Cocaine Godmother

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“A slice of Welsh rarebit”

As we mentioned in the 2018 preview, this has had a rather tortuous journey to the screen, with Zeta-Jones inked to the part of Griselda Blanco as long ago as October 2014. That theatrical film appears to have died on the vine, but the actress’s interest clearly did not. Last May, Lifetime gave the go-ahead to a TV movie version instead, telling the life story of a character who has already crossed this site before. Needless to say, there were howls of indignation from the usual quarters that the Welsh Zeta-Jones had been cast to play Blanco, though as she herself pointed out, she’d played Hispanic women before, such as in Zorro. It’s something which never bothers me: whether the performance works is always more important to me than the location of the performer’s birth.

In this case (and going by the Twitter reactions, many tend to agree), I’d say that Zeta-Jones certainly wasn’t the problem with the finished product. If considerably more attractive than the real Griselda, she is mostly very convincing, giving her portrayal the combination of driven intensity and potential for furious rage that Blanco possessed. The problem is more a script which simply fails to flow. Sure, the story touches most of the obvious moments in Griselda’s life, yet these appear completely unconnected to each other. The end result feels almost as if someone took a 70-episode telenovela and edited it down into a 90-minute TV movie. It’s more like Griselda Blanco’s Greatest Hits – and she was allegedly responsible for over 200 of those, hohoho.

It is a disturbing start, with the very young Blanco being pimped out by her mother in Medellin, only to pull a gun and shoot one of her customers dead after he refuses to pay. Damn. Thereafter, however, it bounces around rapidly, with little or no real time-frame. You get her killing husbands, inventing the motorcycle drive-by, the Dadeland Mall shootout, using attractive women to smuggle drugs in their lingerie and high-heels, etc. But all these fragments combine to provide little or no insight into her character, motives or personality (though I was somewhat impressed this did not soft-pedal Blanco’s bisexuality, unlike La Viuda Negra); I wanted to know what made her tick, and was sorely disappointed. You’d likely come away better informed simply by reading the Wikipedia article on her.

Perhaps it’s the kind of life which simply cannot be told adequately in such a brief time-span. I saw a number of comparisons to the Netflix series, Narcos, and do have to wonder if a 13-episode series might have been better suited to the material, rather than this breathless, and ultimately empty, gallop through Blanco’s life. There is still reported to be another take on the topic coming down the pipeline with Jennifer Lopez playing Blanco in an HBO movie. Like Zeta-Jones, Lopez had been linked to the role for a long time (since at least the death of the real Griselda in 2012), but little has been heard about that version since 2016. For now, this version will have to do.

Dir: Guillermo Navarro
Star: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Raúl Méndez, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Matteo Stefan

Camelia La Texana

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“Approximately 900 times longer than the song which inspired it.”

“A woman, if she loves a man, can give him her life.
But you must be careful if this woman is hurt,
For betrayal and smuggling are incompatible.”
Contrabando y Traición, by Los Tigres del Norte

I almost gave up after 20 episodes, as it had largely degenerated into a telenovela version of American Idol. [Seriously: the heroine had partnered up with a wannabe singer, trying to break into show-business] But literally in episode 20, Camelia finally got her act together. She gunned down both a corrupt Border Patrol officer, then pumped seven rounds into her boyfriend after he announced he was going back to his wife and child. Ok, I’ll watch a bit further. Turns out, the show seemed to operate on 10-episode arcs. Episode 30 saw a Godfather-like wedding massacre, which rewarmed my interest. By part 40, we had a former Interpol agent, who had taken the veil and was hiding out in a convent, while still having her “very particular set of skills” And at the 50th show… Well, we were close enough to the end – the series had 60 episodes – it seemed kinda pointless to stop.

