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A. Ross (Washington, DC)
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Underground
Underground
by Tobias Hill
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Atmosphere, So-So Story, 20 Jan 2013
This review is from: Underground (Paperback)
I picked this up while visiting London probably 10+ years ago, largely based on its outstanding cover design and it's lingered on my shelves unread until last week. Like the cover, it's richly atmospheric and claustrophobic, but to call it a "thriller" (as the jacket copy does), is somewhat misleading. The book revolves around Casimir, a Polish immigrant who has been living in London for about eight years. The chapters alternate between the story of his present life working in the London Underground as a kind of tunnel and infrastructure inspector, and the story of his childhood in Poland. It's intimated that something happened in his childhood in the 1960s that led him to leave Poland completely behind, sending remittances to support his father, whom he will never forgive for some mysterious transgression.

In the present, he lives in a nearly empty room more akin to jail cell than a home, and keeps entirely to himself, with no friends or even acquaintances to speak of. However, when someone pushes a woman under a train, he takes an interest, an interest that leads him into the path of a beguiling homeless woman who may be living in the Underground, and might be insane. The story of these two desperate souls trying to connect at some level with each other feels a little too self-conscious, sort of like an indie film that's trying a bit too hard to milk the theme of beauty/love in a grim world. However, the depiction of the physical space of the Underground is captivating -- even as I struggled at times to orient myself, the feeling of the place oozes from the pages.

Meanwhile, the storyline of his childhood in Poland has a number of memorable scenes, but feels very much of a type of "growing up behind the Iron Curtain" tale. There's the childhood romance, a secret cave in the woods, a fall through the ice, a drunken father who is a smuggler/speculator, the unstable mother, the dark secrets lurking in the ashes of World War II. It's all well-told, and provides a stark contrast with the present-day chapters, but they do sit uneasily next to each other. I suppose in the end, I left feeling that the author did an excellent job of creating vivid settings and evoking mood, but the storytelling itself wasn't too my taste.


The Killer Volume 1: v. 1
The Killer Volume 1: v. 1
by Luc Jacamon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.74

2.0 out of 5 stars Trying Too Hard to be Icy Cool, 19 Jan 2013
This acclaimed French graphic novel takes on a familiar figure in popular culture, the hit man, and attempts to tell a story from entirely within his perspective. Unfortunately, while the art is top notch, with the kind of beautiful, classic detail, lettering, and coloring I've come to expect from European comics, the story itself is rather weak. We meet the hit man in Paris as he waits for a target, one of what he hopes will be one of his final jobs before he has enough money to retire to his villa in Venezuela. As he waits, his mind drifts to his past, and we learn of his background (solidly middle class) how he got started on such a career path, and where it's led him. However, being inside the mind of a psychopath (or sociopath if you prefer), just isn't very interesting. The hit man has no use for other people (other than women for the obvious), completely cut himself off from his family, and generally has zero empathy at all. As he waits, he starts to crack up and question the point of his life.

Ah yes, shocking, I know -- a French crime story that veers sharply into existentialism. Without having studied the matter, I assume the existential themes in American noir fiction and film explain why it's been historically so well-received in France and recycled into French crime storytelling. Here, the hit man gives long rambling interior monologues about the hypocrisy of humanity, listing genocide after genocide from human history to make his point. Don't get me wrong, there is some action, as he is tailed after one messy job and has to deal with a French cop, and then figure out why his last job didn't go so well. But it's kind of paint-by-numbers betrayal 101, so don't read it for the story. The art is the reason to pick up this book, as artist Jacamon moves effortlessly between the cluttered details of a grimy Paris, to the lush details of the Venezuelan jungle (this unusual setting is perhaps due to the writer's childhood in the Caribbean), and the jet-set details of an Alpine ski resort, changing palettes to match the mood.

Ultimately, the book is a disappointment -- it's trying way too hard to be cool, and it just isn't. The interior narration gets old, as the protagonist has nothing interesting to say, and is ultimately, insane. I guess if I were 12, I might find it awesome, but there's just not a whole lot there for adults. (Note: Matz is a pen name for the Alexis Nolent, who has written several other acclaimed comics, and has also worked on video games like Price of Persia and Splinter Cell, and to a certain degree, the storytelling here has the same cause-and-effect limitations of many video games. Hopefully future volumes in the series will be a bit more nuanced and complex.)


