Quick Review: EVERYTHING NOW by Rosecrans Baldwin (MCD)

BaldwinR-EverythingNowUSLessons from the city-state of Los Angeles

America is obsessed with Los Angeles. And America has been thinking about Los Angeles all wrong, for decades, on repeat. Los Angeles is not just the place where the American dream hits the Pacific. (It has its own dreams.) Not just the vanishing point of America’s western drive. (It has its own compass.) Functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically, an independent territory, defined less by distinct borders than by an aura of autonomy and a sense of unfurling destiny — this is the city-state of Los Angeles.

Deeply reported and researched, provocatively argued, and eloquently written, Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now approaches the metropolis from unexpected angles, nimbly interleaving his own voice with a chorus of others, from canonical L.A. literature to everyday citizens. Here, Octavia E. Butler and Joan Didion are in conversation with activists and astronauts, vampires and veterans. Baldwin records the stories of countless Angelenos, discovering people both upended and reborn: by disasters natural and economic, following gospels of wealth or self-help or personal destiny. The result is a story of a kaleidoscopic, vibrant nation unto itself — vastly more than its many, many parts.

Baldwin’s concept of the city-state allows us, finally, to grasp a place — Los Angeles — whose idiosyncrasies both magnify those of America, and are so fully its own. Here, space and time don’t quite work the same as they do elsewhere, and contradictions are as stark as southern California’s natural environment. Perhaps no better place exists to watch the United States’s past, and its possible futures, play themselves out.

Welcome to Los Angeles, the Great American City-State.

It’s not just America that’s obsessed with Los Angeles. I’ve long been fascinated by the city (even though I’m not sure I’d like to live there). It’s one of my favourite fiction locations, and its diverse and fragmented nature allows for incredible variation in the novels, TV series and movies set within it. In Everything Now, Baldwin does a very good job of showing us the city from a number of different angles — some familiar, some new, all interesting. An interesting and engaging journey through various facets of Los Angeles, I enjoyed this. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: THE FIRST OMEGA by Megan O’Keefe (Orbit)

What happens when a corporate hunter is deemed obsolete…?

It doesn’t matter what you call her. Riley. Burner. She forgot her name long ago. But if you steal from the supply lines crossing the wasteland, her face is the last one you’ll see.

She is the force of nature that keeps the balance in the hot arid desert. Keep to yourself and she’ll leave you well enough alone. But it’s when you try to take more than you can chew that her employers notice and send her off to restore the balance.

Then she gets the latest call. A supply truck knocked over too cleanly. Too precise. And the bodies scattering the wreckage weren’t killed by her normal prey of scavengers. These bodies are already rotting hours after the attack.

Cowering in the corner of the wreckage is a young girl. A girl that shouldn’t be there. A girl with violently blue eyes. Just like hers.

The First Omega is a new, stand-alone novella from the author of (most recently) the acclaimed Protectorate sci-fi series. When it was first announced, the description that this was like “Mad Max meets X-Men” caught my attention. A bleak picture of a blasted future, one with a Western feel, it is a story of nature-vs-nurture, and how to face obsolescence. I rather enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: RED WIDOW by Alma Katsu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

When you work in a building of smoke & mirrors, everyone and everything should be questioned…

The story of two women CIA agents whose paths become intertwined around a threat to the Russia Division – one that’s coming from inside the agency.

Lyndsey Duncan worries her career with the CIA might be over. After lines are crossed with another intelligence agent during an assignment, she is sent home to Washington on administrative leave. So when a former colleague — now Chief of the Russia Division — recruits her for an internal investigation, she jumps at the chance to prove herself. Lyndsey was once a top handler in the Moscow Field Station, where she was known as the “human lie detector” and praised for recruiting some of the most senior Russian officials. But now, three Russian assets have been exposed — including one of her own — and the CIA is convinced there’s a mole in the department. With years of work in question and lives on the line, Lyndsey is thrown back into life at the agency, this time tracing the steps of those closest to her.

