Monthly Archives: January 2014

The return of star ratings; Protect and Defend by Vince Flynn

To start with, I think I’m going to go back to using star (★) ratings in my reviews. I quit for a while as an experiment because I’ve found that star ratings are sometimes misleading. For example, there are instances where I like a book but I know it’s not very good, or vice versa. But on the other hand, star ratings are fun. And sometimes they just fit so well. So while I have to really refine my rating system, here’s the framework I generally follow:

  • ★✩✩✩✩ Poor
  • ★★✩✩✩ Fair, okay, but kind of mediocre
  • ★★★✩✩ Good
  • ★★★★✩ Excellent
  • ★★★★★ Superior. A work of rare splendor

But there might be cases, to be more precise, when I might split up the criteria and give, say, ★★ for quality of writing and ★★★★ for the amount of enjoyment I got out of a book, averaging it out to ★★★.

Bear in mind that there is the distinct possibility that I am over-thinking this whole damn thing.

Whatever. Let’s review a book.

(Atria Books, 2007)

Vince Flynn’s Protect and Defend is a case where two stars seems to fit so well. Eighth chronologically in the the Mitch Rapp series, tenth in actual publication and the second Vince Flynn novel I’ve read, Protect and Defend, is not an awful book, but it falls short of the kind of thing I was expecting after reading Flynn’s American Assassin. In short, it’s slow and, while the action that one expects is pretty okay, it occurs far too late in the game for me to get excited about it. A bit of fair warning: there may be in this review what some may consider a spoiler in this review. I don’t consider it as such, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Protect and Defend begins with Rapp hanging out in Costa Rica with a female agent named Maria Rivera, getting ready to assassinate some American political advisor who was complicit in a politically-motivated bombing that resulted in the death of Americans. A little “non-judicial punishment” Rapp style. Anyway, the details don’t really matter because this whole event had nothing to do with the rest of the story whatsoever. Even Rivera disappears from the story after doing nothing at all. We do learn that Rapp is getting over the murder of his pregnant wife, something that happened in a previous episode.

Meanwhile, a covert Israeli operative manages to sabotage an Iranian nuclear facility, devastating the entire site. The Iranians are quick to blame Israel and the United States, although they have no evidence against either parties. So, to conduct some damage control, CIA director (and direct Rapp’s boss) Irene Kennedy is sent over to Mosul, Iraq, to meet the Iranian intelligence director Azad Ashani and hash things out. Of course, Rapp is in tow to conduct security. Good thing, too, because now the story finally gets rolling (over two hundred pages into the book!). Kennedy gets kidnapped by a rogue Hezbollah leader working for the Iranians and Rapp will spare nothing to get her back.

That was the possibly spoiler-y bit I mentioned earlier, but it’s not really a spoiler because all that stuff that happened in the first half of the book just felt like backstory, set up and fluff and it isn’t until the book is over halfway through that Rapp really begins killin’ terr’rists, which is way too long of a wait to get the action going. The pace in Protect and Defend killed me. By the time Rapp got to the point where he was shooting bad guys in the face I was too tired to care.

That was the main thing that did it for me. The pace was totally off and it seems like first whole half of the book was just padding. Part of what contributed to this, though is Flynn’s multi-perspective approach, which some love and some don’t. I don’t. Flynn follows the perspectives of Rapp, was well as the politicians in D.C., the politicians in Teheran and the bad guys. On the one hand, this allows us to see characters that are far more interesting than our hero Mitch Rapp (more on this later), but on the other hand it’s stuff I don’t care about. If you ever watched that TV show 24 you know what I mean. I never cared about all the political shenanigans. I just wanted to see Jack Bauer do his thing. It’s like that here. I guess that’s why these novels are called “political thrillers” but that stuff leaves me cold. Of course, there is plenty of action in Protect and Defend, but far little and it occurs far too late.