Empire State: A Love Story (or Not)
Empire State: A Love Story (or Not)
by Jason Shiga
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.34

3.0 out of 5 stars Graphic Storytelling Trope?, 19 Jan 2013
I picked this up mainly because the cover design and a three-second flip-through of the interior appealed to me. Unfortunately, once I read it, I discovered it to be a fairly run-of-the mill quasi-autobiographical but of post-college angst. The story is about Jimmy, an Asian-American living in Oakland who works a a technician/clerk for the Oakland Public Library (full disclosure, I work for a city public library system as well). When his one close friend (and sometime crush), Sara, moves to New York for a publishing internship, he's faced with the prospect of having to be an adult on his own. He decides to take a grand romantic cross-country bus trip to see her, and, needless to say, nothing works out quite the way he thinks it will. By the end of the book, he is slightly wiser, but still lost in the vastness of adulthood. I kind of feel like this kind of story/experience is a trope among graphic novelists. I mean, it's been a while since I read him, but I feel like this is these are the exact same themes -- and even settings -- that Adrien Tomine mined ten years ago. What does save the book somewhat is the artwork and design. Unlike most graphic novels, the panels don't come close to filling the page, more like 50-65% or so, leaving plenty of white space for story to breathe. Of course, this also echoes the theme of the book, of Jimmy's drifting through time and space, unmoored in adulthood. A magenta hue is used for all the flashback sections, while a cyan hue is used for the present-day action, which is a clever use of the medium. There is some decent dialogue, some good scenes, a few decent gags, but the whole book just felt kind of slight to me. I guess if your a fan of autobiographical works, this is worth checking out, but it wasn't to my taste.


Scared to Death Vol.1: The Vampire from the Marshes: Vampire from the Marshes v. 1
Scared to Death Vol.1: The Vampire from the Marshes: Vampire from the Marshes v. 1
by Virginie Vanholme
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Mildly Diverting, 19 Jan 2013
As a child, I grew up reading large format European comix such as Tintin and Asterix, so I try and pick up new European stuff in translation when I come across it. This is the first book in a French series about two boys and their misadventures with the supernatural. I couldn't quite get a fix on their ages, but they seem to be somewhere in the 11-13 year-old range, and the book is definitely pitched a little too young for my taste. Robin's father is a coroner for the local police (or something like that, not entirely how the French system works), and one night, while poking around in his home office, the boys come across a case file for a recent mysterious death. Soon enough, they are poking around the riverbank where the body was found, convinced that the death is the work of a vampire. What ensures is only mildly diverting, and the story never ends up leading anywhere that interesting. The art and coloring are solid enough, but it's not something that's going to satisfy adult readers and I'll pass on the rest of the series.


Cycle of Violence
Cycle of Violence
by Colin Bateman
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A Dark Comedy of Northern Ireland, 29 Dec 2012
This review is from: Cycle of Violence (Paperback)
I saw the film Divorcing Jack (based on a Bateman novel of the same name) many years ago, enjoyed it, then saw this in the store and bought it, and now, some 15 years or so later, I've finally got around to reading it. The good news is that my initial instinct was right -- I love comic fiction, and if it's dark comedy, so much the better. This book fits the bill nicely, with line after line of comic wordplay and nasty humor. Miller is a loose cannon of an investigative journalist who is banished from his Belfast gig after insulting his boss in a drunken tirade, and sent to work at a provincial arm of the paper in a tiny town called Crossmaheart (har har). Unfortunately for him, this being Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s, the town is crawling with IRA and Orangemen looking to off each other, as well as anyone who gets in the way. And one person who might have gotten in the way is Miller's predecessor, who has disappeared. But on the plus side of this banishment, there's the lovely and tempestuous barmaid Marie, with whom Miller quickly becomes besotten. However, since she was Milburn's girlfriend prior to his disappearance, the situation is a little tricky. And thus, darkly wacky antics ensue -- with a body count to rival your typical blockbuster thriller, along with plenty of laughs. Bateman is the kind of writer whose response to a tragic situation is to stare it in the face and point out how absurd it is by milking it for all the dark laughs he can get (the book includes probably the best Holocaust joke I've come across). Definitely worth reading if you like good wordplay and comic writing, and/or have an interest in Ireland.


Harry Lipkin, Private Eye
Harry Lipkin, Private Eye
by Barry Fantoni
Edition: Hardcover

1.0 out of 5 stars Silly Stab at a Novel P.I. Novel, 29 Dec 2012
This is the second book I've read this year featuring an octogenarian Jewish detective (see Don't Ever Get Old), and unfortunately, it's the far lesser of the two. The concept of a widowed South Florida retiree plying his trade as private dick isn't a bad one, but the execution is very weak. Simply put, the book fails to deliver is a compelling mystery to solve. The titular Harry just barely has his private eye shingle up at the house that's decaying all around him. One day an ultra-wealthy widow hires him to investigate a string of petty thefts occurring at her mansion. What follows is a something that I supposed is meant to be a homage to a Golden Age mystery, as Harry methodically investigates all the staff: the chauffeur, the Hispanic maid, the Asian butler, the Ethiopian cook, the stoner groundskeeper, etc. However, this never rises in complexity beyond the level of a game of Clue, and in what is an exceedingly rare instance, I correctly guessed the obvious solution very early on -- and it's not a very interesting one. All in all, it's a very slight book, so slight that I can't even recommend it as a light beach read.


