“Why we don’t camp: Reason #134.”

preservationIt was supposed to be a nice weekend of camping for husband and wife, Wit (Schmidt) and Mike (Staton), perhaps allowing them to rekindle a spark which has become lost in Mike’s career, though Wit is trying to pluck up the courage to tell him she’s pregnant. Hopes of either are derailed, when their trip becomes a three-way, as they are joined by Mike’s brother, Sean (Schreiber), recently discharged from the Army under circumstances that he won’t talk about. Unfazed by discovering the camp ground that’s their destination is closed, they proceed, Wit learning the ropes of hunting from the two brothers. But the next morning, the three wake up to find themselves stripped of all supplies, down to their shoes, and with a black X written on each of their foreheads. It’s clear somebody – or somebodies – is out to get them, and Wit is going to have to dig very deep and find a way to overcome her civilized sensibilities if she is to make it out alive.

It’s a fairly straightforward survival horror, pitting (mostly) Wit against a trio of masked adversaries, who communicate solely through their mobile phones, also using them to record their kills, in what appears to be a none-too subtle jab at modern culture. Though it is, at least, refreshing to see a modern genre entry which does not include a scene of a character looking at their film and sighing, “No signal…” The transition of Wit, from a vegan who is unable to take an animal’s life – albeit one that’s a trained trauma nurse, and so not exactly fazed by the sight of blood – into a ruthless killing machine, prepared to do anything necessary to survive, is well-managed, with Schmidt, best known for her role in Boardwalk Empire, making for a solid heroine.

Less effectively handled are the relationships between her and the two men, to the extent that neither are necessary to the movie at all. They’re disposed of with relatively little effort, arguably leaving the first half of the film as a waste of time. Nothing much comes, for example, of Sean’s apparently blossoming PTSD, nor do we find out the reason for his discharge. Additionally, early on, it does seem like the attackers have a supernatural aspect, as shown in their ability to absorb punishment and keep on coming, as well as whisking the trio’s tents away without even waking them. Yet this turns out clearly not to be the case, leaving these earlier instances of invulnerability unexplained, and there are too many echoes of another movie with similar themes, Eden Lake. The film is a great deal better when it’s just Wit against the wildlings, and when it reaches there, it’s actually impressively brutal. Just a shame it takes longer than it should to find its footing.

Dir: Christopher Denham
Star: Wrenn Schmidt, Pablo Schreiber, Aaron Staton, Cody Saintgnue

The Lost Continent, by Percival Constantine

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

lostcontinentBeing a little-known author myself, I have a lively appreciation of how difficult it is to get one’s work noticed in a glutted book market without a major advertising budget; and I have a soft spot for New Pulp. So, when I stumbled on Percival Constantine’s free e-book versions of the first novels of his two action-adventure series, I thought there was a good enough chance I’d like them to risk investing a bit of time, and hopefully be able to give him a good review. His other series opener, Love and Bullets, proved to be disappointing, and I didn’t finish it. But while this novel is nowhere near four or five star territory, it kept my interest and earned its three.

Our protagonist here is a female archaeologist. Constantine’s idea of archaeology, though, is definitely of the Indiana Jones variety, and Elisa Hill proved to be an action heroine type, very much a literary equivalent of Lady Lara Croft or TV’s Sydney Fox in that respect. (Given that I own both Tomb Raider movies on VHS and never missed an episode of Relic Hunter if I could help it, it’s not hard to guess that I found her an appealing character type!) This is the series opener for the author’s Myth Hunter series, the titular hunters being involved in tracking down both archaeological and supernatural mysteries. (While I didn’t classify this as supernatural fiction, it does have a significant supernatural element, in the person of one character.)

