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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

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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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First impressions of The Passage premiere

  • I was worried about the Wolgast/Amy connection; I’m not worried any more
  • as one expects of book adaptations, there are noticeable changes
  • some of those changes are character-related, and I think I see where it’s going with one, and I approve. With another, I’m not so sure.
  • I think Gosselaar is a good choice for Wolgast; I think Saniyya Sidney is an excellent choice for Amy
  • Jamie McShane as Fanning looks like he’ll be perfect
  • a little too early to make the call on McKinley Belcher as Carter, but I like where it’s going

Nathan told me that he’d read they’re taking this a little more linear than the books do, where the timeline jumps back and forth between the past (and multiple characters’ pasts) and the present (and multiple characters’ presents). I think that will be a benefit. Author Justin Cronin is listed as an executive producer. I’m really hoping that means he has real input and it’s not just an honorific. The Passage trilogy is epic dystopian myth-making. I’m actually considering stopping all other reading to pick up the first book again.

There’s also a strong adoption theme to the Wolgast/Amy relationship.

I generally give a new show five episodes to keep me as a viewer. Given I read the background material for this one, I’m likely already in. I’m anxiously awaiting the next episode.

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Rock of Ages: The Retrophisch Review

In the interests of full disclosure: the soundtrack for this film was the soundtrack of my life in the 1980s. I was a closet metalhead–closet only in the sense that I didn’t have long hair and wasn’t allowed to go to the rock shows by my Southern Baptist-raised mother. These songs are the songs of my formative teenage years, and I was already biased toward liking this movie before I sat down in the theater to view it. So fellow ‘80s rockers whose iPods and iPhones hold Poison, Journey, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, The Scorpions, Guns N’Roses, and the like, you’re going to love this movie, despite its myriad shortcomings.

Oh, and shortcomings it has. For one: how do you leave out Motley Crüe from the soundtrack? Talk about your quintessential 1980s L.A. rock band. There’s not even a cut from the Crüe in the original musical. Granted, Rock of Ages is, despite its full-on ’80s rock ensemble, a love story. And Motley Crüe didn’t make their bones belting out power ballads. Now it wouldn’t surprise me to learn, given Motley Crüe’s years-ago split-up, then later reformation, that there may have been some legal wrangling that proved too costly. Or maybe, being the quintessential 1980s L.A. rock band, the Crüe simply didn’t want their tracks being associated with a Broadway musical and its film spinoff.

One shortcoming which will come as no surprise: the plot’s really thin. The entire reason there’s even a plot is to give us reasons to have these songs performed. I’m sure if you took the original music videos for these songs, or video of their best live performances, strung them together one after another, and released that to theaters, we ’80s rockers would be just as apt to shell out our ten bucks each to sit down and enjoy that hour and a half. One will note that Rock of Ages’s running time is just a hair over two hours, which tells you there’s about 30 minutes of nearly useless, music-less filler to slog through.

Casting: whew, we could be here awhile in this regard. But I’ll try to keep it brief. Alec Baldwin is amusing in his role as Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree, but you could easily interchange him with any number of actors. Malin Akerman is pure eye candy as a reporter from Rolling Stone. Really? A swimsuit cover model type cast as a reporter from Rolling Stone? The other supporting roles are as equally interchangeable among the Hollywood glitterati as Baldwin’s.

Julianne Hough is endearing as Sherrie, and we all know she can sing. (All the actors did their own singing, painfully obvious in a line of one song where Baldwin chimes in.) Mary J. Blige as Justice, the owner of The Venus Club, is a treat, and you want to hear more of her covering Pat Benatar and Quarterflash than to put up with another round of anything from Diego Boneta. My feelings regarding the lead casting of Boneta as Drew are best summed up by this line from Tom Santilli in his Examiner review (read after I saw the film):

He seems more suited for musical theater, which I guess this is, but he just seems like the kind of guy Stacee Jaxx would have beaten up in high school.

And speaking of Stacee Jaxx, this leads us to Tom Cruise. Like many, when I saw Cruise was taking the role of the fictional rock legend, I had serious doubts he could pull it off. And while I don’t think his singing voice is quite right for certain numbers (“Paradise City”, most notably), he sings well enough to indeed pull it off. I’ll also give Cruise points for giving an appropriately dark performace as a rock god who’s having trouble accepting his place in music history, and not knowing where to go next. I got the feeling he was channeling Axl Rose as the latter dealt with his own issues following Guns N’Roses’ ascendance from overnight success to rock institution.

There’s a lot to ding Rock of Ages for, but all in all, it’s a fun movie. And if the soundtrack of your life was like mine during that time period, you may find yourself wanting to go see it again.