Monday, June 17, 2013

Even More Big Sky Blues

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Beginning with Big Sky Blues in 1988, Robert Sims Reid wrote five police procedurals set mostly in the fictional town of Rozette, Montana. The three books in the middle of the series featured a detective named Leo Banks and these novels were bookended by two featuring Ray Bartell, who first appeared as a patrolman in Big Sky Blues and then as a detective in Reid's last book, Wild Animals, which was published in 1996. All five are excellent books that sound completely authentic, due in part to the fact that Reid is a very good writer and also to the fact that he worked for many years as a police officer in Missoula, Montana, which often sounds a lot like Rozette.

When introduced in Big Sky Blues, Bartell was party to a tragic incident that followed him the rest of his career. One night while Bartell and his partner were on patrol, and while Bartell's partner was investigating a suspicious situation in an abandoned building, a troubled person got the drop on Bartell. Bartell believed he had convinced the man to give up his gun and surrender, but as the man was about to do so, Bartell's partner emerged from the building, saw the situation from a distance, and shot and killed the man.

The incident has haunted Bartell for years and caused some of his fellow officers to question his judgment. But over the course of twelve years, he has risen to the rank of detective and has proved his worth to the department.

Now, a major slimeball named Merle Puhl, who lives in Rozette, is running for the U.S. Senate from Montana. Another gasbag, who used to be the President of the United States, is coming to Rozette to campaign for Puhl. This means that the Rozette P.D. will be working in conjunction with the Secret Service and other federal agencies to insure the safety of the former president. Bartell is detailed to work with the Feds.

The candidate, and hence the Feds, are particularly worried about an alleged eco-terrorist named Henry Skelton, an ex-con who lives mostly in the woods and simply wants to be left alone. Skelton is suspected of blowing up a helicopter belonging to a logging company that is raping the nearby wilderness. While there's no proof that Skelton committed the crime, the campaign has identified him as a potential threat and Ray Bartell is supposed to check him out. His clear, but unspoken instructions, are to make sure that Skelton is neutralized until the visit of the ex-president is over.

Being a good cop and a decent human being as well, Bartell is troubled by the lack of any proof that Skelton is guilty of blowing of the helicopter or that he constitutes any sort of a threat to the candidate, his campaign, or the former president. He attempts to deal with the situation in a way that ensures the safety and the rights of all of the parties involved, Henry Skelton included. This suggests to some people that Bartell might be a bit too soft to be a "real" cop, which echoes the charge against him from the case twelve years earlier.

In spite of the criticism, Bartell treads carefully between the Feds, his local bosses, the slimy pols and Henry Skelton himself. Inevitably, problems will result and the result is an engaging tale of a good man trying to do the right thing in a world that appears not to be much interested in the right thing.

Robert Sims Reid has created a cast of memorable characters and put them into motion in a setting and a story that has the considerable ring of truth. One can't help but empathize with a number of these characters, even though their interests and objectives don't always coincide. But, of course, that's the way the world often works in real life.

Sadly, after completing this book, Reid apparently did not ever write another. When asked in 2002 whether there might ever be another novel featuring Leo Banks or Ray Bartell, Reid demurred and suggested that the books were a lot of fun to write but that they didn't pay all that well. That was a tragedy on at least two levels: As good as these books are, and as much critical acclaim as they received, Robert Sims Reid is another of those authors who deserved much wider recognition and much greater financial success than he may have enjoyed. It's also a loss for anyone who loves crime fiction, because as much fun as these books might have been to write, they're even more fun--and more rewarding--to read.

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's A Kansan!

Man of Steel Asks If Superman Should Even Bother

Reviewed By Kemper
3 out of 5 Stars With Doomed Planets Orbiting Them

Clark tries to bring news fashions to Smallville.
As the most iconic of the super-heroes, it’s more than a little odd that Superman got left behind in the wave of comic book movies in recent years.  Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006 felt more like a homage to the Christopher Reeve movies than a genuine attempt to come up with a fresh film version, and it failed to live up to anyone’s expectations. So Superman was on the bench while Batman was revitalized in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and Marvel steadily released a string of movies including their enormous hits with The Avengers in 2012 and Iron Man 3 earlier this year.

Trying to come up with a new spin on Superman that would satisfy old fans and the mainstream movie audiences was a tough gig.  It’s natural that Warner Brothers and DC turned to Nolan as a producer to get Superman back into theaters, but the choice of Zach Snyder as director seemed risky since he flopped with his previous comic book film, Watchmen.  With a story from Nolan and veteran comic book movie scripter David Goyer, Snyder has presented a new version of Superman that keeps the familiar elements but tweaks them so that we get a revised origin story that also delivers plenty of action.

On the planet Krypton scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have rebelled against a long-standing breeding program and had a son, Kal-El, via a natural birth.  Unfortunately, Krypton is doomed thanks to short-sighted government leaders who have done some kind of strip mining of the planet’s core.  Fanatical General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a coup attempt in an effort to save the planet, but he and Jor-El clash over Zod‘s plans for the future.  Jor-El steals data vital to the breeding program and puts it in the spaceship with his infant son and sends him to Earth where the yellow sun and lower gravity will give him incredible powers.

