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David Alexander
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Stuff I've read: first post of 2015

The Way of the Knife - Mark Mazzetti The Last Man - Vince Flynn Inhumans: By Right of Birth -  'Lou Mougin', 'Ann Nocenti' The Equalizer: A Novel - Michael Sloan Rules Of Prey - John Sandford Shadow Prey - John Sandford Eyes of Prey - John Sandford Silent Prey - John Sandford Winter Prey - John Sandford Night Prey - John Sandford

It's been a while since I've posted. I'm not dead, just lazy enough to appear to be so. Sorry I haven't kept up with all of you. But I have been reading and here is what I've been reading:

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, A Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti


A fascinating look at the CIA and it's shift in orientation from a straightforward intelligence agency to a paramilitary outfit running its own ops. During the Cold War the CIA took its cue from the OSS, running all kinds of crazy stuff, but it sort of took it down a few notches from the '70s on. After 9/11 it took a more operational role, harkening back to the OSS days. Also of note is the shift of the Defense Department into the intelligence game, running it's own networks of soldier-spies.

Mark Mazzetti does a great job documenting the recent history of the CIA, which, of course, is no easy task since, you know, this is Secret Squirrel stuff. Published in 2013, it is fairly up-to-date, which is important because if you look at world events since the year 2000 this stuff changes quickly. Particularly of interest was the CIA's changing relationship with Pakistan, which, considering we caught Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is kinda weird.

Full of colorful characters, interesting insights and real-life spy drama, The Way of the Knife is as exciting as any spy novel. It's too bad that…

The Last Man (Mitch Rapp #13) by Vince Flynn


…was not. After reading Mazzetti's book I was still on a spy kick, so looked to Vince Flynn's series featuring terrorist hunter, tough guy and generally angry man Mitch Rapp. I've read a couple in the series and they are decent, quick reads, but after a couple of them I think the appeal is waning. I mean, I really like the idea of Mitch Rapp, a loose-cannon-who-doesn't-play-by-the-rules and his relentless pursuit of terr'ists at any cost. Also I find it notable and refreshing that Flynn has avoided becoming a right wing nut, something that his peers (*cough cough* Brad Thor *cough cough*) are wont to do. So kudos to Flynn for that.

Unfortunately, after reading three novels, Rapp becomes less and less convincing as an effective covert operative. I mean, he's just so angry and reckless that he loses his head and frequently goes off the res. I know, I get that he's a loose cannon, but come on. Going nuts has consequences. Also, I think Flynn falls back on certain plot devices too frequently. Specifically, in every novel I've read someone big gets captured by the bad guys and they have to be recovered because they know stuff, man. Lastly (and I sort of hate to say this about any author), I just don't find Flynn to be a very good writer. I mean, his writing is kinda bad. Don't get me wrong, it's serviceable, it just lacks finesse.

Before you Flynn fans start up fanfic in which Rapp hunts me down, I didn't find The Last Man all that bad. Flynn does have a talent for creating memorable and sympathetic supporting characters. Also, Flynn seems to do some very good research on foreign intelligence services (in this case Pakistan's ISI).

You probably know that Flynn passed away in 2013 from cancer and he was far too young for that. I think I read somewhere that the Mitch Rapp series will be continued by another writer. Anyhow, I didn't find The Last Man to be very good, but it was an okay, quick read (I finished it, at least) and I'd still be willing to check out the others in the Mitch Rapp series.

Then came…
The Inhumans: By Right of Birth by Ann Nocenti, Bret Blevins, et al.


This volume collects Marvel Graphic Novel: The Inhumans and the Marvel king-sized special Inhumans: The Untold Saga. To be honest, I never really knew much about the The Inhumans, but, as a bonus entries, from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe are included to to fill you in! A great blast from the past for these old-skool Marvel characters.

And somewhere along the line I tried to read…

The Equalizer by Michael Sloan


…but man, oh, man. I just couldn't finish it. Bear in mind, I was a huge fan of the show with Edward Woodward as retired spy Robert McCall. Author Michael Sloan, as I understand it, was one of the creators of the original TV show and wrote this to coincide with The Equalizer motion picture starring Denzel Washington. I haven't seen the film, but the trailers looked pretty cool and I think Denzel Washington would make an interesting McCall with a more "everyman" take. So I was eager to get my mitts on this but, geez, I just couldn't finish it.

The Equalizer was so boring, the writing filled with such inconsequential detail and trivialities. It would just wear me out after a few pages. And a day in the life of Robert McCall seems highly improbable. Go out to a cafe. See a pimp turning out his ho on the way. Beat up pimp. Go to cafe. Waitress notes McCalls mysteriousness. McCall makes a few cryptic remarks. Waitress notes that McCall must be lonely. McCall plays the noble loner card. All the neighborhood shopkeepers love McCall and try to give him extra stuff, which he, of course, turns down. Goes to his job as a bartender where he is again the mysterious loner with a quiet nobility who is also kind of attractive for being an older guy. It was kinda like that. Give me a break.

I quit after about a hundred pages. I don't know, maybe it got better after that but I wasn't going to read 486 pages of this stuff to find out. Sloan worked on a great show, but the book? Not so much. 1.5 stars.

Next up, I started on John Sandford's Prey series, starring Minneapolis tough guy Lucas Davenport. I picked up a bunch of these for cheap at a library surplus book sale once and that turned out to be a good move since these book are like crack. I can't stop. So far I've read:

Rules of Prey

Shadow Prey

Eyes of Prey

Silent Prey

Winter Prey

Night Prey

Mind Prey

And I'm gonna keep on goin' until I've read them all. Fortunately, Sandford appears to still be churning them out, so there's a lot of fun yet to be had.

