Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the most consistent and compelling teams in comics, and Criminal show some of their early promise. I’ve never read any of Brubaker’s superhero books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his work with Phillips for Image Comics.
Criminal is one of their earlier collaborations, originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned comics imprint, and recently reprinted in a deluxe edition by Image Comics. Criminal is oftentimes cited as a masterpiece of the genre, but in this first volume, it feels like Brubaker and Phillips aren’t quite stretching their wings.
I get the impression that later volumes of Criminal are a bit more surreal and/or experimental, but the first volume is completely grounded. In fact, it feels downright familiar if you’ve read anything by Richard Stark. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think my enjoyment of this book may have suffered in comparison with their later works, i.e. Fatale and The Fade Out.
Criminal’s first volume tells the story of Leo, a career criminal known both for his strict rules for every job and his uncanny ability to get away clean when the shit hits the fan. When a dirty cop convinces him to arrange a heist targeting a police evidence van, things inevitably go south in a bad way and Leo is left to pick up the pieces.
I feel like I’ve seen the story beats in this volume a million times, but Brubaker’s writing and Phillips’ art help elevate it into something more than generic. Criminal might feel familiar, but the execution is top-notch.
I enjoyed reading this volume, and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume at some point, but it’s definitely not my favorite book by Brubaker and Phillips. So far, Fatale still wins that prize.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Story By: Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley Art By: Jeremy Haun Published: March 16, 2016 Publisher: Image Comics Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Thriller, Mystery Format: Paperback Length: 164 pages
The Beauty Volume 1 has one cool idea and not much else: there is a new sexually transmitted disease that makes you beautiful. If you contract it, you become young, thin and pretty within minutes. The only apparent side effect is a constant low-level fever, so people go out of their way to get infected. It isn’t long before half the population has The Beauty.
There are factions who object to The Beauty for political and religious reasons, but the real problem is that people with The Beauty are starting to spontaneously combust and nobody knows why. When a woman combusts in public, two police detectives (one of them infected) try to find an explanation. They face opposition from government officials trying to cover it up and a shady pharmaceutical CEO who just wants to make a profit. The story turns into a by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller/mystery after only a few pages.
One of my biggest problems with The Beauty is that I didn’t care about the main characters at all. They are generic pretty people who only want to Solve The Crime And Stop The Conspiracy. Neither of them has an identifiable personality and their dialog is basically interchangeable.
The villains get slightly more characterization and/or back story, if only because we see them doing things that aren’t necessarily related to the case at hand. That doesn’t mean their motivations are clear, however.
One villain wears a skull mask and eviscerates his victims to show that he’s obviously a very bad dude, but his appearances in the story are all gore and no tension because his actions feel utterly impersonal.
When I finished reading this volume, I had to check to find out if it was a mini-series or an ongoing title. It felt like a complete (if underdeveloped) story, so I wanted to know if my instincts were correct. It turns out that it is an ongoing series even though the sixth issue wraps up a lot of threads and ends with a note of finality.
One thing I did like about The Beauty was the art. It has a clean, realistic style that emphasizes the absurd horror of spontaneous combustions. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give the art much to work with, so the book feels slight and generic.
After reading so many disappointing comics with boilerplate stories and undeveloped characters, it’s starting to feel like a problem with the medium. There are exceptional writers like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky and Brian K. Vaughan working in comics, but the ability to fully develop a character in a few panels seems like a rare talent.
Unfortunately, The Beauty doesn’t deliver on the clever idea at its core because the characters are personality-free and generic.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Gamification and C-Monkeys are a pair of related novellas sold together as a “flip book” with a different cover on each side. The effect is clearly meant as a call-back to days when publishers sold slim, pulpy novels in bound pairs, and although both stories include familiar beats, Hollihan leavens each with modern ecological concerns and stylistic touches.
I decided to start reading these novellas thanks to a highly scientific method that involved skimming the first page of every review copy I have in my possession until I found one that hooked me enough to keep reading.
Gamification, a thriller about corporate espionage, offered just the right combination of spare prose and business jargon. I was soon caught up in the plight of the main character, a former corporate executive and current ex-con recently released from prison and struggling to make ends meet. When he begins working under-the-table for his old company cleaning up after the CEO’s ill-advised affair with a woman at a rival company, things start to get hairy.
Hollihan definitely knows his jargon. I’m pretty sure that if you turn this book sideways, a few inter-office memos and a quarterly report might fall out. He also has a pretty solid grasp of thriller conventions and pacing; the book starts out slow but steady until things inevitably begin escalating and Hollihan pulls the rug out from under his main character.