In this particular book, though, what’s being investigated isn’t really ancient myth, but 19th and early 20th-century occultist myth: the idea of an ancient continent (known as Lemuria, or Mu) in the area of what is now the Pacific Ocean. In particular, it draws on the claims of Col. James Churchward (1851-1936), who asserted that as a British officer in India, he was shown secret tablets in an (unidentified) temple, written in the “Naga-Mayan” language –which, as far as philologists know, doesn’t actually exist; he claimed that only three people in India could read it, but one of them taught him. These, he claimed, showed that 50,000 years ago, Mu had a civilization more highly advanced than that of his own day, and that all the world’s later civilizations developed from their scattered colonies after the motherland continent sank beneath the Pacific in a great cataclysm. (As a kid, I read some of Churchward’s books; even then, I could tell that they were off the wall, but reading this book brought back memories.)

Constantine takes off on this premise to build his plot here. Since the whole Mu-Lemuria theory is pretty well discredited by both geology and serious archaeology, philology, etc,, this requires some suspension of disbelief. But if you can muster this, Constantine has done his homework in the Churchward canon, and also brings in another real-world tie-in, Japan’s “Yonaguni Monument,” massive offshore stone formations under the Pacific which some maintain are man-made (though that isn’t clearly evident nor widely accepted by archaeologists). A resident of Japan, he’s also has done some research into the Japanese folklore of the kitsune, Japanese for fox. Older foxes were believed to have power to take human form, and were messengers for the spirit world. (Constantine has reinterpreted this mythos somewhat, but his treatment is clearly based on it.)

This is not a deep or highly textured read; it’s straight pulp action-adventure, with a simple, direct prose style and a full-throttle narrative drive that makes for a quick read. None of the characters are very deeply developed, including Elisa, and while the author takes us to some exotic locales, he doesn’t really evoke much sense of place in any of them. (We also aren’t even given any clue where “Burroughs University,” where Elisa teaches, is located, except that it’s in the U.S.) Archaeological finds here tend to be too easy for believability; no physical digging or excavation nor much textual or other research to identify sites is required. Where action scenes are concerned, Elisa’s no slouch in the kick-butt department; she’s an ethically sensitive person who doesn’t fight unless she’s attacked, but if she is, she fights to kill without batting an eye.

However, her aversion to guns and preference for edged weapons, in a modern-day context, isn’t explained credibly enough to seem realistic. We can say the same for the tendency, on the part of the minions of the “Order” (think, the Illuminati on steroids), which will probably be the series’ staple evil entity, to use swords rather than guns. Also, some of the jumps characters make in the action scenes, with no running start, are implausible, as is the idea that a character could stop a bullet by slicing it with a sword. And I’m not sure a fox could inflict all the physical mayhem Asami does here (granted, we’re told she’s a very large fox, but how large isn’t specified). It’s also clear that Constantine doesn’t know much about how academic sabbaticals are scheduled.

For all that, this is a page-turner with “brain-candy” appeal, and the good characters are engaging. I was hooked enough to read it all the way through just to see how it would turn out; and while it’s more plot-driven than character-driven, Elisa’s relationship to Lucas, and to Asami, have enough complexity and ambiguity to be interesting. There’s no sex here; there’s some bad and coarse language, including f-words, but it’s not pervasive and mostly comes from characters you’d fairly expect to be potty-mouthed. The violent episodes can be lethal and gory, but they’re over quickly and not dwelt on. Bottom line: this won’t be epochal and groundbreaking even in the world of pulp adventure fiction; but it’s workmanlike entertainment (and pretty well proof-read, too, despite one mangled sentence that slipped through). I’d be up for reading the sequel sometime.

Author: Percival Constantine
Publisher: Createspace, available through Amazon, both for Kindle (for free) and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Gooodreads.

Let Us Prey


“The devil’s in the details.”

letuspreyI’m not religious, but I do enjoy a good religious movie. Say what you like about the Bible, it has some great stories, and inspiration for a ton of others [some day, I want to see the Book of Revelations filmed by Paul Verhoeven]. This certainly falls into the latter camp, but the small cast and claustrophobic settings work for it very well. On the way to take up a new post at a police station in a small Scottish town, Rachel (McIntosh) witnesses a pedestrian being hit by a joy-riding teenager, though the victim is nowhere to be found. Taking the perp to the station, the victim (Cunningham), known only as “Six” (after his eventual cell number), is located and brought to the station: but the doctor brought in to check his wounds tries to kill him. It becomes clear that Six knows a lot more, not just about Rachel, but her new boss Sergeant MacReady (Russell), and the other inhabitants of the station, on both sides of the bars. That’s dangerous knowledge, since some of those are definitely not intended for public consumption. Rachel, whose secret involved hurt done to rather than by her, has to figure out Six’s agenda – Devil? Angel? Bit of both? – to survive the night.

