A five-star classic graphic novel – flawed super-heroes, complex characters, spikey social comm...moreOriginal review by John is posted at Layers of Thought.
A five-star classic graphic novel – flawed super-heroes, complex characters, spikey social commentary and an excellent plot make for a great read that questions our moralities.
About: Set in the cold war era after the end of the Vietnam War, the golden age of masked crime-fighting heroes has passed in the US, and the remnants of the “Watchmen” are either working for the government or retired. That is, all except Rorschach, a totally uncompromising crime-fighter who continues to operate outside of the law (the superheroes’ activities having now been deemed illegal). Since their heyday, several have met tragic ends and now the cynical public sentiment is very much against them – even though they helped the US win the Vietnam War and their most powerful member, Dr. Manhattan, has helped the US gain the upper hand strategically in the global stand-off with the Soviet Union.
When a final showdown with the Soviet Union seems to be imminent, one of the Watchmen, the Comedian, is brutally killed. Dr. Manhattan is then vilified in public and promptly disappears. Rorschach investigates and becomes convinced that someone is trying to murder or sideline all remaining superheroes. Is someone out for revenge? Is someone trying to tilt the balance of power back in favor of the Russians? The Night Owl comes out of retirement to help and the Silk Spectre (disenchanted partner of the missing Dr. Manhattan) also dons her crime-fighting costume, despite detesting Rorschach. They try to persuade the super-intelligent Ozymandias to help as well, but he casts doubts on their conspiracy theories and seems to be too wrapped up in running his business empire.
As nuclear Armageddon fast approaches, some of the Watchmen struggle to untangle what is going on and try to persuade the troubled and emotionally detached Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth to help. This in turn leads to some unpleasant discoveries for the Silk Spectre. Meanwhile a youth is reading a gruesome comic book about pirates, Tales of the Black Freighter, which seems to have some uncanny parallels with what is happening in the real world.
The ending is full of surprises and really challenges the reader to think about what is right, what is wrong, and what might just be acceptable in a world that is anything but black and white.
John’s thoughts: Well, I never thought that my first five-star rating would be for a graphic novel, but here I am and this is most definitely worthy of five stars. If you have notions about the graphic novel art form being adolescent and unintelligent, banish them and read this book.
The characters are remarkably complex and interesting, especially Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan. The plot twists and turns all over the place and I had no idea how it would all end up. The ending is remarkably thought-provoking. And it’s nice that Moore doesn’t try to lay out what he thinks – in essence the various characters have extreme and differing views on what is morally right and what isn’t, and the reader is left to decide what she/he thinks.
There is so much more to enjoy about the book. It’s a wonderfully dark story; it lays bare the shallowness and venality of the world we live in; nothing is black or white; thanks in large part to the activities of the Watchmen, Richard Nixon is enjoying his fifth term as US president (truly scary); the graphics are excellent; and despite much of the bleakness, it’s actually a fun read.
I’d unequivocally rate the book five stars. If you like dark superhero stories or any books that are deeply thought-provoking, this one is for you. If you’ve never ventured into the world of graphic novels, this is a great place to start.
P.S. When the movie version of Watchmen came out in 2009, many Watchmen purists panned it. I don’t agree. A movie could never pick up all of the subtleties and intricacies of a novel like this, but the Watchmen movie was hugely entertaining, fun and, as with the book, very thought-provoking. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Whether you have read the book or not, I’d recommend giving the movie a go. (less)
An excellent read – a mashup of alternative realities, particle physics, experimental jazz music,...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
An excellent read – a mashup of alternative realities, particle physics, experimental jazz music, the Second World War and science fiction. How could you not like that combination?
About: It’s 1941 and Sam Dance is a an intelligent but uncoordinated jazz lover who has poor eyesight. He struggles to be accepted by the US army, but finally manages to wangle his way in, and then finds himself plucked from regular training and sent on a series of esoteric technical courses. After a passionate evening with one of the temporary lecturers, a brilliant and mysterious Eastern European physicist, the woman leaves him with a strange device, associated technical plans and scientific papers. While the device is an early prototype, she believes that once improved and if used properly, it can change the course of history for the good; it can affect the physics of consciousness and human behavior, and maybe even diminish man’s warlike tendencies. Dance is puzzled but intrigued and tries to understand some of the complex papers.
The very next day, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Dance’s beloved elder brother is killed in the attack. He is heartbroken and the US is drawn into the Second World War.