Easy Money
Easy Money
by Jens Lapidus
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Substandard Swedish Thriller, 29 Dec 2012
This review is from: Easy Money (Paperback)
I'll check out almost any translated crime fiction I come across, since the genre is often much better at providing a window into the everyday society of a place than more literary fiction. This Swedish thriller, however, proved to be an unimpressive, run-of-the-mill journey through an urban underworld, albeit Stockholm, as opposed to LA or NYC. The book follows three men: JW is a small-town Swede who has moved to the big city to reinvent himself as a college playboy, Jorge is a Latino cocaine hustler plotting an elaborate escape from jail, and Mrado is a immigrant Serbian thug who is deeply involved in the "Yugo" mafia. If you need to have a "sympathetic" protagonist in your fiction, this is definitely not the book for you. Each of the men is amoral, and Mrado is much much worse (there are repeated references to his being at Srebrenica), and there's no cop or lawbringer in the book other than some interludes comprised of court documents relating to the action.

Over its 400+ pages, the book slowly draws these three men closer and closer together for a climactic collision -- but along the way it delivers a detailed look at how various parts of the criminal world works. From the coat-check shakedown racket, to high-end prostitution, to dime-bags and international smuggling, it's all in there. The author is a well-known criminal defense lawyer, and clearly has plenty of insider knowledge about a lot of this stuff. Which is good, because it allows him to include reasonably interesting details on the backs of some fairly cardboard characters. Unfortunately, this is sometimes overshadowed by a wildly miscalculated attempt to incorporate far too much detail about brand name attire and high-end cars. I gather that in the original Swedish, the differences in language among characters lent much to the tone of the book, as did the slang and argot. However, in English, it generally comes across like terrible wanna-be American gangsterism. Another reviewer called it an "obnoxious" translation, which just about nails it -- every time some Swedish/Serbian thug would make "mad cheddar" or JW would "rock" a designer jacket just grated like nails on a blackboard.

It's also worth pointing out that the book is not very friendly to women -- most of the female supporting cast are victims (prostitutes, rape victims) or society airheads. On the flip side, each of the three main men also have some kind of female beacon of wholesomeness they cling to: JW's memory of his missing sister, Jorge's sister, and Mrado's daughter. This mainly feels like a cheap gimmick to try and humanize them and try and balance their otherwise poor life choices and amoral lifestyles. Ultimately, despite delivering some decent cheap thrills at times, the book is too long for its own good, and the reader is worn down by spending so much time with so many posturing, awful people. It does end with a kind of feel-good open-ended situation that makes me suspect there's a second book to come.

Note 1: The book has led to a trilogy of Swedish films (Snabba Cash I, II, III) and Zac Efron's production company is looking at maybe doing a US version.

Note 2: The cover of the US edition of the book has a hilarious design fail.The "o" in the titular "Money" has a slash through it, which is a letter that's not actually in the Swedish alphabet!


The Cold War Swap
The Cold War Swap
by Stuart M. Kaminsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.37

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun, Fast-Paced Debut, 29 Dec 2012
This review is from: The Cold War Swap (Paperback)
I picked this up on the recommendation of one of my favorite crime writers (George Pelecanos) and found it to be a funny, fast-paced, Cold War caper. In it, we meet McCorkle and Padillo, the American co-owners of a bar in Bonn, Germany, circa 1966. After serving in the Army, McCorkle opened the place with Padillo in 1952 as a typical American bar and grill, making it a novelty in Cold War Germany. However, for the multilingual Padillo, co-ownership is merely a cover for his real job as an American spy -- a job McCorkle has never had an ounce of involvement in, until now. Padillo's latest job involves trading with the Soviets to get back two gay NSA defectors, but it turns out to be far more complicated than that. McCorkle gets dragged into it, along with a whole passel of colorful characters, many of whom die along the way -- often much too soon for my taste. McCorkle is a dry narrator of the Chandler or Hammett school, relying on booze and cigarettes to keep him going as he threads his way through all the layered betrayals the plot throws up. It's almost a kind of pastiche of classic espionage like Eric Ambler or Casablanca, with the deadpan humor of the best noir writers. It's a fun, fast-paced read with some great lines throughout, and I'll definitely pick up the next in the McCorkle series, Cast a Yellow Shadow.