Right from the opening credits, depicting Six against a variety of ominous backgrounds, the creep factor here is severely amped up, and it keeps increasing the rest of the way – just when you think it’s reached its peak, O’Malley turns the screw another notch. It also benefit from very good performances. Cunningham has been a house-approved actor since Dog Soldiers, and exudes presence even when quite, as he is particularly in the early going, while McIntosh was striking in an equally disturbing film, The Woman, and brings much the same sense of physicality to her character here. The director has said one of the inspirations was the original Assault on Precinct 13, and I can see that; however, in a psychological sense, it felt almost like a psychological version of another John Carpenter film, The Thing, with people’s “inner monsters” bursting out to wreak havoc on those unfortunate enough to be around them. There are a couple of embarrassing mis-steps: at one point, for example, a character carefully and ostentatiously removes his glasses, only for them immediately to re-appear on his face! That kind of sloppy mistake is disappointing, and could easily have been avoided.

We also wondered why no-one makes much effort to call in external help, be that from another station or emergency service. For a while, I was thinking it was going to reveal that all the participants were dead already, which would have been a tough act to pull off. Does it end up going that way? I couldn’t possibly comment. But if they ever decided to make a sequel, we’d love to see it.  We watched this the same day as Jurassic World, and both my wife and I think this was the better movie.

Dir: Brian O’Malley
Star: Pollyanna McIntosh, Liam Cunningham, Douglas Russell

Our Girl


“GI Molly”

ourgirlMolly Dawes (Turner) has just turned 18, works in a nail-salon, lives on a council estate with her five siblings, pregnant mom and unemployable father, and has a Muslim boyfriend who is cheating on her. Oh, she looks kinda like a chav version of Daenerys Targaryen too, but given her unsurprising lack of dragons, has no apparent future. Throwing up at the end of a night out with her gal pals, she finds herself in front of an Army recruitment office, and decides it offers a potential way out from her dead-end life. Naturally, it’s not quite as easy as that, since her boyfriend is unimpressed, and her parents think the big announcement is that she’s pregnant. But she persists, and the film follows her journey through basic training, as the mouthy peroxide blonde turns into a combat medical technician.

Yes, it’s a fair criticism that this is heavily pro-Army, occasionally feeling like a recruitment video more than a movie. But it doesn’t soft-pedal the dangers at all. Indeed, a constant thread in the second half is Molly’s reluctance to write the “letter from the grave” required for all recruits, to be sent home in the event of their death, and perhaps the film’s most poignant moment has a ceremony at a war memorial, with a veteran reading John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. But the film’s biggest strength is undeniably Turner, an escapee from long-running British soap EastEnders. She captures perfectly the multi-faceted character of Molly, who wants more out of life, but has no apparent way to get it. In that aspect, this reminded me somewhat of Dangerous Lady, and I could see the heroine here ending up slipping into crime to escape her situation – and doing just as well. But Molly lacks self-confidence – describing herself as stupid even when that clearly isn’t the case – and that, along with the opportunity, is what the military provides.

There’s an interesting subplot where Molly talks about basic training with another recruit, who compares the Army to a cult, designed to break an individual down so they can build you back up the way they want. He means it disparagingly – and later is tossed out, as “unfit for Army service”, apparently not having fooled anyone. But the film seems to be making the case that this is not necessarily a bad thing, because the end product, particularly in this case, appears to be a much more productive member of society than the one who enlisted in the cult. Even if it’s also someone who is now estranged from her pals, her boyfriend  and some of her family as a result. Thought-provoking and engaging, this was turned into a five-part series, that I think I may now have to track down.