The problems were the nine episodes in between, which were much more a chore than a pleasure. The basic story has Camelia (Maldonado) being seduced away from her family in San Antonio, Texas, and ambitions of a career in dentistry, by hunky Emilio Varela (Hayser). He’s working for drug lord Antonio Treviño (Gama), who is actually Camelia’s father, and who wants her to join him in Mexico. Emilio’s mission diverts badly off-book, and ends up dying in a Californian back-alley. Thereafter, it’s a meandering tale involving the battles for turf between Don Trevino and his rival, Arnulfo Navarro, as well as the extended families on both sides, and various other elements, such as corrupt Army officer General Urdapilleta, who may (or may not) also be a serial killer.

This will happen: significant expansion is obviously needed when you adapt a three-minute song into about 45 hours of TV drama. For the inspiration here was 1972 song Contrabando y Traición, by Los Tigres del Norte. While colloquially known as “Camelia la Texana,” the original title of this narcocorrida – a genre once described as “gangster rap with tubas and accordions” – translates as “Smuggling and Betrayal.” That’s a fairly accurate summary of both the song and the series. It tells of a couple who drive from Tijuana to LA with marijuana in their car tires. There, as in the show, Emilio tells Camelia he’s breaking up with her after they cash in their cargo. The result? “Seven gunshots rang out, Camelia killed Emilio/All the police found was a discarded pistol/Of the money and Camelia, nothing more was ever known.”

The song had previously been adapted into a 1977 film, starring Ana Luisa Peluffo and Valentín Trujillo – though the dynamic was rather different there, with the leading lady being a couple of decades older than her lover. (More than 20 years earlier, Peluffo had caused a significant scandal, when she appeared nude in 1955’s La fuerza del deseo, the first such scene in Mexican cinema) The song was also adapted into an opera in 2008, and has been acknowledged by Arturo Pérez-Reverte as a significant inspiration for his novel, La Reina Del Sur. The author said, “The day I heard Camelia La Tejana, I felt the need to write the lyrics of one of those songs myself.

It’s an interesting decision to set the series in the seventies, at the time the song was released, rather than in the contemporary era. Though, outside of the cars and the preponderance of vintage facial hair, it’s easy to forget this is a period piece. The story is little more than a hodge-podge of telenovela cliches, semi-randomly stitched together. Emilio has a twin brother! Unexpected pregnancies! Long-lost siblings. And vengeance. Damn. So much vengeance, to the point that it was more of a surprise on the rare occasions when somebody didn’t have a deeply-held grudge. Emilio’s wife Alison against Camilla, for killing her husband. Don Trevino’s current wife, Lu, against the previous occupant of the position, Camilla’s mother, for rendering her infertile. Navarro against Camilla, for burning his face at a cockfight. And so on.

Hell, even ten-year-old blind girl Alma (Ana Paula d’León) is seeking revenge on those who killed her parents, before her adoption by Don Treviño. She’s actually one of the more interesting supporting characters, because she seems to have second sight, able to see things before they happen, and act to prevent them. It’s a shame the story lose sinterest in her entirely during the second half, because this concept could have developed in a number of intriguing ways. Someone with Alma’s talent would be a great weapon for any drug cartel, effectively keeping them one step ahead of their enemies. She’s not the only decent supporting character: “Queens of the South” La Nacha in the first half, and Concepción “La Cuquis” Olvera during the latter stages, both demonstrate it’s not just a man’s world.

Unfortunately, these delights are all rather minor. The great bulk of the episodes are unaffecting, not least due to a heroine whose middle names appear to be “Questionable Life Choices”. If there’s a poor decision to be made… Camilla makes it, with an inevitability previously associated only with characters from 19th-century Russian novels. Up until the very last episode, she’s less an action heroine than a reaction heroine, and you would probably need two hands to count all the female characters elsewhere in this show, who are more interesting than Camelia. The series seems tacitly to accept this, hence falling back on a tangle of subplots in which the supposed heroine is only tangentially involved.