So begins a strange tale. Dance becomes deeply involved in a program to design and deploy a top-secret radar and gun director that could help to win the war. He becomes close friends with Wink, another soldier who like him is a fanatic lover of modern jazz. They are deployed first to England and then to France and Germany, becoming ever more embroiled in the war effort and experiencing first-hand the horrors of the Nazi regime. All the while Dance remains fascinated by the device, and with Wink’s help they secretly try to create improved versions of it. Their deep understanding of jazz seems to help them make mental connections in the complex science behind the devices. Mysteriously the devices almost seem to have a mind of their own, and periodically mutate – but it’s not clear that the devices are actually doing anything. Meanwhile it is clear that the allied secret services suspect that the devices exists and want to find them.
Times move on, the Second World War ends but evolves into the Cold War, and Dance remains involved with the US armed forces, in Europe, the US and the Pacific. But strange things are happening. Times seem to be shifting, people are appearing and disappearing, and Dance becomes aware of alternative realities that seem to intertwine. He becomes drawn towards a critical historic event that appears to be the locus for those alternative realities. Can he and the mutated device affect those possible realities and prevent a grim new world from evolving?
John’s thoughts: This is a meaty, twisty, complex and thought-provoking story. At times I felt like I was just about hanging on, and found I often had to re-read sections - which isn’t intended as a criticism; this is one of those chewy stories that exercises the old grey matter in a positive way.
I like all of the detail about the Second World War, much of it (and some of the plot elements) being pulled directly from Goonan’s own father’s wartime experiences. He was actually involved in the secret radar project and was based for a time in most of the places featured in the story. I found those details really interesting, apart from which they also help to give the fantastic storyline a very grounded foundation (which I think is a definite plus in a plot that is so complicated.) I guess any story that is based around alternative realities and time travel is bound to be complicated, and this one is certainly no exception.
I really like the way that an actual historic event (the assassination of JFK) was used as the pivot for a variety of alternative futures. You can certainly see how our world might have turned out very differently if that event had never happened.
There are some really strong characters in the story – principally Sam Dance himself and the secret agent who becomes his wife. They are both conscientious and deep thinking, and strive to figure out what is right. The enigmatic Eastern European physicist too is an interesting character. She is actually a Magyar Gypsy who was heavily involved in the free-thinking European scientific community of the 1920s and 1930s, providing a nice contrast with the era of the Nazi regime that followed.
Was there anything that didn’t grab me? Well, the jazz connections with particle physics and biochemistry were interesting but at times felt just a smidgeon contrived. Clearly jazz is a big deal for Goonan, but for readers who aren’t that way inclined, the big focus on jazz in the story might get in the way a little bit.
Overall I’d rate this book 4 stars. For anyone who likes stories about alternative realities and histories this will be a great read. Also interested in the Second World War? And Jazz? Then you just have got to give this one a go. (less)
An unflinching tale of how three different US cops react to the wave of illegal...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
3.5 stars actually
An unflinching tale of how three different US cops react to the wave of illegal immigration and try to maintain control amidst the turmoil.
About: Tell Lyon is an ex-border patrol officer who takes over as police chief in an Ohio town which is beset by a wave of immigration – much of it illegal. He soon bumps into county Sheriff Able Hawk (hawk is “gavilan” translated from Spanish, which provides the title for the book). They are two very different characters who approach their jobs in very different ways. Lyon is a fluent Spanish speaker who was married to a Mexican-American woman, before she was murdered by a Mexican gang who fire-bombed their house. While tough, he is keen to be fair and soon wins the trust of most of the local Latino population. Hawk, on the other hand, is a much rougher character who takes a very hard line with illegal immigrants and also has little tolerance for what he sees as weak federal government. But he is fiercely protective of legal immigrants, Latino or otherwise, and forms a strong bond with some of them.
After some initial sparring and testing each other out, the two agree to work together and soon find themselves pitted against the corrupt sheriff of a neighboring county, Walt Pierce, who will stop at nothing to maintain the peace in his territory. Matters quickly come to a head when Thalia Ruiz, a legal immigrant that Hawk had taken under his wing, is brutally raped and murdered and dumped in a spot close by the county line.
We learn the horrific back story of how Thalia’s family made the illegal journey into America several years previously, during which many of them died while walking across the Sonoran desert. Only a young child at the time, Thalia could never understand why they had left their tropical and bountiful home, but for her parents the siren call of the rich promised land to the north proved irresistible. The remnants of the family find the US anything but bountiful, barely managing to exist while having to take low-wage menial jobs. Over the years Thalia drifts north, eventually becomes legalized, and then loses her new husband in an explosion at a factory, leaving her to somehow care for their daughter on her own.
Thalia’s murder threatens to ignite the local Latino population, so Hawk and Lyon are determined to quickly solve the case, but they face an ugly battle with Pierce who insists that he has jurisdiction over the case. The growing tensions divide families as careers and more lives are threatened.