Dir: David Drury
Star: Lacey Turner, Flossy Grounds, Daniel Black

Sword and Sorceress VIII, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

swordandsorceress8This anthology of 22 original stories is one installment of editor Bradley’s long-running series of Sword and Sorceress collections, the first of which appeared in 1984. This was the second book of the series that I read (they stand alone, and can be enjoyed in any order). Virtually all of the general comments in my review of the first book apply here as well, and two of the contributors to that volume, Diana L. Paxson and Jennifer Roberson, are also represented here. Like John W. Campbell in the heyday of Astounding Stories, the late Bradley had her “stable” of writers who contributed frequently to her Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and to this and other long-running and one-time anthologies she edited, and whose careers she in many cases launched; several of them authored stories for this book. There’s a good mix here of established writers like Mercedes Lackey and Josepha Sherman (and some who would go on –this was published in 1991– to be much bigger names, such as Laurell K. Hamilton), and less known writers, some like Margaret Howes making their first sale of a story here. Three of the contributors are males.

Besides the fact that they’re all swords-and-sorcery tales with female protagonists (warriors, sorceresses, a thief, etc.), the other common denominator of the collection is quality. Most of the stories are serious, often evoking very strong and complex emotional reactions and making you think; a few are rife with situational humor. But there isn’t a one of them that’s weak or poorly written; the craftsmanship here is uniformly high, though some selections are more substantial than others. All the stories have the trappings of fantasy; magic works in their worlds, for instance, and dragons may be included in the fauna. Edged weapon action, and/or lethal magical duels, may be a key part of the plot. But at bottom, most of these stories are really about people, and human concerns that are the same in any world: good and evil, right and wrong, personal growth and identity, coming of age, family and marital love, growing older, questions of what really matters in life. Several of the heroines could be called rough-edged; you might not approve of everything they do, or have done, and you aren’t necessarily expected to. But none of them are bad human beings; they’re all women I could understand and respect, and whose choices and safety I came to care about. (As in life, not all of these tales have unambiguously happy endings.)

A few of the protagonists are series characters, like Lackey’s Kethry and Tarma from her Valdemar series, or Paxson’s lesbian warrior-woman Shanna. Their stories here have a basic level of completeness in themselves; but you’d probably appreciate “Wings of Fire” better if (unlike me) you’ve read previously in the Valdemar books to have more understanding of the world and the magic system, and “Ytarra’s Mirror” definitely feels like a bead on the necklace of Shanna’s story arc. I’d also say that Paula Helm Murray’s “Kayli Kidnapped” has enough complex back story, and leaves enough unresolved issues, that it could work very well as a chapter in a novel. (But I still liked all of these!) Some of the most wrenchingly evocative stories here include Rima Saret’s “Marayd’s Escape,” Cynthia Ward’s “The Opal Skull,” Jere Dunham’s “East of the Dawn,” and Sherman’s “The Price of the Wind.” Hamilton’s “Geese” is a fine story that doesn’t descend into the porn that the author later became known for (it has some sensuality, but not in a bad way.) Picking favorites here is really hard to do, but (besides any already mentioned) some I could designate as such are Roberson’s “Fair Play,” Howes’ “Retirement Plan,” Dave Smed’s “Trading Swords,” Vera Nazarian’s “Beauty and His Beast,” and Linda Gordon’s “Stained Glass.”

Editor: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Publisher: DAW books, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Tiger of the Seven Seas


“Good, for the (Spanish) Main part”

tigerofthesevenseasAnother in the flurry of Italian female pirate flicks of the sixties, this stars Canale as Consuelo, the daughter of a pirate captain. After he retires from the buccaneering business, she defeats her lover, William (Steel) in a duel to decide who takes command. Her father is killed with William’s knife a short while after, but they are attacked by the Spanish forces of Governor Inigo de Cordoba (Calindri) before her boyfriend can be hung for the crime. In the ensuing confusion, William escapes, and makes off with the ship. Consuelo and her followers, hijack another vessel and give chase. But is William the real culprit, or is this part of a plan cooked up by the Governor’s scheming wife, Anna (Spina), who seeks to get her hands on the horde of treasure which was buried in a secret location by Consuelo’s father, before his death?