The series ended as it had consistently done throughout: another 10-episode arc, ending in interest being piqued once more. [Spoiler warning] Camelia became the head of the Treviño family, and took her revenge on Navarro, spitting out the line, “No man made me a legend. I chose my own life, and I’ll choose my own death.” But there was also a schism, with Alma and Lu heading off, suggesting they would go up against Camelia in a second series. However, it has now been more than three and a half years since the first season ended, and the chances of any sequel seem increasingly slim. It isn’t too surprising. Adapting a three-minute pop song into a movie can be done: Convoy and Harper Valley PTA come to mind as examples. Stretching it into something of this length, however, is likely a remix too far.

Star: Sara Maldonado, Erik Hayser, Andrés Palacios, Dagoberto Gama

The Contract

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“We’re from the government. We’re here to help.”

I bumped into this one on a stand of ultra-bargain DVDs, at a truck stop on the way home with Chris from an anniversary trip to Las Vegas. The cover, understandably, piqued my interest: the film didn’t manage to make such an impression, except in intermittent bursts. Hannah (Black) is an assassin, working under the tutelage of her father, Luc (Imbault). He spurns a lucrative contract, smelling a rat: Hannah goes behind his back and takes the job, only for Dad to be proven right, when the hit goes wrong. Luc is killed, leaving Hannah and her oblivious artist boyfriend James (Oliver) on the run from Senator Harmon (Williams). He’s a CIA honcho, who has just announced his plans to run for higher office, and needs to clean up certain elements of his past – now including Hannah and James.

Some of the action here is not bad, particularly a well-staged brawl in Hannah’s apartment while James is out for food (or something). It’s an impressive bit of hand-to-hand combat, which packs a wallop and leaves the apartment in severe need of redecoration. The hotel hit which starts the ball rolling is another highlight. Unfortunately, there are just not enough of these scenes, with the bulk of the movie being Hannah and James running away, or trying to find out what’s going on. This includes a spectacularly bad bit of technological babble. James suddenly reveals hacking skills, we discover that “You can trace the email using the graphic code,” and watch as the text of the message changes into numbers. Wot, mate? Do you even computer? I know this was back in the primitive days of 1999, but still…

The plotting is, in general, equally underwhelming. It took me a while to realize Luc was supposed to be Hannah’s father – I guess I should just have looked at the British DVD cover (right, and a bit spoilery)… Quite what Harmon is trying to do is also somewhat vague: it seems to be related to a long-ago black operation, which begs the question, why did he wait so long before deciding to tidy up all these loose ends? Williams makes for a half-decent villain and Black is also solid and watchable as Hannah. That isn’t enough, however, as the bland predictability of the storyline, one we’ve seen rather too often before, drags down the positives.

It all builds to the inevitable face-off, after Hannah tracks down the only surviving person who knows the truth about Harmon, who is now working as a school janitor. I guess being a government sponsored assassin doesn’t come with a decent pension plan. The final battle is actually the most disappointing bit of action here, swapping out the close-combat fights showcased earlier, for opponents standing some distance apart and popping off rounds at each other. You’re left with a solid appreciation for why this has been consigned to the discount racks at gas-stations.

Dir: K.C. Bascombe
Star: Johanna Black, Matthew Oliver, Billy Dee Williams, Laurent Imbault

The Creature Below

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“Two tentacles up! Well, one  tentacle, at least.”

The mad scientist has been a staple of horror/SF for almost 200 years, since Victor Frankenstein first cranked up his machine. The worlds of literature and cinema have frequently returned to it since. A survey showed mad scientists or their creations to be the threat in 30% of horror films over a fifty-year period, and examples from one or other, include Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll, Herbert West, and Rotwang in Metropolis. But they have been almost exclusively male: after Frankenstein, it was 75 years before any comparable female character existed, the title character in George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff, from 1893. They have been rare ever since, with only the occasional entry such as Lady Frankenstein to break male domination.

This is another rare example, and what makes this movie particularly unusual, is the Lovecraftian overtones. While not based specifically on any of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, it is certainly set in the Cthulhu Mythos where his stories took place. Indeed, at one point, heroine Dr. Olive Crown (Dawson) hangs up her credentials from “Miskatonic University”, the fictional establishment often referenced by Lovecraft. Yet Lovecraft wrote almost exclusively about men, to the point where female characters are notable by their absence. Here though, it’s likely necessary, due to the maternal aspect of the storyline.