John’s thoughts: This is a great topic for a novel. Despite the sloganeering of many politicians who want to make immigration a simple black-and-white issue, this can only be seen as many colors of gray – which provides a lot of material that authors can use to create rich backdrops for their novels. And McDonald does a fine job of crafting an interesting plot that does provide a variety of perspectives on immigration.
At the same time this is a good police procedural novel, following the cops as they try to unravel a vicious crime, while at the same time getting tangled up in complex personal, career and inter-departmental issues. No-one comes out of this squeaky clean, though for sure some are a darn sight cleaner than others.
It is a fast-paced and easy-to-read novel that I devoured quickly. I would opine that it has a little too much going on it, resulting in some things seeming a little rushed or not adequately developed. The same thing goes for some of the characters, though I did like the way that McDonald developed the Lyon and Hawk personalities. They feel like good material for a movie or TV show; and I’m thinking there may be follow-up novels on the horizon?
Anyhow, overall I found it an enjoyable read and would rate it 3.5 stars. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who likes a good police/thriller novel, and also to anyone who wants to read a story focused around immigration – a subject which doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention in novels. (less)
This novel is a sequel so this review contains spoilers. You can read John's review for the first...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
This novel is a sequel so this review contains spoilers. You can read John's review for the first in series The Map of Time linked via the text.
John’s quick take: A sort of stand-alone sequel to the impressive The Map of Time, this is an equally complex and original story. Once again featuring H. G. Wells as a central character, this time Palma takes Wells’s The War of the Worlds as a foundation and spins a mind-bending tale of time travel, aliens, adventure, terror and love.
John’s description: H. G. Wells is not happy. Just a few months after the publication of his book The War of the Worlds, an American hack writer has written a sequel which Wells thinks of poor quality and in poor taste. He finally agrees to meet the writer for lunch, and after a few drinks Wells surprisingly starts to soften to him. After more drinks the American takes Wells to a secret room in the Natural History Museum and shows him an amazing otherworldly exhibit which totally stuns the British author (I will say no more in case I give away too much).
Several decades earlier, an ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic floundered as the ship became locked in the ice. The explorers are trying to make the most of their unhappy lot, when a flying object streaks overhead and crashes into the ice nearby. Their travails become worse when they find the object contained a strange alien beast, and soon they are embroiled in a fierce battle for survival.
Back in present day 1898, New York socialite Emma Harlow is bored of her constant suitors, and especially the egotistical and determined millionaire, Montgomery Gilmore. Eventually Emma agrees to marry Gilmore, but on one condition – first he has to create a reproduction of the Martian invasion scenes featured in The War of the Worlds. Thanks in part to things he achieved during his secret past, Gilmore thinks he can pull this off and starts planning the event.
A short while later in the outskirts of London, Wells is present when Gilmore’s show starts. Strange containers appear but soon it becomes apparent, to everyone’s horror, that a real alien invasion has started. Amazingly, in some ways the invasion mirrors Wells’s recently published novel. Even the might of the British empire can do nothing to stop the aliens, who’ve soon overrun London. Wells, Gilmore, Harlow, a strange detective and a motley crew of associates struggle to escape the onslaught – and Wells finds he has a strange gift which might just help.
John’s thoughts: As with The Map of Time, this is structured around three separate story lines which eventually become interweaved, thanks in part to a bending of the timelines. Also in line with the earlier novel, everything in this book centers around H. G. Wells, an intriguing character who is painted as being super-smart and rather prescient.
It’s an interesting story with a complex plot and many twists and turns. Again one of Wells’s most famous novels features prominently in the story; this time The War of the Worlds provides a foundation and launch pad for Palma’s strange tale. What would happen if a “war of the worlds” actually happened, and what might the famous author be able to do about it?
Palma clearly has a gift for storytelling and a great imagination. He leverages the original master of the science fiction genre, but this is a lot more than an homage to the great H.G. Wells – Palma takes the story into some pretty whacky places.
My quibbles about the book? It is some 600 pages long and I think it could have benefitted by some tight editing and losing 100 of those pages. In places it seems to take a long time to get to where it wants to go. It also builds quite a lot on characters and events from The Map of Time – not a problem for me as I’d read the earlier book, but for those who are reading Palma for the first time, there will be some missing background and character development that will take away from the reading experience.
I do really like the Victorian setting and Palma does a good job of creating a realistic Victorian era background and then mixing in some oddball storylines. Overall I’d rate it 4 stars and as with The Map of Time I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good historical fantasy novel or indeed a good fantasy novel, period. If you are a science fiction fan and a big follower of Victorian fiction, then this is most definitely one for you. (less)
In a Kafkaesque turn of event someone is submitted to a psychiatric unit who shouldn’t be. Just...moreOriginal review by John is posted at Layers of Thought.