But while Protect and Defend didn’t do it for me, Flynn’s got some interesting things going on. Like I mentioned before, Mitch Rapp is probably the least interesting character in the cast. He’s a driven, single-minded “loose cannon who doesn’t play by the the rules” covert operative, but there doesn’t seem to be much more to him than that. Even though I’ve just complained about Flynn’s multi-perspective approach, it does provide characters that are far more interesting than Rapp, like Azad Ashani, the sympathetic Iranian intelligence director. Indeed, it seems like Flynn’s supporting characters are far more fleshed out than the hero of the series.

As for Mitch Rapp, I definitely see potential for him being a really interesting and unique character. Unfortunately, as in American Assassin, Flynn doesn’t quite follow through on this as well as I would have liked. Rapp himself is a bit of an extremist and I would have liked to have seen more examination of this side of his personality that places him in dangerously close proximity to the mindsets of the terrorists he kills. And, of course, I would have liked to have seen more on how Rapp is dealing with the death of his wife. Rapp’s bosses note that he’s becoming more reckless and hard to control, but I’ll just have to read more of the books to see if his character really develops from this. These Rapp books are pretty much like Jerry Bruckheimer films or something, so I don’t expect much literary merit, but I’d still like to see Rapp become more real to me. Right now he’s little better than a robot.

Not to belabor the point, but Vince Flynn passed away last summer from cancer at the age of forty-seven and I feel bad about being too negative, but Protect and Defend just didn’t do it for me. But on the positive side, I am interested in reading more of Vince Flynn’s stuff. I’m just hoping that in the other books there is less talky, more shooty.

The verdict:★★✩✩✩, for being a tolerable read, but far too slow and lazily paced to really be interesting.

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El Narco: inside Mexico’s criminal insurgency by Ioan Grillo

(Bloomsbury Press, 2011)

Drugs have been a part of Mexico’s underground economy for a long time, but recent years (as of around 2008) have shown a marked increase in the activities of Mexican drug cartels, activities that have escalated to an unheard of level of brutality. It’s a frightening thought that just south of the border drug gangs are battling it out with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, decapitating heads and wiping out entire families. It sounds like an exaggeration, but the barbarism of the Mexican drug cartels is hard to fathom.

Mexico City-based Britisher Ioan Grillo has been reporting on Mexico for over ten years and in El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency he explores this new era of violence in which Mexico is now embroiled, supporting his main thesis that the Mexican drug cartels are not simply criminal empires but have developed into full-blown insurgencies that threaten to destabilize Mexican society.

You have to hand it to Grillo. He’s got guts taking on this topic. But in addition to that, his survey of narco culture looks at the issue from angles that I had not considered before, showing that this isn’t just a study of organized drug crime, but a complex issue with a lot of moving parts. Grillo covers an overview of Mexico’s history with drugs up through the current crime wave, as well as covering cultural, societal and political implications of the drug trade. It’s a fascinating and complex issue, one that can’t be solved with an overly simplistic hard-line stance of a “war against drugs,” as recent history has proven. Grillo doesn’t propose any solutions, but seems to indicate that a whole paradigm shift in the way we look at the problem may be in order. Particularly interesting, from a gringo’s point of view, is the role that the United States plays in fighting the drug trade as well as enabling it.

The cartels themselves are fascinating also, but in a disturbing way. You really have to wonder about the psyche of people that murder entire families for retribution or sew faces onto soccer balls to send a message (yes, this happened). The power of these cartels also far exceed even what Americans usually consider to be heavy-hitters in the organized crime world. In the case of Los Zetas in particular, these cartels have capabilities that rival multinational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. They even have paramilitary training camps to train new recruits. A frightening thought indeed. Grillo also notes the the Zetas have expanded their operations to include producing pirated DVDs of commercial films. I never considered pirated DVDs to be such a bad crime before, but when you consider that the profits support a group that massacred over seventy innocent migrants in a single incident in 2010, it really makes you think.