I probably don't need to tell you the premise: Lucas Davenport is a tough-guy cop who's not afraid to bend the rules--and sometimes break them--to get the badguy. Oh, he's also a multi-millionaire who earned his fortune by writing role-playing and war-games in his spare time. Yeah, sounds kind of improbable, like a nerd's (my) daydream, but Sandford makes it work. And despite the fact that Davenport's nemeses in each novel are truly vile monsters, there's no dark and dreary vibe. Davenport has his demons and dark moods, but he gets over them. Also, I love the way cop life is presented, particularly with his buddies Del and Sloan, my favorites, who are hilarious.

Speaking of detectives, I've just seen the show True Detective and seeing as how this is Valentine's Day, here are some words of romantic wisdom from Rust Cohle:

Whaaaa--? RIP R.A. Montgomery

Old news, but I just found out today while perusing a Time magazine at the dentist's office.


R.A. Montgomery dies at 78


I had a lot of fun with those books as a kid.

Diagnosis--murder!: two about H.H. Holmes

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America - Tony Goldwyn, Erik Larson The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H. H. Holmes (A Treasury of Victorian Murder) - Rick Geary

Hey, kids. I'm waaay behind in my reviews, as well as in keeping up with all of your reviews and my favorite blogs and websites. But I'm catching up slowly. Here's a two-fer-one.

Talk about extreme malpractice. Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, earned his medical degree in 1884 from the University of Michigan Medical School, but he must have skipped class the day they went over the Hippocratic oath because H.H. Holmes turned out to be one of the first documented serial killers in modern history, and possibly one of the worst. Do no harm? Do much harm.

Holmes was notorious for creating his famous "murder castle," a hotel created to cash in on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The huge, block-sized structure was the site of Holmes's medical practice and pharmacy as well as being a hotel intended to house the droves of sight-seers attracted to the fair. Holmes designed the building himself and it is only in retrospect that the bizarre interior made sense. Trap doors, rooms with inexplicable gas jets, hidden rooms, secret passages. All the better to murder you with, my dear. It was not unexpected that many of the tenants of the hotel were pretty, young women, naïve and wide-eyed, on their first ventures to the modern metropolis of Chicago, seeing as how charming and handsome the landlord was. And it was no coincidence that many of the women disappeared after their stay in the hotel.

When authorities finally arrested Holmes and searched the hotel the remains of the victims made the building's intent all too clear. Holmes was executed for his crimes in 1896, convicted of four counts of murder in the first degree and six attempted murders, but the actual body count is unknown and likely to be far higher, ranging from nine to a couple of hundred.

What I find so fascinating about H.H. Holmes is that he managed to get away with these crimes for so long. Even taking into account that law enforcement and forensic science in that age was nothing like it is today, Holmes was often described as being being irresistibly charming despite his cold, dead eyes. It seemed almost as if he was the Devil incarnate.

As far as Erik Larson is concerned, that's a fitting comparison. In The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America Larson tells the story of the murderous H.H. Holmes in parallel with the story of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Holmes' lurking evil contrasts chillingly with the optimism and spirit of the fair, supported well by Larson's careful research. He paints an outstanding picture of the era and I sometimes forget how much a hundred-plus years can make. Clearly, 1890's America was far more different from today than one would realize. There were many instances related by Larson that made me laugh out loud at how bizarre things then seem to a person of today's era. (I only wish I could give examples. I had to turn the book back in to the library a while ago). The only frustrating bit about the book--and it's not Larson's fault--is that I wish there had been more about H.H. Holmes and what made him tick. But Larson's narrative suffers from what every H.H. Holmes researcher would suffer from: Holmes was simply a cipher that probably no one would be able to fully understand. The Devil in the White City is an eloquent, entertaining and well-researched narrative of a veritable demon that walked among men. ★★★★✩

Another, more visual approach to the story of H.H. Holmes is Richard Geary's The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes, which tells the tale in sequential art format (ie., comic or graphic novel formal--but, of course, it is not a novel, nor is it comic). Geary's black and white art perfectly lends an 1890s feel to the narrative and is a great companion piece to The Devil in the White City. Although there is no graphic gore or violence, the subject matter is of course rather ghastly and I find it amusing that my local library has it catalogued in the "young adult" section. This volume is one in a series, A Treasury of Victorian Murder, featuring other killers of the time and I'll probably be checking them out also at some point. Richard "Rick" Geary is an American comics icon and The Beast of Chicago is a must-read for comics fans, true crime aficionados and H.H. Holmes historians alike. ★★★★✩

Personal by Lee Child

Personal - Lee Child

Reacher is back…and this time it's personal! (said in my best movie trailer guy voice).  It's also the name of the book, Personal, Lee Child's nineteenth and newest Jack Reacher thriller. In this one, faces from Reacher's past come back to haunt him. One is a deadly sniper he busted when he was a military police officer and who has been just released from prison, hungry for revenge. The other appears in the form of a young CIA officer who reminds Reacher of an army colleague whose death he feels responsible for. Ghosts of the past all around, Reacher lends his assistance to a CIA investigation regarding a potential assassination attempt at the G8 summit, an investigation that takes him from the back woods of rural America to the streets of Paris and London. This is convenient because Reacher needed to get his passport renewed anyway…

As usual, Child doesn't fail to please with Personal. It's got everything you expect from a Reacher novel: a little sleuthing, some unexpected violence and a hero who likes to make his own rules. And Reacher  comes back with some good tough guy one-liners. After killing a scumbag thug in merry old England, Reacher defends his act to CIA Agent Casey Nice,  telling her he was "too stupid to live." Nice says, "Stupidity isn't a capital crime. And there's no death penalty here, anyway," to which Reacher replies, "There is now."