Dr. Crown is part of a deep-sea expedition, testing out a new underwater suit. A dive goes badly wrong, with Olive barely surviving, and being blamed for the accident, though she remembers very little of what happened. When checking the suit, she discovers an egg-like sac. Having already been fired, she smuggles it off the boat, and back to the basement of the house she shares with her boyfriend (Thrace). It hatches, and the creature begins a growing relationship with Olive, that’s part-psychic, part-mental and almost all creepy. Especially after she discovers that human blood is about the only thing it will consume. Fortunately, there are no shortage of potential snacks to hand, including her former boss and her adulterous sister (Longden).

If you were to describe this as a cross between The Thing and Hellraiser, you’d not be far off. There’s the creepy, tenticular monster of the former, as well as a soundtrack which is so close to John Carpenter’s electronic minimalism as to invite a lawsuit. Meanwhile, you have the lurking horror behind suburban walls from the Clive Barker adaptation, with a seemingly nice young woman luring victims in, to feed her monster pal.  Onto this combination, the film piles common Lovecraftian themes of growing insanity, against a backdrop of the “Old Gods” – once the object of cult devotion, these entities have not been destroyed, and are merely sleeping, waiting for their time to come again.

There are certainly a couple of mis-steps on the way, not least some horrendous CGI which is not needed at all – a painfully artificial shot of a ship sailing could easily have been skipped, and takes the viewer out of the mood entirely. The ending, similarly, goes at least one step (if not several) further than it needs to: this is one of those times when leaving things to the audience to fill in the blanks would have been a better bet. But the monster, in its various stages of growth, is impressively realized, especially given the obvious limitations of resources here. If falling short of the movies which it most closely imitates, those are some large, black boots to fill, and there’s enough here of merit to provide a creepily decent pay-off for the viewer.

Dir: Stewart Sparke
Star: Anna Dawson, Daniel Thrace, Michaela Longden, Johnny Vivash

Confessions of a Slightly Neurotic Hitwoman by J.B. Lynn

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I guess there is at least something logical about this, in how its heroine, Maggie Lee, becomes the assassin of the title. She takes on her first contract to pay the medical bills of her niece, left in a coma after a car accident which killed her parents and injured Maggie. That’s the kind of motivation which I can see, causing a person to take desperate steps. Unfortunately, it’s a rare island in a sea of largely implausible plotting and uninteresting characters.

First is how she comes to the attention of the mob: visiting her niece, she stumbles across a man assaulting another patient and fights him off. Turns out the patient is the head of the Delveccio crime family, who decides to hire Maggie to whack the assailant, his son-in-law. Quite why he prefers to entrust this to an insurance call-centre employee, when he clearly has far more experienced and capable personnel to hand, is never explained. Nor his decision to entrust Maggie with a minder, somewhat bent cop Patrick Mulligan, who trains her in the finer arts of killing. And I mean that sarcastically, since he has to explain that rule number one is, “Don’t get caught.” Really.

Then there’s the other cop, Paul Kowalski, who pulls Maggie over to give her a traffic ticket, which ends up with him asking her on a date. I’m not sure what purpose he serves in this store, except to set up the inevitable love triangle between him, Maggie and Patrick. Oh, and did I mention that Maggie can converse with animals, including her niece’s pet lizard? Why? Because her mother is in the loony bin, I guess: either that, or perhaps this talent was triggered by the accident. It’s such an incongruous element, in a series which is trying to remain relatively grounded in reality, it appears to have strayed in from another book entirely. I was also unimpressed with Maggie’s family, who are annoying more than endearing and whose drama occupy reams of pages, to the point that I wondered if Lynn was being paid by the word.