In a Kafkaesque turn of event someone is submitted to a psychiatric unit who shouldn’t be. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do – in the dead of night patients are being attacked by some demonic creature which the staff might possibly be protecting.
About: Pepper is a big man who is a bit impetuous and tends to charge at life without thinking things through. Sometimes that can get him in trouble, and on one fateful night it leaves him in the hands of three out-of-uniform policemen, who promptly take him to the psychiatric unit of a run-down local hospital. He really shouldn’t be there, but it seems that the police have to fill in far less paperwork if they drop people off at the hospital rather than arrest them. So Pepper is admitted for 72 hours while he is to be evaluated.
In a Kafkaesque turn of events the 72 hours turns into an indefinite period, and Pepper finds himself confined to the ward with a bunch of strange people – some of whom are patients and some of whom are staff. As if that weren’t bad enough, Pepper is viciously attacked by a strange demonic creature that seems to haunt the unit. Can it really be that the staff who rescued him know all about the creature? Surely not, as it turns out that others on the ward have also been attacked.
Pepper finally forms a kind of bond with three of his disparate fellow patients, and together they slowly come to the conclusion that they have to do something to save themselves from an ugly fate at the hands of the demon.
John’s thoughts: This is a serious-but-fun read with a really novel plot. For sure it brought to mind images of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at times, but Pepper is nothing like McMurphy and doesn’t rail against the system in the same way.
Nonetheless, one of Pepper’s biggest foes is the daily regime of mind-numbing drugs and the boring routine of life on the ward. And how can life be so crazy that a sane person becomes embedded in a system that is supposedly there to help look after insane people? The novel also brings to light the crazy logic of bureaucracy and systems that are not designed to help people, but instead develop a life and self-perpetuating momentum of their own. It becomes quite clear that it is not the patients who are the maddest and in the most need of treatment. The demonic monster then acts as a catalyst to bring things to a head, by which time you are rooting for a fair outcome for the gang of four patients.
I like this book a lot. For sure Pepper is far from being perfect but you know that he shouldn’t be in the hospital and you do want his life to return to some sort of normality – you cannot help but become involved in the plight of the patients. Meanwhile, the madness that surrounds him is both funny and scary. I’d rate this book 4 stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a slightly wacky view of life in their reading material. (less)
An exciting futuristic techno thriller – how can an asteroid racing towards Earth be used to help...moreOriginal review by John posted on Layers of Thought.
An exciting futuristic techno thriller – how can an asteroid racing towards Earth be used to help solve the world’s desperate energy crisis?
About: In the near future a catastrophe has left a large part of the world’s remaining oil reserves radioactive and unusable, plunging the Middle East into chaos and wrecking much of the world’s economy. Russia is left as the last major power able to export oil and gas, and it’s determined to exploit that new-found geopolitical dominance.
When an asteroid appears from deep space headed in the general direction of Earth, the US hatches a bold plan to pull the asteroid into Earth orbit and to mine it to help create a whole new source of energy – raw materials from the asteroid are to be used to build huge solar power satellites, which will then beam energy back to the US. The US sees it as a last chance to fix its ruined economy and to prevent political servitude; others are absolutely determined to see the plan fail.
Things seem to be going well – the asteroid is successfully tugged into orbit; manned stations and factories are built on the asteroid, and the first huge “powersat” is built. But before it can go live, NASA has to convince everyone that the technology is foolproof and safe; after all, if a system beaming huge amounts of power back to Earth goes even a tiny bit astray, the consequences will be horrendous. Even if it works perfectly, what if it were used as a weapon rather than a power source?
Marcus Judson is a NASA contractor playing a key role in the final tests and approval process, though he’d never imagined that might entail having to travel to the asteroid. As the testing comes to a head, so too does a complex and devious plan to prevent the program’s success.
John’s thoughts: This is an extremely clever idea for a novel – well thought out and well-constructed. Whether or not it would be technically feasible I have no idea, but reading the book you certainly get the sense that it could be. Lerner is clearly someone steeped in technology that loves to create storylines around technical extrapolations and theories that might just work.
There are some wonderful big ideas in here – harnessing the power of asteroids, mining them for raw materials, creative ways of breaking our dependence on oil, and how best to harness the full power of the sun. These ideas are mixed in with a strong plot involving political tensions, personal relationships, career scientists (a strange breed!) and plenty of thrills.
