Book Review: Slow Dancing Through Time

Book Review: Slow Dancing Through Time by Gardner Dozois in collaboration with Jack Dann, Michael Swanwick, Susan Casper and/or Jack C Haldeman II.

The art of collaboration is an interesting one; two authors (rarely three) blending their skills to create a story neither could produce individually.  Ideally, the reader should be able to see the fingerprints of the collaborators, but not the seams between them.  Gardner Dozois wrote a number of fine collaborations in the 1970s and 80s, before taking on a full-time job as editor for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Slow Dancing through Time

This volume reprints fourteen of those stories, along with essays by the collaborators on the collaboration process, and afterwords for each story written by Mr. Dozois.  (It also has a list of his other collaborations if you want to hunt them down.)  The stories cover science fiction, fantasy and horror, with a couple of them on the edge between genres.

The first story is “Touring” (with Jack Dann & Michael Swanwick), in which Buddy Holly gets a chance to perform with Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.  It’s a Twilight Zone type story, although the language is saltier than Rod Serling would ever have been allowed to air.  The book ends with “Down Among the Dead Men” (with Jack Dann), a chilling tale of a vampire trapped in a Nazi concentration camp.  It was quite controversial at the time, and still packs a punch, despite where the horror genre went during the Nineties.

Standouts include  “A Change in the Weather” (with Jack Dann), a bit of fluff about dinosaurs that hinges on the last line (and provided the endpaper illustration), “Time Bride” (with Jack Dann) about the use of time travel to emotionally abuse a girl (and with a downer ending as the cycle continues), and “The Clowns” (with Susan Casper & Jack Dann), another chiller featuring a little boy who sees clowns that no one else can.

Some of these stories may be hard to find elsewhere, such as “Snow Job” (wth Michael Swanwick.)   This tale of a con artist and a time-traveling cocaine addict first appeared in High Times, which can be difficult to find back issues of.

Overall, the quality of the stories is good, but budding writers may find the essays on collaboration more useful to them.  Recommended to speculative fiction fans.

Book Review: Republic of Thieves

Book Review: Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Note:  This is the third book in the Locke Lamora series, and this review will contain spoilers for the first two.  If you haven’t already read them, you may want to check out my review of the first volume, The Lies of Locke Lamora.

We return again to the adventures of conman and thief Locke Lamora, and his best friend and hatchetman Jean Tannen in a fantasy world reminiscent of Renaissance Italy.  Following the events of the second volume, Red Seas Under Red Skies, the pair have been lucky to escape with their lives.  And even that is increasingly dubious as Locke suffers a seemingly incurable poisoning.  When even the last frail hope is shattered, he’s at an even lower point than ever before.

The Republic of Thieves

It’s at this point that the bondsmage Archedama Patience arrives with an offer that is difficult to refuse.  She will remove the poison in exchange for Locke helping her to fix an election in the city-state of Karthain.   While her connections to the Falconer, the bondsmage who Locke crippled in the first book, ensure that he cannot truly trust her, it’s that or a horrible death within days at best.  Better to take that six-week extension and hope to outwit her in the meantime!

Karthain is ruled, in its way, by the bondsmagi, but their rules prevent them from using magic to control the election directly–and its outcome will send one faction of the magi ascendant over the other.  So a clever fellow like Locke is needed to pull all the tricks necessary to win.  However, there’s another problem.  The opposition learned that Patience was hiring Locke, so they’ve acquired the services of the only other person as devious as he–the love of his life, the beautiful and treacherous Sabetha.

There are actually two plotlines, the current-day one and the story of Locke and Sabetha’s young relationship, which culminates in a performance of a play entitled The Republic of Thieves.

We learn considerably more about the bondsmagi this go-round, and see that while they are not at all pleasant people, they do have reasons for their actions, and the Falconer was going well out of his way to twist his remit to greater evil for his own pleasure.  The cycle of vengeance might be less vicious if he hadn’t given it a firm push.

Locke is a bit more likable in this volume, perhaps because his primary opponent is one of the few people he actually feels some loyalty to, and their battle is primarily one of wits rather than violence, though some of that comes in too.