Once she has got through her first mission, turns out that’s far from the end of it, as Delveccio’s regular hit-man takes credit for the job, and Maggie has to get rid of him as well, in order to collect her fee. This is about the only sequence which managed to stick in my mind, bringing home effectively the point that killing someone can be difficult and unpleasant, especially when it’s not just a case of squeezing a trigger. But I’ve got to be honest: this book took twice as long to get through as most I’ve reviewed here. For when I went to bed, and it was a choice between reading some more chapters and fluffy, pillow-shaped goodness… The lure of Morpheus was generally a lot greater than the lure of Maggie.

Author: J.B. Lynn
Publisher: Avon Impulse, available through Amazon as an e-book – used copies of the paperback are… kinda pricey. As in five hundred bucks!

Colossal

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“A giant conundrum.”

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Gloria (Hathaway) holes up in her middle-American hometown. She gets a job in a bar, run by her childhood pal, Oscar (Sudeikis) – not that this employment does much for Gloria’s burgeoning alcoholism. Meanwhile, over in Korea, the city of Seoul is being plagued by a giant monster, which will appear out of nowhere, behave oddly, and then vanish again. Gloria eventually figures out that when she goes through a particular spot – a local children’s playground – at a specific time, the creature appears in Korea, and its actions reflect hers. Turns out Oscar can do the same, manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot, and he may not be as benign with his new-found powers, as Gloria is attempting to be.

This is a severe mess in terms of genre, and very difficult to put into any particular bucket. It’s part comedy, part drama, part fantasy – yet not sufficiently any of them to the point where I can confidently say it would appeal to fans of that kind of film. It is the kind of quirky role for which Hathaway is well suited, and Sudeikis does well, in a “low-rent substitute for Ben Affleck” kinda way. I just wish Vigalondo (whose time-travel flick, Los cronocrímenes, is one of the best of its kind) had taken the concept here and really run with the possibilities. I guess budget may have limited him there, but I’d like to have seen  Gloria and Oscar do more than standing around, waving their limbs somewhat. The trailer suggested a bit more than that.

I think this might be intended to be a parable for abusive relationships, with Oscar using controlling tactics and threats to ensure that Gloria doesn’t go back to the big city and/or her boyfriend there. Or perhaps Oscar is intended to represent the alcohol which is Gloria’s bête noire? You can more or less make up whatever you want here. And you’ll probably have to, because if this film doesn’t credibly explain how two people can project into South Korean monsters (it’s something to do with a childhood trauma, a smashed show-and-tell project and lightning), you know you’re not going to be given much in the way of character motivation.

Re-reading the above, it comes over as negative to a greater extent than it should. Gloria is a likeably flawed lead, I was kept interested, generally amused and occasionally impressed. Yet, it feels like a seriously wasted opportunity, something which could have ended up occupying a deliciously excessive and demented spot between Pacific Rim and Monsters vs. Aliens. Instead, it’s far lower-key and takes place on a surprisingly small scale, than anything involving a monster, hundreds of foot high, terrorizing an Asian city should. If your expectations are similarly restrained, this is likely to work better. I can state with a fair degree of certainty, you won’t have seen anything like it before. And once you’ve seen it, you will probably understand why.

Dir: Nacho Vigalondo
Star: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

This sixth installment in Arruda’s outstanding series has much in common, in terms of style and other characteristics, with the preceding five. We pick up here in February 1921, and our setting is the familiar one of Nairobi and its environs; all or most of the supporting cast we’ve come to like are here, as well as Jade herself.

Early on in the story, Jade becomes an inadvertent witness to a clandestine body disposal (Inspector Finch once wryly commented that she “attracts corpses,” and that’s running true to form here!), and other deaths will follow, seeming to be connected with a mysterious purported gold mining operation in the northern reaches of the colony. Intertwined with these events is the menace of a huge, man-eating piebald crocodile, whose depredations along the Athi River are a concern to both the Kikuyu natives and the authorities. More than one concealed identity factors into the situation, and as usual there is a soupcon of traditional African supernatural belief flavoring the mix. The setting continues to be strongly evoked.