It was exciting reading, and I definitely enjoyed the experience, but the end of the novella left several story threads unresolved or unexplained, and I was admittedly a bit confused about who did what to whom and why. It felt a bit like Hollihan ignored motivations and explanations in the name of surprise and excitement. It worked in the moment, but ultimately left me unsatisfied.
I assumed that C-Monkeys might shed some light on the parts of Gamification that remained unexplained, but I was sadly disappointed. At one point in Gamification, the main character is given a pulpy dime-store novel about a mad scientist on a mysterious island full of giant salamanders. C-Monkeys is essentially the expanded version of that novel’s summary.
Unfortunately, in expanding the story, Hollihan doesn’t bring much more to the table. The main character in C-Monkeys is a cipher with no back story and no clear motivations. We are eventually told a bit more about who he is and why he might want to sneak on the island, but it comes late in the story and feels like an arbitrary info-dump instead of a shocking revelation. Honestly, nothing about C-Monkeys felt particularly surprising or remarkable.
I wanted to like Gamification and C-Monkeys more than I did. Both novellas were eminently readable, and Hollihan gets a surprising amount of entertainment mileage out of corporate espionage and the particulars of drilling for oil, but Gamification’s many twists add up to a lot of nonsense and C-Monkeys just feels unnecessary. I might be up for reading more of Hollihan’s work, but I can’t recommend this pair of novellas.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: February 9th, 2010 Publisher: Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Young Adult, Crime, Thriller Format: Audiobook Length: 6 hrs and 6 mins
First, a confession: I was mostly inspired to pick up this book thanks to an incredible cover re-design done for Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip challenge a few months ago. I’d seen Ally Carter’s books on the shelves before and was vaguely intrigued by the titles and premises, but never enough to actually read them. I try to be open-minded about books that look like they aren’t “meant for me” but it’s all too easy to forget. Heist Society is a good reminder that I oftentimes thoroughly enjoy books that someone in a marketing department decided only a woman would read.
Heist Society is the first in a series of books about Katarina “Kat” Bishop, a teenage girl who comes from a long like of con artists and thieves. The book opens with her getting kicked out of a prestigious boarding school that she’d scammed her way into in the first place. Her motivation? No schemes or plans but her desire to get out of the family business and live a normal life. Unfortunately for her, the family business won’t let her go that easy. When it turns out that her father is in trouble with a very dangerous man who wants his paintings back, Kat assembles a crew and plans a heist to save her father’s life and put things right.
The tone throughout is arch but not snarky, brisk and cool and thoroughly engaging. There’s a bit of romance, even a love triangle by the end of it, and the heist is appropriately convoluted and clever. One of the things I liked most about Heist Society is the way Carter uses real historical details to flesh out the back story and give the heist meaning and weight. I was already enjoying the book, but when Kat learns exactly what kind of paintings she’s dealing with, Carter had me thoroughly hooked for the long haul.
My only criticism of the book relates to a character named Nick. Nick’s appearance late in the story adds a nice bit of romantic tension, but his motivations and back story never make sense. He feels like a slightly too-obvious late addition designed to raise the stakes of the relationship between Kat and her friend Hale.
However, I’d consider that a minor quibble, and it certainly didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of Heist Society. I’ll definitely be picking up the next book in the series.
Like many of the books in my extensive collection, I’ve owned an unread copy of Under the Dome for years. It wasn’t until I began sorting through my books in preparation for a cross-country move that I decided it time to dive in and read that massive tome so that I could sell it. I was, of course, also hoping to finish reading before the premiere of the CBS adaptation. I wasn’t successful in either goal, however; the book came with me to California, and the series was 3-4 episodes in before I finished reading.
I’ve also been on a bit of a throwback kick recently. I read a lot of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard in high school, and I’ve been reading a lot of both lately. I’ve mostly been reading Leonard’s older stuff, but with King I’ve been focusing on his most recent work. Doing so has caused me to come to the conclusion that King has been doing some of his best work since finishing the Dark Tower series. Joyland is brisk and entertaining, 11/22/63 is easily one of King’s masterpieces, and Under the Dome is a solid small-town epic.
Under the Dome opens with few glimpses of events around town as people are trapped, injured or killed when a mysterious invisible dome comes down from the sky and surrounds the town. King sets up heroes, villains, murderers and a mystery in short order, then gets down to the business of watching a small town viciously turn on itself. In a lot of ways, Under the Dome reads a bit like a fictionalized sociology experiment. The speculative elements are kept to a minimum, and King seems more interested in human behavior under pressure – good, evil and in-between. It’s a concern that has always threaded through his work, but here he brings it to the forefront.