The action is a bit disappointing here, with most of the sword-fights consisting of not much more than the two participants standing at arm’s-length from each other, waving their weapons. The story is also rather predictable, with few if any of the developments being unexpected. We just know William is going to be proven innocent, even if he looks like a young, piratical version of Lou Reed. ]Maybe that’s just me?] What do work, are the characters, who are an enjoyable bunch to spend time with – even the villainous Anna, who is clearly the brains of the marriage. She’s an excellent foil for Consuelo, who is equally smart and brave; she certainly makes a strong first impression, hurling a knife at William, and embedding it in the trunk of a tree by his face.

The spectacle side of things is well-integrated, though I have an idea some of the footage may have been lifted from other pirate pictures, as it doesn’t quite seem to match; it was certainly not Capuano’s sole foray into the genre. Everything builds nicely to the standard adventure film cliche, #37: the masked ball, which Consuelo infiltrates in the cunning guise of…a pirate, to rescue William, after he made an ill-advised attempt to storm the fortress and abduct the traitor. This leads to an all-out battle, perhaps most remarkable for the “raining cannons” sequence, but despite what I said about the plot having no twists, I must admit, the final conclusion is not one I saw coming, with the villainess getting off surprisingly easily, compared to other potential fates. She actually gets the treasure, though at the cost of letting Consuelo and William go. I like to imagine the sequel has them heading back to reclaim her father’s loot, and I certainly wouldn’t have minded seeing more of their adventures, and it’s a shame no such follow-up ever emerged.

Dir: Luigi Capuano
Star: Gianna Maria Canale, Anthony Steel, Maria Grazia Spina, Ernesto Calindri

Survivor (2015)


“Run Milla Run”

I have low standards for Milla Jovovich movies. If they exist, I am more or less okay with them, providing they contain a modicum of her kicking ass. She has gained enough goodwill from the Resident Evil series and Ultraviolet, that she gets some slack with regard to other projects. On that basis, when I say this is… alright, I suppose, those with less tolerance for Jovovich should probably take it as a warning. She plays security expert Kate Abbott, recently transferred to the US Embassy in London, where she detects a strange pattern of a co-worker taking over specific cases involving issuing visas to scientists. At a birthday dinner for said worker, while waiting for him to arrive, she pops out to get a present, thereby narrowly dodging a bomb blast that kills her colleagues. In the aftermath, she encounters the man responsible, an international assassin known as the Watchmaker (Brosnan), who has been engaged to cover up the tracks. Blamed for the explosion by the authorities, Kate is forced underground, and is left with the usual option in such cases: find the real perpetrator and ensure they don’t get to complete their nefarious plan to commit a terrorist attack in New York and profit from the ensuing financial instability.

survivorProbably the best thing about this is seeing a lot of London locations with which I’m deeply familiar, but when an action film’s most memorable moment is “Hey, we’ve seen movies in that cinema!”, it’s rarely a good sign. There is an awful lot of running around, Kate scurrying from one location to the next, with the Watchmaker, her embassy colleagues and British police in more or less hot pursuit. Though funnily, despite the frequent shots from security cameras, Kate doesn’t make the slightest effort to change her appearance. At least buy a frickin’ hoodie, for heavens sake: I can only presume the makers decided against this, because it would rob audiences of Milla’ finely-chiselled cheek-bones. Seems legit. The script is just as contrived in other areas, and if either US or UK authorities were half as competent as the Watchmaker appears to be, this would have been over in 15 minutes. Which might not be such a bad thing, and would certainly have saved us from a spectacularly contrived finale on top of a skyscraper near Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Do not expect copious amount of butt-kicking from Jovovich, either, though she does at least get plenty of aerobic exercise. A couple of quick fight scenes are about all there is, and don’t even expect gunplay, since as soon as she gets her hands on a gun (above), she dumps it into a trash-can. The only action moment to stick out the restaurant bomb-blast, which is quite hellacious in terms of impact, and frighteningly well-staged. Otherwise, there is little or nothing here we haven’t seen often before, and even given the low bar I have for Millamovies, this one struggles to meet expectations.