This isn't to say that Personal is a masterpiece or anything. The plot is pretty goofy and Reacher, as he is wont to do, just sort of blunders through the investigation, accenting his copious use of unannounced violence with the occasional flash of plot-saving brilliance. In other words, it's a Reacher novel. I will say, though, that I was disappointed that Reacher mistakenly says that "force…is the product of mass times velocity squared," which is incorrect. Force equal mass times acceleration. I would have thought that Reacher, being a pretty sharp fellow, would have known this. Maybe he just got confused in the moment with kinetic energy, which is one-half of mass times velocity squared. After all, he was kicking in a door at the time. Whatever.

Personal is a fun, quick read and sates my Reacher fix. Reacher fans will enjoy.


Central Park West Trilogy by Richard Kalich

Central Park West Trilogy: The Nihilesthete, Penthouse F, Charlie P - Richard Kalich

Sometime in the '90s I acquired a strange little book called The Nihilesthete by Richard Kalich:

Not only was the cover artwork strange, but the format of the book was peculiar, being of unusually small dimensions and filled with 143 pages of tiny print on cheap paper. This was an edition published by Compac Reader Group and could be found at check-out stands of various stores, alongside gum, Slim Jims and the Weekly World News. The publishing outfit had other titles too, each small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. I don't know if they are still around or not, but it's been years since I've seen that sort of format. I don't think that was the edition in which The Nihilesthete was originally published, but that's the one I have.

Anyway, I didn't read The Nihilesthete for many years and it was only when I re-discovered it again among my things in 2011 that I read it. The book amazed me and I liked it so much that I wrote my first crappy little book review on a blog that I was thinking about keeping. The review itself was not very well written and I kinda dumped the blog, but I guess it's still up because I recently received an e-mail from Svetlana Pironko of Betimes Books asking if I would like to read Richard Kalich's newly published Central Park West Trilogy, a collection of three of his novels, including The Nihilesthete. Naturally I said yes. I'd been meaning to read more of Richard Kalich's stuff and this seemed like a great opportunity. I don't usually accept review requests (I'm mean, not that I get that many anyway), but having read The Nihilesthete, I knew Central Park West Trilogy was something right up my alley.

As I mentioned, Central Park West Trilogy is a collection of three of Kalich's novels:

The Nihilesthete (1987), the story of a perverse NYC social worker who, upon the discovery of a disabled, mentally challenged youth with a unique affinity for art, begins to slowly weasel his way into said youth's life with the ultimate goal of crushing the young man's spirit.

Penthouse F (2010), in which Kalich himself takes the lead role as the subject of an interrogation by an unnamed interrogator regarding the apparent double love suicide by an unnamed Boy and an unnamed Girl, a death, seemingly engineered by Kalich himself.

Charlie P (2005), the surreal, absurdist chronicle of a man who "lives life by not living it," whose days are filled with outlandish daydreams and obsessive self-examination, told in a series of vignettes rather than through a cohesive narrative.

Although the three novels are not connected through continuity, they do form a sort of trilogy within the context of the author's life. This amounts to a sort of imagined autobiography of the author, a Kafka-esque metafiction about a man who is trapped by his own obsessions, ambitions and the overwhelming encumbrances of life. Looking at the collection as a whole, Central Park West Trilogy is a stimulating glimpse into Kalich's unusual approach to his art and his craft, as well as his unique approach to the absurdities of life. I think Albert Camus would have approved.

Taken individually, the novels are very different in style. The Nihilesthete takes a more conventional approach (in style, if not in subject matter) by adopting a first-person POV in diary mode. Charlie P and Penthouse F diverge radically from convention but are still exceptionally engaging and readable.

If I were to nit-pick, however, I'd have to say that I find the arrangement of the novels curious since Charlie P concludes the volume rather than Penthouse F, which is chronologically the latest. I think a chronological arrangement would have provided a better flow, Penthouse F being a stronger work than Charlie P, in my opinion. But that's just my personal nit-pick and it doesn't negatively affect the collection as a whole too much.

In conclusion: ★★★★✩ (4/5) Central Park West Trilogy is a much welcomed collection of Richard Kalich's unique vision. Horrific and twisted at times, and dryly humorous at other times (and sometimes both at once), Kalich's grotesqueries do not trigger outrage so much as fascination. Some horrors make you want to turn away; Kalich's make you want to peer in deeper.

I have to admit that I've been reading more pulp trash than "literature" of late, and I'm not really "in the know" these days with what's going on in that world, but I certainly think that Richard Kalich deserves a wider readership (although I can't be sure he wants one; there's not a lot about him on the web. He seems rather low-key). If you are into the offbeat, I highly recommend that you give him a try, and with Central Park West Trilogy you can give him three tries at one go.

(Thanks go to Svetlana Pironko of Betimes Books for providing a digital copy for review and also to Richard Kalich (the man himself!) for providing a paper copy of the book. Visit Richard Kalich at www.richardkalich.com. Check out Betimes Books' other offerings at betimesbooksnow.wordpress.com).

Bookstorm 2014!

Central Park West Trilogy: The Nihilesthete, Penthouse F, Charlie P - Richard Kalich Phoenix (The Complete Action Series) - David Alexander Personal - Lee Child The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America - Tony Goldwyn, Erik Larson

Sometimes everything just happens all at once. You're in the middle of a book, but other pressing reading opportunities emerge and you can't say no because you want to read them all!