I will admit that Under the Dome didn’t grab me quite as much as 11/22/63, but I think part of that is the difference in focus. 11/22/63 is personal and romantic, focused on one man’s experiences, whereas Under the Dome has a huge cast of characters and a wide-ranging focus. The characters in Under the Dome are alternately likable or heinous, but none of them has the depth given the main character in 11/22/63. In some ways, Under the Dome reminded me a bit of Tommyknockers, with its shifting viewpoints and portrait of a small town falling apart at the seams. However, where Tommyknockers is wildly inconsistent and rambling, Under the Dome is measured and focused, even at an epic length.
Ultimately I thought Under the Dome was entertaining and competently written but comparatively unremarkable. Better than some of King’s older books, but not up to the standard set by his other recent work. I think part of the problem may have been the fact that much of what happens relies on the townspeople being gullible or outright stupid; Big Jim Rennie feels like such an obvious villain that it’s sometimes hard to believe anyone trusts him in the first place. I’m glad I read it, but I’m curious to see how the TV series reconfigures the same elements for a different medium.
Lauren Beukes first came to my attention thanks to William Gibson or maybe Cory Doctorow. Some great author who recommended her on Twitter. I picked up her first two books, Moxyland and Zoo City, and read Moxyland a few years ago. I liked it, but it definitely felt like Gibson’s sensibility filtered through a South African setting. On the other hand, The Shining Girls, her third novel and first for Mulholland Books, reads like Beukes striking out on her own and making a name for herself. The result is stunning, harrowing and immensely readable.
The Shining Girls follows the interlocking lives of two characters: Curtis Harper, who discovers a mysterious house that lets him travel in time as long as he murders the “shining girls” mapped out on the bedroom wall, and Kirby Mazrachi, one of Harper’s attempted murder victims who manages to survive and devotes her life to tracking him down. We are also treated to heartbreaking vignettes of the women Harper kills throughout the 20th century; every woman he murders is full of endless potential that he snuffs out by torturing them to death and mutilating their bodies.
Although time travel is part of the narrative, The Shining Girls feels more like a crime thriller than a scifi story. It helps that the story all takes part in the past – Kirby’s “present day” is the early nineties. The speculative elements exist mostly as plot devices and a way to build tension, and Beukes doesn’t spend much time explaining how Harper is able to do what he does. Beukes has a background in journalism, and it’s clear that a lot of research went into this novel. The women we meet throughout the story span multiple social classes, decades and races, and each one is carefully drawn in the short moments before she dies terribly.
My only criticism of the novel is that it feels like Kirby discovers the truth very late in the story, and after that point everything kicks into high gear until the ending. I would have liked to see a bit more of Kirby exploring the strange world of the house and its dangerous inhabitant. If nothing else, Beukes left me wanting more at the end, which is definitely a positive thing. My hope is that The Shining Girls is just the first of Beukes’ forays into crime/thriller writing. It’s a genre that suits her well.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: April 10th, 2012 (Audio version) Publisher: Harper Audio Genre(s): Crime, Thriller Format: Audiobook Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes
Reading Raylan got me in the mood for more Elmore Leonard, and in fact I’m now on my third Leonard book in a row. The second, Bandits, first published in 1987, tells the story of a convicted thief named Jack Delaney who works at a funeral home with his brother-in-law. Jack doesn’t much like driving a hearse, but he’s trying to make ends meet and stay on the straight and narrow after a stint in prison.
That all changes one day when he goes on a job to a leprosy hospital to pick up a body and discovers that the patient – a girl named Amalita – is still alive. It turns out that Amalita is on the run from a murderous Nicaraguan colonel named Dagoberto (Bertie for short). Aiding her on her journey is a young, beautiful nun named Lucy who immediately fascinates Jack and ends up having a huge impact on his life.
Lucy tells Jack that she isn’t actually a nun any more; among other things, she saw a massacre at the hospital where she worked, and decided it was time to get out of the country. More importantly, she brings Jack a proposal for a different kind of job, one with more serious implications than the thrill of sneaking into a hotel room to steal jewelry while the guests are sleeping. Dagoberto isn’t just in America to hunt down a girl, it seems; he’s also in the States to raise money for the fight against communist Sandinistas in his country. Lucy suggests they steal the money from Dagoberto, and the ball gets rolling. Jack recruits a few friends he knows from prison, and they start planning the heist.