Dir: James McTeigue
Star: Milla Jovovich, Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, James D’Arcy

Mark of the Lion, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

markofthelionThis Jade del Cameron Mysteries series opener, Arruda’s fiction debut, came to my notice back in 2006, from reviews in the library trade publications when it was first published. I’m delighted that I finally got to read it; it definitely didn’t disappoint! It did, however, surprise me in one respect. All of the marketing for the book and series is oriented towards the mystery genre, and the reviews I read didn’t hint at any cross-genre appeal. I knew from the cover copy that it featured skulduggery which the African natives attributed to sorcery; but I assumed that, as usual in the genre, this would prove to be a “Scooby-Doo” type device, in which a faked supernatural disguise was unmasked as a cloak for natural crime. But that’s not the case here! Readers who are put off by the supernatural should be duly warned; those like me, for whom supernatural elements are a plus, will find that an added bonus!

Arruda takes the reader on an exciting ride, from the trauma and dangers of the Western front in the closing months of World War I, to the polyglot bustle of the (unpaved) streets of 1919 Nairobi, and on to the beauty, mystery and deadly danger of the colonial African bush. These settings are evoked with a skill that’s the fruit of obviously serious research (the short Author’s Notes in the back of the book cite several solid primary-source books on the Africa of that day, as well as on the experiences of WWI women ambulance drivers), but that’s integrated into the text without info-dumps or display for its own sake. The plot holds reader interest every minute, and the author’s prose style makes for a quick read.

Jade herself is a wonderful character, brave, smart, caring, tough and capable –definitely my preferred kind of heroine! She picked up her rifle skills growing up on a New Mexico ranch, where she was used to hunting (sometimes for fauna which could hunt her, like a mountain lion). Having served in the Great War as a volunteer ambulance driver, she’s not without physical and emotional damage from the war, and has a hot temper (which she doesn’t always control well); and in some respects Arruda makes her appear somewhat slow on the uptake, in not tumbling to the identity of the culprit(s) sooner. (If the book has a weakness, it’s that this is too easily guessed, despite the author’s attempts to mask it by not allowing Jade to suspect it; this wasn’t a prohibitive flaw for me, though.) But she’s a very easy heroine to like, admire, and root for all the way! The other characters are well-drawn and likeable (or hate-able!) as well.

The colonial Africa of Arruda’s literary vision is realistic (far more so than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs’!), but it’s more balanced than either the Africa of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which evokes mostly its fear and menace, or of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which tends to stress the grungier and more sordid aspects. Fear and menace are present here, as well as a sense of age-old mystery, but they’re balanced by beauty and a feeling of invitation to adventure; and the grungy and sordid is there, as it is anywhere, but we get the feeling here that life doesn’t have to focus on that unless we choose to. The wonder of the continent is captured here, at a moment in time when it was still relatively unspoiled, when the wildlife was hunted but not yet endangered, and when the native cultures weren’t totally assimilated by the steamroller of modern “civilization.” Arruda makes her native characters real people as well, not stick figures there to tote loads and wait on the whites (though they do some of that), and she gives us a heroine commendably free of race prejudice. (Jade has Hispanic –and possibly some Moorish– blood herself.) We’re not exposed to the full brutality that British rule sometimes entailed, as readers are in James Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat; but we get glimpses of the racism of the time (happily not shared by all the Brits here!)

This is as much action-adventure fiction as it is a mystery or tale of the supernatural; and like most action adventure, it has some violence. However, none of this is graphic or dwelt on; Arruda may have one character vomit on discovering a mangled body, but she won’t make the reader join in. Bad language is relatively mild, and there’s no obscenity. (Jade herself will cuss some if circumstances evoke it, but she often prefers more creative, and sometimes humorous, expletives probably derived from the slang of the Southwestern frontier.) There’s also no sex, either explicit or implied.

I’d highly recommend this book to most readers that I know. The sequel, Stalking Ivory, is already on my to-read shelf and BookMooch wishlist; and this time, I don’t plan to wait eight years to read it!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.



