Retrophisch Review: The Outside Man

In his debut novel, Don Bentley introduced the world to Matt Drake, a new kind of thriller hero, yet one still recognizable to fans of the genre. Without Sanction was a runaway bestseller, and I was glad to have followed the advice of so many on social media and give it a read. Drake takes the next step on his journey in the follow-up, The Outside Man.

I’ll be honest: I loved this book. In a private message exchange, I told Bentley I thought this was his Empire Strikes Back to the Star Wars of Without Sanction. The first novel sets the stage, but this one turns the volume all the way to 11 and takes Matt Drake, and his creator, to the next level.

After the events of the first book, this one opens with Matt being ambushed in broad daylight, on the streets of Austin, Texas, no less. There is a terrorist with a score to settle against Drake, backed up by professionals from the Middle East. Our hero manages to survive, but the ambush provides more questions than answers, and Drake is once again plunged into a world he thought he was desperate to leave, but finds his soul needs for him to truly be a part of. The villain we caught whispers of in Without Sanction is fully revealed here, and he is formidable. Worse, he knows exactly where to hurt Matt Drake the most.

One of the things I appreciate about Drake, and Bentley’s writing of him, is that he is fully human. He gets hurt, wounded, injured, and those have real-world consequences that affect how Matt continues his mission. Coupled with his vow to rescue an innocent from a sex-trafficking ring, and his snarky sense of humor, on more than one occasion one is left wondering, “Just how is Matt going to get out of trouble this time?“ As a thriller author, this is exactly what you want in your toolbox, to keep your readers on their toes and guessing what’s next.

Without Sanction was a firm entry into the thriller genre for Don Bentley, but The Outside Man vaults him into the band of my must-read authors, joining Daniel Silva, Mark Greaney, Lee (and now Andrew) Child, Nick Petrie, and Jack Carr. If you’re a fan of the genre, or just someone looking for a great read, The Outside Man is a must-buy.

5/5 fins

Retrophisch Review: The Sentinel

Much has been made of the latest Jack Reacher novel, The Sentinel, due to its collaborative nature between Lee Child and his brother, Andrew Child neé Grant. After 24 Jack Reacher novels, Lee Child felt it was time to step away from the yearly grind of write, publish, promote, and begin enjoying a well-deserved retirement. However, knowing the love fans have for Reacher, Child didn’t want to simply end the series, and enlisted his brother Andrew Grant to take up the mantle. The Sentinel is the first of three planned collaborations before Andrew takes on the series solo.

I discovered Jack Reacher—Child’s former Army MP now wandering vigilante—three years after the first book, Killing Floor, was published. I quickly blew through Killing Floor, Die Trying, and Tripwire, and began, like so many other readers, the annual wait for a new Jack Reacher novel to devour. While there are some notable differences with The Sentinel from prior Reacher tomes, devouring this one was no different from the rest.

Reacher takes himself to Nashville, to listen to good music, which in and of itself is a nod to Reacher’s past, as well as Lee Child’s as Reacher’s creator. The reason Reacher ends up in Margrave, Georgia in Killing Floor is he’s seeking out the home town of a blues man he likes. Reacher, being Reacher, gets involved in sticking up for the little guy in helping a local band, and finds he quickly needs to leave town. He ends up not too far away in Pleasantville, Tennessee. On the streets of the town completely by chance when a daylight abduction is attempted, Reacher thwarts the kidnapping and gets involved in a matter that runs deeper than it first appears, one with implications reaching far beyond the town itself.

There is certainly a different feel with The Sentinel from previous Reacher novels, the result of the collaboration between the brothers. Some reviewers have complained about the tone, or that there is too much expository from Reacher. I didn’t notice much of a change in that regard. As usual, there is ample opportunity for Reacher to say nothing. What stood out to me is that the novel didn’t feel as tight as previous efforts. One of the many things that has made the Reacher novels so popular is that Child’s writing style was as sparse as the main character’s wardrobe. It was a perfect marriage of style and character, and there is something of a departure from that in this latest book.

Nevertheless, I did not find it distracting to the point of losing enjoyment. Reacher is still sticking up the little guy, still mucking up the best-laid plans of those who wish ill on others, still being, well, Reacher. This was a learning process for the brothers, and I expect the next two Reacher novels will get better and better as Andrew establishes himself as the main author in taking on the sole responsibility for an annual Reacher story. While The Sentinel won’t vault into my Reacher top five, it is a solid entry in the Jack Reacher universe.