Actually, a couple of my library holds have come in at the same time. One is Lee Child's newest Reacher novel, Personal. It's a quick read and a review will be up soon. Another is Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City, about H.H. Holmes, who is good evidence that one should choose one's physician wisely. I can't renew them, so I have to read 'em fast!


Also, I was privileged to receive a copy of Richard Kalich's Central Park West Trilogy for review. This volume is actually a collection of three novels, The Nihilesthete, Charlie P and Penthouse F, so there is a lot of reading to be done therein.


Lastly, and of lowest priority is my guilty pleasure of David Alexander's over-the-top post-apocalyptic series Phoenix, which is a collection of the entire five (is it five?) book series. Anyway, a lot of reading there, too.


So that's me. If I could read all day I could have them all done pretty quickly, but, you know, there's life, too, to take care of (if you want to call it at). So for now I must simply press on through the Bookstorm. Hmm, "Bookstorm." If there's a way to work sharks into that it would be awesome.

What Amazon did to Goodreads

So, in my inbox this morning, I get the following from the lovely folks at Goodreads:

Hi Krycek, It’s OK to be an introvert. But procrastinator? Time to get Quiet off your want to read list. Listen to it, for free, with an Audible trial. Narrator Kathe Mazur gets the pacing just right, creating space for Cain’s power-packed gems.

And there is a button that will take me to the Audible.com website for a free trial offer.

My first thought: it's kind of insulting to be called a procrastinator and urged to get off my ass by some stranger.

Second thought: this is what Amazon did to Goodreads.

Of course you know that Amazon acquired Goodreads last year, but this is the first time I've received spam from Goodreads on Amazon's behalf (Audible.com is an Amazon company). Chief Goodreader Otis has always claimed that Amazon's acquisition of Goodreads can only benefit the reader, but how receiving time-wasting, useless bullshit in my inbox benefits me I can only guess. If I wanted to join Audible.com I would have done so already. It sure benefits Amazon, though.

I was thinking of maybe posting reviews on Goodreads again since Booklikes has that cross-posting option to make it easy to do, but now I think, naah. It just kinda turns me off. Goodreads has a wealth of great data and greater users. It's a shame that it's just a big marketing machine.

Like I've said before, I can't blame Amazon too much since you sort of expect this stuff from a soulless conglomerate. And Amazon does provide good service. But as a consumer, I am careful to keep my relationship with Amazon on a tight leash: I give them money, they give me what I want and they stay out of my life. Otis, though, had a choice and he chose to sell out. It's not my place to judge the guy but it's not the choice I would have made.

Anyway, I guess it's not a big deal. Maybe there's a way to unsubscribe from crap e-mails inviting me to spend my money on stuff I don't give a shit about. But it does rub me the wrong way and reminds me why Goodreads kinda sucks now.

Stick by Elmore Leonard

Stick - Elmore Leonard

In 1985 there was this movie called Stick, starring and directed by Burt Reynolds and this movie was based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, published in 1983. I haven't seen the film, but I've heard it's pretty lame. I even heard that Leonard's experience with the film was so bad that he disowned the whole deal. I guess others felt the same way since it was a box office flop. I just mention this because while reading the novel Stick I just could not see Burt Reynolds as Stick. I kept imagining him all through the novel as my main man Lee Marvin. And J.B. Smoove would have been the perfect Cornell. Now, I realize that you'd have to get a couple of time machines to get these guys together for a 1985 production, but hell, I would have seen that  movie.

Stick's about a guy named Ernest "Stick" Stickley, an ex-con (though my dad would have argued that there is no such thing as an "ex"-con; once you're convicted you're convicted, unless it's overturned. It's pedantic, but I feel a compulsion to mention that) fresh out of the stir and ready to make a clean life for himself. He's moved to Miami to be close to his daughter and his hostile ex-wife (in this case "ex" works). He hooks up with a prison buddy called Rainy who's got a gig going on, but when it goes down things go horribly awry. Rainy gets himself killed, and Stick realizes that bullet was meant for the new guy--in other words him. Stick then lays low and gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich financial guy named Barry who's too slick for his own good.

But the world works in funny ways and Stick soon realizes that Barry has dealings with a weird dude named Chucky, the same guy that sent Rainy on his final, ill-fated job! Sooner or later Stick and Chucky's path are bound to cross and Stick's just remembered that he never got the five-grand promised him for that job. Throw in a smart and sexy financial advisor for Stick to chase and a Dude-Ranch-reject-cowboy-wannabe working with Cuban mobsters to chase Stick and you've got yourself a good time.

Stick is everything you'd expect a novel from Elmore Leonard to be: smart, witty and cool, with easy no-nonsense prose that sounds more like some guy just talking to you than reading a book. It's a good read. That being said, there's nothing in Stick that really stands out. The novel begins and ends pretty well, with a little bit of meandering fluff in between. But it's still a fun book full of interesting characters and sharp dialogue. I understand thatStick is a follow-up to Leonard's 1976 novel Swag, also featuring Ernest Stickley. I hear that one is pretty good, so I'll have to track it down.

My verdict: ★★★✬✩ (3.5/5 stars). Stick's a good book that just falls short of being excellent. There's everything you expect from Elmore Leonard and even though the plot sort of suffers from a lack of impetus, you still can't go wrong with anything Leonard writes.

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

By Max Allan Collins - The Wrong Quarry (Hard Case Crime) (Hard Case Crime Novels) (12.11.2013) - Max Allan Collins


Quarry doesn't kill just anybody these days. He restricts himself to targeting other hitmen, availing his marked-for-death clients of two services: eliminating the killers sent after them, and finding out who hired them…and then removing that problem as well.

So far he's rid the world of nobody who would be missed. But this time he finds himself zeroing in on the the grieving family of a missing cheerleader. Does the hitman's hitman have the wrong quarry in his sight?

Well, duh, obviously he does. After all, the title of Max Allan Collins' eleventh Quarry novel is The Wrong Quarry. Sort of a spoiler? Maybe. But The Wrong Quarry is a well-paced, thrilling read, punctuated by Quarry's witty, hard-boiled first-person prose.

It's a fun read, but I can't help but point out some goofy bits, mostly relating to Quarry himself. Despite being a cold-hearted killer-for-hire who cut his teeth in the 'Nam, Quarry himself is a bit of a dolt. For one, he is kind of a man-slut who can't say no to a back-alley blow-job by the town skank (who happens to have a heart-of-gold, by the way) and has a bit of an uncomfortable appreciation for nubile jailbait, in my opinion. Seems a little unprofessional. Also, it doesn't make a lot of sense that Quarry would kill the killers and then put on his private-eye hat to do some digging around. I mean, wouldn't it be smarter to at least try questioning the hitmen first before killing them? Just seems like he could save himself a lot of trouble is all I'm saying.

But it all seems to work out okay, even if Quarry's methods are less than efficient. The Wrong Quarry is neither smart nor clever and, when you think about it, is just kind silly. But it is a fun, quick read and I don't want to give the impression that I'm judging too harshly.  Despite plot silliness, Collins makes Quarry a fun character to read.

My verdict: ★★★✬✩ (3.5/5 stars). The Wrong Quarry doesn't win any awards for cleverness or even common sense, but Max Allan Collins makes the ride a fun one. Even if Quarry is just kind of spinning his wheels on an investigation (and frequently getting laid in the process) it's fun to tag along.

A brief history of everything: two by Stephen Hawking

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time: Updated and Expanded Edition - Stephen Hawking The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe - Stephen Hawking

Sometimes when I'm trying to sleep I let my mind wander off and I start to think about space and stars and planets. I like to imagine what it would be like to be a cosmic traveller like the Silver Surfer or something, with the ability to travel to the boundaries of the universe and to the beginning and end of time and beyond, if there is a beyond. Of course, this takes a considerable amount of imagination and I can't help but eventually come to an impasse when I reach the outer limits of human comprehension. This usually occurs about three or four in the morning. After realizing that the greater mysteries of the universe have kept me up for the better part of the night and I need some sleep, I then usually start thinking about simple stuff, like cars, pizza, girls or something.

Someone else who has thought a lot about this kind of stuff (you may have heard of him) is a guy named Stephen Hawking. And of course you've heard of him. Hawking is one of the greatest minds of this era and I looked to a couple of his books to help me along my cosmological journey: The Theory of Everything: the origin and fate of the universe and The Illustrated Brief History of Time.

As illuminating as these two books are, I have to point out that they are practically the same book. Both highlight Hawking's main arguments and conclude with considerations regarding the reconciliation of general relativity with quantum mechanics. When I say these are practically the same book, I do not exaggerate. Entire chapters (like "Black Holes Ain't So Black" and "The Direction of Time") are very near duplicates. I've had to return The Illustrated Brief History of Time to the library so I can't now directly compare the two, but suffice to say that reading both titles is unnecessary. I would probably recommend The Illustrated Brief History of Time first since it benefits from being illustrated and expands upon the first edition. The Theory of Everything is introduced as a series of lectures by Hawking. If so, I surmise that they are canned lectures taken from A Brief History of Time, so there's no point in reading both. The books are so similar, even down to the exact same jokes and anecdotes, that I wonder why they were published under separate titles.

Anyway, the ideas presented therein are nothing short of fascinating and presented in perhaps the easiest possible of ways for the layman. Even so, some of the concepts are a little dense for non-scientists and take a bit of careful reading to get through. Fortunately, Hawking is a good writer and makes it a point to present these concepts in an as accessible manner as possible.

Hawking first covers the general historical concepts of the nature of the universe and how they have developed through the times, settling on the "Big Bang" theory of origin. He writes about the importance of black holes and how important they are in relation to gravity, light and space-time. He covers notions on the eventual fate of the universe, the progression of time and concludes with thoughts on the unification of physics, reconciling general relativity with quantum theory, creating a "theory of everything."

It's all pretty deep stuff. But besides the science aspect, The Theory of Everything and A Brief History of Time are amazing reflections on how humans envision existence and the universe, stretching our viewpoints beyond traditional concepts of reality, boundaries and linear time. It really is extraordinary and while the stuff is mostly theoretical it does serve, for me anyway, as a more acceptable model for the basis of the universe than any arbitrary, tradition-based cosmology (ie, religion) could. That is not to say that the idea of god is left out of Hawking's worldview, but it is reserved for the things we can't explain with science; the rest are matters of fact and logic.

My verdict: ★★★★✬ (4.5/5 stars) for both, since both books have practically the same content. The Illustrated Brief History of Time is nice to start with because of the helpful illustrations and diagrams, but The Theory of Everything is more compact and, in some ways, flows better than the former, since not all of the illustrations in The Illustrated Brief History of Time are that useful. Just from a personal standpoint, neither book receives a full 5★ from me simply because they are too similar (I advocate recycling, but cans and newspapers and stuff--not books you've already written).  Either way, both books are wins and are profoundly fascinating.

The Double by George Pelecanos

The Double - George Pelecanos

The Double is the second outing of George Pelecanos' war-vet-Marine-turned-private-eye Spero Lucas, who was first introduced in The Cut. I have not read The Cut, but I'm going to get to it since I enjoyed The Double and Pelecanos is on the fast track to becoming one of my favorite authors. That being said, I probably didn't enjoy The Double as much as I should have. That was no fault of the author, but rather circumstance.

The past few weeks have been a mess. I won't go into too much detail (not for privacy reasons, I just don't feel like getting into background and context right now), but long story short: mom fell, seriously injured her good eye, went through emergency surgery and spent time at an extended care facility to recover. That's basically what happened, but I'm leaving out a number of details that made this event an absolute ordeal for both mom and me. At any rate, most of the upsetting stuff is over, but mom's recovery of her eyesight is up in the air. Sure, I get all that life-is-a-beautiful-gift stuff, but let's face it: sometimes it just fucking sucks. (This whole ordeal deserves a more complete write-up, but I'll take care of that outside of this book review).

So that, in a nutshell, is what kind of distracted me from enjoying The Double as fully as I would have under more pleasant circumstances. Anyway, Spero Lucas' specialty is finding lost items and The Double has Lucas on the tail of a stolen painting entitled "The Double." Lucas is hired by a woman who had the painting stolen from her by a aging misogynistic beach bum who screwed her over, literally. She just wants the painting back, but Lucas wants justice, and not just the kind of justice that the law provides.

Spero Lucas has an interesting background, being one of three adopted sons of a variety of ethnicities in a Greek-American family. Race is understated in Pelacanos' books and it took me a while to picture Spero in my mind (I kept imagining him as African-American, but I think his school teacher brother is African-American and Spero is white). Does it matter? Pelecanos leaves that for you to decide. But the obtuse way he writes about race and race relations in his books shows that while he is a genre-based writer, genre-based fiction can express important issues in innovative ways. Does it matter? Is it important? Pelecanos seems to say, yes, it is important, and no, it doesn't matter. Pelecanos' characters are definitely closely identified with their racial and ethnic backgrounds, but at the same time their personas extend beyond the archetypes on which lesser authors often fall back. Racial and ethnic identities in Pelecanos' world belong to the characters and not the other way around.

Actually, Spero Lucas, at first glance, seemed to me a rather boring character. He's a former Marine, a vet of the Iraq war. He likes to bike, kayak and keep fit. He enjoys music. He likes a little beer and the occasional toke of weed. He's polite and cool and never has much trouble attracting the ladies, but is always surprised when he does. He had a hard time in the war, but he's pretty stable and turned out all right. It doesn't get to him. He's perfectly normal. Right.

That's where The Double turns it around. Lucas is a far more complex character than Pelecanos initially lets on. Lucas may be normal, but he has his issues. He so good at hiding his issues, he's fooled himself into thinking he's okay. He's so good that he's fooled the reader into thinking that he's okay, a normal dude. Only when we see him gun down bad guys as if he were still a Marine in Iraq, or watching the window of his adulterous lover's apartment at night do we get the sense that Lucas' dark (dark, not evil) side is just beneath his normal guy exterior and barely in check. "The Double" is not just the name of the painting, or the title of the book, but also a clue to Lucas' persona.

The Double is seemingly a straight-up crime thriller, but illuminates the dark little corners of Lucas' mind in subtle ways and is a good example of why Pelecanos is probably one of the best writers around today. (But I have to say, George, you should know by now that Glocks don't have manual safeties. At least not usually. Sorry--just me, picking my nits.)

Life gets in the way

The Double - George Pelecanos

I'm not dead. Not yet. But I haven't been doing much reading for the past couple of weeks. When I have been reading, it's been George Pelecanos' The Double and so far I dig, but it would be better if I could just read and not worry about other stuff. We've been having a bit of a major family medical crisis around here for the past couple of weeks. I don't care to go into it now, not until I can write more eloquently on it, but suffice to say it has been, and continues to be, a difficult time for all involved.


Anyway, that's the score. It's been easier for me to relax in front of the TV lately, but I am starting to miss the printed word. And I'm itching to see how Spero Lucas fares in the conclusion of The Double.

Massive by Ian Sample

Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science - Ian Sample

If you don't know what the Higgs boson is (and you're not a physicist) then  don't feel too bad. For us non-physicists, the concept is fascinating, but still rather obtuse. If you are a physicist and don't know, then you may consider seeking a different profession because this has been one of the most, if not the most, compelling questions in science for the past forty years. Discovery of the Higgs boson could have profound ramifications on how we know our universe and even our very existence. The media has bestowed upon the Higgs boson the unfortunate nickname "the God Particle," a name universally loathed in the scientific community for its pretense. Peter Higgs, one of the original theorists and for whom the particle is named, prefers to call it the "so-called Higgs boson," recognizing, with characteristic modesty, that he was not the sole scientist who worked on the original theory.

Whatever you wish to call it, you'll have to wait at least through next year for the big news. In 2012 a particle was discovered at CERN that is a likely candidate for the Higgs boson, but the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is undergoing maintenance and doesn't come back online until next year. In the meantime, you have the opportunity to bone up on particle physics before then. A good way to start is with Ian Sample's Massive: the missing particle that sparked the greatest hunt in science.

