Holy smoke & mirrors…
Okay, Paloozers…up for the next batch of catchup reviews? We’ve got an actress who finds herself acting as a private investigator (with supporting cast of her frankly bizarre neighbors and even stranger fellow actors), an invasion of the second-scariest aliens ever (clowns would be scarier, but giant spiders from space are darn creepy runners-up), and a head-messing virtual reality where the “who”-done-it might have happened inside your head or not at all.
Review: 5 out of 5 stars for Workmen’s Complication, Emboozlement (Book 3, McCall and Company) by Rich Leder
When I was in New York, I had dinner at a Times Square restaurant whose schtick is that the servers deliver show tunes along with your burgers and milk creams. I looked at the beautiful, talented, and just plain watchable waitrons and realized something. Each one was probably THE star of their high school drama program, announcing proudly to family and friends that they were off to the Big Apple where their awesome talent would have their name in lights soon. Pretty soon. Someday. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to them.
When one of my favorite authors, Rich Leder, sent me his latest release, Emboozlement, I found the answer, at least in the case of Kate McCall. Eventually. See, I knew this was the third book in his McCall and Company series, and I decided it would
make sense be a hell of a lot of fun to start from the beginning. And Holy Thespis was I right!
Kate McCall is happily living the cobbled-together New York existence that lets her continue to describe herself as an (off-off-off Broadway) actress and amateur boxer. Once a teenaged single mother, she now has a grown son who is a Manhattan assistant DA, a subsidized apartment in the House of Emotional Tics where she is manager/wrangler of the motley collection of eccentric residents, and lead actress in a musical theater company that firmly believes in keeping the fun in dysfunctional. (Her current role is a vampire who is an aspiring nightclub singer.) But when her private investigator father Jimmy McCall is killed, she decides to take on his business, just long enough to solve his murder. “But the last thing on Earth I was ever going to be was a private investigator because I was an actor. End of story. Not happening. Except it happened.”
In the spirit of terrific long-running TV detective shows like Moonlight, Remington Steele, The Avengers, etc., Kate starts to detect. Other shows might have a PI with awesome skill with weapons, martial arts, great hardware and tech, connections to spy agencies/ the legal system/ police, but Kate has something better. Actors. Okay, actors AND the residents of her apartment building, who include a (former) Chinese assassin as handyman, an expert hacker/insomniac who spends his days trading on eBay, and a doorman with a world-class museum in his apartment. And don’t forget the contents of Kate’s closet, a bedroom-sized collection of costumes from thirty years of failed parts, that allows her to assume virtually any role.
“Jimmy’s business, McCall & Company, Private Investigations, was a one-man band except when I helped him, so when he went up against Monument and got murdered, I realized that if he couldn’t do it alone, there was no way I could.
Like the great Peter Graves, filling out his Missional Impossible lineup card with special agents, I had special agents too. Mine were the eccentrics in the House of Emotional Tics and the way-off Broadway thespians of the Schmidt and Parker Players.”
In the first book, Workmans Complication, Kate is devastated by the news that her father Jimmy, her rock, was murdered. When she decides to take on his PI business until she can find his killer, she also accepts one of his workers compensation fraud cases. Soon she finds herself on the wrong side of the police—including her son Matthew, a newly-minted Manhattan Assistant District Attorney. More importantly, she takes on the insurance company Jimmy was investigating when he was killed.
In Book 2, Swollen Identity, Kate has promised local police and her son that she is out of the PI business. Kate lied. Instead, she takes another case involving a gorgeous, fabulously wealthy socialite and her identical twin sister. Or maybe it’s the sister who hires her? Nobody can tell them apart. But either way, Kate is getting closer to her father’s murderer.
By Book 3, Emboozlement, both Kate and her long-suffering son have faced the fact that the PI business isn’t going away. Mr. Shavelson forwards another client, a former star baseball player who thinks someone is stealing from his restaurant. Meanwhile, Kate is exchanging texts with her father’s murderer, and rehearsing for her latest roles —renegade cop in no-budget movie Kung Fu Fu and the goddess Venus who steps from her painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a professor’s acid trip. (The audience doesn’t ask questions, and you probably shouldn’t either.)