So the book has a lot of positives and I enjoyed the read. For me the thing that held it back a bit where the characters – they sometimes felt a bit two-dimensional and some of their actions and interactions were a bit stretched. But despite the somewhat implausible characters I’d still recommend this book to anyone who likes good somewhat futuristic techno thrillers. It’s worth reading for the neat ideas alone! I’d rate the book 3 stars. (less)
About: This is three separate murder mystery stories in one book - each story set ten years apart; each featuring the same two characters, which binds the stories together; with each story written in a different style, mimicking three classic crime writers (Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson).
Clotilde Rosenkratz seemed to be destined for success and for a time was on the verge of becoming a big Hollywood star - though for public consumption her name was changed to Chloe Rose. Her husband Shem was a writer, once acclaimed but slipping inexorably downwards, his situation not helped by being an alcoholic.
Malniveau Prison - In 1931 Clotilde and Shem are living in a small town in France, when a body is found in a gutter. The investigating detective eventually finds out that the body is that of Clotilde’s father. What is unusual is that the man is supposedly locked up in a local prison, and no escapes have been reported.
The Falling Star - In 1941 Clotilde/Chloe is co-starring in a Hollywood movie, but she is nervous and convinced that someone is following her. When a hardboiled private eye is hired to investigate, things quickly become complicated and brutal murders ensue.
Police at the Funeral - In 1951 Shem has hit rock bottom, and is desperate to somehow claw his way back upwards. The death of his first wife seems to present some sort of opportunity, but he soon finds himself with blood on his hands and suspicious police investigating him. Meanwhile, Clotilde’s bleak situation is becoming even bleaker.
John’s thoughts: I think that this is a clever idea which the author executes well. Considering that it’s his first novel you have to admire his chutzpah for shooting for such an ambitious plot(s). The three stories are stylistically very different, and while I’ve not ready anything by any of the three influential writers (Simenon, Chandler and Thompson), others have given Winter high marks for his ability to channel their style and tone.
Did I enjoy the read and would you? That seems highly dependent on whether or not you enjoy the three original authors and their respective styles. I’d give a thumbs up to the first story, thought the second one was pretty good, and found the third to be a bit so-so. The main problem for me with the final story was that Shem Rosenkratz (the central character) is a total jerk – I always have a hard time with novels and genres that have distinctly unlikeable people as the “heroes”. I resonated a lot more with the main characters in the first two stories and consequently enjoyed them more.
Overall the novel is fast-paced and easy to read; the book actually has over 650 pages but it certainly didn’t feel like it. But I think, a saga like this calls for a strong ending and I wasn’t crazy about how the final story wound up. So, on balance I’d rate the book 3 stars and would recommend it to anyone who likes pulp crime fiction and/or usage of unusual literary techniques. (less)
Another ambitious and excellent galaxy-spanning novel from Niven and Lerner – the conclusion to th...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
Another ambitious and excellent galaxy-spanning novel from Niven and Lerner – the conclusion to the award-winning “Ringworld” and “Fleet of Worlds” sagas.
About: Ringworld, the most stunning and mystifying discovery in known space, has suddenly and inexplicably vanished, leaving three competing war fleets battling over supremacy of – nothing! Most troubled by the disappearance are the Puppeteers, whose densely populated fleet of planets is speeding away from the explosion of the galactic core. The meddling Puppeteers fear, with plenty of reason, that the armadas will turn their attention away from the Ringworld and towards the Puppeteers’ retreating planets. Unfortunately, the Puppeteers are beset by political strife caused by their megalomaniacal ex-leader; they are also secretly controlled by an alien race which may care little about the fate of the planets.
Meanwhile New Terra, a human colony which was set up by the Puppeteers but which has now broken away, also takes an interest in the Ringworld’s disappearance. Its current leaders are keen to stay isolated from the troubles, but its legendary (and now disgraced) ex-Defense Minister and protector sees a way to use the strife to help re-connect New Terra with its long-lost home planet, Earth.
A human adventurer and an exiled Puppeteer spent years on Ringworld before its disappearance, and they may hold the key to technological marvels which could help ensure the survival of the Puppeteer race. But the two face a myriad of political, technical and personal hurdles – not least of which is the Puppeteers’ determination that New Terrans must never find out the truth about their own history.
John’s thoughts: This is the fourth of the Ringworld/Fleet of Worlds novels that I have read (I think there are nine in total?) and I have totally enjoyed each one of them. As I said in one of my earlier reviews “Niven and Lerner spin great stories that have complex plots, intrigue, strong characters, a creative foundation of believable technology and really well constructed worlds and races. They clearly give a lot of thought to the alien races that they create, and the attention to detail adds a lot to the stories”. Having now read the latest and last in the series, I still couldn’t put it any better - so I won’t even try!
