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Strange days: What It Was by George Pelecanos

What it Was - George Pelecanos

It's 1972. Roberta Flack is at the top of the charts and bell bottoms are in style.  Soul brothers carefully shape their afros, while ads urge men to not be a stiff and get the dry look. Cars are big and use a ton of gas but who cares? It's not like we're gonna run out.

Derek Strange, just a few years after leaving the metro D.C. police, has gone on his own as a private investigator and he dreams of buying a neon sign for his office, the kind with a magnifying glass in the design. When a young woman hires him to recover a missing ring, the investigation uncovers some unlikely leads. Strange crosses paths with his old partner on the force, Frank Vaughn, and they inevitably team up to stop a ruthless killer known as Red Fury who's popping dudes all over town.

That's what it is in What It Was, the fifth Derek Strange book by George Pelecanos, but the first in the series I've read. I can already tell that Pelecanos is well on his way to becoming one of my favorites. Like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, Pelecanos has a mastery of casual language, the simplicity of which belies its ability to express. It's not laconic, clipped prose. It's just slick and easy and you can't help but get caught up in the flow.

Pelecanos' characterizations are also great. I have to admit that the name "Derek Strange" had me conjure up images of some sort of paranormal investigator or something, but Strange isn't strange at all. He's a young (in 1972) black man trying to get established as a private investigator after quitting the police force. He's got a girlfriend he loves, though he admits that his wandering eye is a weakness. He loves his mom and brings her take-out from their favorite diner when he visits. All in all, Strange is a cool, confident man, but working hard to grow out of youth and he's still got a lot to learn along the way.

Frank Vaughn is also an interesting guy. An older white man with a lot of time on the police force, Vaughn isn't exactly racist, but he's a "product of his time," and though he really tries to open up to the changing times it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. He's good guy at heart, but he's also an old-school cop, not unwilling to get rough or bend the rules to get justice.

In the hands of lesser authors, these characters might be somewhat cliché, but Pelecanos carries this off adeptly. Likewise, the setting and time period could easily have come off as kitschy, or maybe like a Tarantino-esque homage to blaxpolitation films and funk hits, but Pelecanos' early-'70s D.C. rings true, capturing well the racial tension of the time though Strange and Vaughn's unlikely friendship.

The verdict: ★★★★✩ (4/5 stars) What It Was is really a great crime book. I might almost go as far as to give it 4.5/5 stars, but I'm trying to be discerning in my ratings these days and reign in my enthusiasm. But it could easily have received the additional 1/2 star. I'd heard of Pelecanos before and I understand he writes for the show The Wire, but I've never seen it (I'm terribly behind the times). Just judging by what I've read in What It Was, Pelecanos is going to be my next favorite author. He's just awesome.

Already Dead by Charlie Huston

Already Dead - Charlie Huston


Those stories you hear? The ones about things that only come out at night? Things that feed on blood, feed on us? Got news for you: they’re true. Only it’s not like the movies or old man Stoker’s storybook. It’s worse. Especially if you happen to be one of them. Just ask Joe Pitt.  There’s a shambler on the loose. Some fool who got himself infected with a flesh-eating bacteria is lurching around, trying to munch on folks’ brains. Joe hates shamblers, but he’s still the one who has to deal with them. That’s just the kind of life he has. Except afterlife might be better word. From the Battery to the Bronx, and from river to river, Manhattan is crawling with Vampyres. Joe is one of them, and he’s not happy about it. Yeah, he gets to be stronger and faster than you, and he’s tough as nails and hard to kill. But spending his nights trying to score a pint of blood to feed the Vyrus that’s eating at him isn’t his idea of a good time. And Joe doesn’t make it any easier on himself. Going his own way, refusing to ally with the Clans that run the undead underside of Manhattan–it ain’t easy. It’s worse once he gets mixed up with the Coalition–the city’s most powerful Clan–and finds himself searching for a poor little rich girl who’s gone missing in Alphabet City. Now the Coalition and the girl’s high-society parents are breathing down his neck, anarchist Vampyres are pushing him around, and a crazy Vampyre cult is stalking him. No time to complain, though. Got to find that girl and kill that shambler before the whip comes down . . . and before the sun comes up.

That's from the back cover of Charlie Huston's Already Dead, first in the series starring his vampiric private eye Joe Pitt. I normally try to write my own summary of whatever book I'm reviewing, but this back cover copy pretty much covers it, as well as the hard-boiled tone of the book. Anyway, I'm a little behind in my book blogging "duties" so I'll just cut to the chase.

Already Dead is a vampire book I can really sink my teeth into (Har-dee-har. You don't know how long I've been waiting to use that one). I've complained before about not being able to find an "urban fantasy" type book that I could really enjoy. I haven't read very widely in the genre and there are a few here and there that I really got into, but there seems to be an abundance of ones that are little more than tedious romances with brooding, snarky protagonists, or tough women in leather pants with katanas (not that I mind that per se, but I'd say the market is flooded). So it was a pleasure to read Huston's hard-boiled prose. I can only take so much thoughtful introspection from a protagonist. Joe Pitt's first-person narration is refreshingly matter-of-fact.

Also, Huston's vampiric underworld is well-thought out, with a lot of interesting characters among the vampire (sorry-- Vampyre) cliques of NYC. While this is a point in its favor, it's also sort of a criticism. The world is well-thought out but I don't think we necessarily have to be introduced to it all at once. It seemed like Huston was in a hurry to get us up to speed with the haps in the vampire world. While the other vampires in Pitt's world are pretty interesting characters, it seemed like introducing us to them, one episode after the other, felt forced and sort of drove an already convoluted plot further astray.

Speaking of plot, Joe Pitt didn't seem like a very effective character to drive the plot. It often seemed like the plot drove him, with him getting knocked out and captured all the time (well, at least twice, if I remember). Pitt may be a tough guy, but he didn't seem particularly competent. I realize he wasn't really a professional PI or anything, but I kinda need a little more than that.

I have to admit, personal taste may have prevented Already Dead from attaining "excellent" status for me. For one, I kind of prefer my vampires to be of the supernatural sort, whereas the vampires of Pitt's world have been infected with the Vyrus (not to be confused with the Miley Vyrus. Ha-ha. No? OK.). Not a big deal, it's just personal preference, but I generally don't like too much logic mixed up into what I feel like should be more of a supernatural thing. I sort of think that vampires should be monsters and not simply people afflicted with a disease.

And, finally, sometimes I just didn't feel like it was a fun thing to read all the time. I mean, it was dark and gritty--hard-boiled, noir, and all that-- but sometimes it was just a little too much so, to the point that I didn't really feel like visiting Pitt's NYC as much as I would have liked. Seemed like Huston was really working hard to push the noir aspect that he pushed it over the edge. In the same vein (pun unintended, but I'm happy to oblige) I felt the punk band name dropping was a bit too much effort for a retro-hip vibe.

The verdict: ★★★✬✩ (3.5/5 stars). Reading all my complaints, you'd think that I didn't enjoy Already Dead, but overall I liked it. I like Huston's writing style and I think I'll probably enjoy the rest of the series. I'm hoping that my criticisms just stem from the fact that this was the first in a series and maybe Huston tried a little too hard to establish atmosphere and introduce the world. Hopefully the next volumes will feel less forced. Complaints aside, Already Dead is a cool, dark, bloody mystery and fans of gritty, urban vampires won't be disappointed.

Jack Reacher gets Personal in September

Already Dead - Charlie Huston Personal (Jack Reacher, #19) - Lee Child

I'm  reading Charlie Huston's Already Dead right now. I'm about halfway through, so no review this week. I like it so far. It's not a long book, but I'm taking my time with it.

But yesterday I learned that the next Jack Reacher book, to be entitled Personal, comes out in September!