“Putting the delete in CTRL-ALT-DELETE.”

cybergeddonComputer security is part of my day-job, so I’m always amused by Hollywood’s efforts to depict it, particularly in thrillers. For the truth, which also creates the main problem with the entire “hacker” sub-genre, is that it may sound enthralling, but watching someone else type is among the most tedious things imaginable. While the effects may be very significant, the journey to get there is, frankly, dull as ditch-water. Any realistic cinematic depiction of cyberterrorism would be worse than watching paint dry. It would be more like listening to a description, of someone else playing a video-game, about watching paint dry. Here, the makers try to jazz things up by depicting cyberspace as a 3D network made up of data panels, sliding around each other like a virtual Rubik’s cube, with bad data showing red. Despite dropping buzzwords like “Stuxnet” to show the writers know what they’re talking about – or, at least, have read Wikipedia – that isn’t enough.

Yet it’s not a bad idea. The heroine is a former hacker (Peregrym) whose past was buried, to the extent she’s now a tech analyst for the government. Her name is Chloe Jocelyn – and that’s a mistake, for it immediately reminds us that there have been other federal geeks called Chloe, and this one isn’t fit to boot up the computer of that Chloe. We first see her impersonating the daughter of Russian technomobster Gustov Dobreff (Martinez) to lure him into entrapment, but that isn’t the end of the matter. For when he escapes custody, and starts his plan to bring down civilization as we know it, by hijacking a billion devices or so, he frames Chloe as revenge, by using code that was originally written in her black-hat days, thereby exposing her past. She’s blamed for the intrusions, arrested and knows that the only way to prove her innocence is to find the real culprit, with the help of former sidekick, Rabbit Rosen (Gurry). But Dobroff isn’t sitting back, and kidnaps Chloe’s mother to use as additional leverage against her.

This was originally a web series for Yahoo! and released in nine chunks of 10 minutes, which explains both the frantic pace and the strongly episodic nature. [I presume Symantec were a major sponsor, given the painfully obvious product-placement for Norton Anti-Virus, including an utterly superfluous trip to Symantec’s corporate HQ!] Despite my snark above, Chloe is actually fairly interesting, and Peregrym brings her to life well, but it’s a character which needs more development before dropping her into a scenario such as this. The story also had its share of “I’m so sure” moments: I strongly suspect federal custody is not as easy to escape as Chloe makes it seem, and I doubt they’d let a hacker keep her mobile phone either! While its brisk pace helps the flaws become too problematic in motion, and the supporting characters, particularly Rabbit, are nicely drawn, there’s nothing at all in the story which is new or unpredictable. The end result is only somewhat more fun than resetting your Gmail password.

Dir: Diego Velasco
Star: Missy Peregrym, Kick Gurry, Olivier Martinez, Manny Montana

Doha 12, by Lance Charnes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

doha12First-time author Lance Charnes and I are Goodreads friends; but I bought my copy of this book, rather than getting it as a gift, and my rating wasn’t influenced by the friendship –it was earned, and would have been even if I’d never heard of the author before reading it. This is an exceptionally assured, polished, powerful and insightful work of fiction; at least one other reviewer has stated that it’s hard to believe this is a first novel, and I have to concur.

A former Air Force intelligence officer with training in terrorism incident response, Charnes sets his plot against the background of the real-life polarized and violent international conflicts in the Middle East. As our story opens, a hit squad working for Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, has just recently assassinated a high Hezbollah official (along with an unfortunate prostitute whom they just regard as insignificant collateral damage) in Doha, Qatar. They made it look like a drug overdose, but their hand in the matter has been detected, and the IDs they used identified. But these IDs weren’t their own; they stole them from twelve Jews living in Europe and the U.S. The Hezbollah higher-ups know these people to be innocent –but for their own twisted reasons, send out a hit squad of their own to murder them anyway. (And if that fails, there’s a back-up plan: suicide bombings designed to kill hundreds or thousands.) Our hero and heroine here, Brooklyn bookstore manager Jake and Philadelphia legal secretary Miriam, are two people on the hit list. Luckily for them, they’re also both former members of the Israeli military, with the kind of training that’s apt to come in handy here. (And it doesn’t hurt that Jake’s uncle is an inspector in the NYPD.)

