mercenary hired to rescue an attractive young woman. The city is less than sixty years old, but due to its location on the border with Brazil and very near the border of Argentina, has blossomed into a commercial hub with more than 300,000 people living there. What makes it really interesting, however, is the mix of the population -- in addition to Paraguayans, there are loads of Brazilians, Argentines, Koreans, Taiwanese, Lebanese of all religious stripes, Iranians, and more. This mix comes alive in the extremely bloody story, which has the mercenary and girl on the run from several different factions of gunmen. The whole thing is kind of mash-up of The Professional, The Warriors, Terminator 2, Escape From New York, The Bourne Identity, and so on. Kind of fun if you like that kind of stuff with a high body count. The stark black and white artwork -- no greyscale -- fits the action perfectly, kind of reminded me of European comics from the '80s.


Vanishing Games: A novel
Vanishing Games: A novel
by Roger Hobbs
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.43
92 used & new from $8.28

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun Process-Driven Thriller, July 13, 2015
This sequel to Hobbs' astonishingly assured debut, Ghostman, picks up the story of "Jack White", a cipher who wanders the world pulling off heists and killing time until the next job. Ghostman introduced us to Jack in a whirlwind 48 hour job in Atlantic City, intercut with flashbacks to a job gone wrong in Kuala Lumpur five years earlier. That narrative structure is repeated here, as Jack is jolted from his downtime by an urgent call -- this time from his mentor Angela, whom he hasn't seen since the Kuala Lumpur job. In the blink of an eye he's flying halfway around the world to help her get out of a tricky situation in Macau (as featured in the recent James Bond film, Skyfall).

Echoing the first book, this one is 48 hours of hotel break-ins, boat chases, twists and turns, and all manner of underworld details. It's these details that made the first book so engrossing (although to be fair, I have no idea to what extent all the details are true). Once again, Hobbs has crammed all manner of criminal process into the fairly basic story, from how to break into hotel safes, the proper use and disposal of burner phones, repurposing a limousine as a roving hideout, self-surgery on one's eyeball, the different levels of counterfeit dollars, triad godfathers operating out of hole in the wall food stalls, taping a gun to your body so that the tape won't interfere with the firing mechanism, and on and on.

It's a fun ride, but it would benefit from a bit more character development. Jack appears to be motivated purely by thrills, and Angela is a just as shallow a character. Their relationship is key to the plot, but it's never given its due -- there's a flashback to their initial meeting which is kind nice, but there needed to be a bit more to build up their apparently non-romantic dynamic. Still, if you like thrillers with lots of procedural detail, you'll definitely want to pick this up.


GBH
GBH
by Ted Lewis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.87
55 used & new from $11.81

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gangster Gone Mad, July 13, 2015
This review is from: GBH (Hardcover)
Lewis is certainly best known for writing the novel that was made into the iconic Michael Caine film Get Carter (and, less well known, the blaxploitation film Hit Man). Apparently a very lonely and depressive person, he drank himself into the grave at a very young age, and it's hard not to see evidence of those demons in this, his final book. Brought back into print some 35 years after its initial publication, it's stiff stuff.

The story revolves around a successful London gangster whose empire has just collapsed due to betrayal from within. The book opens with him hiding out in his beachfront safe house on the Lincolnshire coast about midway between Grimsby and Skegness. We then flash back to a few weeks or months previously, when his enterprise began to unravel. The book alternates between brief chapters titled "The Sea" (set in the present) and "The Smoke" (what went down in London). It's made clear that something terrible happened to his wife in London, but the details that have driven him to drink aren't revealed until near the end.

"The Smoke" chapters unfold in a semi-procedural way, as he strives to figure out which of his henchmen is the traitor, and whether or not a rival gang is involved. Meanwhile, "The Sea" chapters show a man going stir-crazy and slowly off the rails. Each set carries its own tension, and the writing is crisp and purposeful throughout, with crackling dialogue. Central to the story are the pornographic (and snuff) films the gangster trades in (and producers), which serve as his hobby, income source, and existential undoing.

This is a page-turner, but not of the pleasurable variety. There is no one here to sympathize with, and one reads on with dread. Dark stuff.


Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street
Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street
by Alex Zucker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.95
61 used & new from $11.47

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Read Her Memoir Instead, July 13, 2015
I've read a lot of noir fiction, and read a lot of translated fiction, and I have to say that this Czech book, now available in English some thirty years after its original publication, just didn't do much for me. That might be because it's heavily grounded in the author's own terrible experiences in post-WWII Prague, where she had a pretty good life until her husband was swept up in a Stalinist show trial and executed. She'd already written a memoir of those times (Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968), but apparently inspired by her work translating Raymond Chandler into Czech, she took a stab at fictionalizing her plight in the 1950s.