4/5 fins

Retrophisch Review: Dying of the Light

There are some roles which actors are born to play. There are some actors for whom roles are specifically written. Then there are those actors who perfectly fit a role you might not think before seeing them in said role would be that perfect fit. Nicholas Cage certainly fills this latter category in Dying of the Light. Dying of the Light poster

I came across this 2014 film, billed as a psychological thriller, while channel surfing. It was about fifteen minutes in, but my TiVo still had those previous fifteen minutes, the description sounded interesting, so I hit record to make sure I got the whole thing, and started from the beginning. While the film has some slow parts, which seems to be such to stretch out the running time to 90 minutes more than anything else, all in all I enjoyed it.

Cage is Evan Lake, a longtime and highly decorated CIA agent. We are introduced to him as he has a flashback to a covert operation in Africa where is captured and tortured by an Islamic terrorist, Muhammad Banir. Among the other tortures, Lake has part of an ear mutilated. An extraction team intervenes before he can be killed, killing several of the terrorists, presumably including Banir. Lake doesn’t believe Banir is dead, and carries this belief with him while he continues working in the Agency for another 22 years. Just as the CIA is made aware of the possibility that Banir may be still alive, Lake learns he has frontotemporal dementia, the side effects of which…well, let’s just say they play perfectly into Nic Cage’s acting abilities and the type of roles he is more well known for.

Milton Schultz, aptly played by Anton Yelchin, is an analyst for the CIA who is a close friend of Lake’s. There is clearly a teacher-protege relationship going on, and Milt is quite fond of Lake. That fondness grows into protection as Lake reveals his condition to Milt. Due to the onset of the dementia, Lake is forcibly retired from the CIA, but with Milt’s help, undergoes one last mission to take out Banir in Africa.

The film’s production value reminded me of Cinemax’s Strike Back series, of which I’m a fan. It’s not big budget, but it gets the job done. The film itself is not without controversy, in that the studio re-edited and scored the film without writer/director Paul Schrader’s permission or input. Cage and Yelchin stood by Schrader in disavowing the finished film, and given the slow and disjointed points in the movie, I can understand why. When as a creative individual you put effort into a project, a project for which you have a distinct vision, and that is taken away from you while you have no legal recourse, well, I can understand Schrader’s frustration. He would go on to recut the movie to as close as possible to his original vision from DVD copies of the workprint. That version of the film, which he called Dark, can presumably be found on BitTorrent sites.

I do not plan to hunt that down, as I do not think it would greatly change my overall impression of the film, not elevate one I believe is its greatest strength: the relationship between Lake and Milt.

In a world where masculine friendship and filial love has been minimized, it was refreshing to watch one friend go to the lengths Milton does to help someone he cares about, admires, and loves. Time and again, Milt makes sacrifices great and small for Lake, doing what he can to help his mentor fulfill his final mission. The conversations between the two of them are the glue of the film, and the scenes I enjoyed most.

Dying of the Light can be a little slow, it won’t be for everyone, and I was never on the edge of my seat as with some thrillers. But it makes up for its downsides with a story of friendship, sacrifice, and love that I found compelling enough to recommend it for that part of the plot.

3/5 fins

Rest in peace, sweet Winston

Since the fall of 1991, when my fiancée-now-wife and I got a black kitten with lottery winnings, there has not been a night in our home without a pet in it. Until now.

Since early 1992—with the exception of an approximately one-month window—when we purchased a Pembroke Welsh Corgi puppy from a local breeder, there has not been a night in our home without a dog in it. Until now.

Winston, our sweet Corgi

Today we said good-bye to our sweet Winston. The slow kidney failure that had plagued him for nearly a year finally caught up, and it was time to let him go.

This one hits our family a little differently than the other two dogs we’ve had. With our first, Linus, it was just me and my wife, no kids, and we were quite devastated when his time with us was cut short from a tumor on his stomach. Our rebound dog, a Shar-Pei/Pit bull/couple-of-other-breeds mutt, Clancy, was equally sweet, and very protective of our firstborn when we brought him home from the hospital. But Winston was the first dog who truly had his boy. And our oldest was the first of us to truly have his dog.

A boy and his dog

Winston joined our family when our oldest was four. A friend who fostered dogs for the local humane society, and lived in the same neighborhood as us, knew of our love of Corgis from Linus. She called us one day to say, “I have a Corgi at my house.” She was informed we’d be over shortly. The first day was our meeting Winston; the name was one given to him by the humane society, and we liked it so we kept it. The second day was Winston meeting Clancy on neutral ground there in the neighborhood. That went well enough that the next day Winston spent the night at our house to see how he’d get along with the two cats and the general goings-on of our household. That was a Friday, and Saturday was going to be his first day of availability to be adopted from the humane society. They were having a big event at our local pet store. Winston did not make an appearance.