Grillo provides an even-handed analysis of the situation in Mexico and writes with appropriate gravity on the toll of the extreme violence taking place, while at the same time eschewing “true crime” sensationalism and not being alarmist. Things are bad enough down there without sensationalizing the violence. For those interested in learning about the drug situation in Mexico and its impact El Narco is an excellent starting point, being a sobering overview of Narco culture.

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Daredevil Noir by Irvine and Coker

(Marvel, 2010)

Y’know, graphic novels don’t take very long to read and since I have some kind of compulsion to write a little something on everything I read graphic novels can really bog me down. I can read ’em faster than I can write anything meaningful about them. I’m thinking I might just save graphic novels for one big long post.

Anyway, that’s housekeeping stuff. Today we’ve got Daredevil Noir, (is that like Drakkar Noir?) a part of Marvel’s “noir” line, reinventing the superheroes you know and love into a “noir” atmosphere. A neat idea in theory, I think but too often these things are just kind of gimmicky, relying on the atmosphere at the expense of the story. Throw a lot of black ink in the artwork and there you go.

Daredevil Noir, written by Alexander Irvine and illustrated by Tomm Coker, collects issues #1-4 of the limited series and is sort of like that. Here Matt Murdock is reinvented into Prohibition-era America (but they goofed in one city-scape shot with a television appliance store sign in the corner). This time he’s not a lawyer but works for Foggy assisting in his investigations by day and doing Daredevil stuff at night. He gets a lead on the guy who shot his father when he was a kid, falls in love with a femme fatale (in the most literal sense) and goes after the Kingpin, who looks to be a good deal leaner that we normally expect him to be.

While Daredevil Noir doesn’t really have any serious problems, there’s nothing remarkable about it either. The art is fantastic, the script is good too, but there’s just not a lot to work with plot-wise and doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It relies too heavily on trying to have a dark “noir” atmosphere, seemingly at the expense of all else. All in all, Daredevil Noir is an okay read, but is a bit of a novelty and not that special. Still, it’s an enjoyable read for Daredevil fans.

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Stuff I’ve been reading: an update.

I figure it’s about time to crawl out of my hole and do a little posting. As I mentioned last time, I am behind in my reviewing responsibilities (heh, “responsibilities”), so here is an update on what I’ve read recently. There’s actually more, but the other things I’ve been reading are non-fiction how-to kinds of things. Stuff like cookbooks, exercise books, etc, and I guess that stuff can keep for awhile. So, without further adieu, here we go:

Nazi Hunter #2: Slaughter Summit by Mark Mandell
(Pinnacle, 1982)

He was born a German during a time he couldn’t be proud of, and his belief in human justice drove him to become the…NAZI HUNTER.

Nazi Hunter was a series of action novels in the ’80s and I don’t know too much about it. I don’t even know if Mark Mandell is a pseudonym, a house name or what. The only mention I can find of this series is from Zwolf at The Mighty Blowhole. But I understand there are several volumes of this series. I might not go searching for them, but if I find ’em I’m gonna read ’em because Slaughter Summit, second in the series, was pretty good.

Curt Jaeger (by the way, jaeger or jäger means “hunter” auf Deutsche. Clever, huh?) was a war orphan, born in Germany but raised by an American couple. After becoming a captain in the US Army, Jaeger discovered the truth about this origin: his father is still alive, is a Nazi war criminal and murdered Curt’s mother! Thus begins Jaeger’s quest to avenge his mother’s death and end his father’s Nazi evil once and for all.

In Slaughter Summit, Curt, now out of the army and on his own, gets the heads-up from Israeli intelligence that Curt’s father is running a Nazi operation in the guise of an innocent ski resort. The Israelis plan to raid this resort, but Curt knows that the lives of many tourists and innocent ski-bunnies will be endangered, so he convinces them to let him go to the resort undercover, but you can guess how this turns out. For some reason, fictional good guys are never very good at being undercover.

Slaughter Summit had some pretty good thrills and plenty of action, but not much in the sex department. While at the ski resort Curt meets a hot-to-trot Texan cutie who interested in getting to know Curt a little better, but Curt is all business. Anyway, I’d be interested to know who Mark Mandell really is/was because Slaughter Summit was pretty well-written.

Tracker #3: Blood Money by Ron Stillman
(Diamond, 1991)
Joe Kenney at his blog Glorious Trash calls this late-era action series “the dumbest damn bunch of books”he’s ever read, and I have to say that I agree. But where he feels that reading this series borders on the masochistic, I kind of got a kick out of it. No doubt about it, Tracker is a frickin’ stupid-ass series. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon, but with more sex and violence. It is so ridiculous that I have to imagine that it’s spoof or a joke or something. But even clever satires give subtle winks and nods to indicate that they’re not serious Tracker does not. I have to conclude that the writer of the Tracker series either a) really thought this shit was cool, or b) just didn’t give a damn. Either way, the result is hilarious.

The Tracker series follows the adventures Nathaniel Hawthorne “Natty” Tracker. Tracker was raised by native Americans so he’s an expert tracker and outdoorsman. He’s also a fighter pilot–former fighter pilot, that is. He was blinded in a car wreck, but that’s okay because he made some goggle-things that restored his sight and added other enhanced features. Oh yeah, forgot to mention that he’s an inventor and a millionaire and has some real boss rides like classic Corvettes. The chicks dig him. The bad guys fear him. He now works sort of freelance for the U.S. government and the POTUS is his BFF, apparently, always keeping tabs on him via a comm-link implanted in his eyes. The book never said explicitly, but I think it reasonable to conclude that his shit does not stink.

Anyhow, the whole thing is just so outrageous that I’ll just leave you with some excerpts that I thought were pretty funny.

[after saving his girlfriend Dee–and slaughtering a bunch of bad guys]:

“Natty, you saved my life,” she said, “but I’m an officer of the court, and you shot three of them dead. I feel strange, I mean, I know that they wanted to kill me…”

Natty held up his finger and shushed her, “I understand. Honey, I’m allowed to kill people. It’s exactly like a war situation.”

“You are allowed?” she asked. “I won’t ask anymore questions. I know that you are very, very powerful in Washington. I’m just glad that you’re on our side.

[Tracker, now blinded again, floats on aircraft crash debris toward a deserted island. A shark has bitten off a large chunk of his leg and he tries to stir his resolve]:

The sun was beating down on Natty, and he awakened in horrible pain. He had a dull throbbing headache and nausea. His leg felt as if it were in a mangled twist of wreckage. Tracker reached down and felt the calf, and it made him shudder. Natty started sobbing. He threw his head back and hit it on the plexiglass and cried.

“You fucking asshole!” he screamed out loud. “You can’t afford to have a pity party!”

He ate the two candy bars.

[after having a chunk of his leg bit off by a shark, being stranded on a deserted island and waking from a coma, Tracker takes some R&R and recovers in the wild with his Native American grandfather]:

They built a reflector fire against some rocks above the timberline overlooking Hayden Pass and spent the night there, sleeping very little but talking a great deal. Both witnessed what they agreed was the sighting of a UFO in the distance.

(which has nothing to do with anything)

[Tracker gets friendly with the beautiful wife of the main bad guy and she falls in love with him and– in case you can’t tell– she’s from Spain]:

“Thees ees crazy,” she said, frustrated. “Why am I theenking of thees? How do I know I can trus’ you?”

(oh, yeah. She talks like that the whole time!)

By the way, Ron Stillman is actually Don Bendell, who has written a bunch of other stuff, but I would not necessarily judge his writing based on this series. Anyway, I hope to find more of this Tracker series because they are hilarious, albeit unintentionally.

American Assassin by Vince Flynn
(Atria Books, 2010)
Vince Flynn is often mentioned in the same sentence as author Brad Thor, which is a shame because Brad Thor kinda sucks and, from what I can tell by reading American Assassin, Vince Flynn doesn’t. They both write thrillers featuring secret agent types, terrorists, etc. and are both of a politically conservative bent but Flynn doesn’t seem to wear his politics on his sleeve like Thor does. After reading Thor’s Hidden Order I wondered if I was a reading a thriller or a Tea Party rant.

Anyhow, I’m not one to let an author’s political views get in the way of my enjoyment of their writing, not unless it’s in your face soapboxing. Flynn is probably a good deal more conservative than I am (since I don’t consider myself at all conservative), but he can write a pretty exciting novel and that’s really what counts (as a side note, Flynn has mentioned that Bill Clinton is a big fan!).

American Assassin is the first of Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series I’ve read, which, I guess, is a good starting point since it’s a prequel, detailing CIA super agent Mitch Rapp’s recruitment into “The Company” and his first few missions. Overall it’s paced well and is an engrossing spy thriller. Interestingly, although the novel seems to endorse government-sanctioned assassination for the “greater good” (in this case, fighting terrorism) with Rapp being trained from the get-go as an assassin, the good guys are almost as screwed up psychologically as the terrorists they fight. For example, Rapp’s trainer, Stan Harley, a veteran CIA cold warrior (and one of the most interesting characters in the book) is an alcoholic, right-wing nutjob that would give G. Gordon Liddy nightmares, but has a soft spot for dogs, which became a slight issue when Rapp threatened to cut out the eye of a bad guy’s prize poodle to get him to talk. These guys are brutal men in brutal work and I guess they’re bound to get twisted in some manner or another. So while Flynn seems to approve of many of the tactics favored by the extreme right, it is, at the same time, somewhat of a critique.

But whatever. American Assassin is a beach read and pretty good for what it is. My only real complaint is that I don’t buy that Rapp turned into such a hot-shot, cold-blooded assassin so fast, like right out of college, where he was a star lacrosse player. They seemed to say he was something of a physical and mental freak of nature. Seems like a convenient and not too plausible way to introduce the character, but hey, it’s just a BDAM (Big Dumb Action Movie). Oh, and I think the copy editor must have been drunk because there were an abundance of errors.

Give American Assassin a try, see what you think. I’ve pretty much written off Thor, but Flynn’s staying on my radar, at least for the time being.

(As a side note, Flynn died June 19, 2013 at the young age of 47 from cancer, something I found out not long after I read this book).

Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
(Vertigo, 2012)
While a teenage nerd in the ’80s, I was mostly into the Marvel Universe, especially the X-Men, so I missed out on a lot of the great stuff going on over at DC to push the envelope of comics, bringing the medium out of the realm of juvenile entertainment and into the public eye as an art form suited to handle “mature” topics (and by “mature” I don’t mean simply sex, violence and cussing).

Black Orchid, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean, was one of these titles I missed and just now picked up in this 2012 edition collecting the three issues first published in 1988. From what I gather, Black Orchid, remarkably, has never been out of print since its first publication. Perhaps not so remarkable, though, because Black Orchid is a beautiful work, worthy of its longevity.

In Black Orchid, Gaiman takes a relatively minor superhero crime fighter, the Black Orchid, and turns the tables on typical superhero tropes, bringing the costumed crime fighter from the previous era in which they were simply symbols of truth and justice into the modern era in which superheroes struggle to balance their symbolic roles with their own inherent human frailties. While Black Orchid is the story of a woman’s quest to discover her identity, it is also a wide-reaching setup for a grittier mood of the DC Universe in general. Batman, Swamp Thing and other familiar faces make their appearances, but in Gaiman’s and McKean’s vision, this world of superheroes, supervillains and superhuman powers has no four-color palette. It runs the spectrum from twisted grittiness to haunting beauty, perfectly reflected in Dave McKean’s masterful artwork.

Black Orchid is weird and beautiful and a landmark work; a must-read for any fan of sequential art. By the way, here’s a pretty good (and long) write up of this title at

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New Year’s malaise; Status of book sites; Leafmarks!

I have been experiencing a good deal of New Year’s malaise. I just don’t feel like doing anything. But I have been reading. This means I’m way behind on my reviews. I’m four or five books behind in reviewing and I may just say forget it.

I’m also way behind on keeping up with my fellow Booklikers, WordPressers, Goodreaders and, now, Leafmarkers. I’ll get to all that in a minute. Right now, though, I’m just sorry I haven’t kept up with what all you wonderful people are reading.

I did get a dose of energy, though, with Leafmarks. I have had technical difficulties with using Leafmarks since I signed up, which was frustrating, but Jacquie, one of the founders, has been helping me out all the way and finally solved the issue (turned out it was something small and weird). Anyway, Jacquie has been very responsive with the little hiccups that every new site has and Leafmarks is now up for me. I’m trying to gather friends from Goodreads and Booklikes and re-friend everyone, but if I forget or miss someone just drop me a note.

So I may be using Leafmarks a lot. I like the familiar, Goodreads-ish format. Booklikes is cool, but I already have a blog at WordPress and it’s tedious copying and pasting between the two. Also I find that with Booklikes it is kind of hard to keep track of what’s going on in the feed. Hopefully they’ll think of a way in which we can get a quicker overview, like maybe just a list of blog entry titles. Anyway, I’m not sure how I’ll be using Booklikes now.

I haven’t looked at Goodreads for a long time, so I guess I don’t miss it. I may let just Goodreads drop off my radar completely. Since all that dumbassery at Goodreads in October I’ve just been posting links to my reviews at other sites and supporting the friends that still use Goodreads, but it’s a hassle keeping up with it all.

So maybe Leafmarks will become my go-to site. I dunno. Anyway, what I do know is that I need to take some vitamins and get some energy to write some reviews, ’cause I’m behind. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and trying to catch up with all you fine folks.

Bad day in Tokyo: Metro Survive by Yuki Fujisawa

(DrMaster Publications, 2008)

After over a century of earthquakes, atom bombs and Godzilla, the Japanese know disaster. I don’t mean that to sound trite. I’d guess that Japan is probably one of the most disaster-prepared nations in the world, so it’s probably no wonder that the idea of monsters or robots destroying Tokyo bleeds over into the fictive imaginations of writers.

Metro Survive by Yuki Fujisawa predates the 3-11 earthquake disaster by a few years and that shows that earthquakes are continually in the minds of Japanese, even in their manga. Metro Survive is about a mild-mannered building maintenance worker named Mishima who works at a brand-new metro complex. Tomorrow is his son’s birthday and he is eager to buy some toy his son wanted, but then his fat jerk of a boss orders him to do some overtime. Mishima, being a pushover, just obeys but the job takes all night and it’s nearly morning before he’s done. Taking the subway home, the unthinkable happens: a massive earthquake occurs and the brand-new metro-plex, hastily built with catastrophic safety violations, collapses, trapping Mishima in the metro subway complex.

The pushover Mishima then manages to summon guile and courage through several trials and becomes the unwitting leader of a group of late-night subway travelers. However, when Mishima’s group encounters another group of subway survivors they find that surviving the disaster is not their only worry. Despite the danger shared by all, Mishima’s group find that there are those who not only capitalize on disaster but also relish in it. Two sadistic nightclub creeps, their club skanks and bully college judo players control the other group with an iron fist, determined to survive the disaster while having their own sick fun along the way.

Metro Survive is short for a Japanese manga, being only two volumes, which is fine by me. I can’t keep up with the never-ending series. It’s a great story, though. Over the course of the two volumes the character development of the survivors is really shows as some, like Mishima, find their hidden courage and others their hidden cowardice. The two sadistic fancy-lad douchebag nightclub dudes were really pretty twisted and added a frightening turn to the already tense predicament. The artwork, also, was very well-done. I find that in a lot of manga there is a lot of wasted space through big splash panels and a lot of confusing action lines. Metro Survive‘s art, also done by Fujisawa, complemented the story perfectly.

All in all, Metro Survive is an exciting read and considering that there are only two volumes you can finish it in a night. You probably won’t look at subways the same way again.

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