It's kind of noir taken to an absurd extreme, as the book opens with a murder investigation leading to the projection booth of a movie theater. Over the course of the book, we discover that one usher (the author stand-in) has a political prisoner husband, another is involved in espionage as a courier of sorts, another is a serial mistress, another is an informer (and is implied to be a pedophile lesbian), all of which culminates in political blackmail that leads to another death, and then another murder. The confluence of corruption is too relentless to really buy into, despite some moving scenes of domesticity and struggles to connect. More of a curiosity than anything I would really recommend to genre enthusiasts, and those interested in the era are probably best served reading the author's memoir.


The Fuse Volume 1: The Russia Shift
The Fuse Volume 1: The Russia Shift
by Antony Johnston
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.77
72 used & new from $0.24

3.0 out of 5 stars Pulp Potboiler in Space, May 3, 2015
This first in a graphic novel series hits a bunch of notes that I typically enjoy: police procedural, near-future sci-fi, gritty urban setting, and graphic storytelling. So why didn't I enjoy it more? The story more or less follows a German detective who's willingly transferred to an undesirable posting on The Fuse. Built as an orbiting energy platform, the five-mile long structure has somehow evolved into a city of half a million people. (I don't really get how energy is supposed to be transmitted between The Fuse and Earth, nor do I understand who would build such an expensive device so inefficiently that you could fit a major city inside it, but I'm more or less willing to suspend my disbelief on those points.)

The detective has a body literally fall at his feet on day one, and he's immediately thrust into a murder investigation with a foul-mouthed older female detective as his partner. The story then unfolds in a series of familiar plot beats and twists and turns, including mayoral politics, secret siblings, infidelity, homeless victims that no one cares about, and the like. It's not that it's bad, it's just far too familiar -- it's like the plot points were taken from a 1950s potboiler and tossed into space. Somewhat predictably, the story ends with a large twist that sets up the next in the series.

Unlike some reviewers -- I really liked the artwork, in fact, I'd say the artwork and coloring were my favorite element. On the whole though, I'm not sure it's one to rush out and pick up. By all means, check it out, just keep expectations in check.


White Death
White Death
by Robbie Morrison
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.78
59 used & new from $6.35

2.0 out of 5 stars Muddled and Hard to Engage With, May 3, 2015
This review is from: White Death (Hardcover)
The modern conception of World War I is dominated by images of horrific trench warfare, poison gas, and swarms of men being mowed down by machine guns in the fields of France and Belgium. But it's always been the war's other arenas that grabbed hold of my imagination, especially the English and German skirmishes in East Africa (a good novel about the war there is William Boyd's An Ice-Cream War). About a decade ago, I read a highly autobiographical novel (Sardinian Brigade, by Emilio Lusso) set in the lesser-known front of the Italian Alps.This graphic novel covers that same arena, where about a million soldiers died over the course of about three years of fighting.

Much as I was looking forward to this, I found it kind of muddled and hard to engage with. To be sure, there are some haunting panels of faces locked in horror and pain. But the book suffers from a lack of story, lack of context, and frankly, a cast of characters who are very hard to distinguish from one another. Admittedly, one of the themes of the book is how malleable nationality was in northeastern Italy, where territory shifted back and forth between Italy and Austria every few decades. But this is a more fundamental case of artwork and storytelling not communicating well. This becomes literal in one section where the lettering is done in a script in order to represent a letter, and its so tiny and hard to read that I almost stopped reading the whole book at that point. I kept going until the end, mainly because every few pages there was a striking image, but by the end I didn't feel like I read a story or been presented a message beyond a kind of "war is hell" cliche.


Blood on Snow: A Novel
Blood on Snow: A Novel
by Jo Nesbø
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.41
142 used & new from $3.80

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tired Hitman Tale, May 3, 2015
This review is from: Blood on Snow: A Novel (Hardcover)
Despite the urging of several people, I haven't checked out Nesbo's wildly popular Harry Hole series. I picked this one up partly because it's very short (even though it's been padded out to hit 200 pages you could easily read it in about two hours), and partly because I had conflated it with another Scandinavian book with the same title that I had heard was good (that one is a true crime book about the assassination of Swedish Prime Minster Olof Palme in 1986).

In any event, this is a sparse story about a hit man working for Olso's leading heroin boss in the 1970s. As in almost every single book and film with a hit man as protagonist, the story sits lumpily in a broth of morality and existentialism. We get a backstory filled with predictable elements that "explain" how he became a hit man. And we get the story of the big job that forces him to confront what he's become, also full of predictable elements. There are some moments of comedy and some nice details sprinkled here and there that save the book from being a total loss. But it's also not one brimming with freshness and invention, and the ending is sure to confuse and/or annoy many readers. Totally skippable.


