The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven: The debut of one of the best pair of characters I can think of in a truly compelling novel.

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven
Series: Washington Poe, #1

Paperback, 352 pg.
Constable, 2018
Read: July 23, 2018

‘First impressions?’ Flynn asked.

He studied the slash marks again. Not including the messy number five, he counted forty-two. Forty-two wounds to spell out ‘Washington Poe’. Forty-two individual expressions of agony. ‘Other than the victim wishing I’d been called Bob, nothing.’

‘I need you to come back to work,’ she said. She looked around at the desolate fells he now called home. ‘I need you to re-join the human race.’

He stood up, all previous thoughts of resigning dismissed. There was only one thing that mattered: the Immolation Man was out there somewhere, selecting victim number four.

Washington Poe was a Detective Inspector who either made a very, very, very horrible mistake or is a DI or did a very, very, very bad thing — it depends who you ask. Either way, he’s on suspension until he either quits or the internal investigation is complete. He doesn’t quit, but he doesn’t expect to be brought back to work anytime soon.

Until his former DS, now his replacement, shows up — there’s a serial killer afoot, burning people alive — after some torture, it seems. What led to him being brought back (aside from being the kind of investigator who will be able to track this guy down) is that the last victim had Poe’s name cut into him before he was burned. This is a message to him — and possibly a threat. So, potential bad cop or not — for his own protection, he needs to get reactivated. Sure, it’ll be a little awkward, he’ll be acting as a subordinate to his former DS — but he frankly knows he was better at that anyway, so he’ll get used to it.

One of the first things he does is meet an analyst working with the police — she’s the one who developed the model to make sense of the wounds and found his name on the corpse. Tilly is a fascinating character — she’s a mathematical genius, a whiz with computers, and socially awkward. That actually is an understatement — clearly from a young age, Tilly’s mom sheltered her from the worst of society so that her genius could flourish. Now an adult, she decides to work with the police so her mathematics could see some immediate benefit to society — but she still is an outsider (and mom is determined to keep her that way).

Almost immediately upon meeting her, Poe shakes up her life. He defends her from some teasing/bullying by some police officers and then he insists that she’s coming to the field with him. Tilly’s never done anything like that before, but jumps at the chance. The two of them build a strange partnership — and a strong friendship — as they work this case, along with DI Flynn and an old friend of Poe’s, Kylian Reid) who is one of the few police officers in the country who aren’t suspicious of him.

Poe is a great character — there’s no two ways about it — you put him in a novel by himself (or with Flynn or Reid) and I’m reading it. He’s in the Bosch/Rebus kind of vein — he’s going to get the job done, and will annoy/offend whoever in the chain of command, city government, press, etc. to get the job done. This quotation describes it best:

He knew some people thought his reputation for following the evidence wherever it took him was because he felt he held some sort of moral high ground. That he had a calling to a purer version of the truth that was unattainable to other, lesser, cops. The truth was simpler — if he thought he was right, the self-destructive element to his personality took over. It frequently allowed the devil on his shoulder to shout down his better angel. And at the minute, the angel couldn’t get a word in edgeways . . .

His face turned to granite. If he didn’t do it, who would? Sometimes someone had to step up. Do the unpalatable so others didn’t have to.

That’s the kind of character I can read any time.

But what makes this book (on the character front, anyway) a must read is Tilly Bradshaw. Actually, no. It’s the combination of Tilly and Poe. Yeah, Poe largely uses her the way he’d use anyone to get the job done (see Rebus/Bosch) — but there’s some genuine affection for her at work, too. He truly seems to like her and wants to protect her — and maybe push her a little to fend for herself. Tilly clearly adores him — I should stress that this is a platonic thing for both — he protects her, treats her like an adult (something her mother doesn’t allow anyone to do), and relies on her brain (which most people do). Tilly is a character worth one’s time, no doubt about it — and I can’t imagine anyone who reads this book to not like her a lot. But the two of them together are as good a pair as you can imagine.

Now, that’s all well and good — but what about the plot? What about the killer? The plot is as intricate as you can hope for in a serial killer novel. As the police start to compile a theory of the case, a profile of the killer, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a dark root, a strong motivating factor behind the killings. At one point, I put in my notes “Okay, I’d be absolutely fine not learning anything else about the killer’s backstory. Can we just get to his arrest now, leaving the rest of the uncovering to the prosecutor’s work after the novel is over?”

Naturally, the answer to that was a resounding no. You learn more about what drove this man to kill — and frankly, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s justified. Not justified in how he goes about the killing, because that’s just horrible. But you might wonder if it’d be okay for him to get away with it. To get to that point — and to find out if Poe and Bradshaw are able to stop the killing — there’s some great twists and turns to the case, and some very compelling reveals to get through. The reader will be hooked throughout.

Not only can Craven create great characters, and tell a good story — but his writing is compelling, too (yes, there is a difference between those last two). The first description given of one of the corpses The Immolation Man left was horrific, it really made me ill. Another description that stood out was an older suspect — and her home — without giving anything else away, Craven’s description of the two together was so well done that I felt I could see them as clearly as I could see the room I was in at the time. I loved the voice, the style, his use of words — really just about everything.

Oh, yeah and when — I can’t believe I almost forgot this — when you figure out why Craven used this title, you’re going to need some help picking your jaw off the ground. There’s at least one other reveal that may require that as well, come to think of it. Any good Crime Fiction is going to have some good reveals embedded in the story — the skilled writer revealing them properly is what makes a good Crime Novel into a great one. Craven delivered the latter.

Craven’s writing, the compelling story, the fantastic characters — you put these elements together and you have an unbeatable combination and the makings of one of the best crime novels — novels, period — that I’ve read this year. I’m not really sure I read it — it was more of a semi-controlled devouring. There are few sequels I’m looking forward to as much as the next Washington Poe book. While I’m waiting for it, you should go grab The Puppet Show so you can join me in anticipating its arrival.

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5 Stars

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In the Year of Our Lord by Sinclair Ferguson: Sinclair Ferguson brings out the heart as well as the life of Church History

In the Year of Our LordIn the Year of Our Lord: Reflections on Twenty Centuries of Church History

by Sinclair Ferguson

eARC, 229 pg.
Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018
Read: August 26 – September 16, 2018
The seeds of this book were first published in a book Ferguson co-authored called, Church History 101: The Highlights of Twenty Centuries — he’s now taken those chapters, done more research (being retired has freed up some time for him to do some reading), and expanded that into this great survey of Church History.

After a stirring (yes, really) introduction that lays out the purpose of this volume, why the study of Church History is important and what can be gained from even the figures from Church History that may disagree with — Ferguson dives in to his survey. I really can’t say enough good about this introduction — which feels odd, that’s not supposed to be the best part of a book (and it isn’t, actually — but it’s good enough that it really could be). The body of the book is twenty chapters — in case you couldn’t guess, that’s one chapter for each completed century Anno Domini (and Ferguson is committed to the usage of that).

Each chapter starts with an excerpt from a noted piece of writing from the century in question — like The Martyrdom of Polycarp, On the Incarnation, Gottschalk;s Shorter Confession concerning Double Predestination, and Savonarola’s The Triumph of the Cross (noted, not necessarily commonly known, obviously). Following that Ferguson summarizes the events of that century — focusing on particular figures or movements that stand out. Most of these will be at least familiar to the reader by name, if not for activities and attributes. Then he closes the chapter with some words of application to the contemporary Church and a hymn from that century — most of those hymns I was totally unfamiliar with, and am so glad I was exposed to them.

The core of the chapters, the history of that century — as summarized as it may be — is so helpful. I’ve taken classes covering a lot of those chapters — and read enough on my own that I was pretty familiar with the material covered. But I learned something about even those eras and individuals I’ve studied extensively — maybe not a lot, but enough to justify the time. And even those things that were primarily review for me were well worth reading — the story of our family is one we should hear over and over again and this book is a prime example of what we need to hear.

But what about those who haven’t taken the classes, or haven’t had that much exposure to Church History outside of the last century — or maybe the first couple of centuries? This book is even better for them. It’s primarily intended as an introduction to Church History, and it excels at being one. First of all, it gives you the good bird’s eye view from the day after the last chapter of Acts to the present. Which is a perspective that’s all too easy to lose in the details — we’ve got to see the forest. But the trees are also important — and Ferguson gives enough detail (while remembering that these are brief summary chapters) that the reader can get a handle on a particular century and learn enough that they can pursue what they’re interested in. I know from reading that Celtic monasticism is something that I want to read more about (and not just by rereading Thomas Cahill), but that there are other things from that period that don’t spark my interest in the same way. Some people will react that way to Gregory I or Thomas Chalmers or something else — and Ferguson has provided the reader with enough to start on to feel comfortable pursuing that interest.

Whether for review or as an introduction — the meat of this book is just what the doctor ordered.

Even if the history wasn’t that helpful, Ferguson’s application and the hymn made the book worthwhile. Sometimes that application is comforting, sometimes it’s challenging — it’s always helpful. And the bonus of having that hymn? That’s a wonderful, devotional way to bring history to life — that’s the same Lord, the same faith being proclaimed in these words. Loved that. Starting the chapters with a doctrinally rich (if occasionally problematic) excerpt reminds us that our faith is first and foremost about truth, about ideas — but those find expression in the heart and life of the believer — as seen in the hymns.

Yes, it’s a weakness that this book focuses on the Western Church — particularly that represented in the English, Scottish and American branches. Ferguson admits that at the beginning, but that’s his tradition, that’s his background — and that’s the background for most of his, readers, too — so it’s what’s most relevant. To go beyond that would result in a tome unwieldy and not that handy for his audience (as great as it would be to see).

The structure of head (excerpt), life (history) and heart (hymn) is a fantastic outline for this book — and everything hung on that outline is clearly-written, helpful to the Christian and relevant (if only to say “don’t be like that.”) Ferguson knocked it out of the park with this one, and I can’t recommended it highly enough. Great for personal use, family devotion, Sunday Schools, Home Schools — you name it, there’s someone who can benefit from this book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Reformation Trust Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 Stars

Saturday Miscellany – 9/22/18

Not my most productive (reading or writing) week, but have had fun with it. Last night I was told I could pass for Rothfuss if I grew my hair out (I’ll take that as a compliment) and I got to see and meet Craig Johnson (post to come) — nothing wrong with an evening like that.

Lacking a segue, here are the odds ‘n ends over the week about books and reading that caught my eye. You’ve probably seen some/most/all of them, but just in case:

    This Week’s New Releases I’m Excited About and/or You’ll Probably See Here Soon:

  • Lethal White by “Robert Galbraith”– the fourth novel in the Cormoran Strike series — a mystery novel that’s the size of an epic fantasy (enjoying it, but wishes the point could get cut to a bit more often).
  • How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler by Ryan North — in case you time travel to the far past and accidentally wipe out civilization, this book will show you how to rebuild civilization. Which sounds handy.
  • Soulless (Illustrated Hardcover Edition) by Gail Carriger — I rather enjoyed the books in this series that I read before getting distracted. Maybe this new edition will help me get back into it.
  • Battlestar Suburbia by Chris McCrudden — humorous SF, I’m not going to try to summarize in a sentence. Click the link.
  • The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole — the middle, and likely darker, novel in the Sacred Thrones trilogy.

Lastly, I’d like to say hi and extend a warm welcome to hellotheregigi and NAME for following the blog this week.

Pub Day Repost: Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek & Dave Philpott: Hilarious, Unique, Addictive are some Adjectives I use to describe this Incredibly Entertaining Book

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott
eARC, 412 pg.
Unbound, 2018
Read: July 24 – August 7, 2018<br/

In my intro post for this Tour Stop, I said that this book was “almost indescribable” and I really mean that — the blurb for the book says, “deliberately deranged letters to pop stars from the 1960s to the 90s to take issue with the lyrics of some of their best-known songs.” And that’s right, but it doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it. The answer to the first question in the Q&A is a pretty good description, though. But if you don’t want to read that (which I get, you’re wrong — but I get it), I should probably try to convey what you’ll find here.

Let’s take a look at the letter they wrote to Starship. I don’t feel too bad about talking about this letter in detail because their take on their song “We Built this City” is common (I used to own, for example, a t-shirt that made the same joke, just in briefer form). Now, their letter goes into a great amount of detail about the nature of foundations, different types of them, etc. and how this makes their “design project” the “most ludicrous” in the history of architecture. This kind of thing is funny, and a collection of these sort of letters — as well-written as these are — would be worth the time to read and would make you laugh — I’d give it a pretty high rating, encourage you to get it, etc.

But what separates this book from similar tomes, what makes it special is that on the very next page, you get to read a response from Martin Page, who co-wrote the song. Page mounts an impassioned defense of the song — full of references to Rock classics as proof. I’ll spare the details so you can appreciate Page’s inspired choise in response. Each letter printed in this collection is answered by a songwriter, musician, or other representative of a musical act. Some of these responses debate the premise of the Philpott’s letter, some answer in the same vein, others take the premise and run with it in their own way — some appear to be in on the joke, others appears to be flummoxed that anyone would take their lyrics in this insane manner.

In particular, Tears for Fears, The Knack, and NuShooz/J. Smith had great responses — Kimberly Rew (of Katrina and the Waves) is my current favorite. EMF must have either absolutely loved or utterly hated writing their response, I cackled at it. The Human League and Wang Chung composed very long responses — some are as short as a paragraph or three. I really could keep listing some other distinctives about the responses, and great ones to look for — but this is already getting pretty long.

They also include some lIttle notes or postcards like the one to ELO, talking about the impossibility of their name; to “Mr. John” about the unacceptability of violence on any night; or to John Parr (involving canonization of a particular Muppet, and the danger of exposing him to flame) — I just reread that one and cracked up, again. These probably couldn’t support being stretched into a letter of any length, and there are no responses printed — but are very likely the most funny parts of the book.

There’s an elevated vocabulary used by the Philpotts — this isn’t an uneducated reaction to lyrics. The letters are frequently erudite and earnest. The letters don’t come across as something written for comedic effect — yes, they’re funny. But that’s not the intention. Somehow, that happens without turning the joke back on them for misunderstanding the lyrics, either. They’re a strange kind of tribute, but this kind of close reading of a lyric is a form of flattery.

Many of the acts haven’t made much of an impact in the States, and I clearly don’t know enough about British Pop Music to understand each of these — but thanks to youtube and lyrics websites, I was able to get the gist of what I was supposed to be reading about (and I was able to enjoy those I was feeling too lazy to look up). But by and large these are acts and songs that are well-known enough that this book is accessible to readers from around the English-speaking world (and maybe larger, I’m not an expert on music listening habits). The acts run the gamut from Herman’s Hermits to Judas Priest and many, many points in between.

I cannot stress enough how much fun I had with this book — I read whole letters or notes aloud to family members, and/or forced them to read one for themselves. These are the perfect literary equivalent of potato chips, you can eat a handful at a time and then leave the bag for later (along those lines, it’s possible to read too many at once). The letters are short enough that you can just dip in and out of the book. And, I can assure you, these are the kind of thing you can return to later and still enjoy — not unlike a good pop song (huh, wonder where I got that imagery?) A combination of satire, analysis, tribute and comedy — without any meanness or cruelty — Dear Mr Pop Star will appeal to music lovers from all sorts of eras. Do yourself a favor and grab this today.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the authors in exchange for my participation in this tour stop.

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5 Stars

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, Emily Gray (Audiobook): A little too zany for me

Lost in a Good BookLost in a Good Book

by Jasper Fforde, Emily Gray (Narrator)
Series: Thursday Next, #2

Unabridged Audiobook, 12 hrs. and 59 mins.
Penguin Audio, 2011

Read: September 4 – 6, 2018
I didn’t post about The Eyre Affair a couple of months ago when I listened to it, because I just didn’t know what to say about it. I was hoping that a second book would help. I’m not sure it did.

Let’s just start with the Publisher’s Summary (because there’s just no way I could do justice to this book):

           The second installment in Jasper Fforde’s New York Times bestselling series follows literary detective Thursday Next on another adventure in her alternate reality of literature-obsessed England—from the author of Early Riser.

The inventive, exuberant, and totally original literary fun that began with The Eyre Affair continues with New York Times bestselling author Jasper Fforde’s magnificent second adventure starring the resourceful, fearless literary sleuth Thursday Next. When Landen, the love of her life, is eradicated by the corrupt multinational Goliath Corporation, Thursday must moonlight as a Prose Resource Operative of Jurisfiction—the police force inside the BookWorld. She is apprenticed to the man-hating Miss Havisham from Dickens’s Great Expectations, who grudgingly shows Thursday the ropes. And she gains just enough skill to get herself in a real mess entering the pages of Poe’s “The Raven.” What she really wants is to get Landen back. But this latest mission is not without further complications.

Along with jumping into the works of Kafka and Austen, and even Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, Thursday finds herself the target of a series of potentially lethal coincidences, the authenticator of a newly discovered play by the Bard himself, and the only one who can prevent an unidentifiable pink sludge from engulfing all life on Earth. It’s another genre-bending blend of crime fiction, fantasy, and top-drawer literary entertainment for fans of Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse.

There’s simply too much going on. This is Douglas Adams (mostly the Dirk Gentley novels) meets Terry Pratchett meets Doctor Who meets . . . something else, but it’s not just those elements — it’s those influences without restraint (not that any of those are known for their restraint). It’s just too zany ,too strange, too unmoored from reality.

There’s cloning to bring back extinct species, time travel, vampires, werewolves, interacting with fictional characters, rabid literary fans, characters walking into novels/other written materials to rewrite them, travel, or just to meet with someone else — and that’s just scratching the surface.

I realize that this is tantamount to complaining that there’s too much of a good thing, and I recently talked about what a foolish complaint that is. But this is different, somehow. The sheer amount of ways that reality can be rewritten/rebooted/changed in this series is hard to contemplate, and seems like too easy for a writer to use to get out of whatever corner they paint themselves into. One of the best emotional moments of this book — is ruined, simply ruined by time travel unmaking it just a few minutes later.

Emily Gray’s narration is probably the saving grace of this audiobook — I’m not sure I’d have rated this as high as I did without it. Her ability to sound sane when delivering this ridiculous text (I mean that as a compliment) makes it all seem plausible.

I enjoyed it — but almost in spite of itself. I can’t see me coming back for more. I do see why these books have a following — sort of. But I’ve got to bail.

—–

3 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Nice Try, Afton by Brent Jones: Afton’s life gets stranger, more violent, and more open?

Nice Try, AftonNice Try, Afton

by Brent Jones
Series: Afton Morrison, Book 3

Kindle Edition, 111 pg.
2018
Read: July 18, 2018

           I could’ve screamed, knowing that I was the only person in the room working toward a peaceful resolution. Me, Afton Morrison, the disturbed murderess, suggesting that everyone take a deep breath, and find an answer that didn’t include violence.

Things have gone from bad to worse for Afton Morrison, the would-be murderess — not only is she being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, but didn’t; her home has been violated; her understanding of her childhood and family has been shattered; and so many buildings in her town have been burned over the last few days that the police have ordered a lockdown.

Again, this is hard to talk about without spoiling Book 1 and/or 2, so I’ll dodge it. Afton’s pushed about to her limit — maybe past it. And pushes herself in new ways. Ultimately, she embraces the violent tendencies that almost pushed her into her first kill back in Book 1 and sets out to put an end to the chaos that surrounds her home town and threatens to burn it all to the ground.

There is a hand-to-hand fight scene toward the end of the novella that was fantastic. I’d stack it up against Child, Sharp, Finder, or the like any day.

Beyond that there’s some compelling character-focused material. There’s some interesting discussion between the characters on the eternal nature/nurture debate. Afton gets very self-reflective — and maybe grows a little as a result. The emotional beats between the Afton and her family/friends (or the closest things she ahs to friends) are deeper than I expected, and hard-earned.

I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the series to this point, but Jones has found a new gear here, and has produced something markedly better than the rest. I’m not sure what he did here that was better — but every scene, every character, every thing, every theme is better written, better focused, sharper — if part 4 lives up to this, it’s going to be a great ending.

—–

4 Stars

Deck the Hounds by David Rosenfelt: Another Christmas Tale (Tail?) for Andy Carpenter, Another Win for Rosenfelt

Deck the HoundsDeck the Hounds

by David Rosenfelt
Series: Andy Carpenter, #18

eARC, 368 pg.
Minotaur Books, 2018
Read: September 11 – 13, 2018

Andy Carpenter sees a homeless man with a dog on the street, gives the man some money and a gift card for dog food (naturally, the dog gets more than the man, because it’s Andy Carpenter) and has a brief conversation with him. Not long after that, that same man is on the news — he’d been attacked by a stranger and his dog defended him. Which resulted in the dog being put in the pound. Laurie’s filled with pre-Christmas spirit and insists that Andy help out. So he uses his rescue foundation to get custody of the dog and moves the pair into the apartment over his garage.

How heartwarming is this? Clearly, this is fodder for a Christmas/holiday story. But it’s also an Andy Carpenter story, so naturally, after Andy does a newspaper interview about the man — giving his name — he’s arrested for murder. No one was more surprised by this move than Andy’s guest, Don. Not only has Don never heard of the victim, he was unaware that he was wanted by the police. Laurie’s pre-Christmas spirit is still strong, so she talks him into defending the man. It helps that he’s innocent, a dog lover, and an educated, articulate vet with PTSD. The PTSD aspect of the story was told with sensitivity and tact. It didn’t feel tacked on to make the character more sympathetic, but it grounded him in reality and may help to inform some readers about the prices that too many vets are paying.

There is another storyline — seemingly unrelated — running through the novel. Obviously, it’s going to tie into Andy’s case, but it takes a long time for that to happen. This gives the reader multiple opportunities to guess how the two are connected (and multiple opportunities to be wrong. I guessed what was happening in that story pretty easily, and I think most people who read a lot of legal thrillers will. But how it connects to the main story will likely leave most readers as surprised as I was (surprised, and then filled with a strong sense of, “well, naturally, what else could it be?”).

The usual gang is back and in their prime form — Hike is back to his full-time dour self; Ricky is a cute kid; Laurie provides the moral center; Pete is a good cop who continually underestimates Andy’s clients; Sam is a wizard with computers in a way that probably defies reality Marcus is his super-hero best here, and possibly faces his biggest challenge yet (I thoroughly enjoyed this scene). What better way to spend a holiday (or at least a book set around one) than with a bunch of friends like these have become over the years?

Andy spent more time in the courtroom in this book than he has lately — it seemed to me, anyway, I didn’t do a page count. His courtroom antics and cross-examinations are what drew me to the character in the first place, so this is the stuff in these books I most look forward to. Rosenfelt brought his A-game to the courtroom events here, and I loved it. As far as mysteries go, this in one of the most satisfying cases that Rosenfelt has brought us in years.

In my post about the previous “holiday special” I said that I really don’t like it when long-running series do a holiday special — yet, The Twelve Dogs of Christmas and Deck the Hounds have been my favorite installments in the last couple of years in this series. Maybe that means this Grinch’s heart is growing a couple of sizes, or maybe it’s that Rosenfelt is inspired to work harder in these. My guess? It’s the clients — the Andy Carpenter books are at their best when they focus on the client, not on some large conspiracy. These holiday books have the kind of clients you spend time on, that the reader gets invested in — and therefore, Andy gets to shine in defending them.

Whatever the reason, this is a sure-fire win for Andy Carpenter fans. Particularly if you don’t mind a little Christmas celebration (or, if you’re like Laurie, and insist on commemorating the holiday for months).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 Stars