Fate of Worlds shares many of the alien races and plot foundations of the earlier novels, but gives extra emphasis to the artificial intelligence systems that have been developed. As the AI systems evolve at pace, I couldn’t help being reminded somewhat of Webmind from Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW novels - which certainly is no bad thing.
Do you have to read the previous novels in the series to enjoy this one? Absolutely not. While there is a progression to the novels and many connections, one thing that impressed me was that each of the four that I have read works as standalone piece with a clear beginning and ending. The extra nice thing about this one is that it ties together an awful lot of story threads in a coherent way. That is no mean feat given the complexity of the series.
The book isn’t much over 300 pages in length, but there is an amazing amount of complex plot, intrigue and detail crammed into those pages; and it isn’t tough to read. I found myself quickly drawn into the story and then read on whenever I had the opportunity. Will this really be the last in the series? Well, the book cover and marketing blurb say so, but I can see at least three parts of the story which could provide the foundation for future novels, so who knows.
I’d rate this book four stars. If you are a fan of Niven or Lerner, then this book is a “must read”. You won’t be disappointed. I’d also recommend it to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction. (less)
The second in the Low Town series, this is a hard-boiled noir thriller with a touch of fantasy...moreOriginal review by John is posted at Layers of Thought.
The second in the Low Town series, this is a hard-boiled noir thriller with a touch of fantasy mixed in for good measure. A remorseless, violent and twisty story that is filled with intriguing characters.
About: The Warden, the main character, sort of rules over a squalid and drug-infested corner of Low Town. An ex-soldier and intelligence office who has fallen far from grace, he now sells (and frequently consumes) drugs. The Warden is hard, smart and extremely bitter, and he oozes cynicism.
With frequent flashbacks to the years he spent fighting for his country in a dreadful, carnage-filled war, the story starts when the Warden is summoned to the house of an old general, and finds out that the general’s daughter has run off and disappeared into Low Town. She is trying to find out why her brother was murdered several years before and who was responsible for his death. Her brother was an inspirational leader who also fought in the war; and the Warden knew him well. The Warden reluctantly agrees to help but, to no-one’s great surprise, the daughter too is brutally murdered.
This sparks a trail of revenge and destruction that envelopes both the guilty and the innocent – though it seems like in Low Town no-one is entirely innocent. Fuelled by drugs and old enmities, the Warden is pulling strings and orchestrating a lot of the violence, but inevitably things spiral way beyond his control as higher powers and politicians strive to achieve their hidden agendas.
John’s thoughts: I like the Warden – he’s a terrific character. Horrendously scarred by his troubled past, he is now a dark and dangerous man, but he hasn’t quite lost his humanity and just sometimes is driven by his sense of justice. Living in a dark and corrupt world, you can almost forgive him for some of his selfishness and outrageous actions. Here the Warden plots and schemes and has to work hard to try and stay one step ahead of an ever growing list of adversaries. He mostly succeeds but regularly ends up on the wrong side of a beating. This is not a squeaky clean hero who always gets his way. Mean while the Warden (or Polansky) has a great way with words and many of his acidic descriptions and banter brought a big smile to my face.
In this book he is surrounded by many other interesting characters – including the Warden’s giant one-eyed army buddy and business partner, the malevolent Old Man that runs the country’s internal security forces, the witch-woman Mazzie of the Stained Bone, and the psychopathic young vice-lord Adisu the Damned. As these people are woven into the story, the plot twists and turns and is unpredictable – always a good thing.
Compared with Polansky’s first Low Town novel(reviewed here http://www.layersofthought.net/2011/1... ), Tomorrow the Killing has less magic and fantastic elements and is a somewhat more realistic tale, albeit set in an alternative world. The war that provides a main foundation for the plot has a lot of parallels with World War One, and Polansky does a great job of describing its horrors. You now understand a lot more about what has shaped the Warden and made him what he is. Personally I like the more realistic orientation of this story and prefer it to his first novel.
If you haven’t read the first Polansky novel and are worried about reading this in case it doesn’t make sense – don’t! This is a complete story and stands on its own two feet. I’d rate this four stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone who likes noir, crime thrillers or earthy urban tales. If you enjoyed reading Low Town, this is a “must read”.(less)
A mini family epic set against the backdrop of the California Bay Area, jazz and soul...moreThis review by John is originally published at Layers of Thought.
A mini family epic set against the backdrop of the California Bay Area, jazz and soul music, and changes in local society. The story even manages to embrace kung fu, Blaxploitation movies and the Black Panther movement!