Where Raylan had crisp dialogue but flat characterization, Bandits finds Leonard at the top of his game, firing on all cylinders. The book is full of wonderful, fully drawn characters who practically leap off the page. My favorite by far is one of the colonel’s henchmen, a man named Franklin De Dios who is simultaneously likable and dangerous. Spending time with him and other characters quickly reminded me why I loved Leonard so much in high school.
The other way that Bandits excels is the sexual tension between Jack and Lucy. Leonard draws out their scenes in a way that reminded me of the incredible flirtation scene in North by Northwest. Dialogues between Jack and Lucy are thick with tension and longing, skillfully intercut with descriptions and observations that are stunning in their simplicity. At his peak, Leonard has an economy with words that rivals Hemingway.
My only criticism of the book is that the heist feels a bit anticlimactic. It’s not a big problem, though, because at its heart this book focuses on the characters. I loved Bandits, and especially recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Frank Muller, who is an ideal choice for Leonard’s style.
Published: February 8, 2012 Publisher: Hachette Audio Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Comedy Format: Audiobook Length: 8 hours and 46 minutes
Wild Thing, by author and physician Josh Bazell, is a sequel to his thrilling debut Beat The Reaper, which introduced former mob hitman Pietro Brwna as he tried to make up for his crimes by working as a doctor. Beat The Reaper was essentially Brwna’s origin story, and spent much of its time flashing back over his life up to that point. It was simultaneously an intensely personal story and a breakneck thriller full of black-as-night gallows humor. For example, in one particularly nerve-wracking scene, Brwna uses one of his own bones as a weapon. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted more, but I also couldn’t quite picture where the story might go next. Beat The Reaper would be a hard act to follow for any author, and I’m glad that Bazell took up the challenge even if I don’t think the results quite hit the mark.
We catch up with Brwna on a cruise ship three years after the events of the first book. Now he is going by the name Lionel Azimuth and pulling rotting teeth for crew members as part of his catchall position as ship’s doctor. Brwna hates life on the boat, so when his old mentor hooks him up with a job working for a reclusive billionaire (referred to only as Rec Bill), he jumps at the chance. At least, he does until he finds out that the job involves going to Minnesota and hunting for a mythological lake monster as part of what may or may not be a scam or criminal operation. Softening the blow is the fact that his companion for the trip will be Violet Hearst, a paleontologist who is both a knockout beauty and a firm believer in the inevitable apocalypse due to ecological catastrophes. Much to Brwna’s surprise, Rec Bill is willing to pony up a steep payment for his cooperation in the trip, and soon enough he gives in despite his misgivings and Violet are on their way.
A lot of Wild Thing’s reviews focus on the fact that the subject matter is so different from the first book that it feels strange that it has the same main character. However, I don’t agree with the argument that this doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book; I think Bazell just does as good a job with Brwna’s voice and sense of humor in Wild Thing, and I couldn’t picture any other character taking the lead. I love the character, and definitely laughed out loud more than once. I also don’t necessarily think that the cryptozoological angle doesn’t fit with a story about Brwna, although I could see how hints of possible fantastic elements might raise the hackles of people who like things to stay “realistic”.
What I do think is that Bazell actually wrote himself into a corner with Beat The Reaper. How do you write another book about the same character when you’ve a) revealed his entire backstory and b) established that he can’t keep working in a big public hospital? Any kind of follow-up would have to shake things up. I think the real reason people say that Wild Thing doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book is that it isn’t actually about him as a person. Beat The Reaper was entirely focused on Brwna’s fall and redemption. All of the action and tension in the first book originated from events in his life both past and present, which meant that the stakes were exceedingly high and very personal.
In Wild Thing, the personal connections are more tenuous, although they are still present to some degree. Brwna has a fear of open water and sharks because the only woman he ever loved was killed in a shark tank, and he also has a fear of intimacy for much the same reason. Naturally, being in close quarters with a beautiful woman as they search for a lake monster means that some of his issues are going to come to the forefront. However, the stakes never feel very high in Wild Thing – either they find the lake monster or they don’t, and Brwna can probably get on with his life either way. Maybe he goes back to the cruise ship, maybe he makes enough money to take care of his problem with mobsters trying to kill him. Compare that to Beat The Reaper, where Brwna is fighting for his life and for personal redemption all while trying to save patient’s lives and barely sleeping, and it just doesn’t sound quite as compelling.
However, my biggest problem with Wild Thing is that the plot basically unravels near the end of the book. A lot of time is spent building up to the camping trip and search for the monster, but when it finally gets to that point, everything is over and done with in no time flat, and it feels very anticlimactic. It doesn’t help that the camping trip feels vague and unmotivated once the characters are actually in the middle of the wilderness; after so much time spent discussing the length and dangers of the trip, very little time is spent on the actual trip itself.