People who have triggers should be aware that there’s some fairly graphic talk of rape, and an attempted rape.

Some minor characters turn out to be the sort of people I actually care about, but they are unlikely to appear as more than a cameo in any other volumes–Locke doesn’t have many living friends.

The back and forth between current and past plotlines can get annoying–I actually skipped ahead when a particularly juicy twist came at a cliffhanger moment, which may or may not explain a lot about Locke’s abilities.

The final chapter is a long set-up for a sequel hook, which will presumably figure in later in the series.

Overall, I liked the cleverness of the election hijinks, and the sparks between Locke and Sabetha, but the next book is likely to go to more gloomy territory, and I do not think I want to follow it there unless Locke develops higher motives.

TV Review: Racket Squad

TV Review: Racket Squad

First, a bit of news:  I have completed my coursework for an Associate’s Degree in Business Management, and should soon have the official recognition.    It’s been a rough couple of years, so I am relieved.

Racket Squad ran on television from 1950 to 1953, telling fictionalized versions of actual cases where confidence artists and other racketeers bilked Americans of their money.  Reed Hadley played Captain John Braddock, who narrated the episodes and provided tips on how to spot con games.  (He would go on to star in the previously-reviewed Public Defender, which had a very similar format.)  Each episode opened with a “City Police” car pulling up to “City Hall” and a police dispatcher intoning “rrRacket Squad!”

Racket Squad

I watched six episodes on DVD:

  • “Kite High” stars a funeral director whose odious mother-in-law is poisoning his wife against him.  In fairness, he’s the kind of dope who goes off to a convention, changes hotels without telling his wife, and then decides to go hunting with a buddy for three days after the convention, also without notifying his wife.  Rather than try to hash things out with his spouse (her mother is living with them due to a mild disability), he goes off to Las Vegas.  While there, he is snookered into playing at a “private” casino that alters (“kites”) the checks he uses to pay for chips to much higher amounts.  Once he figures this out, the funeral director confronts the racketeers and it goes badly for him.   Just as he’s about to be killed, the Racket Squad just happens to bust in, as they were pursuing related leads.
  • “The Bill of Sale Racket” involves two men that “buy” gas stations for far more than they’re worth, using a thirty-day promissory note.  They then turn around and sell the stations at rock-bottom prices to third parties who are unaware that the bill of sale has been received fraudulently.  A man whose wife was taken advantage of this way while he was off in the Korean War sets a trap for the conmen, and there’s an extended shootout in which no one actually gets hit.  (Surprisingly realistic!)
  • “Desperate Money” focuses on a aging tailor with fading eyesight who’s having a bad season.   Faced with eviction, he turns to a loan shark operating out of a boxing gym.  When the bad season lasts two weeks longer than expected due to hot weather, the loan shark starts ramping up the interest and getting increasingly violent.  The tailor is not stated to be Jewish, but there are really unsubtle clues.  Also notable in that the bartender who steers the tailor to the loan shark doesn’t realize how violent the man is, because he’s always made his payments on time.  He learns the hard way when he asks the shark to have mercy on the tailor.
  • “The System” has a man on vacation meet an attractive young woman and her invalid father.  Several weekend dates later, the father reveals that he, his daughter and their manservant live comfortably because the father has a near infallible betting system.   Using a trick to confuse the mark about the time, the con artists make it look like they can predict the outcome of horse races.
  • “His Brother’s Keeper” is a tearjerker of a story about a bum named Longshot who hits upon pretending to be deaf to beg for money for his gambling habit.   This works great, except that it turns out all the deaf beggars in the city have been co-opted by a fake charity that sends them out to beg, then confiscates their earnings in exchange for miserable bunks and thin soup.  Initially, Longshot just plans to hide enough money away to escape on, but when one of the actual deaf people becomes ill due to the poor treatment, Longshot decides he has to step up and help Captain Braddock smash the racket, regardless of personal cost.  One of the villains also played the loan shark in “Desperate Money”, and there’s a particularly good transition shot from the beggars’ miserable fare to the fine steak that the head of the “charity” enjoys while urging his henchman to cut expenses.
  • “Take a Little, Leave a Little” involves a particularly smooth operator that poses as an oil geologist.  That is, he uses the name of a real geologist with a good record, so when people do credit checks and backgrounds on him, they find the good news and are more likely to believe his story about a rich oil deposit near town.  He’s so slick, in fact, that his victims don’t technically lose money, and thus usually won’t call the cops.  However, under RICO, if it’s possible to prove a pattern of racketeering behavior, that’s enough to catch you on, and he goes to the well once too often.