I will not forget the look on the humane society volunteer’s face when we told her we were there to adopt a dog, she asked which one, we told her, and she got confused that we didn’t have a dog with us. “Where is he?” she asked.

“At our house,” I replied with a smile. And then she got the above story, we got paperwork to fill out, the humane society got a check, and we had a second dog in the house.

When it was time for this ultimate decision to be made for Winston, there were many tears from all the humans in the household, but especially from our oldest. In my wife’s words, he and Winston were “two peas in a pod”. Bad day at school? Go lie down with Winston for some puppy therapy. Bad game on the ice? Go lie down with Winston for some puppy therapy. Mad at your parents because you’re a teenager who’s trying to figure out who he is and you’re bumping up against the boundaries of authority? Go lie down with Winston for some puppy therapy.

A boy and his dog. A dog and his boy.

I was with Linus and Clancy each when their time came, and there was no hesitation on my part that I would do the same for Winston. I left the decision on whether he wanted to be there as well to my oldest. There was no hesitation on his part, either.

Winston rode in his boy’s lap on the drive from our house to the vet’s office. He stuck his nose out the window a few times to sniff the air. He got lots of love and was talked to constantly.

Last ride together

It took both of us to gingerly get him down from his perch on his boy’s lap to the ground. He had developed arthritis in his left back leg on top of all the internal turmoil he was enduring. He had to be helped over the curb from the parking lot to the grass surrounding the office. But he spent his last moments before being led inside by a tech sniffing the ground, exploring a relatively unknown space, and dutifully doing his business and making his mark.

When the moment came, there were many tears from me and my son. There was also a new pain and sadness to consider, one I hadn’t experienced with our other two dogs: the pain a parent feels seeing such sadness of loss from his child. Sadly, I know this will not be the last time for that, but such is life.

Untitled

We thanked God for bringing Winston into our home. We thanked Him for the love that poured forth between this sweet little, teddy-bear puppy and the humans he shared an abode with. We offered our hope to Him that we be reunited some day.

Until that day, I will miss you, sweet Winston. I love you.

Retrophisch Review: The Man Who Never Was

The Man Who Never Was cover

I do not recall how I first became aware of British author Mark Dawson. Given his prowess at web and email advertisements which inevitably lead one to one of his books’ Amazon listing, it could very well have been via BookBub, but I do not discount other methods of discovery. However I came across Dawson’s early John Milton books, I was an immediate fan. So much so, that when Mark started his beta reader program, I was in. The chance to read the next Milton book before it was released? Sign me up! Dawson has expanded his Miltonverse with the Beatrix Rose and Isabella Rose series, both of which I also recommend.

Which brings us to The Man Who Never Was, the 16th novel in the John Milton series. Milton, who frequently goes by the nom de guerre John Smith, is formerly of Her Majesty’s Special Air Service, and the ultra-black and, so far as we know, entirely fictitious Group Fifteen. Tormented by the many dirty deeds he did in service to his nation, Milton drops out of the life, gets himself into AA, and now lives attempting to balance the scales. Balancing the scales is foremost in his mind in The Man Who Never Was, where we find Milton going after the drug cartel figures he feels are responsible for the death of a friend. The novel picks up a few weeks after the previous one in the series, Bright Lights. When a damsel in distress turned out to not be entirely who she seemed, it resulted in the death of Milton’s friend, Beau Baxter. Now, he wants justice for his friend, and it goes beyond the man who pulled the trigger.

Starting in the night life of Amsterdam, playing the role of an up-and-coming drug distributor, Milton, with the help of a small cadre of associates, including Beau’s son, infiltrates the cartel’s network. He manages to wreak a little havoc and find himself face-to-face with the boss herself in the jungles of Colombia. And it’s there that Milton learns things really aren’t what they seem, and the tension and action ratchet up.

If you’re new to the John Milton novels, I would not recommend starting with this one. Most of the time, you can pick one up and enjoy it for what it is without having read any of the previous ones, but that is certainly not the case here. To really understand Milton’s motivations, some of the characters, and the full weight of the plot, you should read the prior entry in the series. In the case of The Man Who Never Was, it is a solid brick in the John Milton wall, but not a must-read like some of the others. At some points of this book, I felt like Dawson wrote it simply because he felt he had to, due to the way he’d left things at the end of Bright Lights. Nevetheless, I enjoyed it, and cannot wait for the next John Milton adventure.