It can be said, though, that this is one of the better constructed and more challenging mysteries in the series. Based on my knowledge of how Arruda writes, I was smugly certain that I had identified one of the principal villains as soon as the character was introduced. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; and I had no clue about the other one, either. I did see through one concealed identity, but otherwise, Arruda does a masterful job here of hiding her clues in plain sight And the final chapters before the wrap-up are a tour de force of excitement and suspenseful tension as the author maneuvers various characters into position for a climactic confrontation that doesn’t disappoint.

More than most entries in the series, too, this one is no running in place operation in terms of an overall story arc; this volume will bring significant changes to Jade’s life. Indeed, there are some indications that this (so far) penultimate entry may originally have been intended as the series finale. (All six of the first books were published by Big Publishing, and no more than a year apart. The seventh book was self-published, and only after a five year gap.)

As always, I would recommend reading the series in order, rather than trying to start with this book. It would lose a lot without the built-up familiarity with the characters and their history in relation to each other. But series fans won’t be disappointed in any respect!

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

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Collection, by Lance Charnes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Lance Charnes and I are Goodreads friends, having “met” (electronically) a few years ago through the Action Heroine Fans group. Some time ago, I bought a copy of his outstanding debut novel, Doha 12, and it got five stars from me. This new novel, the opener for a projected series, didn’t come to me as an official review copy –instead, Lance generously donated a print copy to the library where I work– but he knew I would read and review it, and knew my tastes well enough to be pretty sure I’d like it. Of course, we both understood that he might be wrong –but he wasn’t! For much of my reading experience, I expected to rate the book four stars –a denouement and conclusion that blew me to pieces and then knit me back together easily pushed it up to five stars.

Being his Goodreads friend, I try to keep abreast of Lance’s book reviews, so I know firsthand how well read he is in the whole area of the contemporary fine arts market, and particularly of its increasingly seedy underbelly. In real life, art by big-name artists can command staggering prices, and in the last 15-20 years it’s come to be a major commodity in the world of big-time international money laundering and shady commercial exchanges where cash transfers come too easily to the attention of authorities. And a lot of art that’s traded this way may be stolen, or forged.

Rich collectors with an enthusiasm for art aren’t the only players any more; we’re dealing with crime syndicates, corrupt and despotic governments and their officials, and billionaires looking for ways to cheat the tax authorities, and violence and murder may be aspects of normal business operations for some of these people. Lance sets this novel in that milieu, and he and his protagonist Matt Friedrich know it like the back of their hand. The author is also well-traveled; he sets his tale mostly in Europe, and principally Milan, and brings the locale to life with an assurance and level of detail which suggests he’s actually been there, or researched it a LOT online.

This is crime fiction more than traditional mystery; and as in his debut novel, Lance uses the knowledge of skulduggery, weapons, and high-technology snooping gained as a military intelligence officer to good advantage. The plotting is taut (first-person, present-tense narration is used for maximum immediacy) and the pace brisk, with a steady dose of dangerous situations and life-threatening tension. Matt’s crafty scheming sometimes takes the reader by surprise, and he’s sometime majorly taken for surprise himself, along with the reader. Action scenes aren’t frequent, but you never know when they could erupt, and when they do they’re well depicted. I’ve used the term “thriller” for this book, and that’s one I seldom use; I don’t seek out books that bill themselves that way, because I think the plotting is usually so cliched and stereotyped that it fails to thrill. This one doesn’t fail.

I’ve also used the term “gritty.” As described above, the moral world of this novel is a dark one where people are generally guided by the most selfish and cynical of motives, where the law is typically powerless to do much, and where innocent people are hurt as a by-product of what some of the characters routinely do. The DeWitt so-called “Agency” is a morally ambiguous enterprise that works for the highest bidder, and our narrator is an ex-con who was once involved in crooked art deals, and is now so crushed under a mountain of legal debts that he’s willing to violate his parole by working for said agency if it gives him a shot at paying it down.