Meanwhile, fellow agent Theresa Warner can’t avoid the spotlight. She is the infamous “Red Widow,” the wife of a former director killed in the field under mysterious circumstances. With her husband’s legacy shadowing her every move, Theresa is a fixture of the Russia Division, and as she and Lyndsey strike up an unusual friendship, her knowledge proves invaluable. But as Lyndsey uncovers a surprising connection to Theresa that could answer all of her questions, she unearths a terrifying web of secrets within the department, if only she is willing to unravel it…

I haven’t read all of Katsu’s previous works, but as a long-time lover for espionage fiction, I knew I had to read this as soon as I could. I’m very glad to report that it is an engaging, twisty espionage novel set in the halls of Langley and D.C. I enjoyed this a lot. Continue reading

Quick Review: THREE-RING CIRCUS by Jeff Pearlman (HMH)

PearlmanJ-ThreeRingCircusUSAn amusing, irreverent account of the Lakers of Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson

The story of the Lakers dynasty from 1996 through 2004, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined — and collided — to help bring the Lakers three straight championships and restore the franchise as a powerhouse 

In the history of modern sport, there have never been two high-level teammates who loathed each other the way Shaquille O’Neal loathed Kobe Bryant, and Kobe Bryant loathed Shaquille O’Neal. From public sniping and sparring, to physical altercations and the repeated threats of trade, it was warfare. And yet, despite eight years of infighting and hostility, by turns mediated and encouraged by coach Phil Jackson, the Shaq-Kobe duo resulted in one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Together, the two led the Lakers to three straight championships and returned glory and excitement to Los Angeles.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when I didn’t know the names “Kobe Bryant” and, especially, “Shaquille O’Neal”. This despite not having access to NBA games (in person or on TV) until Kobe’s final year in the League, and after Shaq had retired. I knew they’d won the championship together at least twice, but that was it. When Pearlman’s Three-Ring Circus popped up on my radar, I knew I had to read it. And I’m very glad I did: it’s a detailed, irreverent and (seemingly) balanced account of the tense years leading up to and including the Lakers’ three-peat. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: MARY JANE by Jessica Anya Blau (Custom House)

BlauJA-MaryJaneUSA young woman finds herself during a momentous summer

In 1970s Baltimore, fourteen-year-old Mary Jane loves cooking with her mother, singing in her church choir, and enjoying her family’s subscription to the Broadway Showtunes of the Month record club. Shy, quiet, and bookish, she’s glad when she lands a summer job as a nanny for the daughter of a local doctor. A respectable job, Mary Jane’s mother says. In a respectable house.

The house may look respectable on the outside, but inside it’s a literal and figurative mess: clutter on every surface, Impeachment: Now More Than Ever bumper stickers on the doors, cereal and takeout for dinner. And even more troublesome (were Mary Jane’s mother to know, which she does not): the doctor is a psychiatrist who has cleared his summer for one important job — helping a famous rock star dry out. A week after Mary Jane starts, the rock star and his movie star wife move in.

Over the course of the summer, Mary Jane introduces her new household to crisply ironed clothes and a family dinner schedule, and has a front-row seat to a liberal world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (not to mention group therapy). Caught between the lifestyle she’s always known and the future she’s only just realized is possible, Mary Jane will arrive at September with a new idea about what she wants out of life, and what kind of person she’s going to be.

This novel is pitched as “Almost Famous meets Daisy Jones and the Six” — one of my favourite movies, and one of my favourite recent novels. So, of course, my interest was piqued. After finishing it, I think it’s a pretty apt comparison, but this novel stands very much on its own, too. Mary Jane is a warm-hearted, well-written story of Mary Jane’s coming-of-age in 1970s Baltimore, during a momentous summer. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: WINDHALL by Ava Barry (Pegasus Books)

BarryA-WindhallUSAn intriguing, well-written mystery about the long tail of a Golden Age Hollywood murder

An investigative journalist in modern Los Angeles attempts to solve the Golden Age murder of a Hollywood starlet.