The Code
The Code
by G. B. Joyce
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.36

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun Mix of Crime and Inside Hockey, 28 Dec 2012
This review is from: The Code (Paperback)
I picked this up as a gift for a Canadian friend who's a lifelong hockey player and fan, but as a big reader of crime fiction, I couldn't resist dipping into the book before wrapping it up. I'm not a big hockey person (been to a handful of games in my life, never played, barely know the rules), but I was quickly sucked into the story and tore through it in a matter of days. The narrator is Brad Shade, a scout for the L.A. Kings who had a kind of journeyman career in the NHL, the highlight of which was defensively blanketing Wayne Gretzky in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final. Now he lives in Toronto and spends much of the year traveling the "major junior" circuit in Canada, and flying economy to scout European leagues and tournaments.

When a legendary junior league coach and team doctor are murdered in the parking lot of the arena he just played an old-timers game in, Shade starts poking around. L.A.'s top prospect for its #4 pick in the draft played for the dead coach, and in the course of putting together his profile or "juice" on the kid, Shade learns some things that may or may not relate to the murder. And being the son of a veteran Toronto cop, he's not shy about grilling the locals for more info. The murder mystery is decent, with enough plausible red herrings to keep the reader at least slightly off-balance. But what separates the book from your average crime story is the inside look at the scouting life (the author has worked as a hockey scout) and various types of people hanging around hockey arenas.

The writing style isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, but Joyce has a nice ear for dialogue, wisecracks, and patter, and there are plenty of interesting supporting characters, such as Shade's girlfriend, a helpful high-school kid named Beef, and a Czech bar acquaintance with a facility in Russian, to name a few. A fun book for anyone who likes their crime stories with a dose of sports, or their sports writing with a dose of crime. And you definitely don't need to know much of anything about hockey to enjoy it.


A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In
by Magnus Mills
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Mills Strikes Again, 28 Dec 2012
I adore Mills' first two books (The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express) and now religiously pick up every new book he writes. I have to say that nothing he's written since (including this book) has hit me as hard as those first two, but he is such a distinctive writer that I'm always glad to have the chance to peek into his world. It's a world like ours, but with a fairy tale or fable style, stripped down and with minimal detail. Even the language is simplified, to the point where a child could quite easily read it. But behind it all is the message of a satirist -- although what that message precisely is, Mills is far too canny to explicitly state.

The story is narrated by an unnamed man who has just been appointed by royal decree to be the Principal Composer to the Imperial Court Greater Fallowfields, never mind that he has no training in music whatsoever. He joins the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Postmaster General, the Astronomer General, the Comptroller for the Admiralty, the Surveyor of Imperial Works, the Pellitory-of-the-Wall, and the Librarian-in-Chief, as the cabinet to the "His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields." Unfortunately, his majesty is entirely absent, and in the absence of the emperor, the cabinet must keep Fallowfields running smoothly. However, in the days leading up to the "Twelve-Day Feast," it becomes evident that not all is well in the surrounding realms, as a group of traveling players bring ill rumors, and someone appears to be building a railroad headed straight for the imperial capital. Amidst all this is the usual Millsian oddness -- such as the orchestra of serfs which spends hours each day playing only the national anthem, or the "stipendary" sixpence each cabinet member receives once a week, but which is not accepted at either the candyshop or the tavern, and soforth.

It is exceedingly tempting (and possibly correct) to read the story as a fable about England ("Fallowfields" certainly invokes a kind of nostalgic Albion, a name that would be a good fit in Tolkein's own Shires, and there's a passage about street names that appears to be a thinly veiled allusion to London) resting on its historic laurels and sinking under absurd policy choices while the brutal efficiency of the City of Scoffers (China?) closes in from the east, and from the west a fleet arrives bearing men claiming to be "cousins" of the people of Fallowfields (and who are "earnest" and "swagger" and speak in superlatives, and thus appear to be Americans) offering salvation from the City of Scoffers. However, I'd be hesitant to extend the potential parallels our own world any further than that. For example, the imperial orchestra and its lead violinist play a large role in the book, but I have no idea where they fit into a larger interpretation. Or what is one to make of the schemers who forge imperial decrees for their own comfort? Or the role of the "Player King" and his traveling troupe of actors? Or that the characters all bear the names of various kinds of birds?

Personally, I didn't need answers to all these questions in order to enjoy the book, but I do wish the ending had been a little less abrupt. Unlike the rest of the book, which unwinds at a leisurely pace, it felt like Mills was in a rush to finish. If you like his other books, you'll probably like this, and if you've never read anything by him, it's as good a place as any to start. Just don't expect any answers... I'd be very curious to see what a filmmaker like Wes Anderson might do with one of Mills's books.


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