About: Brokeland Records is a store on Telegraph Avenue on the border of Berkeley and Oakland, specializing in used vinyl and focused on jazz and soul music. Run by two long-time buddies, Nat (who is white) and Archy (who is black), the store is so much more than a record shop – it’s a multi-cultural center of gravity for many locals who gather there, chew the fat, and generally hang out. While it always totters on the edge financially, it is very much a labor of love for the music-loving Nat and Archy.
They are also bound together outside of Brokeland, as their wives are both midwives and are partners in Berkeley Birth Partners, which over the years has helped many hundreds of local women to give birth in their own homes – much to the chagrin of some local doctors who want to see all births take place within hospitals.
Now their bumpy, somewhat chaotic but somewhat steady lives are rocked on several fronts. An ex-NFL star, who is the fifth richest black man in the US, is planning on opening a megastore on Telegraph Avenue which would almost certainly mean doom for Brokeland Records; Berkeley Birth Partners is faced with legal action and professional ruin; Nat’s fragile teenage son falls in love with an itinerant black boy who turns out to be Archy’s long-lost (and never acknowledged) son; and an eccentric man, who is the closest thing to a real father that Archy ever had, unexpectedly dies. Can’t get any worse? Then Archy’s real father turns up – he’s a total deadbeat who used to be a kung fu expert and starred in third-rate Blaxploitation movies, and he’s after something.
John’s thoughts: This is a heck of a book – an interesting story, a complex many-threaded plot, many dashes of wry humor, and some well-constructed and complicated characters. The main characters are by no means perfect – they have all too many human flaws, but you can’t help liking them (mostly) and you do want things to end up well for them.
Chabon is clearly someone who knows the Berkeley/Oakland area well and has a deep affinity for it. He includes lots of local detail and color, and clearly has fears and hopes about how the area is developing. Likewise he must be a huge fan of the music that Brokeland Records sells, and the book has a multitude of musical references. Actually, I did find that sometimes the deep attachment to the location and the music got in the way a bit – as some of the references and colloquialisms were a bit lost on me.
I like the way that Chabon brings in lots of different plot elements, including local politics, cultural tensions, family/generational tensions and (even!) the Black Panther movement. These are all intertwined with the main storylines, and it gives the book an almost epic feel.
A word on the writing style – at times I found the wording and syntax tough, and had to re-read many of the sentences. This got easier as I progressed through the book, but it did slow me down and didn’t help with the pacing. Nonetheless, I’d rate this four stars and recommend it to anyone who likes to read meaty novels about complex family and social tensions, especially those with a musical and multi-cultural backdrop. (less)
A thought-provoking novel on the possibilities, rights and wrongs of stem-cell research and associ...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
A thought-provoking novel on the possibilities, rights and wrongs of stem-cell research and associated medical science.
About: The Marshak brothers are both brilliant doctors - Arthur focusing on leading-edge research and Jesse focusing on trying to help poor and disadvantaged sick people. While Jesse goes on to win a Humanitarian of the Year award, Arthur covets the Nobel prize.
Arthur is now head of a research laboratory, pushing back the boundaries of medical knowledge and techniques. In particular he and his team are making great strides in working out how to regenerate limbs and organs – and in the process have caused great angst among many religious groups, conservatives and people concerned about ethical and moral aspects of the research. Most importantly, as far as the arc of the story is concerned, Arthur’s own brother becomes opposed to the research.
In order to try and clear the way ahead for his work, Arthur manages to convene a “science court”, designed to help the scientific community pass judgment on the validity of the research. Inevitably the court sessions become something of a circus, straying far beyond the scientific issues and attracting the attention of powerful lobby groups, politicians and the media.
As the court proceedings come to a head, the story examines the conflict and dynamics between the brothers, some of the troubling aspects of the research and the corporate goings on in the company that owns Arthur’s laboratory.
John’s thoughts: This is great subject matter and the plot is nicely teed up, but somehow the book never quite took off for me. The main problem was the characters – they felt a bit two-dimensional and some of their motivations and actions just weren’t quite believable. In particular the relationship between the brothers and the woman they both love just didn’t feel realistic.
I do like the way that the story explored various aspects of the controversial subject matter, but even then some issues are brought up but never come close to any sort of resolution or meaningful debate, a case in point being animal experimentation and vivisection. In most instances Bova made it quite clear what his views were on issues, but on the use of animals in research I have no idea what he thinks.
I’d never read a Ben Bova novel before, and he had come highly recommended, so I was a bit disappointed with this read. It was still ok, but I was expecting so much more. I’d say this is one for Bova lovers and anyone with an interest in issues around stem-cell research. I’d rate it three stars. (less)
A madcap caper set in the unlikely location of Silicon Valley – an ordinary guy tries to cash out...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
A madcap caper set in the unlikely location of Silicon Valley – an ordinary guy tries to cash out while everyone else seems determined to try and stop him.