Each book reads like a weekly episode of the TV series you would have on immediate download. There is the overall backstory (shadowy corporate assassin scattering his trademark victims with their eyes shot out), the current case sent by Jimmy’s late attorney Mr. Shavelson, Kate’s current romantic interest, and the endless series of perfectly drawn, over-the-top characters/fast-paced dialog/hysterically funny observations and general mayhem that always ends up combining into some epic (and professionally cast) sting operation. Take for example, the deus ex machina Mr. Shavelson, Jimmy’s former lawyer (or not) and provider of dubious clients needing a PI.
Shavelson was sitting at his desk, eating a pastrami sandwich and smoking two cigarettes—one Lucky Strike and one Winston, from different ashtrays—while washing it down with a cup of scalding black coffee and a glass of Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks.
I can’t tell you all the ways this series is fun, fabulous, laugh-out-loud funny, and an absolute gift to anyone who loves New York in all its eccentricities. But please, if you like crime capers with elaborate stings instead of shootouts, with larger-than-life characters instead of chase scenes, and with nonstop hilarious action, do yourself a favor and start from the beginning of this fabulous series. With any luck, by the time you finish all three, Rich Leder will have the next book ready.
- Book Title: Emboozlement (Book 3, McCall and Company) [but don’t miss Workman’s Complication (Book 1), and Swollen Identity (Book 2)]
- Author: Rich Leder
- Genre: detective/humor/murder mystery
- Length: 394 pages
- Publisher: Laugh Riot Press (September 8, 2017)
- Purchase Links: Amazon
- Author Contact: email | Facebook | Blog | Twitter: @richleder
Review: 4 out of 5 stars for Full Dive by T.M. Rain
Life is a game.
In the near future, lives are lived in a virtual reality world called Atlantis. From their HNI chairs (haptic neural interface), most of the world’s population experiences life through their avatars, complete with virtual homes and jobs in the virtual economy. But the chairs aren’t perfect—touch and taste are only echoes of the real thing, and people are still aware (if vaguely) of the reality of their chair.
When a new artificial reality interface is announced that promises a fully-realized virtual life (including a realistic sense of taste, touch, temperature, and smell), most people can’t wait. The only real question is whether or not to install feeding tubes in the chairs they never leave so that the body they don’t actually resemble won’t ever have to return to reality.
Wil (one “L”) Romero, however, is not convinced about living in the virtual world. That may explain (or cause) the fact that he’s actually not very good at it and has, in fact, died there. 31 times. Although his income as a designer of virtual dance clubs depends on it, he can’t allow himself to forget that Atlantis is in fact, not real. Unlike most of the world, he exercises by running on actual streets, argues with his opinionated healthbot/mother-figure Brian, and clings to his real-world sensations even when immersed in the virtual world of Atlantis. But even Wil struggles to earn enough “bits” (wink, nudge Bitcoin!) to maintain his often-dead Atlantis virtual existence rather than starting over.
Nobody could be more surprised and less enthused than Wil when he is unexpectedly chosen to beta test the new interface. It’s only the promise of a particularly large payout, combined with his particularly small bank balance that convinces him to accept—especially after he discovers that the new interface comes with significant damage waivers and a syringe.
With the lure of a financial reward spurring his acceptance, Wil agrees to take the test trial. Since he doesn’t have enough money left to design his own avatar, he’s forced to enter the virtual world where appearance is everything with a free avatar, a “blocky, red-white-and-black, genderless figure”. Given that he will never personally meet any of his friends in the real world or know what they actually look like, Wil is forced to present himself looking like the pixilated figures from classic video games.