While some of these scams are dated and wouldn’t work as well any more, others have been able to adjust to modern times.   Altering checks has given way to altering credit card charges.  Payday loan offices do much the same work the loan sharks did.   And some rackets work the same as they ever did.  As Captain Braddock often reminds us, “It could happen to you.”

“Kite HIgh” relies heavily on old-fashioned stereotypes about marriage and mothers in law–younger viewers may find the family’s behavior baffling.  The most affecting story is “His Brother’s Keeper,” thank goodness it’s much easier for deaf people to get work these days.  It’s a well done series for its time.

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever by Leslie Charteris, with art by Dave Bryant

Simon Templar, the Saint, was created by Leslie Charteris in the late 1920s and went on to become a major franchise.  Mr. Templar (not his birth name) was a roguish young man with a murky past, and a fondness for sticking it to wealthy criminals he considered “ungodly.”  He and his associates used confidence tricks, disguise and good old fisticuffs to deliver a form of justice, stealing from the crooked rich to give to the poor–minus a percentage to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed.

The Man who was Clever

“The Man Who was Clever” is the earliest Simon Templar story by internal chronology; there had been others published first, but Mr. Charteris was dissatisfied with them.   Although he already has the nickname of “the Saint” and his band of friends, this is the first time he publicly operates under the Saint brand, complete with his calling card stick figure.

It begins with Simon witnessing an act of brutality by a gang of small-time extortionists.  But rather than jump in immediately, he investigates the gang and learns the full extent of their organization, then begins a campaign to bring not just them, but their backers as well, down.  As part of this, the Saint locates the one member of the gang who’s redeemable, a basically decent fellow who has racked up gambling debt, and recruits him as a double agent.

Simon Templar is a cool customer, looking innocent (but sexy) and calm, even in the worst circumstances.  He’s also a cunning planner, with only a stroke of bad timing causing any difficulty with the gambit he has in play.  He’s also a good fighter, able to take down five hoodlums alone with little difficulty.  (And a swordcane.)

This being written in the time period it was, Mr. Templar smokes and drinks, but is down on the harder drugs.  (The villain of the piece considered himself no worse than a bartender in this regard.)   There’s a bit of the xenophobia common to pulp stories of the period, with the main criminal being a foreigner who has changed his name to sound more English, and his insidious contact in Greece.  The main female character, the double agent’s sweetheart, is a damsel in distress type, while Simon’s love interest Pat barely appears before being bundled off to avoid being distressed.  (In other Saint stories, Pat is much more useful.)

Charming though Simon Templar is, I think he’d be hard to put up with for long in real life, with his bad poetry, annoying nicknames and endearments, and general smugness behind an innocent looking face.

The advertising calls this a “graphic novel”, but it’s really more of a heavily illustrated novella with all the original words.   The illustrations are quite nice (more comic book than pulp magazine style art) but like the pulps of yore, the pictures are often nowhere near the part of the story they’re illustrating.

This is a short read (81 pages even with copious illustrations.)  It’s best suited for people who are already fans of Simon Templar or other pulp characters–new readers will want to perhaps check out Enter the Saint or any of the other Simon Templar books (make sure it’s one of the ones actually by Leslie Charteris) from the library to see if they like the character before making the plunge.

Comic Book Review: Constantine Volume 1 The Spark and the Flame

Comic Book Review: Constantine Volume 1 The Spark and the Flame by Ray Fawkes and Jeff Lemire

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Constantine Volume 1

John Constantine first appeared in the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing.  At the time, he was a relatively fresh look at comic book magicians, scruffy, streetwise and cynical.  His magic had a price; anyone who got close to Constantine got hurt.  This especially applied to his friends and family, but really everyone got hurt (his enemies too, but most of them never figured this out.)

As a result, Constantine had become a manipulative user of people,  screwing them over to push them away.  Not that this always helped.  The character was interesting, and John Constantine was spun off into his own mature readers series, Hellblazer, under the Vertigo label.   It was generally well-received, despite some lesser runs.

With DC’s New 52 reboot, the company-owned characters that had been exiled to the Vertigo imprint were folded back into the main continuity.  Constantine showed up in Justice League Dark, while his mature readers title went into its final storyline.  Now the New 52 version of Constantine has his own book, the first volume of which has been collected.

We don’t know how much of his backstory has been changed, although this version of Constantine is younger than the middle-aged one in Hellblazer.  We do know that when he was younger, he was arrogant in his use of magic, and didn’t realize what the price was, resulting in a lot of horrible things happening.  Now he knows the price,  but still uses magic because he has to do so to survive the consequences of his earlier actions (and because he likes using magic.)

The plotline starts with Constantine learning that a major magical artifact has come up for grabs to anyone who can find all the pieces.   His main competition in this is the cult of the Cold Flame, magicians corrupted by the need for more power.  They’re mostly repurposed versions of previous magical DC characters.  It’s a race around the globe, with Constantine’s price continually being paid.  Of note is that he can no longer operate freely in his original stomping grounds of London, as the entire city is now cursed to kill him.

There’s a breather issue that introduces Papa Midnite, New York’s resident magical ganglord.  This is followed by a tie-in to the Trinity War/Forever Evil event, as Constantine manages to bungle an encounter with Billy Batson at the same time the Cold Flame starts their revenge.

This is a horror comic book, so there’s a lot of disturbing imagery crafted by artists Renato Guedes and Fabiano Neves.  Trigger warnings for gore and torture.

I know many fans were disappointed by the ending of Hellblazer, and the slight toning down from “mature readers” status might defang the concept some, but the writing is decent and Constantine seems to be in character more than some of the other reboots.  It should do all right for horror fans.

Book Review: USA Noir

Book Review: USA Noir edited by Johnny Temple

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This was an Advanced Reading Copy, and small changes may be made in the final product.

USA Noir

“Noir”, here, is short for noir fiction, a form of hard-boiled crime fiction by analogy with the cinematic film noir.  Noir fiction tends to focus on the seedier side of life, filled with petty criminals, people driven to extremes by circumstance, and bittersweet at best resolutions.  Akashic Books has been putting out anthologies of noir short stories grouped by location since 2004, and this is a “best of” collection.

The stories are grouped by themes such as “True Grit” and “Under the Influence”, and range across the continental United States.  (Yes, that includes the Twin Cities.)  Most are contemporary (one has Google Maps as a plot point) but there are a couple of period pieces set in the 1940s and Fifties.

Some standout stories include: “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane (a man finds an abandoned puppy, and decides to keep it),  “Run Kiss Daddy” by Joyce Carol Oates (a man does not want to upset his new family), “Mastermind” by Reed Farrell Coleman (a dumb crook comes up with the perfect crime), “Loot” by Julie Smith (various people try to cash in on Hurricane Katrina), “Helper” by Joseph Bruchac (revenge comes looking for Indian Charlie, but he’s no pushover) and “Feeding Frenzy” by Tim Broderick (in comic book format, a Wall Street firm has lost a big contract, and the employees search for someone to blame.)

Thirty-seven stories in total, 500+ pages of entertainment.   There’s also a list of the other stories in the volumes these were reprinted from, and a list of awards the series has garnered.

If the genre is not warning enough, I should mention that sordid violence is common in these stories, and some may be triggery.

Overall, the stories are of good quality, and represent an excellent cross-section of today’s noir writers.    It’s good value for money.

Update:  “Animal Rescue” was turned into the 2014 movie “The Drop” starring Tom Hardy; here’s the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy_ogNiryZ8

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