Review: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski

Warning: some plot spoilers are included, though I’m not purposely giving away the plot’s twists and turns.
This is an outstanding example of modern noir, though, oddly, it’s also a time travel novel. Our protagonist Mickey Wade is a laid-off journalist living in Philadelphia – an old, corrupt, seedy city I‘ve always enjoyed visiting – whose personal situation is rapidly heading from bad to worse. He’s got no job, no real career prospects, no money, and he’s forced to move into his hospitalized grandfather’s ratty old walk-up. The book begins with this dark backdrop as we watch the protagonist descend further into the kind of personal hell that’s become all too common in these troubled financial times. Then he discovers that some pills in his grandfather’s medicine cabinet allow him to travel back to the same location in 1972, the year of his birth. That’s when things really start getting weird. The people he encounters there are all intimately tied in with his father’s murder, which he attempts to solve after learning that the version of the story he had heard isn’t exactly what happened. The more he discovers about the past, the messier things get. As with most time travel thrillers, there are a few dangling plot holes that can’t quite be resolved, but generally the treatment of paradox and causation are handled intelligently.
This is a fast-paced, fun read, despite its inherently dark subject matter, and I had a hard time putting it down. Characterization is smooth and the dialogue flows effortlessly. The sense of place is palpable as we watch what had been a fairly prosperous lower-middle-class Philly neighborhood in 1972 slowly transform into a dangerous rathole in 2010. Swierczynski clearly knows his craft as a writer. Evocative full-page illustrations every few chapters add to the experience.
Highly recommended for those who enjoy noir with a science fiction bent. (Not to worry, even if you have a marked allergy to science fiction as I know many crime fiction readers do, I don’t think you’ll object too much here.) This was the first of Duane Swierczynski’s books I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Review: Halloween: New Poems, ed. Al Sarrantonio

While I don’t typically read poetry – I believe this is the first book of poetry in my library, with the exception of some epic poems and sagas – I do love horror and Halloween is my favorite holiday, so this was a natural section for me. This collection contains forty-one poems (Halloween is 10/31, so 10+31=41) by a variety of authors. Not all were familiar to me, but most readers will likely recognize the names Joe Lansdale, Al Sarrantonio, Gary Braunbeck, and Tom Piccirilli, among others.
The poems range in size from a three-line ditty to one long poem that goes on for more than twenty pages. Most poems take up a single page and are loosely grouped by topic: Trick or Treat, Pumpkins, The Season, Ghoulies, Ghosties, etc. They range in tone from light and full of whimsy to dark and bloody. Most, I would say, lean slightly toward the lighter end of the spectrum.
I don’t want to systematically go through all the poems and deconstruct them in this review, so I’ll simply say that the half-dozen by Lansdale clearly stand out head and shoulders above most of the rest (the man truly has a gift for words), so these are my favorites along with the one long poem, “Cap’n Hook,” by Bradley Denton.
I can see myself returning to this one during the Halloween season, so I heartily recommend it to those who love Halloween as a holiday as well as those who would enjoy a lyrical (and slightly whimsical) treatment of horror. Good stuff.
Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review. This has not influenced my review in any way.
4 stars out of 5
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Recent Acquisitions

I have a bunch of new books (what is the proper collective noun for books?) to report on, so here goes. I picked up a few at a flea market, and a few more from a library book sale, and a few more arrived in the mail. As usual, in no particular order, with a bit of commentary:

Science fiction:
  • The Lost by Dan Abnett (The third Gaunt’s Ghosts omnibus, set in the Warhammer 40k universe. Man, I love Abnett’s writing and characters. Been waiting for this one to come out for a long time.)
  • Communion by Whitley Streiber. I enjoy his fiction, and consider this one to be fictional too. I don’t believe in UFO abductions personally, but I’m willing to believe that Streiber does.
Fantasy:
  • The Anubis Gates by Time Powers. This one, along with the next bullet, were picked up my my friend — nom de plume of bookstothesky — at a book show in L.A.
  • Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. Also autographed, courtesy of bookstothesky. For generosity and going above and beyond the call of duty, I hereby award him the Silver Tome medal, with distinction. He inadvertently selected literally my two favorite books by these two authors. Sheer happenstance, but it’s really, really awesome.
  • Changes by Jim Butcher. The latest Harry Dresden book. They’re nothing great, but they’re fun, light reads, and I always pick them up as soon as they come out. This one was a $10 special from Amazon, possibly because of the ongoing ebook wars. Bring on more of the same, baby!
Sherlockiana:
  • A really neat manuscript package of all the “primary source” documents and clues associated with The Sign of Four. Hard to describe, and I didn’t know it even existed, but it looks damn fun. I’m going to use it in conjunction with the actual text when I reread it.
  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes by various. Should be interesting reading about other Victorian detectives.
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes by Loren D. Estleman. I already owned this one. Oops.
Crime/mystery:
  • Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski. This one showed up randomly in the mail yesterday. And it’s autographed. Yes, this is insane. No idea why it was shipped here from the publisher, but I plan to read and review it soon.
  • The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett. A bunch of short stories and novellas. Should be awesome.
Military fiction:
  • War of the Rats by David L. Robbins. Fiction about Stalingrad. I’ll save this one for when I need some light-hearted reading to pick me up.
  • Emergency Deep by Michael DiMercurio. He was a submariner, so this should be a good sub thriller.
Chess:
  • The three little chess books that came in my boxed set from Dover, packaged with a neat little traveling chess set. No, I’m not very good at chess, but I’ve always been fascinated by the game.
RPGs:
  • All three of the Journal of the Traveller Aid Society (JTAS) reprints for the Traveller RPG. They were only $10 apiece on sale, when they’re usually $30 each, so I couldn’t pass them up. If you’re not a gamer, this won’t make any sense.
Non-fiction:
  • Two memoirs by former CDC virus-hunter-type-dudes. I always enjoy reading this kind of stuff.
  • Woodward’s fourth book on Bush and Iraq. Unfortunately the copy I picked up has some underlining, etc., in it, but for a $1 hardback, it’s hard to pass up.
  • The West’s Last Chance by Tony Blankley.
  • Webster’s American Military Biographies. Old and a bit out-dated, but again, great for $1.
So there we have it. Quite a haul since I last updated.