I guess it's not really new news. I think it was announced in January. Nor is it unexpected, either, I guess; Child's been pretty steady with a book a year. But still, it's good news. I don't know why I didn't know about it sooner. Here's the synopsis from the official website:

Jack Reacher walks alone. Once a go-to hard man in the US military police, now he’s a drifter of no fixed abode. But the army tracks him down. Because someone has taken a long-range shot at the French president.

Only one man could have done it. And Reacher is the one man who can find him.

This new heartstopping, nailbiting book in Lee Child’s number-one bestselling series takes Reacher across the Atlantic to Paris – and then to London. The stakes have never been higher – because this time, it’s personal.

I was previously a little bummed because, aside from the short stories, I only have The Enemy left to read and then I'd be all out of Reacher. No Reacher to reach for. But now I can look forward to Personal. I know it's not high-lit, but these Jack Reacher books are my mac 'n' cheese; they make me happy. When I start to feel bad about my life (...gotta mow the damn lawn again, grumble grumble...property taxes are due, grumble grumble...toilet's acting up again, grumble, grumble...) I can read about the adventures of an oversize homeless man with a penchant for head butting fools. So I guess now I can get around to reading The Enemy soon.


Oh, hey...I almost forgot to mention, it's 3.14. Happy pi day, you nerds (yeah, I'm a nerd, too).

(re-blog!) Dear Ms. Anne Rice

Reblogged from Books 'n Stuff:

I went to Amazon to post this first, re-posting it here. This is my response to all of this Anne Rice nonsense.



I've been following this for some days outside of Amazon. I never review on this site, I rarely even buy anything here anymore.

I will state that I've never read any of her books. I've seen the two movies and they were more or less what I'd expect; not terrible, not really my cup of tea either. Vampires and whatnot aren't really my thing.

What I can say is that Ms. Rice appears to have a disconnection both from her fans and from anyone else who buys, reads, or reviews her books. What I'm saying is that she doesn't appear to understand the concept of 'review'. We as reviewers are not here to help you sell whatever book you've written this month, or year. I can't stress this enough. Perhaps caps lock will help get the point across. REVIEWERS DO NOT REVIEW TO HELP YOU SELL BOOKS. If you write a good book and I choose to read it, I will write positive reviews for it. If you write a bad book and I choose to read it I will write negative reviews of it. If you want better, more positive reviews you need to write better books. The fact that you feel the need to act like a child in public forums on the internet, whether or not this is a sham to build hype for your latest book, implies insecurity on your part regarding your ability to write and undermines your credibility as a writer.

Reviewing your book in a genuine and honest manner does not constitute bullying. We review because we want to let other people know which books are worth reading and which one's should be avoided. If this helps you sell more or less copies it is completely incidental and irrelevant to the process. Let me say this one more time, Anne Rice we are not here to help you make money. If we were we wouldn't be reviewers, we would be shills. Undoubtedly, there are those of us in this forum and elsewhere who are just that; shills. However, this is not what we are about.

In summary, I urge you Ms. Rice to get a better grip on your understanding of the review process, and to tone your ego wayyyyyyyyy down. This is not an attempt to bully or harass you (I have after all said nothing about the quality, positive or negative, of your work, and my comment on your childishness is merely an observation of your activities across the internet). Grow up.

This sex doll may save your life: The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank

The Book of Survival: The Original Guide to Staying Alive in the City, the Suburbs, and the Wild Lands Beyond, Third Edition - Anthony Greenbank

I enjoy checking out survival and wilderness manuals from time to time, but most are kinda boring. I mean, they all feature pretty much the same info. For practical purposes you don't need to look far beyond a couple of titles, like "Lofty" Wiseman's SAS Survival Manual or the US Army's survival manual (published in civilian formats and available online for free around the internet), but sometimes you come across a survival book that's just…well, different. Enter The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank.

I don't know too much about Anthony Greenbank, except that I think he's a British journalist and outdoors type of guy. The Book of Survival was originally introduced in the late '60s. This edition I read is the 3rd edition, written to accommodate situations that are relevant to a post-9/11 world. For the most part, The Book of Survival is like other survival manuals. There are sections on land navigation, first aid, water collection, all that good stuff that every other survival book has and most of the info is pretty sound. There are also sections on avoiding fire and dangerous crowds, self defense and other things that pertain to the average urban dweller and this, too, is mostly sound information.

But then there are some sections that are pretty goofy. I daresay, downright weird. Take this bit, for example:


Use any means to give yourself company if in doubt (even speaking into the end of a fist-held-spectacle-case as a pretend-mobile-phone).



BUY balloons/protective sheaths/plastic bags and blow them up and stuff them down the sleeves and inside the space of a buttoned-up coat/jacket/sweater…


I actually think I saw that in a sitcom once. Here is another tip that may save your life:


The best way to survive any attack/assault/trouble from other human beings is by avoiding last-ditch measures at all costs. It is only by blending with the wallpaper that you can survive in the city and other environments where a mass of people pose unknown threats in all directions.

Example: in bad areas with cheap accommodation and poor locks on bedroom/apartment/house doors and windows save a heart-pounding-as-you-screw-your-eyes-shut-feigning-sleep-while-a-flashlight-dazzles-your-face situation.

Go to sleep wearing a balaclava/monkey mask/ski hat to get this response:

"Jeez, man, hey take a look, wilya?" breathes the voice. There's a sharp intake of breath. Another voice whispers, "You, one of us! A Brother!"

And your wallet on the dresser is left untouched. Such a ruse has worked.

Taken to extremes, such chameleon-like behavior may seem humorous.

But it is deadly serious.


Yeah, besides all the normal survival stuff, there are a bunch of sections that detail techniques of dubious value, all written in that choppy technical manual tone and arbitrary use of upper-case letters. There is a section entitled "CHILD'S HEAD STUCK BETWEEN RAILINGS" (another sitcom scenario). Greenbank lets you know how to differentiate a REAL ghost from your own imagination. The dangers of holiday turkeys are detailed and we are instructed on precisely how to place one into an oven without injuring our backs (also beware: overcooked turkeys may burst into flame as they are full of grease!). There is a (rather long) section on amputating your own limbs in an emergency. Also, we learn how to deal with "natives" ("...Be friendly…Aim to see headman…Give gifts…Respect customs..." etc.). I don't think that situation comes up too often, unless you're in an Abbott and Costello movie or something.

The verdict: ★★✩✩✩ (2/5). This book is a hoot. It's great fun to read and there is worthwhile information in there, but let's face it, it's hard to take seriously when the goofy stuff in mixed in. As far as survival books go, there are others far better, hence my 2-star rating. But I do recommend checking the book out for fun.

Anthony Greenbank has apparently authored another book about urban survival written in the early '70s (Survival in the City, or something like that) in which he instructs the reader on how to escape muggers, turn the tables on pickpockets and avoid the advances of aggressive transvestites! I must find that book. It sounds too wacky to pass up!

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door - Jack Ketchum

(Leisure, 2008)

I'm going to change that now if I can. I'm going to tell our little story. Straight as I can from here on in and no interruptions.

And I'm writing this for you, Ruth. Because I never got to pay you back, really.

So here's my check. Overdue and overdrawn.

Cash it in hell.

Horror fiction to me is a lot about fun. Despite however much fear, blood, gore and horrific goings-on, there always has to be an element of fun, a little bit of perverse glee that you can't take seriously. Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, however, goes beyond all that. It is too horrific, too brutal, too real. The Girl Next Door is not a horror novel; it is a frightening display of human depravity, and a deeply moving paean for the innocence of childhood. The Girl Next Door is not a horror novel, but it is a superb novel and one that, if you can make it through, will stick with you for a long time.