Nobody—including the generally clueless Wil—is surprised when things immediately go wrong. Back in the real world, healthbot Brian works frantically to keep his body from dying. In the new virtual world, the promised tastes, smells, and feelings allow the terrified Wil to actually experience freezing cold, vicious attacks by wolves—and flocks of little birds with forks because hey, why not?—as he tries to complete the quest that will allow him to log out. The new virtual reality has, it is gradually revealed, a few bugs that cause real death for the body back in the real world.
The question at the heart of Full Dive is “What is life?” Virtual reality, at least as it’s realized in Atlantis, doesn’t actually let you design your very own world. Instead it’s the projection of the virtual universe, a world Wiki on a global scale, with the same scale of needs. You still need to earn enough bits so that your real world body doesn’t die, and your virtual one can achieve the best possible avatar, home, and social life. Just as with today’s internet, everyone accepts the constructed identity of each person they encounter, despite knowing in their heart that the actual person behind the avatar may be a completely different age, race, sex, or even species. The single inexorable element that holds dominion over the real world—time—simply doesn’t exist.
“Everyone said that when VR improved, the quality of life for all humanity would improve with it. The world bought into the mantra—the dream—of a utopian society free of prejudices and social inequalities. But if you ask me, life hadn’t improved. How could it have? We’d traded reality for an illusion. While the collective heads of humanity remained buried in the sand, time ticked by in the real world without anyone around to notice.”
Except, we realize, Wil is wrong. It’s not just time that people are forgetting about. Full Dive contains beautifully crafted virtual world descriptions, realistic real world ones, and nicely described transitions between the two. The hapless Wil stumbles cluelessly through the maze of political and social intrigue in both worlds, sure that something is wrong but with no idea of how to protect himself, let alone others. The plot is as full of holes as any dodgy video game, but luckily that doesn’t matter. What’s really going on is a discussion about reality and ultimately about the biggest game of all—life. When death is something everyone experiences multiple times, it no longer defines life. When appearance is completely determined by your own wealth and preferences, it’s both the only thing that matters and ultimately irrelevant. When sex is provided by virtual partners, it’s no longer a pursuit. But the gaping lack that the book never addresses is love.
Wil remembers his parents fondly. Others mention their own parents or childhood. But as the book goes on, I realized that the thing everybody was forgetting to do was have children. When you can be virtually young, beautiful, and ageless, you’re Peter Pan or at least one of the Lost Boys—permanently ageless in Wonderland. Indeed, the only children we meet in the real world are handicapped, and there is no sign of parents. You imagine an entire world that comes to an end because oops! “Forgot to procreate. My bad.”
Full Dive is an entertaining, well-written, equal parts occasionally brilliant and pedantic, exploration of the meaning of life, reality, time, and that other thing… oh yeah, love. It’s author T. M. Rain’s first novel, and hopefully an indicator of great things to come.
- Book Title: Full Dive
- Author: T M Rain
- Genre: SciFi
- Length: 325 pages
- Publisher: Amazon (June 25, 2017)
- Purchase Links: Amazon
In his debut novel, Fleet, author Brian T. Marshall is, I think, in the unusual position of being a writer who is actually much better than his material. On the plus side, that means he takes a bog-standard War-of-the-Worlds alien invasion scenario and lifts it far above its been-there-done-that roots. He does this by crafting little word-picture character jewels—flawed, three-dimensional glimpses of human beings like Manny and Donna Perez, the couple who introduce the story. Theirs is a cameo, a tiny vignette of life through which Manny tells his wife about his encounter with the naked, desperately lost soul who becomes Fleet’s central story. With beautifully minimal hints and speech that also describe the long-familiar ballet of two people preparing their dinner, Manny relates the strange event to Donna—filtered beautifully through his own history, thoughts, and motivations.
“And then, when he hears me walking up on him, he finally looks up, and you can’t believe the look in his eyes. Gone. Just totally gone. Like someone reached in there, took whoever he was, didn’t leave nothing behind.”
Even now, hours later, he could still see those eyes. Like staring down into a coffin. Trying to forget them, he glanced back up, checked out the stove instead.