And yet this is a surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly, given the moral vision that animates the author’s earlier novel) moral work of fiction, with a main character who’s learned something about life and ethics from his time in prison, and who wants to become a human being that he can look in the mirror and respect. He’s going to encounter challenges and decisions here that will put that resolve to the test. Both Matt and Carson (the female operative he’s paired with –who provides the team’s muscles and fighting skill when it’s needed) are intensely vital, round, realistic characters with a credible pattern of interactions that doesn’t stay static, but develops believably. Unlike some writers of this type of fiction, Lance understands that characters you care about are the only thing that can truly provide it with its heart, and he gives character development and relationships their due. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you because I’m determined to avoid spoilers; but I can say that this is where the book really earns its stars. (The principal supporting characters are masterfully drawn as well.)

You don’t have to be familiar with the world of the contemporary art market to enjoy this book (I’m not, at all); the author explains everything you have to know, and he does it easily and smoothly, in small doses with no info-dumps. None of the discussion is detailed enough to be boring. He uses enough physical description to let you visualize scenes, but not, IMO, too much; the same with technological exposition. (At one point, I didn’t really understand what one of the villains was trying to gain by his conduct; but the narrative drive carried me through without asking questions.) f you’re any kind of fan of crime fiction thrillers in a contemporary setting, and my review intrigues you rather than turning you away, I’d say this is definitely worth your checking out. I’m certainly going to be following the series; and I’m now even more anxious to read the author’s South, sooner rather than later!

Matt’s very sensible to feminine charms (he hasn’t been out of prison very long), but there’s no sex here, and Matt actually refrains from taking sexual advantage of one young woman. Violence isn’t any more frequent or graphic than it needs to be. As for bad language, not all of the characters swear, but some do, including Matt; Carson and one of the villains have the worst mouths (including the f-word as regular vocabulary). I never felt that the author was trying to mainstream that kind of thing, nor push the envelope with it.

Author: Lance Charnes
Publisher: Wombat Group Media, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Crazyhead

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“Buffy does Britain.”

Amy (Theobold) is insane. Or so the rest of society thinks, due to her being able to see things nobody else can. She’s trying to keep her head down, working quietly at a bowling alley. But after being attacked, she is rescued by Raquel (Wokoma), another young woman who can see exactly the same things. Amy learns from her new friend that demons are real, and live among us: Raquel has appointed herself a demon-hunter, and convinces the reluctant Amy to join her. This causes no end of issues, not the least of which is Amy’s room-mate becoming one of the possessed, and the most of which is likely the apocalyptic plan of Callum (Curran). He intends to use Raquel to open the gates of hell on Halloween, allowing thousands more demons to flood into our world and take over humans.

It is, very clearly, inspired by Buffy in many aspects, from its blonde heroine, through the “Scooby Gang” of friends in assistance, such as long-suffering bowling-alley colleague, Jake (Reeves), who carries a torch for Amy and likes canoeing. On the villainous side, Callum also seems to owe a particularly large debt to the Mayor of Sunnydale (though in our house, Curran will always be Van Gogh from Doctor Who!). However, it’s almost fourteen years since Buffy Summers rode off into the sunset, so I guess the statute of limitations has run out there. Another potential inspiration could be a distaff version of Supernatural, but there’s still plenty here that’s fresh and fun, and it has a particularly British approach

For instance, it’s laden with sarcastic banter, as well as (for those who might be offended) plenty of harsh language and general crudity – an exorcism, for instance, requires a very special shower for the target… If somewhat lacking in originality, the dynamic between the two leads helps make up for this; it’s likely the show’s strongest suit, and overcomes most of the scripting flaws. Amy and Raquel are each outsiders in their own ways, who can mesh together into an effective whole. One possesses better social skills, and can hold down a job, so is able to interface with other people if necessary; while the other has superior knowledge about what’s going on, in part thanks to her “special” background. Though both are quite happy to resort to a more physical approach when necessary – and, given who they’re facing, that would be quite often.

