Monday, November 24, 2014

A Classic Noir Novel from Vern E. Smith

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This dark, gritty novel is the only one ever written by Vern E. Smith, which is really too bad. If the guy was capable of writing books like this one, then fans of crime fiction are that much poorer for not having more of them.

Originally published in 1974, the book is set in the seedy underworld of Detroit where dope addicts struggle to find their next fix and the dealers jockey for position on the supply chain. The Jones Men are the heroin dealers and the current king of the hill is Willis McDaniel. But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that sort of thing. There are always other ruthless and ambitious men ready to kick the king out of the way and wear the crown themselves.

At a party one night, McDaniel carelessly makes a remark about a big incoming shipment of dope that he's expecting. The word filters through the drug community to a kid named Lennie Jack who's fresh home from the war in Vietnam and looking to step up in the world.

Lennie Jack and a couple of buddies hit the exchange and make off with McDaneil's shipment. McDaniel, naturally, is furious both because of the dope he has lost and, even more important, because the robbery makes him look vulnerable in a world where the most dangerous thing that can happen to a drug kingpin is to look weak.

McDaniel launches an "investigation" into the theft and before long, the blood is flowing like a river. It's a brutal world where mercy, trust and security are unknown commodities, where today's ally may be tonight's enemy, and where it's every man for himself.

Smith writes a very compelling story set in a very believable world where, before the days of Escalades and Lincoln Navigators, the dealers drive tricked-out Cadillacs and dress like Super Fly. The Jones Men is a trip back in time that any fan of nourish crime fiction is almost certain to enjoy.

The Cutest Little Foul-Mouthed Beasties Ever

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest BestiarySquirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Awww, they think they're people! KAWAIII!!!

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is not your typical David Sedaris, self-confessional book. It's a collection of short stories in which animals have, for the most part, human conversations.

Fun, fairly light stuff with a bit of clever dashed in now and then as always found in a stew of David Sedaris stories. Light reading, yes, pleasant and positive? Not always...


What else could be expected from Sedaris? Dude's got a dark sense of humor. These stories might be fictional, they might not be self-referential, but they're pure Sedaris.

Listening to his previous books on cd and having seen him live has given me a taste for hearing his voice put to his words ( well as totally making us besties, even if he doesn't know it yet.) The way he narrates them adds a good deal of flavor. That flavor may be a bit sour or a tad reminiscent of bile even, but I find small portions of it absolutely delicious. Clearly I need to go eat.

Rating: 3.5

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Gamebook Geekdom

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (Fighting Fantasy, #1)The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"NERD!!!"...There. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow me to continue...

I bought this Dungeons & Dragons style game book years ago in a shop on (or maybe just off) the high street in St. Albans while on honeymoon in England. And to answer the obvious question that follows...yes, my wife is an unusually understanding woman.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is apparently a classic of the fantasy adventure gamebook sort. *shrugs* What did I know? When I picked it up I thought it was one of those old-school Choose Your Own Adventure kind of books. Alas no. This lays out a "dungeon crawl" (ancient gaming style in which adventurers enter a maze-like setting often underground in a tomb or highly fictionalized castle dungeon) in which the adventurer (created by you) journeys through in an attempt to pick up treasure and not get killed by monsters and traps.

With the physical book, you're suppose to write shit down, like maps, and keep track of "hit points" or items found in the dungeon, which I honestly wasn't interested in doing, so I only flipped through the book, read a few passages and never played it.

Fast-forward seven years to a technologically wondrous time known as the 2010s and low-and-behold what should I find but The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as a free ebook, an ebook which kept track of all the extraneous crap for you! "Wow," I think I might have shouted in my head as I moved on to more enriching reading material. Ah but it stuck in my craw, so I ended up getting it a few days later for my Kindle and finally played/read the damn thing.

The adventure is contrived to the extreme! Sure it's fun enough to tramp through the dungeon hoping you make the right choices as you come up against goblins and ghouls, but if you step back and think about it a moment, the whole premise is ridiculous, even for fantasy standards! Why would a super powerful and highly intelligent warlock create an incredibly convoluted, deadly maze and sit in it all day, everyday just waiting for some fool to stumble into it and die? Anyone in solitary confinement all that time would welcome visitors!

There's a number of other nonsensical encounters seemingly thrown into the game in order to add color to the story, like an old man calmly sitting in a rocking chair in a room set up like a cluttered cottage which is surrounded by deviously trapped rooms, orcs up the wazoo, a minotaur's labyrinth, deadly sandworms that pop out of the banks of a highly impassable Styx-like river, etc etc etc. How is the poor old man suppose to get his shopping done stuck in the middle of all this dangerous danger?!

As implausible as it all is, it's what fantasy is all about: fantasy. Suspend belief and enjoy the adventure!


Not all fantasy artwork is created equal. Some of it sucks ass. The illustrations in this one are actually pretty good. Check it out...


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