3.5/5 fins

College Memories Abound Tonight

In January 1990, the first week of the semester at LSU, my best friend, on his way home from a night class, was hit by a drunk driver. Twenty-four hours later, the head trauma Brett had sustained in the incident was too great for him to overcome. With zero brain activity being registered, his parents made the difficult decision to end the life support being provided by medical equipment, and would go on to bury the second of their two children, both killed by drunk drivers.

Brett and I met our freshman semester in August 1988, in AFROTC. We were assigned to the same flight, and along with John, formed a quick but deep bond over our love of country, LSU, and hard rock/heavy metal music. John and I, along with our friend Drew, were three of Brett’s pallbearers. AFROTC Detachment 310  led the way, with participation from our Army brethren across the hall, in giving Brett full military honors, inasmuch as we were able to for a bunch of college kids. After the funeral, John and I stood in Brett’s bedroom at his parents’ house in Abbeville, and one of the memories John brought up was how Brett’s left foot was always pounding out the bass beat when he was driving. Brett was a drummer, and it never stopped. Not when he was driving, not when he was sitting in a booth at Pizza Hut after that week’s marching on the Parade Grounds, not when he was sitting and studying.

John would drop out of ROTC before I did. We gradually lost touch, connecting once or twice through the years. Drew is still a good friend; until three years ago, we had spent the previous 15 years living in the same neighborhood, two short blocks from one another. We have literally watched one another’s kids grow up. And there was a fifth member in all of this, and that’s Liz.

Liz was the flight commander for me, Brett, and John that first semester in AFROTC. She became a friend, a big sister none of us had ever had. Brett’s brother had been older, and John and I both had younger siblings. Even as we each went our own way, Liz remained a common star we orbited around. One of the highlights, at least for me, of our family’s annual trips since 2012 to Horn Creek in Colorado, is to take one day to go meet up with Liz, who lives in Colorado Springs with her family. It was Liz who, after I fell down a mountain in the Garden of the Gods in 2016, sat with me at an urgent care in Colorado Springs, waiting until I could get x-rayed and see how broken my arm was, so my wife could take our boys to get lunch. We may be able to only see one another once a year, if that, but there’s Facebook for keeping up with one another, and calls and texting.

One such text came a couple of weeks ago. She was working on a spring cleaning of the house, and found a bunch of Brett’s CDs she’d taken from his apartment. His parents had let those of us who wanted to take things to remember Brett by. I kept his Fudpucker’s t-shirt, acquired during our base visit to Eglin AFB just the semester prior. Liz chose his music. But now they needed to go, and she wanted to know if Drew or I wanted them. Drew passed, but I accepted. Guess what arrived today?

Courtesy of my college big sister, college memories abound tonight.

So tonight I’m going down a rabbit hole, thanks to Ozzy, AC/DC, Van Halen—Brett loved Van Halen—and the rest. Memories of that year and half together are strong, as well as memories made after Brett’s death:

  • the LSU basketball game John, Drew, and I went to later that semester, meeting up at the ROTC building before heading across the Tiger Stadium parking lot to the PMAC
  • seeing The Hunt for Red October in the theater with John, Liz, Drew, Marshall, and Connor (he always went by his last name)
  • testifying, to no avail, at the trial of the drunk driver who killed Brett, then road-tripping to Houston to go to Astroworld with Liz, Trish, Carey, Connor, and I don’t recall who else to drown our sorrows at the injustice in roller coasters and theme-park camaraderie
  • the visit to England AFB in Alexandria, LA, where Carey’s dad was a flight leader with the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing; we got to go to the gunnery range and watch A-10 pilots practice their craft
  • watching Star Trek: The Next Generation at Drew and Carey’s apartment
  • Liz’s graduation party at her apartment, then her commissioning ceremony the next day

Finally, it was at Brett’s funeral that a young lady in the Angel Flight auxiliary (now Silver Wings) first took note of one of the pallbearers. They would meet a couple of times over the next three months, but it was a mutual friend who set them up on their first date for the ROTC Military Ball that April. They have been together ever since.

First date.

So I will kiss my bride and raise a toast to you, Brett. Rock on, brother. Rock on.

Retrophisch Review: Savage Son

Savage Son cover The third book featuring Jack Carr’s protagonist James Reece is indeed his best yet. It’s a must-read for anyone who is a fan of the thriller genre.

After the events of The Terminal List and True Believer, Reece finds himself Stateside, beginning to carve out a new life for himself. Taken in as a second son by the Hastings family, and being courted by the Special Operations Division of the CIA, Reece has options. He also has an agenda of his own, and his thought process is to align those with continuing in service to his nation. What he doesn’t know is that he is in someone else’s crosshairs, and things get wild when the hunter becomes the hunted.