It’s all over remarkably quickly, especially if you are more used to American series, typically lasting 20+ editions a season. This only takes six 45-minute episodes to go from introducing the characters to the eve of the apocalypse. It is perhaps a good thing, as the story written by creator Howard Overman is somewhat thin, and could potentially feel stretched if told at any greater length. Instead, you will likely be left wanting more, and that’s never a bad position for the audience to be in, at the end of a show’s first season.

Dir: Al Mackay and Declan O’Dwyer
Star: Cara Theobold, Susan Wokoma, Lewis Reeves, Tony Curran

Chosen, by K.F. Breene

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Shanti is a bad-ass. Not that you’d know it when we first encounter her, staggering through the wilderness on the edge of death, after an ill-considered choice of route as she escapes from… Something. We’ll get back to that. Fortunately, she is found by Sanders, a career soldier from a nearby city, out on a training mission with a band of raw recruits. They take her back to their town, where she’s nursed back to health – then the awkward questions begin, concerning where she was going and precisely why she was carrying weapons. But the key turns out to be Captain Cayan, who possesses the same psionic warfare capabilities as Shanti; except, he’s all but unaware of it, a sharp contrast to her finely-honed and practiced expertise.

When the city comes under attack, it appears initially just to be another raid by the Mugdock, a barbarian tribe who have caused trouble for years. However, it turns out they aren’t alone, and have partnered up with others who pose a bigger threat. While her adroitness, with both mind and sword, are key in fending off the enemy, it offers only temporary relief, because Sanders is then captured while out on a mission, and tortured to reveal the city’s secrets. Cayan, together with Shanti, lead the expedition to rescue him, but the resulting conflict brings her presence in the area to the attention of the very people she least wants to find out.

I enjoyed reading this – after a couple of fairly lackluster entries in the genre, it was refreshing to find something where you wanted to keep turning pages, to find out what would happen next. Shanti is an excellent heroine: smart, fiercely loyal to those who have earned her trust, takes no shit from anyone, with a sardonic wit and possessing copious back-story, some of which is filled in over the course of this book. But woe betide you get on the wrong side of her, for she can kill you quickly with her sword – or very slowly with her mind. As we see near the end of the book, you’d better pray you get the former fate. Speaking of which, her talents are showcased particularly well in the following passage, depicting her defense against the Mugdock attackers:

Words could not describe how thoroughly Sanders had underestimated her. How they all had. She moved as if in some elaborate dance. Every nuance of her body was in perfect harmony as she glided through her fighting postures, slicing and cutting, weaving in and out. Even her sword was part of the dance, moving like an extension of her arm. She was breathtaking. And extremely deadly. Her pile was larger than her male counterpart’s. It was neater, too. One cut, maybe two, and they were brought down. Appendages sliced off, heads, limbs, incapacitated, then she moved on. Every so often she would throw a knife, hitting someone in their head, heart, or, most often, their neck. He had never seen anything like it.

Damn. It’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t more action, because it’s described so evocatively when it comes along, you’re left feeling as if you were there, and wanting more. To her credit, Breene also does a good job of Shanti’s psychic abilities; I’ve seen books where that kind of thing turns into clunky and ineffective prose, not the case here. A couple of other points worthy of praise. While there’s obvious unresolved sexual tension between the heroine and the Captain, this provokes a lot less eye-rolling than usual; indeed, it makes sense, given their mental bond. It’s also a fully-formed story – Shanti’s saga goes on, obviously (there are six books in The Warrior Chronicles to date), yet this finishes at a point that feels complete, not an obvious “Continued in Volume 2!”

There were occasional passages which I did find myself having to re-read, because the intent or meaning of them seemed rather confused. But that’s a small quibble, for an engrossing story in a universe a bit reminiscent of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (albeit with fewer dragons… at least, so far!). My rule of thumb for deciding whether a book is good or not, is whether I watch it unfold cinematically in my mind’s eye as I read. That wasn’t just the case here, I was also actively casting it. What do we want?! Cecily Fay for Shanti. When do we want it? As soon as someone gets the budget. :)

Author: K.F. Breene
Publisher: Through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.