There are also several characters introduced early on that never end up amounting to anything. A fundamentalist couple arrives at the camping lodge for the trip only to have a one-sided argument about religion with Violet Hearst and storm off-stage, never to return in any meaningful fashion. A Las Vegas magician is mentioned and then subsequently forgotten about until the end of the book, when he is used as an offhand explanation for a plot point. Bazell misses a great opportunity to have these characters interact with each other and Brwna on the trip, and it’s a damn shame.
It’s frustrating that the book ends up basically trailing off at the end, because until that point I was definitely enjoying it. I actually liked it more when I first finished it than I did after thinking about it for a few minutes, which is always particularly disappointing. To me it’s a sign of a great writer who perhaps bit off more than he could chew; once I was no longer distracted by his fantastic main character, the holes in the plot were far too easy to see.
However, the end of the book very clearly sets up a sequel that could end up bringing the focus back to Brwna’s life; rather than continuing to live in hiding, Brwna decides to go on the offensive and strike back against the mob and his former employer. I’m definitely looking forward to it despite my misgivings about this book. Everything I liked about Wild Thing tells me that Bazell is a great author to watch. The problems I had may just be the symptoms of the dreaded sophomore slump that seems to affect so many great artists.
Duane Swierczynski is a name I’ve come across several times before. It’s a hard one to forget, even though I probably couldn’t spell it if my life depended on it. Amazon has been quite sure that I would enjoy his work, and has recommended him many times over. Swierczynski seems to write the kind of genre fiction I find myself enjoying lately, intense crime thrillers that occasionally edge into more speculative territories.
The first book I picked up by Swierczynski was his fourth, Severance Package… and I couldn’t get into it. Not sure why, it just didn’t click. I made it a few chapters in and took it back to the library. I wasn’t so sure that Amazon knew what it was talking about. Even still, every new book of his that I came across had an intriguing description. Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood to read a particular book, and I figured I might just need to give Swierczynski another shot.
And what a shot it was. The kind that picks you up off your feet and tosses you across the room. Little blue birdies dancing in your vision the whole way down. I don’t know what kept me from getting into Severance Package, but there was no such hesitation when I started reading Fun and Games today over my lunch break. Within 20 pages I knew I was going to finish it this evening, and within a few short hours I’d torn through the rest in a mad rush. In my considered opinion, Duane Swierczynski has arrived, and just careened right up my list of Must Read Authors.
Fun and Games is the first in a trilogy, which, thankfully, will be completed promptly over the next two years (book two this winter, book three in 2012). The main character, Charlie Hardie, is a former police consultant whose life was ruined in a tragedy three years earlier. Ever since then, he’s drifted through life in an alcoholic haze, making ends meet by house-sitting for the rich and absent. He wants nothing more than to drink himself into a stupor while watching old movies and forgetting that his life ever happened.
However, he gets more than he bargained for when he starts a job housesitting for a movie composer who lives in the Hollywood Hills. On his first day, Charlie is assaulted by a crazed woman who is squatting in the composer’s bathroom. The woman, Lane Madden, wallops him with a microphone stand and then starts babbling about a mysterious “them” who are trying to kill her and make it look like an accident. At first Charlie thinks she’s just a washed-up drug addict, but then he realizes that Lane is Somebody Famous, and that she may actually be telling the truth.
Charlie gets all the proof he needs when “they” – sometimes referred to as “The Guild” or “The Accident People” – try to kill him. Once The Accident People make their move, Fun and Games sets off at breakneck speed and only slows down long enough to let you catch your breath before the next white-knuckle action scene. Most of the action takes place in a very short amount of time, maybe 24 or 48 hours, as the protagonists are cornered, escape, and then get cornered again. The story is full of twists and turns, misdirections and reveals, all neatly doled out with masterful pacing that kept me glued to the page.
One of the great things about Fun and Games is that it’s very much a Hollywood thriller that could only be set in Hollywood. There’s a generous dose of satire layered over the proceedings; The Accident People are exactly the sort of assassins that someone would dream up for a movie, but they’re also the sort of the assassins that people who make movies might use to knock each other off. They are always concerned with the “narrative” of their kills, wanting to ensure that no hint of the true story peeks through. That Charlie Hardie will not die does not fit into their neat little storyline.
It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book this much, and it’s certainly been a few months since I’ve read something in one sitting. I’m definitely sold on Swierczynski now, and can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of this trilogy, not to mention his earlier books. Mulholland Books just added another one of my favorite authors to their roster.