The narrative is told through 41-year old David as he recollects Wonder Years-style on his childhood in the 1950s. It's summer, carnival is coming to town and a new girl moves in next door. After the death of her parents in a car accident, Meg and her little sister Susan move in with their cousins, Ruth Chandler and her boys. David befriends Meg and develops a little crush on her, but soon this childhood idyll turns sour when David learns that Ruth has it in for Meg and has it in bad. From aversion, to hostility to downright hatred, Ruth, with assistance from her boys, makes life a living hell for her new ward. Eventually, even some neighborhood kids are enlisted in this torment and David finds himself in the middle of an ever-increasing whirlwind of sadism and brutality, one which David is helpless to stop, to his lifelong shame.

The Girl Next Door is based on the real-life case of Sylvia Likens, whose situation bears a nearly identical resemblance to Ketchum's fictional story. Ketchum explains in an afterword that one of his intentions in writing The Girl Next Door was to express his own revulsion of the perpetrators of the real-life crime. This is something I can understand. The case of Sylvia Likens was an event of nearly unbelievable wickedness and the perpetrators, in my own opinion, never got the punishment they truly deserved. In Ketchum's own way, the perpetrators did, and Meg is presented not only as a victim of cruelty but also as somewhat of a hero or a martyr. Like David's overdue, overdrawn check, this is payback, maybe as best we can. But it's apparent that no one comes out of this unscarred.

The Girl Next Door is horrific on several levels. It's horrific because it's real; no monsters here, except of the human variety. It's horrific that one can be blind to such cruelty, either unwittingly or willingly. It's horrific that children should be cheated of their deserved innocence, that their senses of the world should be tarnished so soon. The Girl Next Door is a hard novel to take in, but Ketchum's handles it well, expertly expressing the atrocity with a sensitive touch as well as the narrator's sense of guilt and shame at his helplessness to prevent it, or his complicity. This is not torture porn horror. There is no sensationalism or revelry in the atrocity. On the contrary, it is heartbreakingly sad.

The verdict: ★★★★✩ (4/5, excellent) The Girl Next Door is frighteningly excellent and deeply moving. This was the first Jack Ketchum novel I've read, but it definitely won't be my last and, judging by his work here, he may go on to be one of my favorites. This paperback edition I read also includes an interview section and two short stories ("Do You Love Your Wife" and "Returns").

But make no mistake. The Girl Next Door is highly disturbing. This is not the kind of horror that makes you giddy with fright; it's the kind that makes you sad for humanity and hope that a hell exists because some people don't deserve to rest in peace. It's definitely a novel worth reading, but make sure you have a happy place to go after you're done. You'll need it.

Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 - Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson

In 2005 a team of US Navy SEALs conducting a mission in north-eastern Afghanistan encountered heavy opposition from Taliban forces. After receiving catastrophic losses, an additional team of SEALs designated as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was flown in on a chopper operated by the US Army's 160th SOAR to recover the imperiled team, however that chopper, it's crew and passengers were destroyed when it was struck by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade. In light of the overwhelming enemy forces and the extremely inhospitable mountain terrain, it was thought that there were no survivors from this mission gone awry. But there was one, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, and he tells his story in Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.

As a veteran myself (army), I have to say that I hold the SEALs in awe. They can truly do it all, sea, air and land. Luttrell begins the narrative by describing the hard path to becoming a SEAL. While this takes up most of the first half of the book and is somewhat obligatory to SEAL memoirs, it's a pretty good setup for letting us landlubbers get to know the kind of guy that can make it through the brutal selection and training of Navy SEALs. It also sets the foundation for the sacrifices to be made in the future.

Luttrell's story in the latter half of the book is nothing short of extraordinary, as he survives a Taliban onslaught and, broken, battered and near death, manages to contact US search and rescue with the aid of a friendly Afghan village. Maybe more importantly, Lone Survivor is a fine testament to the fallen SEALs, one that is both touching and inspiring. Luttrell's story also says much for the humanity of the Afghan people, whose hospitality and ancient code of honor made them willing to risk their own lives while protecting their inadvertent American guest from the Taliban.

Co-written with British author Patrick Robinson, Luttrell's narrative voice is conversational, fitting for the plain-talking Texan he is (my dad was Texan, so I know that Texans are born storytellers). I sometimes wondered, though, how much of it was Robinson's voice since I noticed that some Anglicisms sneaked through (like "aerial" for "antenna," etc.). You can't fault Luttrell for that, but Robinson could probably have shown a little more care for details like these. In spite of that, it's not a big thing and the narrative is a brisk and absorbing read. On a more serious note, there is always the question of accuracy in war memoirs and, while I believe both Luttrell and Robinson are sincere, I'd expect some discrepancies to exist with other reports or even expedient alterations to accommodate an editor's wishes. A significant event in the narrative (no spoilers here) seems particularly worthy of scrutiny, but it's not for me to be an armchair general and second-guess tactical decisions. It's just that the particular event doesn't make a lot of sense to me as told.

One small criticism I have, though, is the running polemic against what Luttrell calls "liberals" and the "liberal media," which I felt was kind of misguided, out of place and does little to quell the partisan rivalry in American politics. Furthermore, I'd rather not tarnish a tribute to fallen warriors with talk of politics. But I do understand and sympathize with Luttrell's concerns and frustrations with constrictive ROE (Rules Of Engagement), but I'd argue that all politicians--liberal or conservative-- are risk averse and few are in touch with the actual real-world concerns of our fighting forces. And as for "liberal media," I think the media is more concerned with making a buck rather than pushing a political agenda. So I think it's unfortunate that Luttrell feels that "liberals" are out to get him and other US service members. I personally don't know a single person, regardless of personal politics, who do not hold US service members in the highest esteem.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5) Writing inconsistencies and political harangues prevent it from being perfect, but nevertheless Lone Survivor is an engrossing story of survival and selflessness, and bring credit to some of the finest young men America has to offer.

Luttrell was medically retired from the Navy and has since established the Lone Survivor Foundation, a Houston based organization that helps wounded service members rehabilitate from their traumas, both physical and mental.

Comics roundup: babes, barbarians and evil dead things

Danger Girl and the Army of Darkness TP - Andy Hartnell 30 Days of Night: Night, Again - Sam Kieth The Chronicles of Conan Volume 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories - Michael L. Fleisher

Yee-haw, it's a comics roundup! I've mentioned before that graphic novels generally take less time to read than other books, so I thought I'd save my reviews of comics to present all together in one big chunk.

Danger Girl and the Army of Darkness
(Dynamite/IDW, 2013)

In this franchise mash-up, acerbic store clerk-cum-demon slayer Ash from the Evil Dead and Army of Darkness movies once again faces the deadite hordes as he crosses paths with Abbey Chase and the other babes of the spy agency Danger Girl as they try to recover a missing page of the Necronomicon ex Mortis from the hands of an evil mercenary army.

Danger Girl and the Army of Darkness isn't pushing the comics medium to new heights, but it's a  pretty fun crossover, especially if you're a fan of Danger Girl and/or the Evil Dead and Army of Darkness films. Chris Bolson's art is generally pretty good, but not really to my taste. It seems a little busy to me and maybe (just maybe) I'm outgrowing the whole T&A cheesecake thing. Andy Hartnell's writing makes for a lighthearted read, but it's not really as funny as I think it's supposed to be. And Bruce Campbell in comics is nowhere near as cool as he is in real life (you can catch him on the TV show Burn Notice these days), but it's still a neat homage to Raimi's Evil Dead movies and a fun story for Danger Girl fans. (3 stars/5) ★★★✩✩

30 Days of Night, Again
(IDW, 2011)

Joe Lansdale, Sam Kieth, and a whole mess of blood and guts. What more could a kid want? 30 Days of Night, Again is Joe Lansdale's take on arctic circle bloodsuckers. When refugees from a northern town overrun by vampires encounter a scientific expedition they join forces to battle the vampire horde hot on their tails. But when a mysterious capsule containing what could be a legendary golem is discovered, it could mean their salvation…or their destruction.