Hunting is the main theme of the book, which is an homage to Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. Carr has stated in numerous interviews that Savage Son is the book he’s always wanted to write, but knew it couldn’t be the first book he wrote. As with his previous novels, Carr brings his own experience as a 20-year veteran of the Navy SEALs to the text, and adds his love of the outdoors and hunting game. As he is hunted by the Russian mob and elements of Russian intelligence, Reece and his adopted family must find a way to turn the tables.

I’ve heard Jack speak at two book signings, and I follow him on social media. He is not shy about showering praise and gratitude on authors he feels taught him how to write books such as these: David Morrell, Daniel Silva, John Le Carré, Louis L’Amour, Truman Capote, and Nelson DeMille, to name but a few. With Savage Son, I would say Carr has clearly taken the best of what he has learned from these masters and poured it into his work. You can sense the progress as an author from The Terminal List, through True Believer, to now. This doesn’t read like a third book by a relatively new author, but rather like the 10th or 12th by a seasoned pro.

There are certain authors whose books are automatic purchases for me these days: Lee Child, Daniel Silva, Mark Greaney, Nick Petrie, and Robert Kroese. Jack Carr has definitely joined that list. If you love the works of Brad Thor and Brad Taylor, you will love Jack Carr.

5/5 fins, a must-buy

The Empowered Parent Podcast Shelters in Place

Like most of our listeners, our families are sheltering in place, doing our best to remain in coronavirus quarantine except for venturing out for groceries and food. Ryan, Kayla, and I got together over Zoom to record a pair of episodes about our experiences, and I shot a promo video for these with my boys.

You can listen to the first of these two episodes here: https://empoweredparent.podbean.com/e/shelter-in-place-s07-e01/

I’ve also been informed this episode was downloaded over 1,000 times in the first 24 hours!

Retrophisch Review: The Dark Continent

The Dark Continent coverEvoking plot elements from Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Scott Reardon’s The Dark Continent opens with CIA agent Karl Lyons looking for an ultra-black government project gone awry, one he had been a part of but was now on the outs with. The heavily obscured project, Prometheus, has taken a turn for the worse: on an abandoned oil rig off the coast of Alaska, scientists have begun injecting human subjects, and not just any human subjects. These are the worst of the worst: rapists, serial killers, death row inmates. Sound familiar, readers of The Passage?

Yet Reardon has his own twist on what happens to the test subjects, one that comes across as far more believable than Cronin’s vampires, but is just as terrifying. Defying the odds to escape from Chinese imprisonment, Karl joins forces with Tom Reese, the protagonist from Reardon’s first book, The Prometheus Man. I should note that I hadn’t read this first novel before diving in to The Dark Continent, but it was not an issue. Reardon gives enough backstory from the first book sprinkled throughout the second to get you up to speed and keep you engaged. After the test subjects escape, Karl and Tom must enter the heart of darkness the killers have created in middle America to take down the enhanced humans before they end life as we have become accustomed to it.

This was probably not the best choices of books to read during a pandemic and the inherent fears that go along with one, but I could not put it down. It is a “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should” thriller that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. From the beginning, I was deeply invested in Karl and Tom, and Kronin (a nod to Justin Cronin?) has to be one of the scariest fiction characters since Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh. Reardon has crafted an engaging, suspenseful story that should make one think while being entertained.

4.5/5 fins, definitely recommended

He’ll never leave you or forsake you

I help administer a private group on Facebook for foster and adoptive dads, and posted this today for encouragement, because I needed it myself:

So lately I’ve been struggling with the strong wills of my boys, and of my own. The constant tug-of-war. My wife and I were talking about it over lunch today, because she shares in the frustration (she’s strong-willed as well), and I reminded her, as much as myself, that they act this way because they feel securely attached to us.

“Well, it would be nice if they weren’t complete JERKS about it!” she sighed. She didn’t use the word “jerks,” but I’m trying to keep this family-friendly.

I mention this because I know I’m not alone in being a dad frustrated with the behaviors of his kids from hard places. Especially when they’ve been in our home for so long (birth for two of them, 9 months old for the third, and they’re 16, 11, and 8 now), and it just doesn’t feel like things are getting better.

Then God decides to plant a reminder on you in an unexpected way. In an email newsletter unrelated to parenting, there was this verse of encouragement from Hebrews, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” God always has our back, and we just need to go to Him with our frustrations, seek His peace.

And because I’m an ’80s metalhead, this verse and the feeling behind it will always be enshrined for me in the opening song from Rage of Angels’ self-titled, 1989, debut album: