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Retrophisch Review: The Man Who Never Was

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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

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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

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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

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Retrophisch Review: Last Tango in Cyberspace

Last Tango in Cyberspace cover

I was afforded the opportunity via NetGalley to read an advanced reader copy of Steven Kotler’s Last Tango in Cyberspace. It’s a near-future science fiction novel in the vein of William Gibson’s later works, though there are nods to Neuromancer and his earlier works, as well as references to Blade Runner throughout. I found it fun and engaging, and definitely worth the read.

I have heard of Kotler’s earlier work, mostly non-fiction, such as The Rise of Superman, Stealing Fire, Tomorrowland, and others, but I have never read these before. That will likely change having finished Last Tango in Cyberspace.

Lion Zorn is a new kind of human, an empathy tracker. His skills allows him to feel the future, spotting trends before they happen. He makes a living giving companies a yes or no about the possible futures they are working on. Lion is hired by a multinational conglomerate named Arctic to help with the possible launch of a new kind of pharmaceutical, but he quickly finds himself investigating a possible murder while ducking the very latest in cutting-edge surveillance.

4/5 phins, recommended

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PEBKAC: On Being Locked In, And Getting What I Want Out

This column originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

While I own a Kindle e-reader, I find I still do most of my electronic reading on my iPhone. Whether it’s in the Kindle app, or Barnes & Noble’s Nook app, or Apple’s own iBooks, I always have my iPhone with me, thus, I can always read an e-book, even if I left a dead-tree version, or my Kindle, at home. At any rate, I’ve noticed something about these three reading apps.

Before we get to my observation, a quick word on these apps’ respective libraries and purchasing systems: yes, you are locked in. A Kindle book cannot be read in the Nook app, nor can the Nook book be read in iBooks. And while iBooks books are based on EPUB, Nook’s are based on eReader, and Kindle books are a derivative of the Mobipocket format, all of these are wrapped in digital rights management (DRM) software which is unique to that particular app/vendor. In other words, when you buy a Kindle book, any reading of that book has to be on a Kindle device or app. Forever.

For many folks, this isn’t a problem. They have a long history ordering paper books from Amazon, or buying them at a brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble, and they’re comfortable continuing to give that company their business. I am one of those people, and I’ve given both of those companies part of my book-buying business over the years. My problem with the whole e-book thing is that, unlike the dead-tree edition of a book, I can’t–with limited exceptions–loan it to a friend, or donate it to a library or other organization when I’m done with it. The other problem is, what if this vendor goes out of business? Or shuts down this component of their business? Sure, that doesn’t sound remotely possible with the three companies in question, but who among us would have thought, fifteen years ago, that Leahman Brothers wouldn’t exist today? Yes, they can take up a lot of physical space, and are susceptible to the elements, but a well cared-for paper-based book may just have a better of chance of making it to the second half of the century.

This is a continuing problem authors, publishers, and readers have to dance around. To not have DRM means books are more easily pirated, and authors lose out on royalties, while publishers’ costs increase. As a content creator myself, I’m fully aware of the need to protect one’s work. Yet at the same time, I’m a content consumer, and I find myself at war within, given that I’d rather have the same easy choice with e-books that I have with paper-based books.

So, to my observation: While reading a book in iBooks, I came across an interesting passage, and I have long been a note-taker. In iBooks, it was no big deal to highlight the passage, copy the text, then paste it into a plain text file on Dropbox with Notesy for future reference. Yet this simple process is not at all possible with the Kindle or Nook apps, should I find an interesting passage while reading within either of them. Oddly enough, to take notes from something I’m reading in the Kindle or Nook apps, I have to revert to the same process I would use if the book in question was paper-based: I’d touch-type the note into a relevant file while reading from the device propped up next to my iMac.

This, on the face, seems like a simple fix: the Kindle and Nook app developers need to include a copy text function. However, knowing several programmers, I know that things are often not nearly as simple as they seem. These developers may also be restricted in some way by Apple’s rules for iOS apps, who can say? Still, I’d love to see them implement this in their respective apps.

But why not just highlight the passage that’s caught your attention, you might ask. Because, so far as the Nook is concerned, this means you’re still stuck always having to flip through the e-book to find what you’ve highlighted. Amazon gets around this somewhat with the Kindle, however, by collecting your annotations. Whether you highlight, or make a note, it’s kept for you at kindle.amazon.com. From there, you can copy and paste directly from a web page, which is a reasonable alternative to doing it bit by bit on your iPhone.