John's thoughts on what it's about: Dan Jordan thinks he’s a pretty ordinary guy – an ex-journalist who happened to find himself working as a speechwriter for the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup. The company grows like gangbusters and Dan’s stock options become worth over a millions dollars. But he has to be still employed by the company on the day when his stock becomes eligible for cashing out; and now he is counting down the last few days.
He despairs about the Silicon Valley culture and lifestyle/work-style; he really doesn’t fit in and dreams of using the money to drop-out with his wife, hoping to move to the California coast and to live a life they’ve always wanted. He just has to hold on for those last few days.
The trouble is that there is an ever-growing mob of people who seem to be doing everything possible to stop him reaching that milestone – including a gang of nerdy IT kidnappers, a muscle-bound corporate security hit-man, ultra-competitive “colleagues” and a long list of others I can’t describe without spoiling the plot. Contrastingly, in theory Dan has helping him out a sociopathic neighbor and a friend from school days who happens to be a professional cage-fighter. Funny thing is that at times it sure doesn’t feel to Dan like they are helping him at all.
Meanwhile his marriage is in danger of crumbling and he cannot recover from a simple medical procedure which becomes ever-more embarrassing and painful during this stressful romp. Nevertheless, he just has to hold on for a last few days!
John’s summary thoughts: This is a light-hearted easy read, very much in the style of a farce where everything that can go wrong seems to do so; and then some. Bardsley creates some delightfully whacky characters, my favorite being the totally gross guy who is a lodger with the sociopathic neighbor; and the neighbor himself is a fabulously weird creation. As for the main character himself, you certainly start out feeling highly supportive of Dan, though as the story progresses and one crazy dilemma follows after another follows after another, the plot becomes so far-fetched that I stopped thinking of him as a real character and just went along for the humorous ride.
Is Silicon Valley really like this? Well, Bardsley has “done his time” there, having worked as a speechwriter and ghostwriter for Executives, much like Dan Jordan – so he has certainly used his real-life experience as a launching pad for this story and the characters in it. Exaggerated? Of course, but that’s what makes it fun.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes a bit of modern slapstick or to those who have worked in the tech industry and enjoy poking fun at some of the odd characters and culture found there. I’d rate this light-hearted read three stars. (less)
A book that goes back in time and sets the foundation for the popular “Repairma...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
2.5 stars actually.
A book that goes back in time and sets the foundation for the popular “Repairman Jack” series of novels. He is the “urban mercenary” and fix-it man who helps victimized people that have nowhere else to turn.
About: Jack is a 21 year old college dropout who decides to sever all home and family ties and move to New York City. With absolutely no personal documentation or links to his past life, he moves “off the grid” and leads a solitary and hard-working life, being paid in cash and using only cash to live on. While initially working with a group of Latinos as a gardener, inevitably he ends up taking on some dodgy jobs – not hard-core crime but definitely not legal either.
Through a growing reputation for reliability and trustworthiness, he builds up a core of contacts who find him useful and who may be able to help him. Some might even become friends. But living life on the edge of society, he also comes across many unscrupulous and dangerous people.
In no time he encounters (or becomes embroiled with) interstate smugglers, a child slavery ring, a group of dangerous jihadists, the mob, a vengeful con-man and a pair of ruthless vigilantes – some of whom Jack aggravates. While already blessed with wits and plenty of “street smarts”, he has to learn quickly from some of his new-found friends and contacts in order to stay one step ahead of his new enemies.
John’s thoughts: This is a fun, action-oriented piece of escapism. A few bits of the plot and some of the characters aren’t very believable, but it doesn’t really matter in a story like this.
However - annoyingly, the jacket describes this as a novel and it isn’t; it is a partial novel. After reading 360 pages you find out that nothing is answered, nothing has become clear, and you have to read more books in the series in order to reach any sort of conclusion. Very frustrating. When I read a book that is clearly part of a series, I do expect there to be some loose ends or hooks that can provide a foundation for future stories, but I also expect the book to be reasonably coherent and to stand on its own. This one does not.
So I can’t tell you about how cleverly multiple plot threads are brought together or how the story builds to an exciting climax, because I don’t know. Which is a shame, because the Jack character is interesting and the story pulls you along at a good pace. I blew through the 360 pages in no time at all and was looking forward to seeing how everything turned out.
Given that I have no idea how anything ends up, I can only rate the book 2.5 stars. It’s definitely one for existing Repairman Jack aficionados, or for people who like the sound of the character and are prepared to invest their time in a lengthy series of books. (less)