First, just to make sure we are on the same terms, let's talk about what a Higgs boson is. Now, as I mentioned, I'm no kind of physicist, but if I had to give a quick explanation (as I understand it) the Higgs boson is a theoretical particle that answers the question of why things have mass and why the universe is not a hot mess of energy zipping around in all directions. Here's a little illustration I've stolen that explains it:

And here's a self-test I've stolen from somewhere else to check if you do understand:

Now that we've got that settled, Massive is a surprisingly understandable and entertaining account of the search for the Higgs boson. Sample does an admirable job of making this concept something even I can understand (even if tenuously) and does so in an often dryly humorous manner. But even though the book centers around the Higgs theory and other related theories, the real story is about the scientists behind the search, the sometimes cutthroat competition and raging egos between them, catastrophic setbacks and the media, who does their best to misunderstand the concepts in favor of big headlines.

★★★★✩ (4/5 stars): Massive is an excellent account of the search for the Higgs boson, and the exciting part is that the search is on-going, with potentially significant results next year. Maybe most important is Sample makes science accessible and engaging and to wrap your mind around this stuff really makes you feel more in tune with the world around you and realize what an amazing thing life and the universe can be.

If I were to suggest improvements to the book, I'd add a section of photos. I like to connect the names of the scientists involved with faces and I think visual representations of the particles at play would help in a great way. Furthermore, a photo of a supercollider would certainly show more effectively how awesome these devices are. Lacking photos, I went to Google:

That is really something.

Despite the lack of photos or illustrations, Massive is fascinating and a must for science buffs. Originally published in 2010, try to find a newer copy published in 2012 with a new afterword by Sample and is more up to date.

Wolverine: The Best There Is -- Not so fast, bub.

Wolverine: The Best There Is: The Complete Series - Charlie Huston, Juan José Ryp

I've been a fan of Wolverine ever since I was but a wee nerd, spending my hard-earned 60 cents on The Uncanny X-Men issue #173. Comic prices may have gone up, times may have changed, but thankfully Wolvie is still "the best there is" at what he does…and what he does "ain't pretty." I remember getting all excited when Wolverine and the X-Men made an appearance on the cartoon Spidey and His Amazing Friends, but now we have movies with Wolverine! And Hugh Jackman is probably the best actor for Logan there could be (even though he's too tall). Yeah, Wolverine is a bad ass. But Wolverine: The Best There Is isn't. The best there is, that is.

Charlie Huston writes and Juan Jose Ryp illustrates this tale in which Logan is captured by a psychotic asshole named Contagion who is collecting super-types with survivability powers. As we all know, one of Logan's mutant powers is fast healing (case in point, remember when the Silver Samurai sliced through Wolvie's torso, only stopping because of his adamantium-fused spine? If you can remember this, respect, my fellow comic nerd). Contagion also has some obscure super-types helping him, like Madcap and Yi Yang (remember her? Yeah, neither did I. I think she only appeared in Marvel UK books around thirty years ago) and is trying to save his son who is horribly afflicted with some kind of sickness. Thus, Logan, with his exemplary regeneration powers, becomes the subject for Contagion's sadistic experiments.

Well, that's basically the start of it. It goes on, but who cares? I expected more from Charlie Huston, but this Wolverine story arc (twelve issues of it…geez) just wasn't very good. Logan had little personality beyond the stuff he's known for and he was generally ineffectual here. This is not the Wolvie I know. It seemed like Huston let Wolvie's agency in the story take a back seat to all the stupid supporting characters who no one cares about. Despite all the "action," it was boring.

Speaking of "action," this was the bloodiest, goriest Wolverine comic I have ever read. I know that Wolverine is a violent character and I'm not averse to gore when it has a purpose, but this was just ridiculous. This was like a horror show, like if Wolverine was in a Saw movie. There were times I wondered if I was reading a Wolvie comic or the super-gory Faust. Heads are decapitated, limbs are severed, guts are puked out, there is blood everywhere…but for some reason the profanity is replaced with "#######," as if letting a "fuck" or "shit" slip by is going to offend someone after seeing a blood soaked Wolverine impale Yi Yang with his claws (and she gets off on it!). It's just dumb.

While Ryp's art has a certain distinctive style, I don't think he's a good fit for Wolverine. I particularly hated the way he drew his face and could not maintain correct height proportions (yes, I am a nerd, but this is canon: Logan is 5'3" according to OHOTMU. In another title I may have enjoyed Ryp's art more, but for this title it just wasn't a good fit.

The verdict: ★★✩✩✩ (2/5 stars). Wolverine: The Best There Is is sadistic, ridiculous and boring. Just because Wolverine can recover from anything doesn't make torturing him fun to watch. But to make matters worse, Wolverine is pretty lame here and settles with being carried away with the plot rather than kicking the plot in its ass. I expected better from Charlie Huston, but maybe he's just not a comics guy. Ryp's art saves this from being a 1-star production. Even though I didn't care for it here, I can tell he's got some drawing chops. Wolverine: The Best There Is is not even close to the best. I'd pass.

Portland Noir

Portland Noir - Kevin Sampsell, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, Jonathan Selwood, Justin Hocking, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich, Zoe Trope, Megan Kruse, Gigi Little, Dan DeWeese, Luciana Lopez, Chris A. Bolton

I've been to a lot of places, but I've never been to Portland, despite having lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of my life. I've been to Ashland once for the Shakespeare festival, but have to admit that I rarely even think of Portland. When I do think of Portland it is usually because I am remembering the Dead Kennedys' song "Night of the Living Rednecks." These days I am reminded of Portland when I remember that I've been meaning to check out the show Portlandia, which I understand is pretty funny but have never seen. Or I think of the Portland-based singer Luz Elena Mendoza who appears in the recent Portland tourism ads and she's pretty cute in that commercial. But I understand that Portland has become quite cool of late, a veritable hipster haven. I may be totally off, but I sort of imagine Portland as a more-hip Tacoma. Portland Noir is one in a series of noir short story collections by Akashic books, each centering on a locale and featuring writers from that area, in this case, Portland, Oregon. The idea is intriguing and i really like the idea of exploring noir-style in settings other than the usual L.A. or N.Y.C.

Portland Noir is edited by Kevin Sampsell and features stories by Ariel Gore, Jess Walter, Bill Cameron, Karen Karbo and several others. With sixteen stories in the book, it's enough to keep you busy and give you a pretty good representative view of Portland's writing talent. Most of the stories are good and provide a sense of the Portland area. I particularly enjoyed Dan DeWeese's "The Sleeper," which, though not a crime story, has a wonderful noir-feel of nocturnal loneliness and desolation. A few of the stories are a little mediocre, though, and failed to make much of an impression on me.

One thing I noticed, though, that many of the stories weaved in the image of Portland being a hip town a little heavy handedly, like I'd be out of place if I wasn't wearing a vintage concert tee, skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses while saying ironic things to my equally hip friend over some kombucha mocha lattes after biking to the coffee joint on my single speed road bike. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the hipness was just a little self-conscious in some of the stories and I had the impression that Portland has a lot more to offer than that. Sampsell writes in the intro:

Later, in the 1940s and '50s, the city practically thrived on criminal activities. Speakeasies, brothels, and gambling dens popped up across the downtown area. The police, the district attorney, and local Teamsters were all in bed with the local vice pushers. Portland became known as quite the decadent town, even prompting Bobby Kennedy to wrangle up its main bad guys for a televised Racketeering Committee meeting in 1957. One senator said at the hearings, "If I lived there, I would suggest they pull the flags down to half-mast in public shame."

Ah, yes. This is the Portland I was hoping to read about. Sin and corruption is far more interesting than lentil loafs and skinny jeans.
The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5 stars) Portland Noir is a good collection of some very good stories and some "just okay" stories. Portland is a setting that is fully ready for the noir treatment, but I would have preferred a more consistent feel that is more tied down to Portland's history rather than its current hipster-vogue status. Nevertheless, Portland has got some great writers. I'd like to check out the also-available Seattle Noir next (Seattle being described by Sampsell as Portland's "creepy old uncle," a more accurate and complementary assessment I could not imagine).

The Enemy (Jack Reacher #8) by Lee Child

The Enemy (Jack Reacher #8) - Lee Child

It's New Year's Eve, just on the cusp of a new decade, 1990, and military police officer Major Jack Reacher has just arrived at his new command after being inexplicably reassigned. He doesn't have time to enjoy rolling in the new year though because before he's even settled he gets a call from the local cops. A general has been found dead in a cheap motel room, apparently of a heart attack. The situation seems hinky to Reacher, but what can you do? Even general officers might have liaisons in cheap hotel rooms. At least he went out with a bang. But when the general's wife is found murdered in her home and other seemingly unrelated murders start occurring, Reacher knows something is dirty. With the help of a young, female MP lieutenant, Reacher uncovers a plot that extends into the highest ranks of army hierarchy.

The Enemy is Lee Child's eighth Jack Reacher book and now that I've read it I'm done with the entire run of novels until Personal comes out in September. I guess I'll have to read some of the short stories to tide me over. Anyway, I would have preferred to have completed the run of novels on a high note since I really enjoy these Jack Reacher books in general, but The Enemy, while starting off promisingly, managed to be one of the weaker novels in the series.

As mentioned in the synopsis above, The Enemy is one of those Reacher novels that go back to his army days and it's written in a first person perspective. It's always kind of fun to see what Reacher was like in the old days, but as I have mentioned before in other reviews, Child does not write convincingly about the U.S. Army. I guess it doesn't really matter, but a lot of it comes across as kind of goofy, like driving around in humveess all the time rather than a GSA vehicle (oh, and humvees don't have a "big red start button"; it's a switch). It's like if you're a medical professional and you're watching some TV show where the doc stabs the patient in the heart with a giant syringe of atropine and says "Live, dammit!" and you're like, "Noooo…come on." It's like that. But I guess I don't mind the inaccuracies too much. I just kind of correct things in my mind as I read.

But even though Reacher has made a career of the military, with all the rules and regulations it's not his best environment. Reacher doesn't do rules and I like him best as a wandering loner. And the plot of The Enemy didn't really capitalize on Reacher's particular talent for causing all kinds of physical mayhem and violence. Of course we know that Reacher's a pretty clever fellow, but let's be honest. We all like to see him bust some heads. There is little head busting in The Enemy. The plot mostly involves Reacher and Summer (the female MP lieutenant) checking things out and following up leads. That, in itself, is okay, but the mystery they're solving is just so convoluted and far-fetched that it's a little preposterous.

There are, however, some good moments, like when a hungry Reacher urges Lt. Summer to ask a nun if she's going to finish her in-flight meal, or Reacher's funny (but juvenile) way of dispensing justice to the main bad guy in the end. The Enemy also incorporates a significant event in Reacher's life, the death of his mother by cancer and he and his brother Joe must come to terms with that.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5 stars). The Enemy is not the strongest Jack Reacher book, but is a serviceable mystery. Though it's light on action and the coherency of the plot is questionable, Reacher's humanity is highlighted as he deals with the death of his mother and this part for me made up for the rest of the novel's shortcomings.