Boyos
Boyos
by Richard Marinick
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.33
91 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Unsentimental South Boston Crime Novel, May 3, 2015
This review is from: Boyos (Paperback)
The "Southie" Boston crime story has been told plenty of times, by big time authors like Dennis Lehane and George V. Higgins, and big time directors like Martin Scorcese, not to mention lesser films like The Town (based on Chuck Hogan's Prince of Thieves). I was skeptical that this book would give me anything new on that world -- but it had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost ten years, so I figured I should finally either give it a shot or get rid of it. I'm glad I did, because it's a very keen and colorful example of the genre, likely to appeal to any fan of big-city crime fiction.

Set in what appears to be the mid-1990s, the story revolves around "Wacko" Curran, the elder of two brothers who wholesale coke on behalf of local mob boss Marty Fallon. Wacko has his eyes on replacing Fallon in order to take a big step up the food chain, but to do this, he's going to need a war chest to pay off the right people when the time comes. Fortunately he's picked out a nice armored car to rob. Unfortunately, the police are clamping down on gang activity, and the Italians are causing trouble.

What makes all this familiar territory fresh is the writing -- which comes from a guy from South Boston who went to prison for a decade for armed robbery. This keeps the story from being soupy and sentimental, or faux tough. The dialogue is real and the rhythms of daily life as a "boyo" are well-captured. One thing that's striking -- and true to life, from what I understand -- is how little money these guys actually make dealing drugs. For a crime novel grounded in reality, and not romance or pulp conventions, look no further.


Act of God: A Novel
Act of God: A Novel
by Jill Ciment
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.69
74 used & new from $4.85

2.0 out of 5 stars Fails as Horror and as Screwball Comedy, May 3, 2015
This review is from: Act of God: A Novel (Hardcover)
I picked this up on an impulse, intrigued by some of the elements in the description: phosphorescent mushrooms, twins, runaway Russian au pair, contamination, zany actress, etc... These certainly sounded like the right building blocks for what the publisher describes as "part screwball comedy" (the other part being "horror story"). But the author simply doesn't have the ear for screwball dialogue, nor the ability to capture the zest and pace of the genre. Instead, the book is far more modern-day horror -- not in the sense of spores from outer space. But rather the kind of horror that comes from unexplained events derailing one's comfortable existence, and the complete lack of recourse, and, to get really simple, lack of "fairness" in life. Hence the title of the book, which refers to both the insurance clause that negates any possibility of restitution for the victims of the glowing 'shroom infestation, and the general theme of the book that any of us can fall prey to the whims of fate. The execution of the story is really just kind of plodding and gloomy, in prose that entirely unmemorable. The book is set in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and I suppose those who enjoy books set in the NYC area might enjoy some of the New Yorkishness of some of the characters. Personally, I found nothing compelling in any of it, and would be hard-pressed to recommend that anyone try it.


The Quick and the Dead
The Quick and the Dead
by Randy Lee Eickhoff
Edition: Hardcover
44 used & new from $0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars Too Much Going On, May 3, 2015
This review is from: The Quick and the Dead (Hardcover)
This Vietnam war novel comes from the pen of a former Special Forces soldier who apparently spent part of the war working with US-allied hill tribes to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The protagonist of the book has a similar task, leading elite long-range units in murky operations directed by shadowy men in Saigon. And when one of these shadowy men recalls "Wingo" to Saigon to assassinate a suspected northern Vietnamese spy, things start to go sideways for the special ops soldier.

Without giving too much away, the plot drifts a little too deeply into sensationalism as it tries to pack too many themes and threads into the story. Wingo grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation (of Wounded Knee Massacre infamy), allowing for lots of too on-the-nose parallels to be drawn about colonial oppressors, as well as explaining his skills in the field. There's also a running bit about a vision he had a youth that comes and goes throughout the story. The plot takes Wingo from jungle warfare, to urban murder mystery in Saigon, to prison escape from Poulo Condore island, to political thriller, and back to the jungle -- oh, and there's a romance thrown in.

All of this is tossed together with attempts to underline the moral vacantness of the Vietnam war, resulting in a book that's trying to do way too much. When it sticks to the jungle scenes, the writing is pretty amazing. It's also quite good when in the back alleys and slums of wartime Saigon, areas not typically shown in the movies, as well as the scenes on the prison island. But on the whole, it's all a little too potboilerish to work for me.


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