A fair amount of action adventure fiction is open to the charge of having rather shallow characters, and often a simplistic world-view that eschews any kind of ethical complexity in favor of a mindless “us against them” fantasy. Those charges, however, won’t stick here. All the important characters here –“guilty” or “innocent,” Jewish or Moslem, Mossad or Hezbollah– are rounded, three-dimensional, and come across as people, not as cartoons. Yes, some may be sympathetic and some may be villains (and not all of either are on one side!); but we can see that the heroes have flaws, and understand what makes the villains tick.

To be sure, our protagonists don’t deserve to die, and our antagonists here are trying to kill them; so yes, that’s a basic line in the sand that shapes our sympathies. And the author doesn’t deliver an analysis of the whole complex Middle East situation, with a breakdown of the grievances of each side. But within the framework of the storyline, it’s made clear that both the Israeli government and its Arab adversaries have innocent blood on their hands, that individuals of both groups are prey to the temptation to dehumanize the other so they can justify anything they want to do them, and that neither hit squad’s superiors are playing by genuinely ethical rules. As we go along, we’re brought face-to-face with ethical conundrums that may not have easy answers.

If you believe you’re morally justified in fighting great injustice, and you want to do it by ethical means that spare the innocent, what exactly DO you do when you’re stuck with co-belligerents who have no such scruples? Do the ends ever justify the means? What balance do you –should you– strike between the claims of blood vengeance and the recognition that hate can hurt you more than it does the hated? Does torture become morally okay if it’s intended to get information that saves an innocent? (And will it really deliver the results we assume it will? Is lying in a police cover-up acceptable if it spares good people from unjust punishment? Is suicide ever the right thing to do? Charnes doesn’t preach, or suggest answers; he just makes readers grapple with the questions. And in the best tradition of Western literature, characters on both sides here also have to grapple with ethical questions –and may come up with answers that they didn’t expect, and that force them to grow or make sacrifices. As action-adventure fans know, this genre at its best is concerned with these kinds of questions as much as any other type of literature is; and the extreme stakes involved give the questions more force and immediacy than they may have in some other genres!

Charnes’ background shows in his obvious knowledge of intelligence procedures, weaponry, and terrorist tactics. This is an exceptionally realistic novel, and an extremely gripping one. Short chapters, each headed by location and date/time, succeed each other rapidly in setting a quick, driving pace (if I’d had unlimited time to read, I could have finished this a lot quicker than I did, because I’d have read almost non-stop!), and the author’s skill in shifting viewpoints from Character(s) A in place X to Character(s) B in place Y –often at a cliff-hanger moment!– ratchets suspense up to nail-biting intensity in places, especially near the end. Good use is made of New York City and Philadelphia geography, by a writer who’s clearly familiar with both locations.

Action scenes are done very well, and both male and female characters are full participants as equals in that area. Of special interest to fans of this site, we have not one but two formidable action ladies; both Miriam and Mossad agent Kelila are tough, gun-packing women, well trained in the techniques of lethal force and without any qualms about using it. (Readers can safely assume that their training is apt to be put to use!) The body count is high; we have a lot of violence here. It isn’t gratuitous, and we don’t have to wallow through excessive gory description; but not everybody who dies has it coming, and this can include developed characters you’ve come to like and care about. In places, this can be painful.

I have a few minor quibbles with character’s actions at times, as not being as smart as I’d expect from them; but these didn’t bother me much overall. This was a quality read from the get-go, and if it had been published by Big Publishing, I believe it would have been a best seller! Hopefully, even in today’s glutted market stacked against independent authors, more and more readers will recognize it for the gem it is. For my part, I’m greatly looking forward to reading the author’s second novel, South.

Note: There’s no explicit sex here, and only one instance of implied premarital (but not casual) sex. A fair amount of bad language (including the f-word in several places) is used by some characters, for the most part in high-stress situations. My impression is that the author employs it for purposes of realism, not for shock value.

Author: Lance Charnes
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.