Lansdale's writing is what you'd expect from from him: fast-paced, funny and  foul-mouthed. It was great. If I have one criticism it's only that the story seemed a little too fast, like this was only one chapter in a bigger story. I don't know, maybe it continues elsewhere. But there were far too many interesting ideas in 30 Days of Night, Again to not expand on it. Nevertheless, it's a thoroughly enjoyable (and bloody) vampire book.

Sam Kieth's art is, if nothing else, interesting. You're either going to love it or it's not going to be your thing. As for me, I love his art. There are panels beautifully painted and then, for some quirky reason, the narrative will be jarringly interrupted by intentionally amateurish cartoony drawing. This is Kieth's style and I found it funny to read his notes in a special section at the end of the book where he almost apologizes for his unconventional artistic style. I can see how a lot of people might not care for his art, but it's a lot more interesting than what the majority of copy-cat comics artists do these days. 30 Days of Night, Again is good. Check it out! (3.5 stars/5) ★★★✬✩

The Chronicles of Conan, Volume 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories
(Dark Horse, 2010)

I've been a Conan nerd since the dawn of the Hyborian Age, but I have to admit that before my worn paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's original stories ever sat next to my trigonometry book in my school backpack, I was reading Marvel Comics' Conan titles, Conan the Barbarian, King Conan and even the occasional Savage Sword of Conan (when I could sneak an issue-- that one was magazine-sized and focused for a more "adult" market). My first exposure to Howard's Cimmerian savage was really through comics. So The Chronicles of Conan reprints of those old comics are really very cool to me. My only gripe is that it would cost me a pretty penny to get them all. On the other hand, I can't complain that there are so many of them. Anyway, I think I probable still have many of the original issues in my comics dungeon.

But the The Chronicles of Conan collection are put together with quality paper and sturdy bindings, so if you happen to be a muscle-bound barbarian yourself you won't goof up the pages like you would the cheap newsprint of the original comics. Plus, the artwork is beautifully recolored, so you don't have those tiny 4-color dots like in the old comics.

Volume 20 collects Conan the Barbarian issues #151-#159, mostly featuring one of my all-time favorite comics artists John Buscema. Actually, even when I'm reading a Robert E. Howard Conan story, in my mind's eye all the action looks as if it were drawn by John Buscema. All you kids today can take your computer-assisted illustration and your Photoshop whatnots. I get along just find with old school pencils, brushes and India ink. Computers can't replace talent and that's exactly what John Buscema had.

The Chronicles of Conan, Volume 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories is one great volume in a great series of comics reprints. ★★★★✩ Four stars, by Crom!

☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

Okay, kids, that's it for now. I'm juggling with reading a couple of other books right now and I hope to have reviews up before too long, but it might be tough because I am on a serious Downton Abbey kick right now (watching the season 2 DVDs; yes, I'm obsessed, and don't you dare judge me). 'Til next time...

Invasion of the objective case plural pronouns: Them by William W. Johnstone

Them - William W. Johnstone

(Zebra Books, 1992)

Every once in a while one comes across a book of such rare beauty that to read it is to feel as if one's soul has been touched, as if all the truths of the world have been concentrated into a single sublime marvel of language. Well, Them by William W. Johnstone ain't that book. And for a horror novel, it isn't even really scary. And for any sort of novel at all, it isn't really very good. In fact, you could call it lousy. But if you're like me and enjoy B-movies and trash lit, Them can be pretty entertaining (which sounds ungrammatical when you say it aloud).

Written by prolific drivel-meister William W. Johnstone, Them is about a genius kid named Jake Silver who has a hard time because of his superior intellect in the small town of Sandy Run, inhabited by rednecks, jocks and cretins. Bullied by kids at school and beaten by his dirtbag father Paul, Jake has a huge chip on his shoulder that, in fact, is just the germ of a budding psychopathic rage. His only friends are the beanpole Terry and fat Dick, also genius nerds, and his pretty and sympathetic mother Crissy. Even his older sister Judy hates his guts. He's got a baby sister, too, named "Lyn," but she hardly makes an appearance. We're always told that she's "staying at a friend's house" or something, so I don't even know why she's in the book.

Anyway, one day while Jake is at the lake with his mom and sisters, he comes across a pulsating, glowing football-sized brain sitting atop a mass of tentacles. The "brain" communicates with Jake telepathically (in a voice that I imagine to sound like Kelsey Grammar) and explains that he is called Cag and he's a representative of a race of advanced alien beings. Cag's sent to Earth to check things out and, sensing Jake's far superior intellect, makes fast friends with the lad. Jake welcomes Cag's friendship, but it also sparks an ambition for vengeance on the cretins that bully him.

Meanwhile, another bunch of brain-beings led by the sinister Kor is en route to Earth. Kor is the leader of a group of aliens that eschews Cag's diplomatic philosophy and prefers to take the Earthlings and their planet by force. These space-brains have the ability to take over people's minds and turn their wills to putty. It isn't long before the townspeople are fighting amongst each other, controlled by either Cag's or Kor's forces. Running around in all this mess trying to figure things out are the local cops and Charles Massenet, a local doctor and the man Crissy is cheating on Paul with.

That's basically how it goes. It starts out sounding like the story is going to focus on Jake's plan for revenge and shifts into a huge battle in the town between the two opposing groups of space-brains. While that's technically a plot flaw I guess, there's enough craziness going on in the meantime to make Them bewilderingly awful and bewilderingly entertaining. Most notable is Johnstone's penchant for inserting weird sexual situations for no apparent reason. For example, early in the book Paul orders his son Jake to drop his pants so he can give him a whuppin' with his belt and Crissy (his mom), in shock at her husband's cruelty…


"…could not but notice that her son was more than amply endowed. Like his father. And for some reason she could not explain, she had more than a suspicion that Jake had not been a virgin for a long time.

Seems like a weird thing to notice, huh? Judy, his sister who hates his guts, is even weirder since she gets aroused by watching dad beat the shit out of Jake with a belt, as Crissy discovers to her outrage. Later on Jake learns from Cag that Judy has been willingly having sex with their dad, to which he simply replies, "I've always found both of them disgusting."

Jake is no angel either, though. He's got the hots for a pretty teacher at his school named Faith Forlund and plans to have Cag use his mind control powers to maker her fall in love with him. With Cag's assistance, he arranges to have a little party at his place and gets Cag to put a little telepathic nudge in Faith's brain, making Faith uncontrollably attracted to the fifteen-year-old Jake. She arrives at Jake's party and they go off to get it on. Jake, being the considerate sociopath he is, has not left his friends out of the fun. He has Cag control Judy's mind to provide sexual entertainment for Terry and Dick! None of the sex in Them is described explicitly, so it's not like reading Penthouse or anything, but there's enough sex in it to make Johnstone seem like a dirty old man. Probably more likely he just wanted to spice up the narrative with some cheap titillation. It's not really titillating, but it's pretty unintentionally hilarious.

Also hilarious is the way the inhabitants of Sandy Run are described. Take all the stereotypes of Southern country folk and there you have it. Just about every other townsperson is a closed-minded degenerate who cares only about beer, football and rock music (rather than "fine" things like classical music or science or proper English). Seems sort of like Johnstone has a beef with small-town people. Particularly funny is the episode of Dickie Johnson. Dickie is a very large mentally disabled man who most people think of as harmless, but is, in fact, a serial killer! He hasn't killed for a while, but being released from the mind control of some space-brains sends him over the edge. He grabs a double-bit ax from the barn and starts his Lizzie Borden routine on the town. He eventually comes across another mentally disabled person named Lou Ann:

God, she was shore ugly when you got up close. Hair all tangled up and matted, no front teeth, great big mouth and little bitty eyes. She wore a dirty dress 'bout four sizes too small and nothing under the dress.

Nothin' under the dress interested Dickie either.

He asks her of she wants to go into town and "go splat on people." She replies with her universal grunt, "Uhhh," and together they run around "splatting" people with axes and hatchets. The whole deal is pretty funny. Especially since Dickie was a serial killer already and this could have happened regardless of the space-brain invasion.