The only issue with that solution on the Kindle, however, is what if you have a book you didn’t buy from Amazon? In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I downloaded a novella from an author’s blog. He had put it out as both a .mobi file for reading on a Kindle, or EPUB for apps and devices capable of that format. I can put this .mobi file on my Kindle, and highlight all I want, but those won’t be available to me at the above web site. Built-into-the-app copy abilities would help solve that. Because you never know when an interesting passage is going to come along.

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Resisting the tide

Daniel Silva’s latest Gabriel Allon thriller, Portrait of a Spy, dropped today. As always, Silva is tuned in to the real goings-on of the world, where his fiction tap-dances on the edge of:

Another article of faith lay in tatters that November—the belief that Europe could absorb an endless tide of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies while preserving its culture and basic way of life. What had started as a temporary program to relieve a postwar labor shortage had now permanently altered the face of an entire continent. Restive Muslim suburbs ringed nearly every city, and several countries appeared demographically fated to Muslim majorities before the end of the century. No one in a position of power had bothered to consult the native population of Europe before throwing open the doors, and now, after years of relative passivity, the natives were beginning to push back. Denmark had imposed draconian restrictions on immigrant marriages. France had banned the wearing of the full facial veil in public. And the Swiss, who barely tolerated one another, had decided they wanted to keep their tidy little cities and towns free of unsightly minarets. The leaders of Britain and Germany had declared multiculturalism, the virtual religion of post-Christian Europe, a dead letter. No longer would the majority bend to the will of the minority, they declared. Nor would it turn a blind eye to the extremism that flourished within its midst. Europe’s age-old contest with Islam, it seemed, had entered a new and potentially dangerous phase. There were many who feared it would be an uneven fight. One side was old, tired, and largely content with itself. The other could be driven into a murderous frenzy by a doodle in a Danish newspaper.

Nowhere were the problems facing Europe on clearer display than in Clichy-sous-Bois, the volatile Arab banlieue located just outside Paris. The flashpoint for the deadly riots that swept France in 2005, the suburb had one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, along with one of the highest rates of violent crime. So dangerous was Clichy-sous-Bois that even the French police refrained from entering its seething public housing estates…

Silva’s Gabriel Allon series is one of the best in the modern thriller class, and I encourage readers of the genre to check his work out.

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New Tom Clancy dropped today. Wheeee… (Taken with picplz.)

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My reading queue keeps getting deeper with interesting tomes. (Taken with picplz.)

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Books 2010: The Year of the Movie Tie-In

Below follows the list of books I read in 2010. Links go to the dead-tree edition (for the most part) on Amazon. You can see this list, as well as past years on the reading page.
An asterisk signifies the book was read electronically, most likely on my iPhone.
Beginning in May, I started noting the completion date of reading a tome. This doesn’t necessarily translate into x amount of time between books being the actual amount of time it took to read a book. There are days where I’m in between books and simply haven’t started a new one. Other times, I’ve got two books going at once (usually one in print, one on the iPhone). I just thought it would be fun to note those dates.
Since I began tracking toward the end of 2007, this proved a banner year for my reading. I got through 43 books, graphic novels, and novellas in 2010, and I’m already excited about 2011. I’m currently in the middle of two books (one in print, one on the iPhone), with four more in the queue I can’t wait to get to.
Traditionally, I’ve been a heavy fiction reader, and this trend did not change in 2010. I only read five non-fiction books last year, and two of those were memoirs of a sort.
What jumped out at me when reviewing the list was how heavy it was with books turned into movies. It starts with Youth in Revolt, recommended and loaned to me by Brent, then moved to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, The Losers, The American, The Town, and True Grit. I’ll admit that five of those six were a result of being prompted to read them before seeing the movie, or as a result of having seen it. This amounted to nearly one-seventh of my entire list being tied to a movie.
The list is presented in reverse order, so the last book I read is at the top.

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Thank you, Lord, for books

Randy Alcorn:

No offense to ebooks and Kindle, which have their place, but there’s no substitute for a book that has an actual history, that takes up space on a shelf, that has been somewhere, strapped to the back of a bike, that was being read in a British boys’ school library while Lewis was still teaching at Oxford.

Thank you, Lord, for books. Not just the words, but actual physical books you can hold in your hand and touch and smell, and ponder where they have been and what lives they may have touched.