Kal-El is found by the Kents and raised on their Kansas farm as their son Clark.  Jonathan (Kevin Costner) worries that the world isn’t ready to find out about his adopted alien while Martha (Diane Lane) tries to help Clark adjust to his powers.  As an adult Clark (Henry Cavill) tries to hide his true nature with a nomadic existence of menial jobs and fake names, but his need to help people sometimes threatens to reveal him. 

While Clark is following up on a clue to his origins he crosses paths with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).  After Lois sees enough to know there‘s something special about him, Clark flees and wonders if the time has come to reveal himself to the world.  Lois starts tracking down Clark by following the rumors of a mysterious savior who has appeared over the years.

General Zod has some anger issues.
However, Clark’s decision is complicated by the appearance of General Zod and some of his followers who demand that Kal-El be turned over to him or he’ll start attacking Earth.  

While the familiar origin story is still here, it’s the additions and alterations that make it interesting.  We get a fuller picture of Krypton that we ever have in the movies, and it’s an intriguing bit of world building that had me wishing for a prequel  with Russell Crowe’s adventures as Jor-El.

In order to focus on the Superman elements, not much is done with the traditional Clark Kent secret identity lore. This is less about Superman trying to come to terms with who he is and more about him trying to decide whether he can trust people enough to try and help them.  Jonathan’s belief that the world would collectively freak out over the revelation of an alien with super powers echoes strongly within him, and Clark has little reason to expect the best of people since he's been treated like an outcast by almost everyone except his adopted parents.  

This was an interesting way to play it because we know that Superman is the epitome of a hero so there’s no point in trying to make us think that he doesn’t want to try and use his powers for good.  Instead the question becomes whether people really deserve his help, and if the revelation of a super-powered alien might do more harm than good.  Clark has to decide if he can trust humanity enough to change their world, and that’s an original question for a super-hero flick.

Aside from the character drama, there’s also plenty of action.  As is befitting of a Superman movie, the segments of him fighting Zod and his henchmen or performing other super-powered acts of heroism are epic and downright bone rattling.  The battles take place from Krypton to a small town in Kansas to the Indian Ocean to outer space to the streets of Metropolis and there’s plenty of property damage wherever they occur.  Whether it’s trying to save men from a burning oil rig or learning how to fly, the special effects are generally eye popping although there are a few scenes where CGI figures become obvious and the sheer scale of the action starts to overwhelm the viewer.  

Geez, you guys.  Get a room already.
Anchoring all of this are good performances from a very strong cast.  Cavill is a real find with an ability to make Clark feel all-too-human yet also projecting the bigger than life image needed when he puts on the Superman suit.  Amy Adams is more than just the typical damsel-in-distress that Lois usually is, and the script gives her important things to do.  Costner and Crowe really stand out as the two father figures who instinctively grasp all the dangers and opportunities that Clark/Kal-El has in front of him.  While Michael Shannon goes a little over the top at times, he’s playing the villain in a comic book movie so that isn’t the worst thing in the world.  It also helps that Zod actually sees himself as fighting for something so that he’s got a motivation beyond just being the crazy bad guy.

Like a lot of big blockbuster movies, Man of Steel goes on a bit too long and should have wrapped up its ending faster.  Some Superman fans probably won’t like the changes to the traditional story, and some viewers may be put off by the big sci-fi elements that sometimes distance us from the quieter character moments.

Still, this is the first Superman movie that really felt as big as a Superman movie should, and it manages to get across genuine moments of awe and wonder worthy of a comic book while still providing relatable characters and dilemmas.

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #9 mark monday

Today's guest is mark monday.  mark also posts at Shelf Inflicted and Hypnos.

How did you discover Goodreads?
an ex-friend sent me a link.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
getting to know a lot of interesting and/or nice people. watching various meltdowns while snickering unkindly to myself. and of course the very best thing for me about Goodreads has been getting introduced to a lot of really memorable books.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
for horror fiction, Shawn Garrett
for literary fiction, Joselito
for fantasy and science fiction, Kate Sherrod.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
worry & concern. that has since faded.

How many books do you own?
hard for me to say. hundreds? thousands?

Who is your favorite author?
also hard to say. maybe a toss-up between Jack Vance and Joyce Carol Oates.

What is your favorite book of all time?
and also hard to say. very hard to say! changes all the time, depending on mood. right now maybe Paul Scott's Raj Quartet

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
i like the feeling of an actual book in the hand. that said, i love the convenience of ebooks and the availability of many free classics & obscurities on Project Gutenberg.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
it's nice that publishing is so easy now and i've read a few interesting self-published books. but unfortunately the popularity of self-publishing also means that a lot of crap gets "published".

Any literary aspirations?
only vague ones.