“Man, that smells good.”
He watched as Donna pulled out a couple of plates, a big one for him, a small, mamacita sized one for her. As she dished out the goods, he threw a handful of tortillas in the microwave, grabbed a couple of forks from the drawer, and filled two glasses from the water jug in the fridge. A second beer would taste great, but they both knew how a second would mean a third, and a third would mean the whole six, and everything they’d carved out the last five years, along with the empties, would end up in the recycling.
The focus moves from there to another perfect little characterisation, the cop who secretly collects Grateful Dead tapes, worries about the meaning of the lives of those in his jail, and seeks a clue to the mysterious naked man who doesn’t seem to understand any language they try. He calls on an old friend, Simon, an elderly academic and linguist with his own secrets. Intrigued when he discovers that the prisoner seems to understand an ancient form of Greek, Simon surprises himself by agreeing to post bail and accept responsibility for the unknown man.
Simon gives him the name “Noman”, a reflection of Homer’s ancient joke on the cyclop Polyphemus. (When he’s captured by the cyclop, Odysseus says his name is Kanenas, or “No Man”. After Odysseus escapes from the cyclop by blinding his single eye, the other cyclops ask a screaming Polyphemus who has hurt him, only to be told that it was “No Man”.)
From Simon, the mysterious Noman learns the language and socialization of the modern world at an astonishing rate. Simon and his graduate student/housekeeper Sarah begin to assemble the puzzle pieces and clues about Noman, even as the author drops tantalizing hints about their own backgrounds and motivations.
There are SO many things to love about Fleet. Obviously, for me the character development is the first thing I look at, and a place where this author excels. The settings are beautifully described, especially as we view them through the eyes of Simon and the other secondary characters.
If I have any area to complain, it would be the plot. On the one hand, I absolutely adored the beginning with its hints and clues to the mystery that is Noman. I was so absorbed that I actually yelled out loud “NOOOOOO!” when the convenient breakthrough occurs and Noman realizes his true identity. Even that wouldn’t have been so bad, because the idea of narrowing the battle for the future and even existence of Earth down to a war between archetypes—pitting the appealingly, appallingly human Greek god pantheon against the alien threat—was the kind of overall fun designed to appeal to fans of Marvel movies. (Guilty as charged!) It wasn’t even the one or two tiny editorial details that could have used another check. (Nemesis was a female goddess, not a male god!)
No, the problem I had was just as all the clues start to flow together, as new hints are tantalizingly dropped, and as the story arc hovers on the brink of action, JUST THEN at that perfect moment, the author steps away to give us the backstory as a giant info dump. It wasn’t that he hadn’t already proved, brilliantly, that he was capable of dropping hints, clues, and relevant info into the narrative. Or even that the backstory was ultimately somewhat irrelevant. It was almost like he’d played that backstory movie in his head so often, he was bored with it and just wanted to get to the good stuff.
Luckily for us and for readers of Fleet, author Brian Marshall does pull back from that brink, returning to his character-driven tale as Simon, Sarah, and Noman embark on a search for the Greek pantheon archetypes they will need to save themselves and the world—while exploring along the way what it means to be human, to be family, and that whole “with great power comes great responsibility” nod to Spiderman. Along the way, there’s plenty of great dialog, family bickering, and humor. “Well. Barely even nine on the morning, and they’d already rewritten the laws of physics.”
So despite one or two plot-quibbles, I’d highly recommend Fleet to anyone who likes a good old-fashioned character-driven save-the-world adventure complete with gods, superheroes, and sibling spats. Not only is it a terrifically well-written story, but it’s a great intro to a writer who’s obviously one to watch.
- Book Title: Fleet
- Author: Brian T. Marshall
- Genre: Dark urban fantasy/SciFi
- Length: 316 pages
- Publisher: missppelled press (April 19, 2017)
- Purchase Links: Amazon
**I received the above books from their publishers and/or authors to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the books or the content of my reviews.**