But efforts of the space-brains to control the minds of the people of Sandy Run don't always go as planned. Sometimes the people can't handle it and they go off their rockers and do crazy things like walking in the middle of the street shouting and masturbating furiously. Other times they vomit blood just before their eyes shoot out and their heads explode. But that's about as gory as it gets. Them never really approaches true horror. In fact, it's exactly like a goofy B-movie that's unintentionally hilarious.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩, but probably not for what the author intended. As a horror novel, Them is pretty stupid, but it's a fun read if you don't take it seriously. I haven't read anything else by Johnstone, but I know that he's written a ton of stuff. I'm just assuming that he was sincere in making this a horror novel and not a spoof or "horror-comedy," but it's pretty damn funny. I'll be keeping my eye out for any more of Johnstone's horror stuff that comes my way.

I've been on a steady diet of junk-food lit lately. I may have to read something of literary merit pretty soon or I'm liable to forget what that's like.

Nightlife by Rob Thurman

Nightlife - Rob Thurman

It's nice when I manage to read a book that's been on my "to read" list for a while. Too often books placed on the list just seem to languish there, forgotten, until I happen to come across them on the library shelves, which is the case with Rob Thurman's Nightlife. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for the book quickly waned the more I read. It's not that Nightlife is bad, but I'm figuring that it's probably just one of those books that are decidedly "not for me."

This also is a shame, because I was sort of in the mood for what I guess is called "urban fantasy" these days. I was thinking I'd like to read something akin to TV's Supernatural with a dash of the Hellblazer comic thrown in. Nightlife seemed to fit the bill. It's the story of two brothers, Cal and Niko Leandros. Though they have the same mother, Cal's father was a supernatural being, one of the "Auphe," a race of beings that became known as "elves" in the imagination of folklore, but are, in fact, horrific and cruel. Niko, the elder of the two, has devoted his life to protecting his little bro from the Auphe who claim Cal as their own flesh and blood. And so the two are constantly on the run, picking up odd jobs where they can but never putting down roots. But, of course, there are more creatures of the night than just the Auphe. There are vampires, werewolves, and even a bridge troll, all hidden under the thin veneer of the mundane.

So the premise and setting of Nightlife was fine, but the writing made me want to pull my hair out. Again, it wasn't because it was poorly written, but I just couldn't stand it. I was cruising along okay the first few chapters, but then it wore me down and eventually I just wanted the damn thing to end. Like a lot of UF, Nightlife is written in first person point-of-view and that was a big problem because of the snarky, sarcastic,  More-Ironic-Than-Thou Cal, who is the one doing the storytelling. You're stuck with  him for the duration. I guess he's supposed to seem gritty-but-witty but I just wanted to kick him in the balls. Every other paragraph, what with some kind of mirthless joke that isn't as clever as Cal seems to think it is. And on and on with the whining about being half-monster and interrupting action scenes with exposition on the past or how he feels about something or other. God forbid you ask him how his day is going. You'd better have a thermos of espresso handy. Cal is one chatty Kathy. I understand that sarcasm and cynicism is sort of a genre norm. I'm okay with that, but Cal Leandros bored me.

But, hey. That's just me. I'm sure that there are a lot of people out there who'd get more out of Nightlife than I did. What I would have liked to have seen was some of Niko's POV, too, since their brotherly relationship was supposed to be an important part of the story, but I never got the sense of a real emotional connection between Niko and Cal. As I mentioned, it was written all right overall, but I just couldn't stand the narrator. I just sort of skimmed over the last two-thirds of the book since I have some pathological urge to finish every book I start.

The verdict: ★★✩✩✩  Nightlife didn't do a thing for me, but  some devoted fans of the genre may get a bit more out of it. There are several more volumes in this series, so clearly Thurman is doing something right, but it's likely I won't be checking in on it.

The Burma Probe (Death Merchant #59) by Joseph Rosenberger

The Burma Probe (Death Merchant) - Joseph Rosenberger

(Pinnacle, 1984)


Deep in the heart of Burma's thickest jungle lies the deadliest military secret of modern history. After generations of strategic planning, the Red Chinese have grasped the vital key to world power. In a desperate zero-hour maneuver, the Death Merchant is given the go-ahead. Inflitrate. Destroy!

The Burma Probe is #59 in the "incredible" adventures of the Death Merchant. What is incredible is that author Joseph Rosenberger wrote all seventy-one Death Merchant books himself in the '70s and '80s. That takes a very special kind of insanity. These Death Merchant books are among those that throw my rating system all askew. While they are generally a blast to read, they can't be called "high lit" and are also incredibly offensive! I call Joseph Rosenberger the "Archie Bunker" of action novelists, but, like in his other books, I find it hard to be truly offended. It's all just so ridiculous that it crosses the line into absurdity. I'm not being magnanimous here since few things piss me off more than bigotry, but reading some of the stuff in Rosenberger's books I'm just dumbfounded. This stuff couldn't be published today and I'm actually kinda surprised it could be publish in the '70s and '80s. (As a word of warning, in case some of you are not quite as amused by Rosenberger's nutjob extremism as I am, there may be some offensive quotes used in this review to illustrate. Just so ya know.)

The Burma Probe takes Richard Camellion, a.k.a. "the Death Merchant," to Burma, where he and his cohorts, the merc leader of "Thunderbolt Unit Omega" "Mad Mike" Quinlan and a Gurkha soldier named Krishnan Darhangak, are on a mission to reconnoiter a secret base from which the communist Chinese plan to launch a deadly neurotoxin as phase one of their plan to take over Southeast Asia. The Burma Probe has all of Rosenberger's trademark wackiness, but, unlike a good deal of his writing, The Burma Probe seems to follow more of a "traditional" plot structure than Rosenberger's usual work (repeated scenes of excruciatingly detailed violence that proceed until all the bad guys are dead).

In The Burma Probe, the plot builds more slowly as DM and his buds move around Burma in a clandestine fashion, posing as British movie producers scouting sites. What they're actually doing, though, is gathering intel and making contacts with a Burmese guerilla group. When their covers are blown, however, things get hot and the remainder of the story has DM and his gang running from commie forces while planning the destruction of the Chinese base, culminating in a humungous final battle in which hundreds of fighters, both Burmese guerilla and communist Chinese, die by the hundreds.

It's pretty much straight-up military fiction, albeit with a healthy dose of Rosenberger's nutjob flair and sometimes weird diction. For example, in one place he writes: "'This place does not look like a dump because it is not a dump,' Chit Soe Kha said in his precise but stilted English (although there is not any rule that demands the use of contractions)." That's a little strange.

And the "Cosmic Lord of Death" gets a mention after Camellion has a conversation about religion and philosophy with his CIA contacts (for some reason). Camellion (like Rosenberger) is virulently anti-religion, but he seems to know a lot about it:


Dyson regarded Camellion with an off expression. "Tell me, Mr. Camellion. Are you a mercenary or a philosopher?"

"Neither. I'm merely passing by. In that respect, I'm an observer of the Human Condition and a partner of that which cuts us all down in the end."

Dyson's eyes narrowed.

"A 'partner'! Of what?"

"The Cosmic Lord of Death…."

And the chapter ends there, but I imagine some unspoken odd looks thrown the Death Merchant's way after that rather ominous statement.

But I have to admit that I get sort of a perverse kick out of the blatant racism of Rosenberger's books. If it wasn't so ridiculous, it'd be pretty repellent, what with all the racial slurs thrown around (I found "slant-eyed robots" particularly inventive). But about mid-way in the book, DM and his cohorts meet up with an ally named Lester Vernon Cole, who is described thusly:


Tall, muscular, gray-eyed and thin-lipped, with deep brown hair worn moderately long, Cole was a private contractor who often worked for the Company. A genius at intrigue and deception, Cole was a stone killer who firmly believed in the philosophy that the only good enemy was a dead enemy. In a sense, this could have meant three-fourths of the human race, since Cole was a racist who openly admired Adolf Hitler and Der Fuhrer's "samurai," the Schutzstaffel or dreaded SS. Often referred to as "The Widow Maker," Cole had a simple solution for the ills of the world: any nonwhite would be put to sleep.

Yikes. And this dude is one of DM's friends! (By the way, I just noticed that Red Dragon Operation, the third in another of Rosenberger's series called C.O.B.R.A., is dedicated to an "L.V. Cole." Hmm.) Anyway, Cole ruffles some feathers among the Quinlan's merc group, as "Thunderbolt Unit Omega" consists of mercs from a variety of nations. While Rosenberger seems to go out of his way to make it clear that DM and the others are not "racist" (while still using slurs like "chink," etc.), he gets to use Cole as a mouthpiece to rant on and on against blacks, gays, Jews, immigrants and liberals. While it seems too outrageous not to be a spoof, I'm pretty sure Cole speaks for Rosenberger. It's funny that I sort of expect these trashy "men's adventure" novels of yesteryear to be somewhat un-P.C., but the Death Merchant series is pretty out there.

So I've gone on about the racism in The Burma Probe (I probably shouldn't find it so funny) but there's plenty of other goofy stuff, like learning that Cole is mortally embarrassed to undress in front of other men and the weird little footnotes that pepper the entire book informing us of such useful things like, "This writer has always warned that the West has more to fear from the Chinese than the Russians," or some kind of technical obscurity.

If you've been keeping up, you'll note that I starting using my one-to-five-star rating system again and, like I mentioned earlier, these Death Merchant books kind of defy conventional rating. They're not good, but they're fun in a B-movie sort of way, despite (or perhaps because of) their decidedly un-P.C. natures.

  The verdict: ★★★✩✩, 3 out of 5 stars on the Action Trash Scale. It ain't Hemingway, but it's got a lot of action and a better constructed plot that Rosenberger's usual fare. Plus, a lot of wackiness and offensiveness to entertain those that are entertained by wackiness and offensiveness. 


Return of star ratings; Protect and Defend by Vince Flynn

Protect And Defend (Mitch Rapp #8) - Vince Flynn

To start with, I think I'm going to go back to using star (★) ratings in my reviews. I quit for a while as an experiment because I've found that star ratings are sometimes misleading. For example, there are instances where I like a book but I know it's not very good, or vice versa. But on the other hand, star ratings are fun. And sometimes they just fit so well. So while I have to really refine my rating system, here's the framework I generally follow:

  • ★✩✩✩✩   Poor
  • ★★✩✩✩   Fair, okay, but kind of mediocre
  • ★★★✩✩   Good
  • ★★★★✩   Excellent
  • ★★★★★   Superior. A work of rare splendor

But there might be cases, to be more precise, when I might split up the criteria and give, say, ★★ for quality of writing and ★★★★ for the amount of enjoyment I got out of a book, averaging it out to ★★★.

Bear in mind that there is the distinct possibility that I am over-thinking this whole damn thing.

Whatever. Let's review a book.

(Atria Books, 2007)

Vince Flynn's Protect and Defend is a case where two stars seems to fit so well. Eighth chronologically in the the Mitch Rapp series, tenth in actual publication and the second Vince Flynn novel I've read, Protect and Defend, is not an awful book, but it falls short of the kind of thing I was expecting after reading Flynn's American Assassin. In short, it's slow and, while the action that one expects is pretty okay, it occurs far too late in the game for me to get excited about it. A bit of fair warning: there may be in this review what some may consider a spoiler in this review. I don't consider it as such, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Protect and Defend begins with Rapp hanging out in Costa Rica with a female agent named Maria Rivera, getting ready to assassinate some American political advisor who was complicit in a politically-motivated bombing that resulted in the death of Americans. A little "non-judicial punishment" Rapp style. Anyway, the details don't really matter because this whole event had nothing to do with the rest of the story whatsoever. Even Rivera disappears from the story after doing nothing at all. We do learn that Rapp is getting over the murder of his pregnant wife, something that happened in a previous episode.

Meanwhile, a covert Israeli operative manages to sabotage an Iranian nuclear facility, devastating the entire site. The Iranians are quick to blame Israel and the United States, although they have no evidence against either parties. So, to conduct some damage control, CIA director (and direct Rapp's boss) Irene Kennedy is sent over to Mosul, Iraq, to meet the Iranian intelligence director Azad Ashani and hash things out. Of course, Rapp is in tow to conduct security. Good thing, too, because now the story finally gets rolling (over two hundred pages into the book!). Kennedy gets kidnapped by a rogue Hezbollah leader working for the Iranians and Rapp will spare nothing to get her back.

That was the possibly spoiler-y bit I mentioned earlier, but it's not really a spoiler because all that stuff that happened in the first half of the book just felt like backstory, set up and fluff and it isn't until the book is over halfway through that Rapp really begins killin' terr'rists, which is way too long of a wait to get the action going. The pace in Protect and Defend killed me. By the time Rapp got to the point where he was shooting bad guys in the face I was too tired to care.

That was the main thing that did it for me. The pace was totally off and it seems like first whole half of the book was just padding. Part of what contributed to this, though is Flynn's multi-perspective approach, which some love and some don't. I don't. Flynn follows the perspectives of Rapp, was well as the politicians in D.C., the politicians in Teheran and the bad guys. On the one hand, this allows us to see characters that are far more interesting than our hero Mitch Rapp (more on this later), but on the other hand it's stuff I don't care about. If you ever watched that TV show 24 you know what I mean. I never cared about all the political shenanigans. I just wanted to see Jack Bauer do his thing. It's like that here. I guess that's why these novels are called "political thrillers" but that stuff leaves me cold. Of course, there is plenty of action in Protect and Defend, but far little and it occurs far too late.

But while Protect and Defend didn't do it for me, Flynn's got some interesting things going on. Like I mentioned before, Mitch Rapp is probably the least interesting character in the cast. He's a driven, single-minded "loose cannon who doesn't play by the the rules" covert operative, but there doesn't seem to be much more to him than that. Even though I've just complained about Flynn's multi-perspective approach, it does provide characters that are far more interesting than Rapp, like Azad Ashani, the sympathetic Iranian intelligence director. Indeed, it seems like Flynn's supporting characters are far more fleshed out than the hero of the series.

As for Mitch Rapp, I definitely see potential for him being a really interesting and unique character. Unfortunately, as in American Assassin, Flynn doesn't quite follow through on this as well as I would have liked. Rapp himself is a bit of an extremist and I would have liked to have seen more examination of this side of his personality that places him in dangerously close proximity to the mindsets of the terrorists he kills. And, of course, I would have liked to have seen more on how Rapp is dealing with the death of his wife. Rapp's bosses note that he's becoming more reckless and hard to control, but I'll just have to read more of the books to see if his character really develops from this. These Rapp books are pretty much like Jerry Bruckheimer films or something, so I don't expect much literary merit, but I'd still like to see Rapp become more real to me. Right now he's little better than a robot.

Not to belabor the point, but Vince Flynn passed away last summer from cancer at the age of forty-seven and I feel bad about being too negative, but Protect and Defend just didn't do it for me. But on the positive side, I am interested in reading more of Vince Flynn's stuff. I'm just hoping that in the other books there is less talky, more shooty.

The verdict:★★✩✩✩, for being a tolerable read, but far too slow and lazily paced to really be interesting.

Daredevil Noir, by Irvine and Coker

Daredevil Noir (Daredevil; The Devil Inside and Out) - Alexander Irvine

(Marvel, 2010)

Y'know, graphic novels don't take very long to read and since I have some kind of compulsion to write a little something on everything I read graphic novels can really bog me down. I can read 'em faster than I can write anything meaningful about them. I'm thinking I might just save graphic novels for one big long post.

Anyway, that's housekeeping stuff. Today we've got Daredevil Noir, (is that like Drakkar Noir?) a part of Marvel's "noir" line, reinventing the superheroes you know and love into a "noir" atmosphere. A neat idea in theory, I think but too often these things are just kind of gimmicky, relying on the atmosphere at the expense of the story. Throw a lot of black ink in the artwork and there you go.

Daredevil Noir, written by Alexander Irvine and illustrated by Tomm Coker, collects issues #1-4 of the limited series and is sort of like that. Here Matt Murdock is reinvented into Prohibition-era America (but they goofed in one city-scape shot with a television appliance store sign in the corner). This time he's not a lawyer but works for Foggy assisting in his investigations by day and doing Daredevil stuff at night. He gets a lead on the guy who shot his father when he was a kid, falls in love with a femme fatale (in the most literal sense) and goes after the Kingpin, who looks to be a good deal leaner that we normally expect him to be.

While Daredevil Noir doesn't really have any serious problems, there's nothing remarkable about it either. The art is fantastic, the script is good too, but there's just not a lot to work with plot-wise and doesn't really make a lot of sense. It relies too heavily on trying to have a dark "noir" atmosphere, seemingly at the expense of all else. All in all, Daredevil Noir is an okay read, but is a bit of a novelty and not that special. Still, it's an enjoyable read for Daredevil fans.

El Narco: inside Mexico's criminal insurgency, by Ioan Grillo

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency - Ioan Grillo

(Bloomsbury Press, 2011)

Drugs have been a part of Mexico's underground economy for a long time, but recent years (as of around 2008) have shown a marked increase in the activities of Mexican drug cartels, activities that have escalated to an unheard of level of brutality. It's a frightening thought that just south of the border drug gangs are battling it out with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, decapitating heads and wiping out entire families. It sounds like an exaggeration, but the barbarism of the Mexican drug cartels is hard to fathom.

Mexico City-based Britisher Ioan Grillo has been reporting on Mexico for over ten years and in El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency he explores this new era of violence in which Mexico is now embroiled, supporting his main thesis that the Mexican drug cartels are not simply criminal empires but have developed into full-blown insurgencies that threaten to destabilize Mexican society.

You have to hand it to Grillo. He's got guts taking on this topic. But in addition to that, his survey of narco culture looks at the issue from angles that I had not considered before, showing that this isn't just a study of organized drug crime, but a complex issue with a lot of moving parts. Grillo covers an overview of Mexico's history with drugs up through the current crime wave, as well as covering cultural, societal and political implications of the drug trade. It's a fascinating and complex issue, one that can't be solved with an overly simplistic hard-line stance of a "war against drugs," as recent history has proven. Grillo doesn't propose any solutions, but seems to indicate that a whole paradigm shift in the way we look at the problem may be in order. Particularly interesting, from a gringo's point of view, is the role that the United States plays in fighting the drug trade as well as enabling it.

The cartels themselves are fascinating also, but in a disturbing way. You really have to wonder about the psyche of people that murder entire families for retribution or sew faces onto soccer balls to send a message (yes, this happened). The power of these cartels also far exceed even what Americans usually consider to be heavy-hitters in the organized crime world. In the case of Los Zetas in particular, these cartels have capabilities that rival multinational terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. They even have paramilitary training camps to train new recruits. A frightening thought indeed. Grillo also notes the the Zetas have expanded their operations to include producing pirated DVDs of commercial films. I never considered pirated DVDs to be such a bad crime before, but when you consider that the profits support a group that massacred over seventy innocent migrants in a single incident in 2010, it really makes you think.

Grillo provides an even-handed analysis of the situation in Mexico and writes with appropriate gravity on the toll of the extreme violence taking place, while at the same time eschewing "true crime" sensationalism and not being alarmist. Things are bad enough down there without sensationalizing the violence. For those interested in learning about the drug situation in Mexico and its impact El Narco is an excellent starting point, being a sobering overview of Narco culture.

Stuff I've been reading: an update.

Slaughter Summit (Nazi Hunter,#2) - Blood Money (Tracker) - Ron Stillman American Assassin: A Thriller - Vince Flynn Black Orchid - Dave McKean, Neil Gaiman

I figure it's about time to crawl out of my hole and do a little posting. As I mentioned last time, I am behind in my reviewing responsibilities (heh, "responsibilities"), so here is an update on what I've read recently. There's actually more, but the other things I've been reading are non-fiction how-to kinds of things. Stuff like cookbooks, exercise books, etc, and I guess that stuff can keep for awhile. So, without further adieu, here we go:


[a little further adieu: Booklikes seems to be formatting the block quotes weird, with each line centered. *shrug*]

nazihunter2cover Nazi Hunter #2: Slaughter Summit by Mark Mandell (Pinnacle, 1982)

He was born a German during a time he couldn't be proud of, and his belief in human justice drove him to become the…NAZI HUNTER.

Nazi Hunter was a series of action novels in the '80s and I don't know too much about it. I don't even know if Mark Mandell is a pseudonym, a house name or what. The only mention I can find of this series is from Zwolf at The Mighty Blowhole. But I understand there are several volumes of this series. I might not go searching for them, but if I find 'em I'm gonna read 'em because Slaughter Summit, second in the series, was pretty good.

Curt Jaeger (by the way, jaeger or jäger means "hunter" auf Deutsche. Clever, huh?) was a war orphan, born in Germany but raised by an American couple. After becoming a captain in the US Army, Jaeger discovered the truth about this origin: his father is still alive, is a Nazi war criminal and murdered Curt's mother! Thus begins Jaeger's quest to avenge his mother's death and end his father's Nazi evil once and for all.

In Slaughter Summit, Curt, now out of the army and on his own, gets the heads-up from Israeli intelligence that Curt's father is running a Nazi operation in the guise of an innocent ski resort. The Israelis plan to raid this resort, but Curt knows that the lives of many tourists and innocent ski-bunnies will be endangered, so he convinces them to let him go to the resort undercover, but you can guess how this turns out. For some reason, fictional good guys are never very good at being undercover.

Slaughter Summit had some pretty good thrills and plenty of action, but not much in the sex department. While at the ski resort Curt meets a hot-to-trot Texan cutie who interested in getting to know Curt a little better, but Curt is all business. Anyway, I'd be interested to know who Mark Mandell really is/was because Slaughter Summit was pretty well-written.

tracker3cover Tracker #3: Blood Money by Ron Stillman (Diamond, 1991) Joe Kenney at his blog Glorious Trash calls this late-era action series "the dumbest damn bunch of books"he's ever read, and I have to say that I agree. But where he feels that reading this series borders on the masochistic, I kind of got a kick out of it. No doubt about it, Tracker is a frickin' stupid-ass series. It's a Saturday morning cartoon, but with more sex and violence. It is so ridiculous that I have to imagine that it's spoof or a joke or something. But even clever satires give subtle winks and nods to indicate that they're not serious Tracker does not. I have to conclude that the writer of the Tracker series either a) really thought this shit was cool, or b) just didn't give a damn. Either way, the result is hilarious.

The Tracker series follows the adventures Nathaniel Hawthorne "Natty" Tracker. Tracker was raised by native Americans so he's an expert tracker and outdoorsman. He's also a fighter pilot--former fighter pilot, that is. He was blinded in a car wreck, but that's okay because he made some goggle-things that restored his sight and added other enhanced features. Oh yeah, forgot to mention that he's an inventor and a millionaire and has some real boss rides like classic Corvettes. The chicks dig him. The bad guys fear him. He now works sort of freelance for the U.S. government and the POTUS is his BFF, apparently, always keeping tabs on him via a comm-link implanted in his eyes. The book never said explicitly, but I think it reasonable to conclude that his shit does not stink.

Anyhow, the whole thing is just so outrageous that I'll just leave you with some excerpts that I thought were pretty funny.

[after saving his girlfriend Dee--and slaughtering a bunch of bad guys]:

"Natty, you saved my life," she said, "but I'm an officer of the court, and you shot three of them dead. I feel strange, I mean, I know that they wanted to kill me…"

Natty held up his finger and shushed her, "I understand. Honey, I'm allowed to kill people. It's exactly like a war situation."

"You are allowed?" she asked. "I won't ask anymore questions. I know that you are very, very powerful in Washington. I'm just glad that you're on our side.

[Tracker, now blinded again, floats on aircraft crash debris toward a deserted island. A shark has bitten off a large chunk of his leg and he tries to stir his resolve]:

The sun was beating down on Natty, and he awakened in horrible pain. He had a dull throbbing headache and nausea. His leg felt as if it were in a mangled twist of wreckage. Tracker reached down and felt the calf, and it made him shudder. Natty started sobbing. He threw his head back and hit it on the plexiglass and cried.

"You fucking asshole!" he screamed out loud. "You can't afford to have a pity party!"

He ate the two candy bars.

[after having a chunk of his leg bit off by a shark, being stranded on a deserted island and waking from a coma, Tracker takes some R&R and recovers in the wild with his Native American grandfather]:

They built a reflector fire against some rocks above the timberline overlooking Hayden Pass and spent the night there, sleeping very little but talking a great deal. Both witnessed what they agreed was the sighting of a UFO in the distance.

(which has nothing to do with anything)

[Tracker gets friendly with the beautiful wife of the main bad guy and she falls in love with him and-- in case you can't tell-- she's from Spain]:

"Thees ees crazy," she said, frustrated. "Why am I theenking of thees? How do I know I can trus' you?"

(oh, yeah. She talks like that the whole time!)

By the way, Ron Stillman is actually Don Bendell, who has written a bunch of other stuff, but I would not necessarily judge his writing based on this series. Anyway, I hope to find more of this Tracker series because they are hilarious, albeit unintentionally.

American Assassin by Vince Flynn (Atria Books, 2010) Vince Flynn is often mentioned in the same sentence as author Brad Thor, which is a shame because Brad Thor kinda sucks and, from what I can tell by reading American Assassin, Vince Flynn doesn't. They both write thrillers featuring secret agent types, terrorists, etc. and are both of a politically conservative bent but Flynn doesn't seem to wear his politics on his sleeve like Thor does. After reading Thor's Hidden Order I wondered if I was a reading a thriller or a Tea Party rant.

Anyhow, I'm not one to let an author's political views get in the way of my enjoyment of their writing, not unless it's in your face soapboxing. Flynn is probably a good deal more conservative than I am (since I don't consider myself at all conservative), but he can write a pretty exciting novel and that's really what counts (as a side note, Flynn has mentioned that Bill Clinton is a big fan!).

American Assassin is the first of Flynn's Mitch Rapp series I've read, which, I guess, is a good starting point since it's a prequel, detailing CIA super agent Mitch Rapp's recruitment into "The Company" and his first few missions. Overall it's paced well and is an engrossing spy thriller. Interestingly, although the novel seems to endorse government-sanctioned assassination for the "greater good" (in this case, fighting terrorism) with Rapp being trained from the get-go as an assassin, the good guys are almost as screwed up psychologically as the terrorists they fight.   For example, Rapp's trainer, Stan Harley, a veteran CIA cold warrior (and one of the most interesting characters in the book) is an alcoholic, right-wing nutjob that would give G. Gordon Liddy nightmares, but has a soft spot for dogs, which became a slight issue when Rapp threatened to cut out the eye of a bad guy's prize poodle to get him to talk. These guys are brutal men in brutal work and I guess they're bound to get twisted in some manner or another. So while Flynn seems to approve of many of the tactics favored by the extreme right, it is, at the same time, somewhat of a critique.

But whatever. American Assassin is a beach read and pretty good for what it is. My only real complaint is that I don't buy that Rapp turned into such a hot-shot, cold-blooded assassin so fast, like right out of college, where he was a star lacrosse player. They seemed to say he was something of a physical and mental freak of nature. Seems like a convenient and not too plausible way to introduce the character, but hey, it's just a BDAM (Big Dumb Action Movie). Oh, and I think the copy editor must have been drunk because there were an abundance of errors.

Give American Assassin a try, see what you think. I've pretty much written off Thor, but Flynn's staying on my radar, at least for the time being.

(As a side note, Flynn died June 19, 2013 at the young age of 47 from cancer, something I found out not long after I read this book).

Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Vertigo, 2012) While a teenage nerd in the '80s, I was mostly into the Marvel Universe, especially the X-Men, so I missed out on a lot of the great stuff going on over at DC to push the envelope of comics, bringing the medium out of the realm of juvenile entertainment and into the public eye as an art form suited to handle "mature" topics (and by "mature" I don't mean simply sex, violence and cussing).

Black Orchid, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean, was one of these titles I missed and just now picked up in this 2012 edition collecting the three issues first published in 1988. From what I gather, Black Orchid, remarkably, has never been out of print since its first publication. Perhaps not so remarkable, though, because Black Orchid is a beautiful work, worthy of its longevity.

In Black Orchid, Gaiman takes a relatively minor superhero crime fighter, the Black Orchid, and turns the tables on typical superhero tropes, bringing the costumed crime fighter from the previous era in which they were simply symbols of truth and justice into the modern era in which superheroes struggle to balance their symbolic roles with their own inherent human frailties. While Black Orchid is the story of a woman's quest to discover her identity, it is also a wide-reaching setup for a grittier mood of the DC Universe in general. Batman, Swamp Thing and other familiar faces make their appearances, but in Gaiman's and McKean's vision, this world of superheroes, supervillains and superhuman powers has no four-color palette. It runs the spectrum from twisted grittiness to haunting beauty, perfectly reflected in Dave McKean's masterful artwork.

Black Orchid is weird and beautiful and a landmark work; a must-read for any fan of sequential art. By the way, here's a pretty good (and long) write up of this title at sequart.org.

New Year's malaise; status of book sites; Leafmarks!

I have been experiencing a good deal of New Year's malaise. I just don't feel like doing anything. But I have been reading. This means I'm way behind on my reviews. I'm four or five books behind in reviewing and I may just say forget it.

I'm also way behind on keeping up with my fellow Booklikers, Wordpressers, Goodreaders and, now, Leafmarkers. I'll get to all that in a minute. Right now, though, I'm just sorry I haven't kept up with what all you wonderful people are reading.

I did get a dose of energy, though, with Leafmarks. I have had technical difficulties with using Leafmarks since I signed up, which was frustrating, but Jacquie, one of the founders, has been helping me out all the way and finally solved the issue (turned out it was something small and weird). Anyway, Jacquie has been very responsive with the little hiccups that every new site has and Leafmarks is now up for me. I'm trying to gather friends from Goodreads and Booklikes and re-friend everyone, but if I forget or miss someone just drop me a note.

So I may be using Leafmarks a lot. I like the familiar, Goodreads-ish format. Booklikes is cool, but I already have a blog at Wordpress and it's tedious copying and pasting between the two. Also I find that with Booklikes it is kind of hard to keep track of what's going on in the feed. Hopefully they'll think of a way in which we can get a quicker overview, like maybe just a list of blog entry titles. Anyway, I'm not sure how I'll be using Booklikes now.

I haven't looked at Goodreads for a long time, so I guess I don't miss it. I may let just Goodreads drop off my radar completely. Since all that dumbassery at Goodreads in October I've just been posting links to my reviews at other sites and supporting the friends that still use Goodreads, but it's a hassle keeping up with it all.

So maybe Leafmarks will become my go-to site. I dunno. Anyway, what I do know is that I need to take some vitamins and get some energy to write some reviews, 'cause I'm behind. In the meantime, I'll keep reading and trying to catch up with all you fine folks.