1940s Hollywood was an era of decadence and director Theodore Langley was its king. Paired with Eleanor Hayes as his lead actress, Theo ruled the Golden Age of Hollywood. That ended when Eleanor’s mangled body was discovered in Theo’s rose garden and he was charged with her murder. The case was thrown out before it went to trial and Theo fled L.A., leaving his crawling estate, Windhall, to fall into ruin. He hasn’t been seen since.

Decades later, investigative journalist Max Hailey, raised by his gran on stories of old Hollywood, is sure that if he could meet Theo, he could prove once and for all that the famed director killed his leading lady. When a copycat murder takes place near Windhall, the long reclusive Theo returns to L.A., and it seems Hailey finally has his chance.

When Hailey gets his hands on Theo’s long-missing journals, he reads about Eleanor’s stalkers and her role in Theo’s final film, The Last Train to Avalon, a film so controversial it was never released to the public. In the months leading up to her death, something had left her so terrified she stopped coming to work. The more Hailey learns about Avalon, the more convinced he becomes that the film could tell him who killed Eleanor and why she had to die. But the implications of Avalon reach far beyond Eleanor’s murder, and Hailey must race to piece together the murders of the past and present before it’s too late.

What really happened to Eleanor Hayes, all those years ago at Theodore Langley’s party? Was she murdered? And by whom? Has Langley got away with murder for all these years? When the case is thrust back into the spotlight, journalist Max Hailey dig deeper than anyone else ever has to get to the truth. Windhall is an interesting, engaging, and enjoyable mystery novel set in old and contemporary Los Angeles. I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: KG: A TO Z by Kevin Garnett (Simon & Schuster)

GarnettK-KGAtoZAn interesting and unorthodox memoir from one of Boston’s Big Three

A unique, unfiltered memoir from the NBA champion and fifteen-time all-star ahead of his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Kevin Garnett was one of the most dominant players the game of basketball has ever seen. He was also one of its most outspoken. Over the course of his illustrious twenty-one-year NBA career, he elevated trash talk to an art form and never shied away from sharing his thoughts on controversial subjects. In KG A to Z, published ahead of Garnett’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he looks back on his life and career with the same raw candor.

Garnett describes the adversity he faced growing up in South Carolina before ultimately relocating to Chicago, where he became one of the top prospects in the nation. He details his headline-making decision to skip college and become the first player in two decades to enter the draft directly from high school, starting a trend that would be followed by future superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He shares stories of playing with and against Bryant, James, Michael Jordan, and other NBA greats, and he chronicles his professional ups and downs, including winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. He also speaks his mind on a range of topics beyond basketball, such as fame, family, racism, spirituality, and music.

Garnett’s draft decision wasn’t the only way he’d forever change the game. His ability to play on the perimeter as a big man foreshadowed the winning strategy now universally adopted by the league. He applies this same innovative spirit here, organizing the contents alphabetically as an encyclopedia. If you thought Kevin Garnett was exciting, inspiring, and unfiltered on the court, just wait until you read what he has to say in these pages.

Kevin Garnett — long-time Minnesota Timberwolves star, member of the Boston Celtics championship-winning Big Three. KG is one of my in-laws’ favourite players. As I’ve mentioned (probably too frequently, now), I grew up loving the game of basketball, but completely cut off from access to the NBA. So, after reading Michael Holley’s The Big Three, I was keen to learn more about the eponymous trio. Garnett’s memoir, which I ‘read’ as an audiobook, offers an interesting, well-told, and engaging insight into one of the NBA’s great players. Continue reading

Quick Review: GATE OF BONES by Andy Clark (Black Library)

ClarkA-WH40k-DoW2-GateOfBonesThe Indomitus Crusade forges ahead

As the Indomitus Crusade begins, fleets of mighty warships leave Terra on a vital quest to stabilise Imperium Sanctus in the wake of the Great Rift. The returned primarch, Roboute Guilliman, leads a huge force towards the shrine world of Gathalamor, where stable warp routes will allow the flotilla to spread across the beleaguered southern half of the Imperium.

But grave tidings reach the Imperial Regent’s ears. Warnings from an ancient race, and eerie silence from the army tasked with holding Gathalamor until his arrival, lead Guilliman to send a reconnaissance mission to the world, at its head, Shield-Captain Achallor of the Adeptus Custodes.

Achallor discovers a world on the brink: a beaten Imperial force and sinister agents of Abaddon the Despoiler who have unearthed an ancient evil – a weapon that when harnessed not only threatens the primarch, but perhaps the holy Throne of Terra itself…

Clark picks up the story where Guy Haley’s Avenging Son left off, and chronicles another early, major engagement of the Indomitus Crusade. Gate of Bones is a solid WH40k novel, one that moves the overall story ahead, but could also work as a stand-alone if you happened to stumble across it. Great characters, good writing. I enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: BUBBLEBALL by Ben Golliver (Abrams Press)

GolliverB-BubbleballUSAn excellent account of life in the NBA bubble

A captivating account of the NBA’s strangest season ever, from shutdown to championship, from a prominent national basketball writer living inside the bubble

When NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, the league shut down immediately, bringing a shocking, sudden pause to the season. As the pandemic raged, it looked as if it might be the first year in league history with no champion. But four months later, after meticulous planning, twenty-two teams resumed play in a “bub­ble” at Disney World-a restricted, single-site locale cut off from the outside world.

Due to health concerns, the league invited only a handful of reporters, who were required to sacrifice medical privacy, live in a hotel room for more than three months, and submit to daily coronavirus test­ing in hopes of keeping the bubble from bursting. In exchange for the constant monitoring and restricted movement, they were allowed into a basketball fan’s dream, with a courtside seat at dozens of games in nearly empty arenas.

Ben Golliver, the national NBA writer for the The Washington Post, was one of those allowed access. Bubbleball is his account of the season and life inside, telling the story of how basketball bounced back from its shutdown, how players staged headline-grabbing social justice protests, and how Lakers star LeBron James chased his fourth ring in unconventional and unforgettable circumstances. Based on months of reporting in the exclusive, confined environment, this is an entertaining record of an extraordinary season.

“March 11, 2020, the day that the balls stopped bouncing.” After Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the 2019-20 NBA season was brought to an abrupt end. For the billion dollar business/league, this led to a frantic period of planning and strategizing to find a way to safely save the season. I love watching and playing basketball, but I would be lying if I said the paused season was at the forefront of my mind in the early days of the pandemic. For Ben Golliver, however, the abrupt end to the NBA season was potentially life-changing: the Washington Post‘s NBA correspondent, it meant his job came to a screeching halt, too. As the NBA maneuvered to save the season, Golliver was approved to attend the whole Bubble-season in Florida. This is his engaging, well-written account of those three months.
Continue reading

Quick Review: A MAN NAMED DOLL by Jonathan Ames (Mulholland/Pushkin Vertigo)

AmesJ-AManNamedDollUSIntroducing Happy “Hank” Doll, P.I.

Happy Doll is a charming, if occasionally inexpert, private detective living just one sheer cliff drop beneath the Hollywood sign with his beloved half-Chihuahua half-Terrier, George. A veteran of both the Navy and LAPD, Doll supplements his meager income as a P.I. by working through the night at a local Thai spa that offers its clients a number of special services. Armed with his sixteen-inch steel telescopic baton, biting dry humor, and just a bit of a hero complex, the ex-cop sets out to protect the women who work there from clients who have trouble understanding the word “no.”

Doll gets by just fine following his two basic rules: bark loudly and act first. But when things get out-of-hand with one particularly violent patron, even he finds himself wildly out of his depth, and then things take an even more dangerous twist when an old friend from his days as a cop shows up at his door with a bullet in his gut.

A Man Named Doll is more than just a fascinating introduction to one truly singular character, it is a highly addictive and completely unpredictable joyride through the sensuous and violent streets of LA.

This is the first novel by Jonathan Ames that I’ve read. It will not be the last. A noir-esque crime novel set in Los Angeles, it introduces readers to Happy “Hank” Doll: former veteran and LAPD officer, now a struggling private investigator. Over the course of a few days, Happy’s life is upended by a series of escalating, deadly encounters that threaten not only his own life, but those closest to him. A quickly-paced, enjoyable read. Continue reading